USA: The marrying kind

Stop Polygamy in Canada
Pulling back the veil from polygamous Pinesdale.
The topic of fundamentalist polygamy hits on two very sensitive nerves: religious freedom and the family.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the Bitterroot Valley has largely chosen to ignore Pinesdale, an openly polygamous fundamentalist Mormon community near Corvallis.

John Schneeberger, coordinator of the Bitterroot Human Rights Alliance (BHRA), says Pinesdale has been on the group’s radar for several years but hasn’t been addressed publicly until now. “Everybody knows and nobody talks about it,” he says.

This week the BHRA is sponsoring two talks by Andrea Moore-Emmett, a Utah journalist who has researched fundamentalist polygamy for the last nine years. In 2004, she published God’s Brothel: The Extortion of Sex for Salvation in Contemporary Mormon and Christian Fundamentalist Polygamy and the Stories of 18 Women Who Escaped, which includes a chapter about a Pinesdale woman.

Schneeberger says that while his group strongly supports religious freedoms, it also stands for human rights. And while he’s careful to say that he doesn’t know whether the rights of women and children are being violated in Pinesdale specifically, he does say that sexual, physical and mental abuse have been found to be endemic to polygamous communities by researchers like Moore-Emmett. Schneeberger hopes to kindle a discussion about the issue and perhaps instigate a support group for women who may feel trapped. For her part, Moore-Emmett says the dynamic of polygamy—which technically means having multiple spouses but functionally means having multiple wives—is inherently abusive.

Sylvia Jessop, 46, agrees. She says she’s apprehensive about Moore-Emmett’s visit, but that it’s important for the larger Bitterroot community to discuss the subculture of polygamy. Jessop moved to the Bitterroot Valley with her family at age 12 to join the Pinesdale group, which belongs to the Apostolic United Brethren (AUB), a Mormon fundamentalist group centered in Bluffdale, Utah. AUB, Moore-Emmett writes, is one of a number of groups that split from the mainstream Mormon Church after it officially abandoned polygamy as a condition of Utah’s entry into the United States in 1890. Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church, had proclaimed in 1843 that the doctrine of polygamy was essential to attaining full celestial glory, and subsequent leaders followed and endorsed the practice. Beginning in 1904, when the Mormon Church reiterated its abandonment of plural marriage, church members were excommunicated for practicing polygamy.

Moore-Emmett has found polygamist communities scattered throughout North America, though most are still located in Utah, which is 72-percent Mormon. In the 1980s, she says, the number of polygamists in Western states was estimated at about 30,000, though groups like Tapestry Against Polygamy—made up of women who have left polygamist families—now estimate the number is around 100,000.

With about 700 residents, Pinesdale is a small town settled by AUB members in the early 1970s. When Jessop was nearly 13, her father married a 14-year-old girl as his second wife, she recounts in Moore-Emmett’s book. Jessop married at age 18, but her husband soon died of cancer, and months later Jessop became the second wife of her husband’s older brother. Over the next 12 years, she says, her life was ruled by contention among herself, her husband, her husband’s two other wives—called sister-wives—and the community at large. Jessop relates tales of physical, mental and sexual abuse within her family and other Pinesdale families. In 1992 she was granted a release from the marriage and left the church, though she continues to live in the same house she occupied during her marriage to this day. She returned to school, first obtaining her high school equivalency degree, then a bachelor’s degree in social work and then a master’s degree. Today, she is a licensed clinical social worker in the Bitterroot. Her seven children who grew up in Pinesdale are still close to the community—they count 100 first cousins in a one-mile radius, Jessop says.

Moore-Emmett, who grew up Mormon but not polygamous, says she spoke with several Pinesdale residents but chose only Jessop’s story for the book. She says while she doesn’t know exactly what she’ll discuss this weekend, she has two main messages. First, “The universal thing that people don’t understand is how widespread [polygamy] is, and how much it’s growing and expanding,” she says. Secondly, she’s concerned about human and civil rights violations—incest, forced marriage, lack of education, for instance—that she’s found in every polygamous community she’s studied.

“What I hope people will come to realize is that many of these women and children are in situations as bad as people living under the Taliban, and it’s a shame to have American citizens who don’t have basic civil and human rights,” she says.

Rockie Weidow, a leader in Pinesdale’s local government, describes his town as a peaceful, law-abiding community that keeps to itself but gets along with everyone in the valley, including law enforcement. He says polygamy is an openly practiced belief in his community, and that he doesn’t think it needs to be the topic of the discussion Schneeberger is trying to spark. “Like any other religion,” he says, “we like to be quiet and practice our religion and not interfere with anybody else.”

Asked about the issue of abuse of women or children, as distinct from religious beliefs, he says, “I know that there has been [abuse] in other areas but it’s not in our group…The abuse of women and children is not allowed. You talk about abuse and everything, but there’s more abuse out in the world. Everybody’s looking at polygamy to downgrade it, but it’s not just polygamists. It’s everybody.”

Weidow referred further questions to community leader Marv Jessop, who did not return a call from the Independent. Marv is Sylvia Jessop’s ex-father-in-law’s brother.

Though a lot has changed in Pinesdale since Sylvia Jessop grew up there—for instance, she says, 14-year-old girls aren’t being married off—she says the community still has a long way to go when it comes to women and children being treated fairly.

“I couldn’t say they’re not trying to be more aware, but I think the basic premise [of polygamy] undermines anything they try to do,” she says.

by Jessie McQuillan in the Missoula Independent (Vol. 16, No. 42)