This article, "The Lonely Polygamist," by Brady Udall, appeared in the Feb. 1, 1998, issue of Esquire. The article is being reprinted with the permission of Esquire and the author.
Meet Bill. He has four wives and thirty-one kids. And something's missing.
POLYGAMY IS not something you try on a whim. You don't come home from work one day, pop open a beer, settle down for your nightly dose of Seinfeld reruns, and think, "Boy, my marriage is a bore. Maybe I should give polygamy a whirl." It's true that polygamy, as a concept, sounds downright inviting. Yes, there are lots of women involved, women of all shapes and sizes and personalities, a wonderful variety of women, and yes, they'll fulfill your every need, cook your dinner, do your laundry, sew the buttons on your shirts. And yes, you're allowed to sleep with these women, each of them, one for every night of the week if you want, and what's more, when you wake up in the morning, you won't have to deal with even the tiniest twinge of guilt, because these women, all of them, are your sweethearts, your soul mates, your wives.
Then what, you're asking yourself, could possibly be the problem?
The problem is this: Polygamy is not what you think it is. It has nothing to do with the little fantasy just spelled out for you. A life of polygamy is not a joyride, a guiltless sexual free-for-all. Being a polygamist is not for the easygoing or the weak of heart. It's like marine boot camp or working for the mob; if you're not cut out for it, if you don't have that essential thing inside, it will eat you alive. And polygamy doesn't just require simple cojones, either. It requires the devotion of a monk, the diplomatic prowess of Winston Churchill, the doggedness of a field general, the patience of a pine tree.
Put simply: You'd have to be crazy to want to be a polygamist.
That's what's so strange about Bill. Bill has four wives and thirty-one children. Bill is an ex-Mormon, and he doesn't seem crazy at all. If anything, he seems exceptionally sane, painfully regular, as normal as soup. He's certainly not the wild-eyed, woolly-bearded zealot you might expect. Approaching middle age, Bill has the unassuming air of an accountant. He wears white shirts, blue ties, and black wing tips. He is Joe Blow incarnate. The only thing exceptional about Bill is his height: He is six foot eight and prone to hitting his head on hanging lamps and potted plants.
Bill's wives are not who you'd expect, either. They're not ruddy-faced women with high collars buttoned up to their chins. These are the women you see every day of your life. They wear jeans and T-shirts; they drive minivans; they have jobs. Julia is a legal secretary; Emily manages part of Bill's business; Susan owns a couple of health-food stores; and Stacy stays at home with the younger children. They are also tall, all of them around six feet; if you didn't know better, you'd think Bill and his wives had a secret plan to create a race of giants.
Each of Bill's wives lives in a different house in the suburbs around Salt Lake City. They've lived in different configurations over the years--all in one place, two in one and two in another--but this is the way that seems best nowadays, since there are teenagers in the mix, and one thing everybody seems to agree on is how much teenagers need their space. Bill himself is homeless. He wanders from house to house like a nomad or a beggar, sometimes surprising a certain wife with the suddenness of his presence. In the past, he has used a rigid rotation schedule but now opts for a looser approach. He believes that intuition and nothing else should guide where he stays for the night.
Okay, now: Put yourself in Bill's size-14 wing tips for a minute. You've just finished an exhausting day at work. It's that time of the evening when you think to yourself, "Hmmm. Which house am I going to tonight?" You get in your car and head off toward Emily's house; you haven't seen Emily for several days, and besides, she's having trouble with one of your teenage daughters--she's not sticking to her curfew. But you remember that your son Walt has a soccer game on the other side of town at 5:30. You start to turn around, but then you think of Susan, wife number two, who has come down with the flu and is in need of some comfort and company. Then it hits you that not only did you promise to look at the bad alternator in Stacy's Volvo tonight, not only did you tell Emily that you'd be home in time to meet with the insurance man to go over all your policies, but that Annie, your six-year-old daughter, is having a birthday tomorrow and you've yet to get her a present.
Sitting there at the intersection--cars honking, people flipping you the bird--do you feel paralyzed? Do you feel like merging with the rest of the traffic onto I-15 and heading for Las Vegas, leaving it all behind?
This is Bill's life.
