The Polygamists Come Out

The Polygamists Come Out

The house in Sister Wives looks less like the home of a fundamentalist family than a functional commune.

Kody, Meri, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn plant trees at their commitment ceremony (TLC)

The first thing we see in Sister Wives, a reality television show about a polygamous family, is the Brown family house. It is a “typical polygamous home,” we’re told, built by a polygamous architect. The U-shaped structure sits on a patch of lawn in Lehi, Utah, the mountain town where the Browns, members of the Apostolic United Brethren (a fundamentalist Mormon church), live. From the outside it appears boxy and drab, like a cheap attempt at a McMansion. It is not much to look at.

On the inside, however, the house is extraordinary. It is divided into three separate apartments, one for each of the three wives. The top floor belongs to Meri, the first wife to enter the family, the right side to second wife Janelle, and the left to Christine, third and last wife—until a fourth, Robyn, joins the family at the end of the first season. Each of these apartments is self-contained, with a kitchen, bathroom, master bedroom, and rooms for the kids. But each is also integral to the larger structure. There’s no way to be in the house without also being in one of the wives’ apartments, and no way to be in an apartment without feeling the span of the larger home. There are no separate entrances or separate garages. A door opens from Christine’s apartment straight into Meri’s, who has only to descend a staircase to find herself in Janelle’s home. As the camera snakes through doors and across rooms, the house looks less like the home of a fundamentalist family than a functional commune.

Sister Wives premiered four years ago on TLC. The Browns say that they wanted to present a different version of polygamy than the one that usually captures the media’s attention—a happy, stable family instead of dusty shantytowns and child brides. They welcomed the cameras into their home, to follow them at pumpkin pickings and high-school graduations. They wanted to prove that theirs was a family like any other.

There’s a political element to their decision to appear on TV. Utah has unusually strict anti-polygamy laws. Polygamous relationships such as the Browns’ are rarely prosecuted in the absence of other offenses, but the family knew a conviction could result in jail time. They viewed their public appearances as akin to coming out, and law enforcement treated it the same way. Under investigation, the Browns would eventually flee the state in 2011. Last year they won a suit against Utah forcing the state to relax its anti-polygamy laws—the legacy of the irrevocable ordinance required by the federal government in exchange for statehood.

For the most part, however, the show avoids political questions. The camera rests squarely on the Browns’ house, watching them as they go about raising and supporting seventeen kids. In one episode, they put on a surprise birthday party. In another they go “ice blocking,” sliding down a hill on blocks of ice. At least one wife is usually pregnant. These episodes add up to a pleasant picture, like an all-seasons Christmas card. While the Browns are not a good-looking family, they have a ruddiness that makes them look like healthy, Norman Rockwell Americans. They manage to remain appealing after fifty hours on screen. They seem to be enjoying themselves and believe what they say, again and again, about the virtues of a polygamous family: it allows for love to be “multiplied, not divided”; it offers the possibility of a larger family; it creates an unusually collaborative community. Their lifestyle has also brought them profit; they are paid for their appearances on the show and have also started a jewelry business—My Sister Wife—based on its success.

The real heat of the show comes from the four women, called “sister wives” because they’re bound to each other as strongly as to their husband. These women make their household function. (Polygamy, we learn, is a lot of work.) They split the duties of child care, cooking, and working to bring in money to support the family. They’re not overly domestic or Pollyanna nice; they are funny and sarcastic and sometimes mean. During a tour of the kitchen, Janelle turns to one of her children and says, “You want to see how I do breakfast for her? ‘Look, I brought you granola bars.’”

The sister wives’ relationship is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. They are not friends, because they must work together, but they’re not colleagues, because they live in the same house and share a husband. They’re relatives, sort of, but their relationship is looser. Robyn offers to be the surrogate for Meri’s baby; Meri, who has a genetic predisposition for cancer, is reassured when thinking that were she to die, three other wives would take care of her daughter. When the sister wives marry, they pledge to each other, not only to their husband, and they seem to live out that commitment in their daily actions.

