I was watching "Sister Wives
" on TV. I placed the apple I'd been munching on the lamp table and leaned forward in my chair, thoughtfully staring at my flat-screen. The blue eyes of the woman looking into the camera appeared honest and sincere. Her voice was friendly and steady as she explained to her TV show audience that she, Janelle, was wife number two in her polygamous family.
Her husband, Kody, and her sister-wives
, Meri and Christine, all lived together in one huge home right in Salt Lake City. Their 12 children ate and romped together. The women valued one another and wouldn't know what to do without the amazing bond that knit them all together as a family unit. They shared various family tasks, and their caring and support of each other was inspirational ...
The camera panned from one woman to the next and all smiled and nodded in agreement. Seated in the middle was Kody, dashing Kody, with his irresistible smile and his feathered hair curling long over his collar. He gave a quick squeeze to Janelle, seated on his left, as his fingers twined with Meri's, seated on his right.
"Sister Wives." My jaw clenched. Oh, yes, the daily mechanics of polygamy they were choosing to display were somewhat on target. But ... really? Did they think the skin-deep details -- whose turn it was to do laundry; which wife was pregnant; the rotating, nocturnal visits of Kissing Kody to his wives -- was going to satisfy intelligent viewers?
What about the real issues in polygamy? What about the truth? Closing my eyes, my thoughts raced back to the blond, blue-eyed girl I used to be -- the child who had become a sister-wife
. So many years had passed since ...
My Wedding Day
I can recall my stubborn, 15-year-old brain trying to concentrate on the strange, Bible-sounding words our prophet, Joel LeBaron, was reciting from one of the Mormon scripture books. I took a shaky breath. My heart thumped as I stole a glance at my tall, handsome bridegroom. Then I peeked at Irene, the matronly-looking woman standing next to us. Irene's usually friendly blue eyes appeared narrow and haunted, but her pale lips still held onto the barest hint of a smile as the prophet recited the final words of the marriage ceremony.
My hands were trembling. I wanted desperately to experience joy during my wedding but I couldn't mistake Irene's misery, and I could feel the shadow her sadness cast. I glanced at her again. I'd seen enough of polygamy in my short life to be well aware of the heartache plural wives lived with. But we had no choice. Polygamy was required. God had ordered all followers of Joseph Smith to live this way. If we wanted to go to the highest degree of heaven, which we all did, of course, we lived in polygamy and learned to love our sister wives.
I looked quickly back at Verlan. His aqua-blue eyes snapped with excitement. Tonight, 38-year-old Verlan, the brother of our prophet, was adding me to his eternal family kingdom. He motioned to Irene, and she dutifully picked up my hand and placed it in her husband's. Then she stepped back a bit as the groom moved in to kiss his new bride. Forever, throughout this life and eternity, no matter how many wives Verlan took, I would be number six.
The roomful of wedding guests pushed forward to hug us and wish us well. Tonight I would be leaving them and Colonia LeBaron, our small polygamous community in Chihuahua, Mexico. I'd grown up here, and the thought of leaving the only life I'd ever known terrified me. However, it had to be done. I was part of a new family now. I barely knew Verlan, but he was a wonderful, godly man and a leader in our church. He would be taking me back to his large home in Baja, Calif., where four more wives waited. I would be a stranger to his family. I wondered, How would they accept me? Would his 24 kids like me?
The annoying ringing of my cell phone sitting on the lamp table interrupted my journey down memory lane. I turned the TV volume down and answered the call. It was Lance, my fifth child. He needed me to babysit tomorrow afternoon. I made short work of the call and turned the TV volume back up.
Kody was driving somewhere with Christine. Their fingers were locked snugly together. I watched them for a minute or two, but insistent memories kept stealing my focus. My eyes closed...
Life As the Sixth Wife
I pulled the curtain back from the living room window in my small adobe home and stared at the dirt road winding down the little hill into Los Molinos. In the three years I'd been married to Verlan, this was the longest he'd ever been away. How many times in the past four months had I stood here, pretending his silver pickup was on that road headed back to me? Dust would billow high as he drew closer and entered the colony. He would stop at Lucy's place first, like he always did. He would unload mountains of supplies into the shed and tell the family there hello. Then he'd stop at three more wives' homes. Just before coming to see me, he would go to Lillie's house.
Lillie. The thought of my latest sister wife was like a dull knife in my chest. Lillie, the laughing girl with the snapping, cornflower-blue eyes and brown hair framing her slender face. Blinking rapidly, I dropped the curtain into place. I picked my toddler up and, balancing him on my hip next to my large, pregnant tummy, hauled him back to his highchair. Sitting down between him and my 2-year-old daughter, I wiped my eyes and began spooning potato soup into his mouth. "You have to stop this, Susan," I whispered. "Think about something else. You can't hate her forever. You're supposed to love her."
How? How could I live with the knowledge that my husband loved her? Why was it so different with her than with the others -- so much worse? I passionately loved my husband. I needed him. My heart and body cried out for him and, God forgive me, I wanted him for myself. Each time he looked at Lillie in my presence, or touched her hand, or even mentioned her name, fresh waves of torment washed deep into my soul. The thought of her slender body sleeping in his arms filled my nights with torture. Through the years I'd learned to block out thoughts of Verlan making love with his other wives, but Lillie ... I just couldn't seem to her block out. My traitorous imagination taunted me with graphic images of them together. What was I to do? How long could I live like this? Why wasn't God helping me deal with my jealousy?
"Heavenly Father! Please help me," I whispered. Dropping my head onto the table next to my son's empty bowl, I sobbed softly.
