Pretty with dark hair, Rebekah Lightner was once a cheerleader and homecoming queen in a medium-sized Midwestern town. She later married a salesman who sold stationery and greeting cards to her college sorority, where she had been elected secretary.
Aside from being deeply religious, Lightner’s new husband also happened to have two other wives. Incensed that his daughter had married a polygamist, Lightner’s father had the man thrown in jail. Her brother disowned her. Later, Lightner was fired from a job with the city when it was discovered she was an avowed believer in polygamy. She and her family also were evicted from the house they rented. “The hardest part of being a plural wife has been having family and friends ostracize me,” Lightner says. When Lightner visited a hometown friend after the birth of her first child, the friend told her, “I can’t believe you would show your face in public.” Now, 27 years later, she still feels like the odd woman out when she travels home. Her sister is sad that Lightner is barred from attending Mormon temple ceremonies. Lightner and her brother remain estranged.
And there have been other challenges to living her beliefs. Schoolmates ostracized Lightner’s daughter last year when she confided her father has three wives. Teachers often ask Lightner if it’s true the family is polygamist. Yet the challenges of being a polygamist haven’t shaken Lightner’s faith in plural marriage. “I know polygamy is controversial and always will be,” she says. “I believe we have to taste humiliation to be in Christ’s kingdom.” Polygamy will never be popular, she adds. “As long as there is Satan, people will fight against this principle.” She uses a pseudonym now because she recently completed schooling to establish a somewhat high profile and lucrative career. She won’t risk losing her livelihood again.
Lightner is one of 100 women whose essays supporting polygamy appear in the new book, Voices in Harmony: Contemporary Women Celebrate Plural Marriage. In her essay, Lightner describes plural marriage as a “heaven-sent blessing.” She recalls years of living with her sister-wife, home-schooling their children and making scrapbooks of family events. “There were times when the two of us were so close that our husband felt left out,” she says of her sister-wife. Lightner’s unique perspective is one of many that have been hidden for years, now part of a book assembled by three other women who have lived in polygamy. The three are revealing their identities for the first time in the groundbreaking compilation.
Until recently, publicity was last on the women’s list. The three authors just hoped to live out their lives as plural wives in peace. Born in three different decades and married to three different men, Anne Wilde, Marianne Watson and Mary Batchelor wanted to keep their lifestyle and beliefs to themselves. For many years they were quietly content, living the polygamous lifestyle they contend is sacred, fulfilling and happy.
But all three shared the sense that they couldn’t hold back their feelings any longer. Negative public perceptions of polygamy finally pushed them into action, Batchelor told City Weekly in an interview. “We had witnessed more than enough negative press about polygamy. We watched two legislative sessions where people tried to pass bills that would affect polygamists. We felt we had to get our book out fast, before a bill passed that would break up families.”
Despite their urgency, putting their names on a book brought risk as well as a total about-face in their formerly low-profile lives. Batchelor recalls being torn by emotions. “I was excited about the project. Yet I felt anxiety about having my name public, which I thought could make my whole life open and exposed to criticism. I thought having my name on the book could make me a public figure, which I never wanted to be.”
Her anxiety continued, making her sick and causing bad dreams. But after the nightmares, she had a positive dream that changed her mind. In the dream, a close relative told her she would soon be in the spotlight. He asked if she was ready. “I woke up and knew I’d better be,” Batchelor says.
Interestingly, Batchelor’s co-authorship of the book places her firmly in the forefront of defending plural marriage, while her former sister-wife, Vicky Prunty, is the director of Tapestry Against Polygamy, an activist group opposed to polygamy. The two women were married to the same man for three years. Batchelor recalls fondly their time as sister-wives. “When I became one in marriage with Vicky’s husband, it made me become one with her in spirit. I’m not embarrassed to say that I totally embraced her in my heart, and when she left our family, it broke my heart.” The divorce was a great loss, Batchelor says. “While there wasn’t a place for me in their divorce—I wasn’t the petitioner or respondent—I suffered along with my husband after she left.” Batchelor says she still misses her former sister-wife a great deal. “But she has chosen a different path where I don’t want to go.”
For her part, the anti-polygamist Prunty told City Weekly she’s always had strong hopes that her husband and Batchelor would have a positive and loving marriage. She knows it was painful for them when she left the relationship. “But I wonder how much of that was control and how little of it was love. It’s unfortunate when women buy into the fact that they are not a complete woman without another sister-wife to make them feel whole as a wife or as a mother.”
It is that perception, along with other common stereotypes, that led Batchelor, Wilde and Watson to write and compile Voices in Harmony. “Perhaps because polygamy is a hot topic that sells—and scandal sells even better—the media has recently relied upon the voices of a handful of anti-polygamists as the so-called experts, and ignored more credible and balanced scientists and academics—real experts,” Watson says.
Wilde recalls a day when a news reporter expressed surprise that all three women wore pants. “We don’t all wear our hair in buns and braids,” Wilde explains. “Most people wouldn’t know we were plural wives if they sat next to us on the bus or in a movie.”