These four women also depend on each other to make their home life worthwhile. Their relationship allows them to be married but not alone in that union. They are married not only to one man but to three more people. “I honestly wanted sister wives more than a husband for a lot of my life,” Christine says. “I didn’t want to be married to a guy by myself.” As the family decides (at their husband’s initial suggestion) to find a fourth wife, Meri says, “Janelle and I were saying it was time for some change. . . . It’s getting kind of boring.” Families are small, and if they follow their own rules, they rarely change. Watching the show, it seemed possible that the sister wives had intuited this problem; their arrangement might be a solution to the monotony and isolation that comes from marriage.

The producers of Sister Wives play on the fact that the Browns are just a “normal” family. Kody Brown is just an average Joe, with a twist: instead of one wife, he has four; instead of two children, he has seventeen. His wives drive their children to school and juggle work and family life. They make dinner and do laundry and complain about their testy teenagers. While the wives on the show admit to jealousy, they frequently downplay sources of conflict. The family is not radical; they don’t proselytize polygamy. They don’t have unusual sex. “We don’t go weird,” Meri says, before the subject is dropped.

But the Browns are also “average” in a way the show’s creators may not have intended. They look like the typical American family not because they are married and content but because they are mostly female and their roles are dispersed. Like many American families, there are many more women than men, many more mothers than fathers. Childrearing isn’t the job of one woman and one man but of four women, who pass around duties and tasks depending on their shifting schedules. Their relationships are messy and confusing to outsiders (the sister wives talk about being stopped by strangers who want to know how it all works).

The Browns are still governed by a patriarch, however. As the paterfamilias, Kody Brown is hardly impressive. He spends much of the time complaining about being put upon by his strong-willed women. His style is aggressively friendly, like a man trying hard to be liked. “I like marriage, and I’m a repeat offender,” he tells us in the first episode. He looks embarrassed and bashful whenever he wants something, but that doesn’t stop him from asking. When he plans to marry a fourth wife at the end of the first season, the three wives go together to find her a wedding dress, but it turns out Kody has already found a dress in secret with Robyn. The moment is one of the most dramatic on Sister Wives. Christine walked off the show’s set when she heard the news and, according to Janelle, didn’t return home for three days. It goes unsaid that Kody alone chose the woman who would enter a family of twenty-one people.

They look like the typical American family not because they are married and content but because they are mostly female and their roles are dispersed.

Over the past fifty years, the American family has changed dramatically. Marriage rates have fallen; divorce rates have overall risen. Many children grow up in families that look nothing like the ones that raised their parents. These changes may mark an end to patriarchy or traditional fatherhood; at the very least they signal the decline of the nuclear family. These convulsions are as exciting as they are destabilizing. We barely have a vocabulary for the kinds of relationships that are coming to dominate family life. (What do you call, for example, your mother’s former husband? Ex–step dad?) We certainly don’t have a full picture of what they look like now. No wonder there’s a lasting audience for the sister wives, who combine the muddle of most American families with simple and traditional values. There are many moving parts to the family, but one clear leader.

Utah’s marriage laws, written into the state constitution, made it illegal not only to hold multiple or fraudulent marriage licenses, as in all U.S. states, but to cohabitate with another person while married to a first. Members of a family like the Browns could be imprisoned for carrying on multiple relationships, even if (like the Browns) they did not seek any state benefits for the union.

The state rarely prosecutes such families, however, taking a “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude toward polygamists. The attorney for Utah County, where the Browns live, has stated that it is his “formal office policy” not to prosecute polygamy unless another crime is involved, such as fraud, child abuse, or underage sex. But by putting their relationship on the camera, the Browns were “telling,” and when the show aired, the attorney’s office opened an inquiry. Local police began to circle the house and watch the family. The Browns were already known in their hometown before the television show began, but as a Utah County official told the press, “The Browns have definitely made it easier for us by admitting to felonies on national TV.” Sister Wives gave the state proof of their polygamy, and the possibility for some publicity of its own.

In 2011, during the second season of the show, the Brown family decided to flee Utah and move to Las Vegas. The videos of that moment show them packing furiously, leaving in the middle of the night in an attempt to befuddle the Lehi police department. This is reality television, of course, and the scene may well be trumped up for viewers; moving to Nevada didn’t actually free the Browns from potential prosecution.