It's not a normal day if Bill doesn't get himself completely confounded in one way or another. When Bill raises his head from the pillow after a night of sleep, he sometimes has to ask himself a couple of questions well-known to any man who's ever picked up a woman in a bar: "Where am I?" and "Who is this person next to me?" Every once in a while, he'll get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom and, not really sure which house he's in, will bumble around in the dark, clutching at walls, until he finally ends up trying to locate the toilet in a walk-in closet.
When you live in four separate houses, it's tough to keep track of your stuff. You've misplaced your favorite golf shirt? Start looking, buddy, because you've got four houses, each ten to fifteen miles apart from the next, to choose from. Many times, Bill has awakened on the morning of an important business meeting to find that he's missing his dress shoes or a suit jacket and has to race around town like a crazed cabbie to track down the lost article and get to work on time.
After many years of such shenanigans, Bill has hit upon a simple solution: a suitcase in the trunk of his car. It's like a big emergency kit filled with backup items for every eventuality: a razor, a couple of ties, contact lenses, a wristwatch, a bottle of aftershave. It's a small thing, this suitcase, but for Bill it is a huge source of security and comfort to know it is always there, just in case, backing him up. With a life as chaotic and unpredictable as Bill's, you will take security and comfort wherever you can find them.
But these are mere nuisances when you consider some of the other complications Bill has to face. First is Bill's legal status. Technically speaking, Bill is a criminal. In Utah, polygamy is a felony and is banned in the state's constitution. All it would take is some overzealous DA to get a wild hair and decide to press charges and Bill could end up with five in the state pen.
It wasn't long ago that the state police combined forces with the feds and occasionally carried out raids against different polygamist groups, arrested the men, took the women into custody, and put the children in foster homes. This doesn't happen much anymore, but the threat is always there. Bill has to be circumspect. He's not afraid to talk about his lifestyle, but then he doesn't exactly advertise it, either. He decided he didn't want his real name in this piece (his wives' names are pseudonyms as well) because his business is part of a national chain, and if some of the higher-ups were to get wind of his unorthodox family life, he might find himself kicked out into the cold.
When people do find out about Bill's little secret, the first question they always ask is "What's the sex like?" Well, Bill's answer is bound to disappoint. Bill doesn't have sex for fun. He says that he and his wives believe that sex should happen for one reason and one reason only: procreation. It's written in the Bible--don't spill your seed unnecessarily; keep it for when you need it. It's hard to imagine a man in a regular marriage coming right out and admitting to a boring sex life. And women's cycles being what they are, it is the woman who makes decisions about the goings-on in the marriage bed. "It's the girls who are in charge of all that," Bill says. Bill is a man of God.
So why does he do it, then? Why have four wives--four girls, as Bill calls them--if it's not for the sex? Why be a polygamist if it's no fun? If it's such a pain in the ass?
The answer is simple: Bill is a polygamist because that is what God wants him to be.
A few early Mormon leaders postulated that heaven was a polygamous state. It was Joseph Smith, the prophet and founder of the Mormon Church, who first instituted polygamy. There were various theological justifications for the practice, one of which was rooted in the doctrine of premortal existence--a spirit world where millions of souls await the chance to come to earth and receive a mortal body. Once this finite number is exhausted, once every spirit has a body, Christ will come again and bring with him the Day of Judgment, and who can provide bodies to these waiting spirits better than a man with multiple wives? So what is Bill doing with four wives? Bill is hastening the Second Coming of Christ.
Bill and his fellow fundamentalists see it this way: Polygamy is the cornerstone of God's great plan for his children, as important to the gospel as the holy sacrament or the Ten Commandments. The Mormon Church has outlawed plural marriage, but Bill and others continue to take multiple wives no matter that they are excommunicated by the church they love, shunned by neighbors, hounded and arrested by national and local authorities. They keep raising many children to the Lord, because it is exactly what the Lord expects of them. Bill is a twin champion of the Lord and fertility.
You MIGHT EXPECT, when you go to visit Bill, some kind of compound with a badly lettered sign out front proclaiming, "VeNgeanCebE THINK," an upside-down American flag at halfmast. But this is a nice townhouse in a fancy suburban neighborhood. This is Emily's house, and she is the one who greets you at the door.
