Utah's Image Sullied By Legacy of Polygamy

As a case makes headlines, state grapples with practice that some find repugnant, and some see as part of past.

It's the subject of street corner and dinner table conversations, a point of debate in the statehouse and state courthouses.

But when the story of a reported polygamist clan in Utah became fodder for national newspapers and late-night humor, it forced Utahns to once again defend themselves against stereotypes and criticisms they have endured for more than a century.

For a state struggling to amend its image as a land of oddities and peculiar traditions, polygamy is perhaps its most complex problem. Although the Mormon Church outlawed the practice in 1890, polygamy has persisted, and has, in fact, experienced a resurgence since the 1950s.

To many here, it is seen as an embarrassing and potentially harmful institution practiced by people on the fringe of society. Yet to others - while they might not condone polygamy - it represents a tie to an earlier time when their pioneering forebears came to the West and forged a new future in the desert. How the state reconciles its laws with its nostalgia will play a part in determining whether many of the longstanding stereotypes fade away.

The current controversy surrounds a reported polygamist who was charged with beating his teenage daughter for leaving an arranged marriage with her uncle - a charge that he denies. While Utah Attorney General Jan Graham said she would prosecute crimes like incest and child abuse, her comments that she would not prosecute polygamy alone have sparked outrage among many people here and across the nation.

Gov. Mike Leavitt, who is descended from polygamists, only added to the furor when he speculated that people who practice polygamy are not prosecuted because they "might enjoy religious freedom."

Points of debate

The often-heated debate over polygamy centers around women's rights and the potential for abuse in a polygamous marriage. Tapestry of Polygamy, an antipolygamy group made up of women who used to be married to polygamists, maintains that polygamy makes victims out of women and puts children in harm's way.

Spokeswoman Carmen Thompson has five children from two marriages to different polygamist men. "I realized they were using all the same manipulations and abuses - twisting the Scriptures to meet their needs, using convenient revelation for whatever purpose, and pitting wives against each other to create dissension in the ranks," she says.

Yet according to some experts, polygamy is basically benign, and social problems such as divorce or child abuse occur in about the same proportion as in monogamous relationships. "I have no evidence to suggest that [they are] any more or less rampant among these people," says Irwin Altman, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. "I think this is one of the stereotypes."

Polygamy's growth

Meanwhile, the number of polygamists in the US has grown. Today, some 20,000 to 40,000 are believed to practice what Dr. Altman calls Mormon fundamentalism. Some 40 years ago, the numbers were in the hundreds or low thousands.

"For some people, they are Mormons who convert after studying their own religion. This is viewed as a religiously important practice harking back to biblical time," Altman says. "For other people, it provides a form of enormous social security. You are a member of a large group, and for women especially, there is the support of other wives when their children are ill or when they have to work."

For Dorothy Allred Solomon, it was just a part of growing up. Ms. Solomon's father, Rulon Allred, had seven wives and 48 children.

"It led to all kinds of peculiar little shenanigans," says Solomon author of the book "In My Father's House." To keep the fact that her mother's twin sister was also married to Allred concealed, Solomon says the family would have to perfect the art of deceiving without lying. "My mother would say, 'I am married to my own brother-in-law,' which was true but so perplexing that people couldn't grasp it," she says. "They'd think, 'Oh, so you married brothers.' "

While the numbers have changed over the years, polygamist families have existed in Utah since the Mormons began the practice in the 1830s and '40s. And even then, the practice was a wedge between Utah and the rest of America.

Over a 40-year period, the church endured serious federal efforts to crack down on the practice. "Every president from Abe Lincoln on made the issue of polygamy part of the State of the Union address or a political issue," Altman says.

After it banned polygamy, the church, too, took a vigorous stand against the institution. At one point, it even cooperated in a raid against a polygamist clan in Arizona - but with poor results.

"They tried to put all the men in jail, and the kids were put in foster homes, and adopted by other people," Altman says. "It was a two-year period before all the families were reconstituted."

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