Sunday, June 16, 2013

Review: Polygamy, USA

Thompson Family, Polygamy USA

I have been following National Geographic’s new series, Polygamy USA, and have been thinking about sharing my opinion about it for awhile. What better day than Father’s Day to review it.

Disclaimer:  (I do not personally subscribe to a “fundamentalist” or a polygamist lifestyle, or the “breaking of laws.” To begin my review, I simply offer for your consideration an examination of two pieces of media that I happened to view on the same day within an hour of each other, followed by more general thoughts of the series itself). Instead of technical critiques about the show’s “production value,” let me offer a simple “compare and contrast” of some related pieces of media, and let it stand on its own

First and foremost, I find the show refreshing in that in offers us a glimpse of people who aren’t necessarily trying to get people on their bandwagon, it seems more simply a plea to “live and let live.” The show consistently references the fact that their polygamist lifestyle is technically illegal in the United States, although the threat seems to be more in theory than in practice, as long as abuses of the group’s members aren't being committed (See Google if you aren't familiar with Warren Jeffs and the FLDS). The Centennial Park group is seeking to differentiate itself from the FLDS, even though it has members that are literally related to more ill-famed fundamentalist sects nearby. In fact, if we are to believe what we are being shown, the Centennial Park group is even harassed by members of another Mormon group, members of FLDS, for their more “progressive” way of life. And then of course, it seems to be impossible to live in the west without knowing lots of Mormons of the variety who gave up the practice long ago. So even within that one religion, there seems to be distinct strata when it comes to the practice of marriage.

The central question is one of increasing political, social, moral, and ethical controversy:  how do we define a family, and what, if any, legal restrictions should be placed on exactly who (and in this case how many) can be married to one another? Even though Mormons who practice polygamy might consider it offensive, I think an obvious comparison is to the hotly contested topic of gay marriage. At its core, really isn’t it the same issue? We have thousands, if not millions, of people, who are asking the federal government to reconsider and redefine marriage. No matter where you fall down on this issue, it’s one that’s impossible to ignore anymore. In fact, according to a recent survey, an overwhelming majority of Americans, 72%, think that gay marriage is “inevitable” and “59 percent of those who oppose legalizing gay marriage believe it nonetheless will happen, and 85 percent who support legalization think it will happen.” (See ) So if the gay marriage debate constantly rages on, don’t we owe it to these people to at least hear their side? Without wandering off and getting lost on this tangent, (the debate over sexual orientation is a can of worms best opened in a separate piece) let’s just say that separating the morality from the legality so that we can, as a collective society, live with the ethical implications of our laws is so complex that the simple “live and let live” adage just won’t do. So let’s examine it from another angle: economics.

Let’s contrast Michael Cawley, a featured father from Polygamy, USA to another man recently featured in the media, Orlando Shaw. Shaw’s claim to fame is that he has, at the age of 33, fathered 22 children by 14 different women. In fact, his children and their mothers are so numerous that even he can’t keep track of them (he initially thought it was only 18 children with 17 women). His conquests and their resulting progeny have finally landed him in a Nashville courtroom because of his negligence in paying child support. In the meantime, the state of Tennessee has been picking up the tab, a whopping $7000 per month to care for his offspring.


Shaw is not ashamed of his procreative endeavors, but claims he has no way to support the children because of his criminal record, and hangs his hopes on the luck of the draw. Despite this supposed financial disability, he says he “plays the hell out of the lottery.”  It seems that Shaw’s philosophy about everything, including his reproductive choices, is left to chance. He may end up in jail, and all I can say is, “it’s about time.” Though the thought of the unfortunate taxpayers of the state of Tennessee having to bear an additional burden of caring for this man, if he is indeed incarcerated, is disconcerting, it seems like it may end his irresponsible seed-spreading and result in less liability in the long run.

Another man who lives in fear of criminal prosecution is Michael Cawley, of the Centennial Park, Arizona group featured on Polygamy, USA. This is not because of any failure as a father, but rather because he has (at least in spiritual terms) three wives.  He also has 18 children. However, his children are not representative of a philosophy of chance, but rather the welcomed result of a religious practice in which he hopes to achieve salvation through creating a familial legacy. Granted, it’s a very large familial legacy, some might argue excessively so. But interviews with Cawley are a far cry from the shoulder shrugging of Shaw. He seems to have adopted a very respectable concern and a philosophy of personal responsibility in providing for them all. In recent episodes, he discusses the financial health of his family (admittedly strained) with his wives, two of whom also work. He openly shares details about his family’s austere budget (something that many traditional households don’t have in place), and is creative in his patriarchal strategies. Enthusiasts of all that is “green” would applaud his use of shipping containers to expand the living space in the family’s home, an affordable and practical, if not glamorous, solution.

For argument’s sake, it would be interesting to know how many polygamists actually receive financial support from the state of Arizona, Utah, or anywhere else for that matter. But even that aside, if you watch the show, you will see him providing the kind of care to his children that is representative of a “dad” versus a father; a distinction that I think anyone can appreciate, no matter what their religious background.  They all live together in one household, where he plays with them and prays with them. I find it really quite touching, in all honesty.

While I don’t have any information to offer about Shaw’s children, their mothers, or their living conditions, it seems like a reasonable conclusion to draw that he is completely absent, if the state has to forcibly draw his attention to his own large family. “Family” is yet another term that should probably be distinguished from “a random collection of separately living women with whom one has had dalliances with and their children.” This is certainly not to impugn the mothers of Shaw’s children, to whom I’d like to give the benefit of the doubt that they are doing their best to create their own little families, sans Shaw. Not that either of them need my approval, because it is a free country indeed, but either way I’m left feeling a lot less concerned about the future of Cawley’s children than Shaw’s.

