HBO will launch its new series about polygamy called “Big Love” this Sunday. But before the airing of the show’s first episode critics have already weighed in.

Joseph Smith the first Mormon polygamist“To make polygamy…the subject of television entertainment is not only a bad idea, but it’s going to add to the pain of those victims,” a Mormon Church spokesperson told Associated Press.

However, it should be pointed out that the pain of polygamy actually began in 1843 when Joseph Smith the fanciful creator of Mormonism claimed he received a “revelation from God” that essentially allowed him to have as many women as he wanted.

This supposed and rather self-serving message from the Almighty set into place a practice that would continue amongst Mormons for decades. And notably included not only Smith, but also the church’s second most revered “prophet” Brigham Young, who had scores of wives.

Later a very pragmatic Mormon prophet named Wilford Woodruff would come up with his own convenient “revelation” during 1890, just in time for Utah’s Mormons to meet a precondition for statehood.

However, many Mormons continued to believe in Joseph Smith’s earlier epiphany and kept observing the practice of polygamy, despite what would eventually be known as “The Woodruff Manifesto.”

There are about 50,000 polygamists still left in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Some are strange idiosyncratic groups like the one led by an excommunicated former Mormon James Harmston in Manti, Utah called “The True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days,” or “TLC” for short. Harmston says that he is the reincarnation of Joseph Smith, that’s his “revelation.”

But many polygamists can trace their history back to the time when most Mormons routinely observed the practice as something similar to an “article of faith.”

And the Mormon Church doesn’t appreciate HBO reminding everyone about all this.

Brigham Young had scores of wives“You only have to mention Salt Lake City and polygamy and Mormons in the same breath and people will start to get those old stereotypes again,” the Mormon spokesperson told Associated Press.

The legacy of polygamy is indeed strewn with stereotypical patriarchal authoritarian types beginning with Smith and Young.

The Village Voice review reports that HBO has cast actor Harry Dean Stanton as the “cultish” leader of its fictional rural polygamist clan. At one point during the first episode Stanton declares, “There’s man’s law and there’s God’s law, and I think you know which side I’m on.”

Well, that sounds like something Joseph Smith and Brigham Young might have said.   

Most recently the pain of polygamy has quite literally come running and screaming from behind closed doors into the media spotlight. Those that have escaped its sinister embrace have told of rapes, beatings and the plight of underage girls married off to middle aged men.

Incest and birth defects due to the inbred nature of polygamist communities have also recently been detailed.

All of this has finally been scrutinized after years of official neglect by the legal authorities in Utah and Arizona, the two states with the largest population of polygamists.

The most prominent polygamist groups within these states are the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) once headquartered in Arizona and the Kingston clan in Utah. Both of these rich and powerful groups have experienced judicial crackdowns as the courts have intervened to reign in their excesses. 

Warren Jeffs, the titular “prophet” of the FLDS is now a leader on the lam hunted by the FBI with a reward on his anointed head.

Kingston patriarchs have been sentenced to jail time and the courts regarding their care and treatment of children have monitored some families within that group.

The abuse is not in just the isolated areas, [polygamy] deals with power and control. Those individuals feel coerced into it, even if it’s a subtle coercion, a religious coercion,” says Vicky Prunty, director of the anti-polygamy group Tapestry Against Polygamy. 

HBO “Big Love” co-creator Mark V. Olsen wants everyone to know, “There is no way we want to whitewash the abuses. That’s very important to us. Stick with us in our story lines. This is a concern that we are responsive to.”

However, “Big Love” seems to have more in common with the hit show “Desperate Housewives” than the real living conditions often endured by polygamist families.

The Village Voice says HBO is “making the viewer sympathize with husband Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton), who comes across not as an exploitative patriarch but as a decent man stretched to the limit…It’s an entertaining, never ending power struggle with a distinct pecking order.”  

Is this the Hollywood version of polygamy?

Meanwhile the women and children caught within the web of polygamy probably don’t find their lives quite so “entertaining.”


6 comments untill now

  1. Not2Sweet @ 2006-03-11 13:28

    I grew up under this so-called “Big Love.” I was raised in the Fundamental LDS and escaped as a teen. I have many family members still within the cult. The upcoming HBO series that seeks to legitimize and normalize polygamy is quite upsetting to me.