But the Brown family did in fact sue the state of Utah to relax its laws on polygamy, and in December 2013 they won their suit. In his decision, Judge Clark Waddoups ruled that the state of Utah would no longer prosecute men living with multiple wives unless they had sought to defraud the government or were involved in other crimes. The law on polygamy was amended to remove the phrase “or cohabits with another person.”

Waddoups’s decision provides an overview of historical prejudices against Mormonism. The case is “fraught,” he says, because of the long record of discrimination against polygamists.* As Waddoups turns to how this discrimination should be remedied today, his argument slaloms around definitions of marriage. The judge states that establishing the fundamental right to polygamy is impossible; the law has been against it for too long. Religious cohabitation, however, is an expression of religious liberty and should be protected. Waddoups points out that while cohabitation is common in modern times—for example, among recent college graduates—spiritually driven cohabitation is criminalized, continuing the discrimination that these religious groups have suffered in the past.

Yet this kind of cohabitation is worth protecting, according to the decision—if it resembles traditional marriage. In their statement, the Browns argued that their relationship was “treated as undermining marriage” merely because Kody Brown “committed to these women and his children.” What they imply is that if Kody had slept around and carried on with multiple women, he wouldn’t have to face the law; it’s his sense of family duty that got him into trouble. Waddoups goes one step further: “At the time of much discussion in society about problems arising from the decline in rates of people marrying or the increased age at which people decide to marry, the Statute penalizes people for making a firm marriage-like commitment to each other.” He also draws a comparison between their relationship and adultery, arguing that Kody is perversely being threatened with punishment because he provided for his wives in the open. “Encouraging adulterous cohabitation over religious cohabitation that resembles marriage in all but State recognition seems counterproductive to the goal of strengthening or protecting the institution of marriage.” If the state can’t cut off access to marriage, Waddoups suggests, it might as well expand it, as long as the ethics of the relationships look familiar. Like conservatives who support gay marriage because they claim it provides stability and structure, Waddoups seeks to strengthen the institution by expanding its reach.

Waddoups does not go so far as to recognize polygamy as equal to monogamous relationships, however. The Browns can only cohabitate because they don’t seek to make their relationship legally equivalent to monogamous marriage. At the decision’s close, Waddoups even narrows the legal definition of marriage. Although Utah law has taken “marry” to mean both the legal bond and common-law relationships, he restricts the meaning to the contract alone. The Browns are equal to other families up to the point where they might actually demand any formal recognition of their marriages. By the end of the statement, the Browns are essentially where they were before the investigation into their family began.

On the right, Waddoups’s decision was greeted as proof of the slippery slope of gay marriage. Organizations like the National Organization for Marriage and Focus on the Family were quick to seize upon it as a confirmation of their fears. Former Pennsylvania senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum, eager to prove his political relevance, tweeted, “Some times I hate it when what I predict comes true.” Some pointed to the judge’s use of Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down anti-sodomy laws, as a precedent for the right to private sexual conduct. (In his dissent in Lawrence v. Texas, Justice Antonin Scalia predicted that the decision would open the door to other unusual, possibly immoral conduct.) The perceived links between gay rights and polygamy could only have been strengthened when, a week after the Brown decision, Utah legalized gay marriage. Some liberals, meanwhile, seemed just as anxious over the decision—in their case, because they were keen to dissociate laws about same-sex marriage from Waddoups’s decision.

Yet the decision is more a symptom of confusion about changes in the family than anything else. The language of the statement—its torturous definitions and redefinitions of marriage—suggest a desire to acknowledge different kinds of relationships without fundamentally altering the rights given to some and not to others. Waddoups has to recognize that the family has changed (how could he not?), but the statement offers little to be done aside from a few tweaks to the law.

Sister Wives manages to capture some of the developments in American households, but the fantasy of the show is that the “normal” family, after all its transformations and tremors, still functions as a patriarchy. The Brown family looks almost as diffuse as a broken home, but it’s held together by their family’s values and tradition. There may be four wives doing all of the household work, but there’s also a father, who knows best. The major changes to family structure in the United States, however, cannot be accommodated simply by rearranging some rooms.

Madeleine Schwartz is a contributing editor at Dissent.