Polygamous family steps out of the closet

Salt Lake City, USA - Love Times Three

Our True Story of a Polygamous Marriage

By Joe, Alina, Vicki and Valerie Darger with Brooke Adams

HarperOne, 304 pages, $19

The middle-class polygamous family in the HBO TV show Big Love might have struck some people as unlikely; however, it was inspired by magazine articles about an actual, though unnamed, American Mormon family.

That family, the Dargers, have now come out of the closet. Joe Darger and his three wives -- Alina, Vicki and Valerie -- live in Salt Lake City, Utah, with their 23 children.

Their book, well-written with help from Salt Lake Tribune journalist Brooke Adams, comes across as a sincere effort to explain their family life and their religious beliefs, which are at odds with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' official position on polygamy or plural marriage.

Although the Dargers claim their reality is not much different from that of their monogamous neighbours, the devil is in the details. The contrasting of ordinary and extraordinary makes Love Times Three fascinating reading.

The Dargers sometimes need a dolly to bring home their weekly groceries. Sunday brunch involves five dozen eggs and 60 to 70 waffles. Joe, who claims to feed all these mouths as a businessman, writes that he sometimes has trouble remembering whose turn it is for date night.

Joe has been married to Alina and Vicki for more than 21 years. The wives, who are cousins, suggested Joe marry Vicki's twin, Valerie. Val's chapter, explaining why her previous plural marriage failed, balances Alina and Vicki's more positive experience.

The wives suggest that sharing their husband keeps them from taking him for granted and that dealing with their complicated relationships deepens their spiritual growth. They express appreciation for their sister wives and sharing care of their children, especially during the teen years or when they are ill.

Plural marriage, they say, is not for the faint of heart. Vicki compares it to climbing Mount Everest, both challenging and rewarding.

Joe says there are easier and cheaper ways to have sex with multiple women. His epic efforts to meet each wives' needs and keep in touch with his 23 children makes this clear.

All four Dargers relate happy memories of growing up with several moms and many siblings. The twins had 39 siblings.

Each remembers discrimination as their biggest problem. In addition to painful memories of schoolyard slights, they relate stories of fathers and grandfathers hiding or spending time in jail as polygamists, which exacerbated their families' poverty.

The Dargers are aware that coming out publicly still involves personal risk.

But staying silent is also risky. The Dargers decided to tell their story after 439 children from the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas, were placed in foster shelters in 2008. Although they have relatives there, they stressed their own culture is vastly different.

They felt it was important to speak out against underage marriage and abuse of any kind and, as the majority of Mormons are "Independents, to differentiate themselves from the LDS and from the sect led by Warren Jeffs, recently found guilty of sexual assault for marrying several under-age girls.

A somewhat poorly organized appendix sketches the basic tenets of fundamentalist Mormonism and the various sects, with their overlapping names and different principles.

The book ends with a word from one child from each marriage. Their stories echo their parents', with slightly less fear of discrimination and more uncertainty about their own marriage choices.

The accounts seem balanced, although of course some selectivity is involved. There is not much discussion about the sexist nature of this family structure. There is some discussion of poverty in the parents' early lives, but it doesn't seem to be a major issue for the Dargers.

If you are looking for insight into the still-illegal polygamist experience, the Dargers' book is a better bet than Big Love.