    Mike Royko, former columnist for the Chicago Tribune, stated that all that would be necessary to get the polygamy campaign going would be to have the media behind it. Those who disagree with the concept would be labeled mean-spirited polyphobes.

    If Tom Hanks and HBO are successful with “Big Love” many may come to view polygamy as just another lifestyle choice. Big Love’s Gennifer Goodwin sums up her role as one of three wives this way, “It’s a private decision to live this alternative lifestyle.” Sound familiar? When asked this past week by Regis Philbin on his morning show “Regis and Kelly” what it felt like to portray a man with three wives, Bill Paxton replied by singing “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” the filthy Oscar-winning rap “song” written by the group Three 6 Mafia. Let me tell you Mr. Paxton, I did not find that funny. You have no idea of the pain people trapped in “Big Lie” endure. I would love to tell you personally. But I doubt you’d care to discuss it with me.

    Will the show reveal the painful reality of polygamy? Will it illustrate just how “free” are the young girls who are given the “choice” to marry someone three times their age or to go to hell? Some choice! I lived with years of fear and guilt because I ran away and I did not “keep sweet.” Will the show reveal the fate of the lost boys displaced from their homes at a time when they really need the kind of big love that only comes through parental support and guidance? How about the utter hellishness of taking the hand of another women and placing it in your husband’s hand as his additional wife? Will the producers of “Big Love” allow you to see babies born deformed by fumarase syndrome due to incestual relationships? It is doubtful that HBO or Hanks will dare to disclose the full truth of polygamy in this manner. However, if they are successful in opening society’s mind to the normalization of polygamy within our culture, these atrocities will most likely go on being overlooked. Children born into polygamous families have no choice. Brainwashing techniques are used from the moment they are born. They are told to keep sweet and sacrifice their emotions to the Principle without questioning it. The only choice they are given is to accept it or go to hell. Will you Mr. Hanks and Mr. Paxton turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to those children and young women who contrary to the freedom of choice espoused in Big Love’s stars are really held prisoner by a Big Lie?


  2. Ranching Family @ 2006-03-11 22:36

    Dear JK
    It sounds like the real problem for you is not Polygamy.
    It sounds more like a Short Creek problem. I am sensative to your issues. But running to Uncle Dan and bashing all plig’s willl not give you back what you lost.
    Polygamy is practiced all over the world. It is a very old & tested option for marriage.

  3. Ranching Family @ 2006-03-12 06:37

    You know the new uncle for all the angry pligs in Salt Lake. Uncle Dan is going to help all the poor “lost boys”. Well… as long as it brings press coverage anyway.

  4. It sounds as though whoever wrote this article has some significant issues with mormons, moreso than with today’s practicing polygamists. I have lived among mormons for many years and have studied the history of polygamy and I think it’s disappointing that people like yourself continually write articles which provide readers with only a portion of the truth. It is necessary to study the COMPLETE history of polygamy before judging the Mormon faith for their past actions. It is your duty as a messenger to the public to educate yourself about the facts before passing that information along to others.
    Very Disgruntled Reader

  5. Not2Sweet @ 2006-03-13 17:14

    Interestingly enough, LK of Ranching Family, you didn’t address any of my points posted. You ignored the issues and made light of them with empty accusations. You assumed things about my running to someone named “Uncle Dan.” Rest assured I would never return to that lifestyle. I’ve lost nothing and gained freedom and hope and happiness. My eternity does not depend on “Keeping Sweet.” While polygamy may be old, age does not validate it, and it has not stood the test as you suggest, but failed it. Even examples in the Bible of polygamy are full of sorrow and jealousy rather than happiness and harmony. I resent all attempts to normalize the polygamous lifestyle, because I was a child of it and have lived it and I know the hidden secrets and lies involved in it. I hope you are not one of its victims. But if you have access to the Internet, I would say that you should open your eyes. The truth is out here, just waiting for you to discover it. I hope you do for your sake and for anyone else who is trapped inside it.


  6. wordsmith @ 2006-03-13 21:28

    The expression is “on the lam.”

    I shudder to think what you are accusing him of doing to sheep.