There's wall-to-wall taupe carpeting throughout the house and a framed print of a pretty girl in an Emma-era dress, hanging over the couch in the living room. The house is quiet--the children, apparently, asleep or gone somewhere else. Emily stretches out comfortably on the couch. Her feet are bare. She has smiling eyes and a dark spray of hair and is ten years Bill's senior. Bill speaks only when he is directly questioned. You talk about the day-to-day struggles of the family, and Bill is polite, but there is a certain inscrutability in his smile, a guardedness. For a while, you feel like a detective questioning a potential witness. He is wary of you, wary of strangers wanting to know too much, like the time he had to face an IRS auditor and explain why two of the children he had listed as dependents showed birth dates only two weeks apart. Bill knows that there is a bigger world out there beyond the closed circles of his family and church group. He knows that it is a world that misunderstands him, despises him, and that you are very much a part of it.
At one time, Bill was part of this world as well. He grew up in a regular, middle-class Mormon family not too far from here. Bill had only passing contact with people who practiced plural marriage, didn't give it much of a thought at all until he went away to college and stayed for a time with a man named Rulon Allred, his seven wives, and their forty-eight children. His stay in the Allred home made a deep impression on him. He remembers Allred, a respected doctor and spiritual leader who was later assassinated by two wives from a rival polygamist group, as "the strongest, most kind, most Christ-like man I ever met." After college, Bill married, gave monogamy a shot, but finally came to realize that a union between one man and only one woman was "unnatural and counterproductive"--that God's will was for him to be a polygamist. He divorced his first wife, and within a couple of years he had two new ones.
Does it bother him that people pass judgment on him, call him immoral and lecherous for what he does and believes? "Doesn't bother me a bit," he says, then pauses for a moment and admits that he finds it "interesting" that in a world full of divorce, pornography, and loose morals, he, a good Christian man trying to do right by his family, is viewed as a scoundrel and a pervert. Yes, okay. It does bother Bill a little bit. It bothers him that our role models--our athletes and politicians and entertainers--spend so much time divorcing and remarrying that they can hardly do much else, and when they do have a monogamous relationship, it is most likely a sham.
And it is Bill who is the criminal, the barbarian.
"You know," Bill says, "if it was some kind of sexual thing, I could just go over across the border to Nevada and pay for whatever I needed. It would be a lot cheaper that way."
It is many things, but life as a polygamist is not cheap; it's not something you're going to be able to pull off working the swing shift at Burger King. The four mortgage payments aren't really what get you. It's the little things that sneak up unexpectedly; it's the sudden rash of doctor and dentist bills; it's eight birthdays and two wedding anniversaries in the same month; it's waking up one August morning and realizing you've got more than two dozen kids who need new school clothes.
Bill works like an animal, makes a considerable sum of money, but if you're a man with four houses, four wives, thirty-one children, and all the expenses that go with them, you can make all the money you want, yet in the end it's like trying to keep a bonfire burning bright with all your hard-earned twenties and fifties--you can never make enough. Bill beats himself up over the fact that some of his wives have to work to help keep the family afloat. He believes that he should be able to shoulder the whole burden himself.
While Bill tells you about his money problems, Emily looks at him, concern on her face, maybe even a little pity. Now, wait a second here, you think. Pity for Bill? If you understand polygamy correctly, shouldn't all the pity be reserved for the wives? They are the ones who are oppressed, subjugated, and forced into positions of servitude, right?
Before she met Bill, Emily was part of a monogamous relationship that she remembers as a "bore" and a "downer" and a "complete drag." At thirty-five, she met and married Bill. She is his third wife. She says that her life as one of four has "all the security of marriage and all the freedom of being single." As a plural wife, she believes that her identity is not so tied up in the man she has chosen to marry, that she is much freer to be her own person. But when things get difficult, when she really needs a partner, somebody to stand by her and give her support, Bill will always be there.