Other stereotypes include the ideas that many polygamous women marry at 13 or 14, don’t have a choice of whom they marry, are brainwashed and have to escape or be rescued rather than being able to leave on their own. “In our research, we found a large number of women become plural wives later in life. Some come from other states and religions other than fundamental Mormonism, although most began with at least an LDS background,” Batchelor notes.
Another typical misconception is that all polygamists are on welfare and don’t pay taxes. People often think they don’t have birth certificates or use professional medical care for their children. “Some of the stereotyping has been so wild and unfair, it is similar to saying that all Mormons must be like Ted Bundy and Mark Hofmann,” Watson says.
In order to compile research about such disputed topics, Wilde, Watson and Batchelor created a questionnaire detailing eight major subjects relating to the lives of plural wives. They believe it offered a broader range of subjects than any other research tool used to tabulate biographical information on women living in contemporary polygamy. Through personal acquaintances and by networking with other plural families, they circulated the questionnaire to more than 700 women. “If 500 had responded, it would have been too large, but 25 would not have been enough,” explains Wilde.
After the surveys went out, Wilde says it was like Christmas morning for days on days on end when she opened her mailbox to find contributions for the book. A total of 100 essays—almost a 15 percent response rate—were eventually received.
Many of the plural wives who submitted essays for the book revealed information about their lives for the first time. In the past, the authors say, these women remained silent rather than risk disclosing their identities. “This publication provided them with a medium where they could feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, feelings and experiences without risk of exposure,” Wilde says.
The survey indicated that 92 percent of the plural wives file annual income tax forms, 77 percent reported they had used no government aid, 85 percent have graduated from high school and several have college degrees. “All but three have birth certificates for their children,” Batchelor adds.
Once the three authors received the survey results, they realized it was their turn to reveal themselves. Along with Wilde, both Batchelor and Watson were concerned about their families’ feelings and reactions. “All of us have extended family and friends who haven’t known about our lifestyle,” Wilde says. “Now they do.” The women understood that by coming forward they might implicate an extended family that includes other wives and children. If they had a choice, the trio would have preferred to stay anonymous too, Wilde says. “But how credible would a book be with three anonymous authors and 100 anonymous essay contributors?” she asks.
Watson says speaking out has in some ways brought a sense of freedom. “I feel like Jean Valjean in Les Miserables saying, ‘I am what I am.’” The authors came to believe that the long-silent voices in polygamy—those who are living it now, and the men and women who grew up in it—were voices that needed to be heard. “There is a price, though, that sometimes our children pay because of unkindness of some in society.”
Still, they decided not to identify their husbands, although the men are behind them. The authors say the independence provided by their lifestyle actually helped in this endeavor. “We didn’t need to ask our husbands for permission to write the book,” Wilde says.
Ironically, Batchelor notes she is now less independent without her former sister-wife. She has had to come to terms with being her husband’s only wife since Prunty left. “I found myself in monogamy, which I didn’t want. Suddenly my husband was here every day and I didn’t want him here every day.” She’s been a monogamist for the past eight years, but hopes she and her husband may take another wife in the future. “We won’t do it again unless she has a strong testimony of plural marriage and of God, and if both she and we feel that she is meant to be in our family,” Batchelor says.
The trio agrees that plural marriage isn’t for everybody. They understand that many women would not choose to live that principle. “By writing this book, we don’t mean to say that those who live it are necessarily better people. Brigham Young said this principle will damn more people than it will save,” Wilde says. “But those who do live it successfully do so with the hope of eternal blessings.”
Besides facing a disapproving society, the women found themselves releasing their book at a time when polygamy is facing new legal conflicts and prosecution. “There are people who say this is a bad time, as if it were a threat and they want us to be intimidated,” Watson says. “They aren’t in favor of anything good coming forth.”
Thomas Green, the admitted Juab County polygamist who is currently on trial for child rape, bigamy and criminal non-support, had not been charged with a crime at the time the women conceived the idea for the book, Batchelor explains. “Suddenly they were prosecuting polygamists. We felt we were already committed and could not back down.”
The truth is the truth, Wilde adds. “It’s worthy of our taking the risk and putting our names on it. Few people on the inside of plural marriage have been willing or able to do that.”
Thomas Green applauds the women and concurs that this is indeed a tense time for polygamy. “It was very courageous of them to come out of the closet, to say this is our life, we’re here and we’re proud of it,” Green said in a City Weekly interview. He believes the state will continue to step up its “witch hunts” of polygamists, and senses politicians will continue to do everything they can to make life miserable for what he calls the state’s biggest embarrassment.
Green says the 2002 Winter Olympics are a catalyst for the prosecution against him and possible future prosecution of others who live plural marriage. “For 50 years there was an unspoken understanding that if polygamists would stay in the closet and shut up, law enforcement would ignore plural families and pretend that Utah’s dirty little secret didn’t exist,” Green says. “But with the Olympics coming here, we don’t want to look like a third-world country.”
