Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Favorite Wife: Escape from Polygamy, by Susan Ray Schmidt

Honestly, how could I not read this book?

Memoirs can be tricky, not least because they are often written by people who don't do all that much writing. This one was a pleasant surprise, being very well-structured, and overall pretty well-written. Susan Schmidt does a particularly good job of capturing the emotional intensity of adolescence, as well as its moment-to-moment extremes and contradictions. All of which is a great reminder of why it's not such a good idea to choose your husband at age fifteen.

This is a memoir jam-packed with drama: fratricide, warring sister wives, international manhunts, child brides, wild parties; you name it. If it were a novel, you really wouldn't buy the story, but somehow as non-fiction it seems believable. Needless to say, I was riveted.

Susan Ray was raised as a member of a break-away Mormon sect in a Mexican colony in the 50's and 60's. Polygamy was considered a necessary practice for men who wanted to achieve the full rewards of heaven. At the story's opening, many men had plural wives, though most didn't have very many. One of the interesting things that happens during the decade the novel covers is that the men in the community get more and more caught up in courting and marrying young women. (You can watch Susan's own husband Verlan falling prey to the notion that the more young women he marries, the better off he'll be in the afterlife. Not to mention having a pretty good time during his earthly one.) This is what I liked so much about this book: her disillusionment with her religion and community seems to parallel the sect becoming more and more fundamentalist, and straying from its original mission.

I am no fan of religious fanaticism, especially when the women and children seem to suffer disproportionately. This book, however, portrays the church leaders as righteous men and women who are getting it wrong. The author doesn't describe them as blatantly selfish or egomaniacal (with the exception of a few bad seeds), but as true believers who are blind to the error of their ways. Which is sort of a refreshing take on the whole thing. At the same time, she is pretty unflinching in her opinion that the women and children in the community suffer mightily from the institutionalization of polygamy. Her husband ultimately fathered over fifty children, and had a total of ten wives (Susan was his sixth). He worked construction in the US while his wives and children lived in various towns and colonies in Mexico, and took extended breaks to do missionary work. His families made do on next to nothing, and rarely saw him.

The other thing that struck me about this book was the apparently unflagging energy of just about every person in it. Susan had five children by the time she was twenty-three, and lived in pretty primitive conditions. Yet she always seems to have had time for visiting friends and relatives, hosting get-togethers, making adobe bricks and building a house, stuff like that. The church elders supported many families while settling multiple towns, converting dozens of new members, writing treatises on their faith and spending endless time driving the hudreds of miles between their multiple homes. Made me tired just to read about it!

The one subject I would like to have heard more about is the fate of the young men of the colonies. Near the beginning of the book, an elder tells a teenage boy that the young women of the colony are for the older men; young men are expected to convert their first wives. Which might work for a while. The fate of young men in polygamist communities is generally pretty grim; it's not clear whether this one eventually adopted the practice of driving them out.

Several of Susan Schmidt's relatives have also written books about life with the Church of the Firstborn of the Fullness of Times. Which name in itself might give you pause... I would love to read them, but I doubt they will be as thoroughly entertaining as this one.

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