Bill doesn't know much about feminism, doesn't know much about women's liberation and power; he just wants to see his wives happy. Right now, everything in the family is fairly tranquil, but there have been times when it seemed it would all fall apart, the whole family structure would come crashing down around his knees like a demolished skyscraper. It used to be that Bill didn't really know how to deal with family problems, the jealousy among wives, the conflicts among children of different mothers, the competition for his attention, so he mostly tried to ignore it all. Now he realizes that he is not merely the head of the family but also a judge, a counselor, a referee, an arbiter of justice. It's as if he were the prime minister of a small, unstable country, mediating disputes, keeping his eye on trouble spots, putting down rebellions from within.
A key thing to remember about Bill, who is married to four women and is the father of thirty-one children, is that he's--how to put it?--available. What this means is that he is always on the matter. He has not only the pressures of married life to deal with but the stresses of a swinging bachelor as well. Maybe a certain widow will take a shine to him, maybe a woman at his church group will catch his eye, and the next thing you know it's a date to the movies, half a dozen roses, and a goodnight kiss at the door, after which he drives home and goes to bed with one of his wives. Give him a couple of months and he could be a newlywed once again, suddenly faced with the daunting prospect of helping this new bride feel comfortable in this mob of a family while trying to negotiate the concerns of his other wives, these women who have loved him for years and must now get used to the idea that there is one more of them, another woman who certainly means less time with Bill. One false step by Bill and the whole thing could fly apart.
It's true that the wives in a polygamous family normally have to approve their husband's choice of a new mate and that often they're the ones who actually choose another woman for their husband to marry, but that doesn't change the fact that a plural wife is still going to feel abandoned and betrayed. Emily admits that jealousy is no doubt the biggest obstacle a plural wife has to face, but "a little bit of jealousy helps you stay in love," she says. "It keeps you from getting bored."
Bored? Bill doesn't know what the word means.
Bill is, in all respects, big. And that's not only because he's six eight and thick in the joints. It's because everything about him and his life is amplified, outsize. He is excruciatingly normal and yet bigger than life. It isn't merely his many houses, many wives, many children; it's also the magnitude of his responsibilities, the sheer number of worries and entanglements each of his days contains, the enormously heavy weight that sits on his shoulders.
But is Bill--big as he is--man enough to love four women at the same time? Forget the financial stress of having thirty-five mouths to feed and living on the wrong side of the law and having trouble finding the bathroom in the middle of the night; it's this love thing that would have to be the ultimate complication of Bill's life. Regular guys can't seem to love even one woman without twisting themselves into knots, always wondering if they're saying the right things, being the kind of man they should be. So how could he ever hope to simultaneously give four different women the love they require? Is Bill's heart--along with everything else--oversize as well?
Bill furrows his brow as if he were considering an equation from a textbook on quantum mechanics. "I don't know. It's hard to explain," he says and scratches his head.
Bill, when it comes to matters of love, has to be something of a split personality. Essentially, Bill has to be four different Bills; for each of his wives, he has to be a different kind of husband, has to figure out who each woman really is, what the necessities of her heart are, and has to somehow become the man that she needs him to be. He'll never claim to be entirely successful at this, but he really works at it, just as he does at everything else, tries his best to be a soul mate, a lover, a confidant, while still maintaining a sense of fairness with everyone.
"You have to have a unique bond with each wife," he says. He pauses. "It's just that it can't be too unique."
You ask Bill whom he leans on and confides in, whom he talks to. "Sometimes, I feel like an island," he says. "I know it sounds crazy for a man with a family as big as mine to say this, but I feel lonely a lot of the time."
Bill sighs and sinks back in his chair as if he were hoping to become part of it. He has to be at work early in the morning. He has to get out there and make a bunch of money The tilt of his head, the slump of his shoulders, his nearly bloodshot eyes--all testaments to the bone-wearying rigor of this life he's chosen for himself And still, there's a certain regality to the way he holds himself--like a king who's spent, worn down by the demands of his kingdom, but who knows he's a king just the same. Bill can face the bewildering hassles of his life knowing that he has done his part to provide mortal bodies to heavenly spirits waiting to get themselves born, knowing that he has helped to bring about the Second Coming of the Savior, knowing that it's all part of the great celestial plan. Because as Bill struggles to build up his own little kingdom on earth, he's building up the kingdom of God.