Through the past three years of living with Verlan's family, life had been so much harder than I'd ever imagined. Verlan was constantly gone. He worked in Las Vegas much of the time and made the long trip home every few weekends to see his families. As a leader in the church, his duties also demanded that he be out in the mission field. The rare occasion when he was home however, was the hardest to bear. Although he tried to be considerate and treat his wives fairly, without question his first wife was his partner and confidante. Although this bothered me, it was understandable. She had been with him much longer than the rest of us, and he relied on her to take care of the family issues while he was away. My jealousy at his dependence on her was minor when compared to watching his arm slide around another wife's waist. This brought an aching lump of torment into my throat and chest. Observing him pull her toward her bedroom sent me scurrying into my own where I could smother my sobs into my pillow.
At Home With Our 40 Kids
Physically, our living conditions were beyond sparse. Verlan's entire family wore Salvation Army discards. There was never enough money to pay for heating fuel, so we lived in sweaters, even inside the house, to ward off the icy Pacific wind. We ate beans and cornmeal mush and coarse-ground wheat bread with no butter. Verlan's first wife worked as a teacher in San Diego and sent her small earnings home to help support the rest of us. Until I had my first baby, I wasn't given a single peso to spend on my personal needs.
Emotionally, my heart felt battered. Although the other wives treated me civilly and we worked well enough together at the never-ending duties required to take care of our growing family, my arms and soul ached for the sacred intimacy that only my husband could give me.
During the past two years, Verlan had constructed separate adobe homes for each wife. He married Lillie, and now he was busily courting another teenage girl named Kim. Three babies were being born into our family on average each year. Indeed, Verlan was adding many new jewels to his eternal crown. There were over 40 children in our family now -- 40 kids who hardly knew their own father. Children who needed a relationship with him in the worst way. Unfortunately, Verlan never had time to spend with them.
One of the hardest things for me to witness was the loneliness and despair in the eyes of Verlan's other wives. They were kind and good women, and they were suffering just as I was. They needed him, too. They loved him, too.
Why was it fair
that God loved His sons so much more than his daughters? Why was it OK with Him that they have so many wives to desire them, to need them, to love them and have sex with them? We patiently waited our turn, saving our very best love, our best food, and our complete devotion for our husbands. I couldn't reconcile in my mind a loving God would be so unfair to His children.
Born Mormon: How It All Began
The prophet Joseph Smith taught that all those who had the "law of polygamy" revealed to them had to obey it, or they would be damned. This meant me too. I'd read the revelation; if we were faithful and willing to live it, our men would become gods in heaven. In the highest heaven our men would have a great time, planning and creating their own worlds. And what of the women? The best we could hope for as a reward for our devotion and submissiveness to our husbands was to become their goddesses. Our wombs would bear their offspring so that they could populate their own worlds. I finally realized that according to my religion, my major purpose here on Earth and for all eternity was to reproduce! I would have infinity of children! I would be eternally pregnant. I would share my husband's affection with all the wives he had now, and any he chose to marry in the future, forever. What kind of paradise was THAT?
My deepest desire as a woman was to be loved. My heart and my body cried out for companionship, friendship, an understanding touch, warmth, for passion from a man that was meant for only me. Was it wrong of me to want the exclusive love of a man? I wanted someone who adored me, someone who was mine. "Lord, help me." I whispered again. "Please guide me; I don't know what to do. I don't want to be disobedient or go to hell, but I can't live this way." Everything within me told me this was wrong ...
Opening my eyes, I picked up my brown-tinged apple, took a bite, and glanced at the television screen. On "Sister Wives," the credits were running, and Kody was waving in the background. Janelle's pregnant body was bent over, picking up one of the kids. She smiled and waved. A commercial commenced.
The memories of my past life were softer now, but seeing the superficiality of this show troubled me. Was this family advocating polygamy as an alternative lifestyle for America? I couldn't help but wonder how much of this was drama and how much was authentic. Drama pays well ... and truth sometimes takes a back seat to what is profitable in the entertainment industry.
Did Kody fully understand that he was robbing not only himself, but his wives, of the beautiful intimacy and bonding and trust God originally intended for marriage? It saddens me to see how easily we replace the deep intimacies, of monogamous marriage, strengthened by the tides of commitment as life sends waves of alternating joy and tribulation into our lives -- for a little variety.
When I Finally Got Out
I left Verlan and Mexico in 1976, eight years and five children into our marriage -- and three years after I knew something was wrong. I couldn't bear the thought of my precious children being subjected to the heartache of the people I saw all around me. Leaving my LeBaron family and my friends and siblings behind was the most difficult decision of my life.
During my years of being a part of Verlan's family, I learned to care deeply for his wives. I learned to love Lillie. These were wonderful, caring women who deserved to find joy and passion, and to be secure in the love of their husbands. Most of them to this day don't know what they're missing. Sadly, the confusion and hopelessness of polygamy still goes on in our country.
I could tell them. For 29 years, I knew the love of a wonderful, Christian man. He adored me and raised Verlan's children as his own; children who today know Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life. I lost him suddenly in the summer of 2008. I miss him more than words can say. He gave me security and friendship and the intimacy that is possible only in marriage as God ordained it in the beginning. But I'm not alone. I have my kids and my grandkids. And I have the most valuable thing of all, the real One I was missing throughout my life in polygamy: Jesus.
Today, Susan Ray Schmidt resides in southern Idaho. She is the mother of seven children and has 14 grandchildren. She is the author of "Favorite Wife: Escape From Polygamy", published by Lyon's Press in 2008. She is also featured in the documentary "Lifting the Veil of Polygamy," produced by Sourceflix, and available here. She spends much of her time as a guest speaker at various events and she has given lectures on polygamy at several universities. She also works with Sourceflix in the distribution of the documentary videos created and produced by Joel Kramer. She is an ardent supporter of A Shield and Refuge Ministry out of Salt Lake City, a program created to assist and support refugees escaping from polygamy.