While I have some questions and concerns about any group who subjects itself entirely to the decisions of a small patriarchal theocracy, there are some other figures of the show I’m impressed with. Arthur Hammon is the sage leader of the community’s group of young male “missionaries,” who provide important service to their community while awaiting marriage, all voluntary. His wisdom most often imparted via humorous one-liners to the young men. I happen to think it is just plain, good old fashioned, advice that anyone could really use. I especially applaud the caution with which he and his wives guide their impressionable, love-stricken son, Ezra. While he seems to, in some part, empathize with his son, who waywardly dates a pretty, non-Mormon girl outside the community, Hammon seems open-minded about the relationship, but emphasizes love as a life-long commitment and responsibility rather than a short-lived infatuation. He cautions Ezra about “trying people on.” The negative consequences of “trying people on,” are visible everywhere. If you think he’s too strict in the steering of his son, check out some popular shows like “Teen Mom,” that glamorize the opposite behavior.

Ezra, to his own credit, seems very sincere in his dedication to his girlfriend, Tiffany. He endures quite a bit of scrutiny from his elders for his involvement with her, yet does a commendable job of navigating that, and still trying to prove his commitment by going to North Dakota to earn $10,000 so that he may win the approval of the elders in order to marry her (I see, maybe naively, romantic shades of fairy tale tasks to win the princess). Those of us who have been to the Bakken region these days know that that’s not a small sacrifice. Despite the continual head-butting of Arthur and Ezra, you can see that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as Ezra demonstrates his own stubborn streak—a sign of what I would argue is an upbringing that emphasized conviction.

If you’re a sucker for love stories where men chivalrously woo their ladies, skip the Bachelorette and watch this series. The ladies get to choose (or rather, are divinely “given” the name of their husbands) and the men have to begin the wooing after the wedding! You’ll see the young, recently married Hyrum, who was comparatively “old” at 22 when he married his wife, Kellie. Besides the fact that he’s pretty easy on the eyes (the fresh-faced Kellie is no slouch either),  he’s a romantic who takes his new bride on a hike up to a tree upon which he has placed objects and explains their symbolism to her. He seems to be doing his best to charm the awkwardness right out of their situation and make it as normal and happy as possible for her. At least on-camera, both of them accept the arrangement with an admirable cheerfulness and devotion.

This brings me to some of the ladies of the group: I’m most taken with Marleen, the older wife of Isaiah, who has chosen to become a member CPAC (Centennial Park Action Committee). She is determined to offer an alternative view of polygamist wives.  She attempts in her work in the group and in her interviews to show herself as an independent woman who has committed to her lifestyle, rather than a down-trodden and brain-washed victim. I think she’s doing a pretty good job of it. She’s someone close to my own age that reminds me of any number of my friends. I can picture drinking some wine with her (although that was one thing that confused me: is that allowed?) and having some girl-talk. I have a hard time identifying with the younger Becca, but it might be just the age and personality difference. 
Last but not least there’s Rose Marie. She’s Michael’s eldest daughter who has just “turned herself in” for marriage (I do find this phrase a little discordant, as much as the women are trying to avoid being stereotyped as oppressed). The thread of her story follows her pursuit of a divinely-inspired marriage.  Perhaps one of my only criticisms of the show as a feminist lies here: as a nineteen-year-old, she seems to be more concerned with who she will marry than with who she is as an individual at this important age. However, it does seem apparent that she fervently desires to be a wife and mother, so even the most liberal feminist should recognize that those roles need to be included alongside all the others as choices for women. They don’t seem to be prisoners, or lack exposure to other belief systems either. If you stop and think about it, she probably very well could have just have “faked” being given a name to conform to her community’s standards, and no one would really know the difference besides her. But she is genuinely struggling to make the right choice (or be patient in receiving the right choice) in the context of her religion. Even her mother, though telling her she should submit to the elders’ wisdom if they happen to receive a name before she does, seems to recognize that she’s the one who will have to live with the man who comes with the choice, and straightforwardly tells her so. Moreover, Rose Marie, though shy, seems intelligent, helpful, respectful, and well-adjusted. She appears to represent the antithesis of the fears that society has regarding polygamist arrangements.

All said and done, I’m really enjoying watching the series and no matter what you feel about alternative marriages, it’s worth a watch simply for the exposure to a group of people who refuse to be labeled according to other people’s perceptions. Furthermore, they have chosen a set of beliefs, whether we agree with them or not, and they stick to them. Lastly, it’s a good reminder that not every horse is of the same color. Whatever changes to our laws regarding marriage, it seems like the most important concern should be responsibility for and the protection of the individual rights of all the members of the resulting families. 


  1. I agree with a lot, but not all in your review. 1) In many polygamist groups, the husbands and fathers do not financially contribute to the raising of the children or not very significantly. I would recommend reading eg the wikipedia article on the Kingston Group, then Carolyn Jessop's "Escape", the Darger family's book "Love Times Three" (for the story of Valerie Darger's first marriage) and "Banking on Heaven".
    2) "Teen Mom" is not the result of "trying people on", it is the result of sex without protection. I have had several partners and will not enter marriage as a virgin, neither will 95 % of Americans, but the majority of us are not teen moms or dads. Cause we used PROTECTION.

    1. Thanks, Leila, I will certainly investigate the information you referenced.