I think it’s safe to say that polygamy has been a national obsession for quite some time now. In fact, Esquire declared this to be the case two years ago. For the past four years, I have been religiously watching each and every episode of Big Love and anticipating each and every one of New York Magazine’s recaps the following day. Currently I have read exactly half of the 600 pages in The Lonely Polygamist, Brady Udall’s descriptive saga a family with one husband, four wives, and 28 children. The book was released last May and there was a very lengthy wait at my local library, which is why I just received the book last week. Apparently, other people in my area are just as obsessed with polygamy as I am.
The question is, why are we so obsessed with polygamy? In my personal experience, it could be because I’m an only child and the idea of having 20+ siblings frightens me. More specifically, I can’t imagine anyone in a household that large having any sort of privacy. It could be because I don’t know any polygamists and the entire lifestyle is vastly different from my own. It could be because we are drawn to what we perceive as unnatural, bizarre, or repulsive. (See also: the long-cancelled Fear Factor and the ever-so-successful Hoarders). There are numerous memoirs of women who escaped polygamy with catchy titles such as God’s Brothel and Stolen Innocence. I’ve never actually read any of the memoirs so I can’t accurately compare them to a work of fiction, but based on the summaries they all seem to focus on the unhappiness of the women in these marriages.
This is the main reason why I am so fascinated with polygamy; I’m curious about the lives of women who are married to the same man. Are they happy? Are they sad? Do they get along with the other wives? Do their children get along with each other? Do the children get along with the other mothers? Is there an intricate rotating sleeping schedule involved?
Big Love is in its fifth and final season and the three main women — Barb, Nicki, and Margene — have never been happy. Barb has a sense of entitlement because she was the first and original wife, Nicki has an inferiority complex because she isn’t the first wife and is manipulative to the other two, and young and naive Margene is essentially the result of Bill’s mid-life crisis and raging libido. These women are likable, relatable, and repugnant at the same time. The four women in The Lonely Polygamist are no different. Although I am still reading the book, I am torn between liking and hating each wife. Beverly is as controlling as Barb, Nola is Beverly’s nemesis, Rose-of-Sharon has mutism and a ridiculous name, and Trish is young and horny like Margene. It seems as if there are no positive portrayals of these women. Not to mention, the aging matriarch versus the young sex kitten seems to be very cliché, even if it is occasionally true.
In a blog post for the Huffington Post, Author Brady Udall explains that the obsession with polygamy is solely about sex.
In 1998 I was commissioned by Esquire magazine to write a piece about contemporary polygamy. Though there was polygamy in my family history, and I knew more about the subject than most, I went into my research expecting what most anyone would expect: megalomaniacal men with their hair greased back and their shirts buttoned to the collar married to cow-eyed women in pioneer dresses and ostentatious meringue hair-dos. You can imagine my disappointment, then, when the people I met turned out to the regular, everyday sort of folk you’d run into at the post office. People who wore jeans and running shoes and drove minivans. People who lived in suburban townhomes and watched television after work. People with reasonably conventional hair. People like you or me.
Only they weren’t like you and me, because you and I don’t have six wives or thirty-eight children. These were normal people, sure, but they were living in an exceptionally abnormal way.
I was fascinated by the contradictions in such a lifestyle, and it was one of the biggest reasons I decided to write a novel about polygamy. And I was not alone in my fascination: Big Love came on the air, salacious polygamy stories started running with regularity on the evening news, and very soon polygamy became a national obsession.
Why the obsession? It has to do with sex, of course. Everything we are obsessed about has something to do with sex, and polygamy is no exception.
While I am sure some of us are curious about their sex lives, I think others are more curious about their lives overall. The memoirs aren’t successful because they talk about sex; they are successful because they satiate our curiosity about an unknown and secretive lifestyle. What do you think about the obsession with polygamy and the portrayals of women in polygamist families? Do you think their flaws exist to make them relatable to the average family? Would people not watch Big Love or read The Lonely Polygamist if the women members of functional families as opposed to dysfunctional families?