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The Reality of Polygamy: Very Different From What's Depicted on HBO's "Big Love"

Thursday, Mar. 23, 2006

HBO recently debuted a TV show, entitled "Big Love," about a happy polygamous family in Utah. The show is getting a lot of attention - but it plays fast and loose with the facts.

To some extent, that's to be expected, since the show is fiction. But the show's departures from reality are a bit disturbing, given what the reality of polygamous marriage typically is like.

The Happy Family Depicted in "Big Love"

On "Big Love," Bill Henrickson -- the man of the show, played by Bill Paxton -- is the focus. He has three wives and three sets of rosy-cheeked kids. They all live in suburban Salt Lake City, in three adjacent houses. The wives get along fairly well, and the kids seem happy.

The arrangement must be kept secret - for polygamy is illegal under state and federal law. (Indeed, in Utah polygamy is also barred by the state Constitution -- the price Utah had to pay to join the federal union.)

Thus far, however, there has been no hand-wringing at all about the fact the group is living illegally. It's true that Utah does not enforce its anti-polygamy constitutional provision or laws except when police receive reports of criminal activity, such as child abuse or statutory rape, within the family. But the situation is significant whether or not the police take notice of the family: Henrickson is married only to his first wife, and their children, alone, are deemed legitimate by the state. So while Henrickson may purport to treat his "wives" and children equally, the law does not.

Nor does the Mormon religion, to which they appear to belong. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints says that it has not believed in polygamy on earth since it renounced it in 1890. So this family cannot be a mainstream Mormon family, but rather one of the fundamentalist Mormon sects. And indeed, HBO's description of the show notes that both Henrickson's parents, and his father-in-law, live on a "fundamentalist compound in rural Utah" where polygamy is practiced.

The Reality of Polygamy: Abandoned Boys and Welfare Mothers

What would such a family really be like? It might be very much like the families catalogued in Andrea Moore-Emmett's disturbing God's Brothel - which are profoundly unlike the family depicted in "Big Love."

Such a family may well have literally abandoned its male children - whereas the family showcased in "Big Love" treats its boys, including a teenager, well. Granted, in the second episode, it's revealed that Bill's father, Frank, threw Bill out when he was just 14, so that Frank and the other older men could, Frank admits, "have all the pretty girls to themselves." But in the family that is the show's main focus, Bill and his son seem to be in harmony.

It's Bill's own past experience, not his son's present experience, that is realistic. Given biological realities, it is impossible to sustain a patriarchal, polygamous culture without removing males from the community. The common practice among modern fundamentalist practitioners is to discard teen-age boys on the street corners of major cities -- with no resources, no experience in the outside world, and a promise of violence if they ever return.

Under the "Big Love" scenario, the community needs a three-women-to-one-man ratio. That's distorted enough in comparison to male-female birth rates. In reality, though, many polygamous arrangements involve more than three wives per each man, so more boys have to be discarded.

The distortion of the male-female balance also leads the husbands to seek younger and younger women. The result is that too many girls face abuse: When a girl is secretly "married" before the age of consent, which happens all too often, the marriage's "consummation" is more accurately described as statutory rape.

In other words, polygamy rests, inevitably, on child abuse and neglect. The numbers simply cannot lie. And to the extent it suggests otherwise, "Big Love" is really a Big Lie.

The family in "Big Love" enjoys a high standard of living, occupying three handsome suburban houses, while many Americans cannot afford to own even one. Henrickson, the owner of a home improvement store chain, struggles to pay his bills but (so far) does seem to pay all three families'.

In a real-life family, the financial situation would likely be very, very different. The second and third "wives" - remember, they are still legally single, for their "marriages" were void from the start - would likely rely on public assistance to make ends meet. The state's taxpayers, then, would be forced to subsidize the secret polygamous lifestyle.

"Big Love" Has the Potential to Spark Smart Debate

Despite its lack of veracity, "Big Love" has the potential to spark a public debate about family, child abuse, public assistance, and male-female equality. Like the same-sex marriage debate, this is a debate about family values that is well worth having.

Unfortunately, the press coverage of "Big Love" to date has been disappointing, to say the least. For example, John Tierney in the New York Times defends polygamy as "an institution that has been around for so long [it] must have had something going for it." But I can think of quite a few institutions that have been around a long time that were wholly pernicious: What about treating children like property, instead of rights-bearing human beings? Or how about depriving women of the vote?

Tierney also argues that "[p]olygamy isn't necessarily worse than the current American alternative: serial monogamy." But that's bunk: Divorced couples do not routinely discard their male children on the streets to increase the odds of the father getting the women, or girls, that he wants. And while a divorce may result in one ex-partner (almost always the ex-wife) receiving public assistance, at least the marriage wasn't initially predicated on anyone's receiving public assistance, as the many illegal relationships within many polygamous marriages must be.

If we are to benefit from "Big Love" at all, it will only happen when the press decides to stop covering up the reality of polygamy - existing, disturbing practices -- with syrupy speculations about how polygamy might be just fine in some possible world.

Unfortunately, the largest barrier to a healthy discussion will be the American instinct to treat religiously-motivated conduct as though it should not be held accountable - regardless of the harm that is caused. I document this phenomenon in my recent book, God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law, and it is a very real component of American debate.

Americans need to realize, though, that religious motivations are not a free pass when conduct leads to results that are morally reprehensible.

HBO's site points out that, according to a joint report issued by the Utah and Arizona Attorney General's Offices, between 20,000 to 40,000 Americans may currently be practicing polygamy - with all of its risks and consequences. That statistic makes the Utah authorities' decision to close their eyes to the tens of thousands of polygamists in Utah look criminal - and the nonenforcement of the law is something truly worth having a debate about.

Marci A. Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University. An archive of her columns on church/state issues - as well as other topics -- can be found on this site. Her email address is Professor Hamilton's most recent work is God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press 2005).

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