Watson agrees with Green’s analysis. “The state is hoping that when the world focuses its attention on Utah during the Olympics, polygamy will somehow be ignored. Ironically, by feeding the stereotype they are creating an atmosphere that begs even more intense scrutiny, like the emperor who wore no clothes.”
Green’s criminal case, however, is complicated by the fact that he married women under the age of consent. Carol Gnade, director of the Utah affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, says the laws in question are not simply about polygamy. “If, indeed, it were a challenge to anyone wanting to live a polygamous lifestyle, the ACLU would certainly consider involving ourselves, but that has not been the case so far. Green is trying to defend himself criminally for acts that are outside what we believe to be consenting adults practicing polygamy.”
Nonetheless, Gnade notes that Utah is a hostile climate for anyone who doesn’t fit within social norms. “Although polygamy has been here for many years, there just seems to be a never-ending struggle to protect people who want to live in this different way.”
But for anti-polygamists like Prunty, the current controversy over the Green case is a catalyst for positive change against plural marriage. Her group, Tapestry of Polygamy, was organized even before the high-profile Kingston abuse case. In keeping with her philosophy that polygamy opens the door to abuse, Prunty is critical of the Voices in Harmony survey. “I don’t know how credible it is. The authors are the ones who put the surveys together, there were no names attached to identify the respondents.” She contends that both sides of the issue—particularly those women who see themselves trapped in polygamy—need to be shown. “This has to be done accurately.”
David Zolman, a former state representative who says his positive stand on polygamy led to his defeat in the November election, agrees that the survey was not scientific. But he notes that typical survey techniques would not work to study plural families. “There would be no possible way for an impartial researcher to go into a closed polygamous society with a pen and clipboard to take a scientific survey.” He sees the Voices in Harmony survey as a huge accomplishment. “If someone would now treat that opening with the respect it deserves, it could lead to a mending of the fences and healing of the festering wound between society and polygamous families.”
Zolman and the three authors believe those wounds could be healed if Utah politicians would decriminalize polygamy. Plural marriage is currently a third-degree felony as defined by the Utah state criminal code. A constitutional amendment would be required to change the law. That can only be accomplished by a two-thirds majority vote of both the Utah Senate and House of Representatives. Zolman acknowledges that would be difficult in the current political climate. “The first thing that would need to happen would be a case where a polygamist was charged and the [Utah] Supreme Court could rule that he could not be prosecuted for polygamy,” Zolman says. That could set the stage for political action. “If the court were to rule that the polygamy prohibition was no longer enforceable, voting to decriminalize polygamy would be a much easier task for the Legislature to follow.” He notes that decriminalization would not legalize polygamy, but would simply remove the felony penalty.
But Zolman doesn’t see the Green case leading to that series of events. “It probably isn’t a good case, because there is other baggage with it.” The baggage includes the child rape, bigamy and criminal non-support charges for which Green is currently on trial. “Green’s case is not just a pure living polygamy case,” Zolman explains. “What we would need would be someone who has married his wives as adults. I don’t see a family like that currently coming forth.”
If polygamy were decriminalized, it would be possible for the governor to declare amnesty for all polygamists, Zolman surmises. “They would not be prosecuted for past violations. They could be required to record all of their marriages. If they were required to publicly record all marriages, they would be with proper-age women and proper relationships without consanguinity. Everyone would have to give a little to make this work,” he concludes.
While studying the current political situation, Zolman increasingly came to believe that press treatment of polygamists has been unfair. “As I’ve gone to the polygamous communities and listened to fathers and mothers describe their jobs as sheet metal workers or cabinet makers, I’ve found a much larger percentage of law-abiding behavior and community-building people than are represented in the press.” The polygamist community has been sorely misrepresented in the media as an eccentric and lawbreaking community. Zolman says he originally perceived that 90 percent of the estimated 30,000 Utah polygamists were law-abiding. But he now believes the percentage of polygamists who are profiled as anti-social or criminal in high-profile cases is actually less than 2 percent.
The women who wrote Voices in Harmony agree that such misconceptions are common. “All these wild claims have been made where people refer to a few isolated cases and say that is everybody,” Batchelor says.
Miriam, another woman using a pseudonym whose essay is included in the book, agrees that typical media stereotypes do not fit her family. “Basically, this is an opportunity to learn and grow,” she says of her own plural marriage, which has lasted more than a half-century. She recalls watching a recent television program that stated most people know about 10 or 12 people well enough to confide their problems. “That seems like a very small number to me,” says Miriam, who is the mother—along with her sister-wives—of 50 children. She says all 50 children have been willing to honor and acknowledge all the mothers.
But Miriam agrees polygamy can be a difficult lifestyle to live. “This is a crash course in human relations. If you are the type who really wants to do your own thing, rather than giving and receiving for the common good, you will have a hard time being a plural wife.” Contrary to some news reports, Miriam says she’s never seen anyone who wasn’t free to leave a polygamous family. “Those who don’t want to be in it shouldn’t be here. And if they are free to leave, the rest of us should be free to stay.”