Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Book Review- Daughters of Zion: A Family's Conversions to Polygamy

[Content note: Religiously-motivated abuse]

A month or so ago, I finished the book Daughters of Zion: A Family's Conversions to Polygamy, by Kim Taylor.

In all, I found the content to be somewhat difficult to get through. Taylor's family circumstances, of converting from mainstream Mormon faith in the US to a fringe Mormon polygamist sect living primarily in a poor Mexican colony, are mostly sad.

She presents the social structure as one in which many of the men had multiple wives, many children, and inadequate means to support their families, while the women lived in poverty and dedicated almost their entire waking lives to child-rearing and performing household tasks. Many of the houses in the colony, for instance, lacked plumbing and running water. And, because the colony lacked jobs, the men were often away from their families for months at a time. Many of the women who still lived in the US, meanwhile, were living in government housing projects and surviving partly on government benefits as "single" women with children.

While the men were biological fathers, many of them did not seem to actively father, or parent, their children in any meaningful way. And how could they, having sometimes 30 or 40 children and not actually living with their families? Taylor recounts a story of one of the male church leaders who, in particular, had many children. Once, one of this man's wives was shopping at the colony store. While she went to pick up a few items, she placed her child near the storekeeper's chair. The man walked into the store and saw the baby:
"He stopped to admire the child. 'What a cute baby,' he told the storekeeper. 'Whose baby is this?'

He was started to see [one if his wives] appear as if out of nowhere shouting furiously, "It's yours, you idiot!'"
With that background, I was struck by two inter-related themes throughout this book:

One, polygamist societies where it is men, and only men, who take multiple wives, with the man having a "separate" marriage with each woman, while the wives are married only to him, are incredibly male-centric.

That may be obvious to note, but I think it needs to be noted since some people compare same-sex relationships to polygamist relationships like these. These relationships are not relationships of equals. Nor are these families child-centric or family-centric. They are about entitling men to sexual and marriage partners, so they can have as many biological children as possible while doing the least amount of parenting.

Women, unlike the men in this sect, were supposed to transcend the human emotion of jealousy and were "expected to share their husbands willingly," sometimes "actively court[ing] new wives for their husbands." Taylor describes some of the women, whose husbands were more like visitors than husbands or fathers, as "unhappy" and "love-starved," Causing Taylor to observe:

"Yet the men would be treated to the best that their families had to offer during their rare and coveted visits. I wondered: Was this why so many of the otherwise good-natured men, like my brother-in-law Paul, seemed to be growing steadily more self-centered and egotistical as they became less aware and considerate of the hardships and suffering their women and children faced each day?"

In my conversation last year with Vyckie Garrison, a woman who left the patriarchal Quiverfull movement, she echoed a similar sentiment, noting that while some men build themselves up within a religion as being like Jesus/God, "it is the wife and children who end up doing all the Jesus-like self-sacrificing … to the point of self-abnegation and burn-out." Over time, because of the way her religion "enshrined the supreme importance of males," Garrison lost the vocabulary for being able to name and recognize the abuse her husband was inflicting upon her.

Taylor, too, was taught (and, for some time seemed to believe) that, while men played central roles in Life and After-Life, she was kind of just "along for a timeless journey - making sacrifices necessary to be included in [her] husband's kingdom in which he reigned." She, like many of the women, seemed to see herself as a supporting cast member in a Big Man's Big Story.

How could men not get power trippy, egotistical, and abusive with that narrative framing their lives?

The second, and related, theme is that one of the best ways to entrap women and girls into this lifestyle seemed to be for much older men to "court" and then marry teenage girls and then to quickly impregnate them, which would solidify the girls' ties to this religion and society.

Imagine a 16-year-old girl with 2 new babies and no job experience, living in poverty in a remote Mexican colony. What are her options to "escape"?

Taylor recounts that she was 15 "the first time that a man of the church had shown interest" in her, and the man was the already-married father of one of her friends. The men, by the way, seemed simultaneously tacky and predatory, as they gifted the female friends of their own children with chocolates and cards, expecting the girls to be receptive and totally-grown-up.

Sadly, because this male-created religion/society granted men the near-total entitlement to view all girls as potential sexual and marriage partners, Taylor didn't seem to recognize the potentially-abusive power mismatch between herself and the man. Nor did her family or her society seem to have taught her many strategies for deflecting this sort of attention, which she did not seem to want, from men.

Taylor articulates the religious beliefs of this faith, throughout, only in general terms.

For instance, in reference to women's role in this religion, Taylor writes that as soon as her sister recovered from her near-fatal experience of giving birth, she was soon "well enough to continue on in her mission of bearing children to be raised in the church." More specific beliefs, the ones that the male church authority figures bickered over, debated, and killed others about (seriously), were left un-articulated in this book.

As a reader, I wondered if such omissions were intentional or if Taylor was even aware of, or fully knew, the specific beliefs of her (former) religion. It did not seem to be women's place to fully understand the religion, as many of the men seemed to make the beliefs intentionally esoteric in order to build up and maintain male power while the women handled all of the menial, day-to-day affairs of, you know, ensuring the continuity of the society.

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