Year of Polygamy

Tabitha’s story

Bio: My name is Tabitha. I grew in the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. I was a devout, dedicated member of my faith until recently. I am temple-married, endowed and have two beautiful children as a result of my Mormon marriage. I’m a millennial and my story isn’t something in the past.

I was raised in a devout LDS family along the Wasatch Front. The church was everything to me and I loved being part of the Mormon church. We were patriotic, middle class democrats and our household was one where our parents let us watch rated-R movies, listen to whatever music we wanted and to express ourselves. No discussion was off the table at our house and we often had vigorous debates around the dinner table. My mom in particular, acted as the head of our household. She was a working professional who owned her own business and taught us, her five children, to read and be well-informed. She fostered a culture of learning and reading. She is smart and strong-headed and well-respected in our home ward. For the most part, my LDS upbringing was one of comfort and joy. I felt safe and loved by my community. I knew and still know so many great people. There are a lot of things I love about my heritage.

My conflict came when I got married, into a fundamentalist LDS family. Like Brenda Wright Lafferty, who is depicted in the show, my own parents were initially hesitant when I told them that I had prayed and decided to marry a returned missionary who I had known for only several months. My mom was concerned that I had gotten engaged at age 19 and tried to encourage me to wait a while. My fiancee and I were too worried about accidentally breaking the Law of Chastity and we intended to wait to have sex until we were married. We also liked to kiss one another. We knew that this might eventually lead to temptation, so we were in a hurry. In spite of my mom’s advice, I was convinced I was old enough and making the right choice. A life of church attendance, young women’s lessons and seminary taught me that this was my most important role and I was ready to face the world head-on as a daughter of God. Why waste time?

I married into a devout mainstream LDS family from a rural farming community. They would absolutely reject this characterization because of its baggage, but they were fundamentalist in the patriarchal sense. Their family adhered to strict gender roles, ideas of race, and taught theology and doctrine that I had never heard of or encountered. Right away they found my opinions and behaviors unacceptable. Our two families immediately came into conflict with one another as we planned out wedding. Our temple ceremony was tense as the cultures of our family conflicted.

As my husband and I, two young people with very little experience, tried to begin creating a life together, things were very challenging. But only when the families became involved… which was often. The ironic thing about conflict in my marriage was that Mormonism was always the resolving factor. Our faith was used to justify my family’s outlook, as well as my husband’s family’s outlook, so it was always a contest of who was more righteous.

When my mother-in-law told me that going to college was not only a waste of my time but a selfish pursuit, I would counter with examples of Brigham Young encouraging women to get educated. She then would counter with more modern prophets like Spencer W. Kimball that said that education was important but secondary to motherhood. I was trumped, especially because I was young and still hadn’t been able to explore wider theology or history. I had the books from Deseret Book to argue my case and a few C.S. Lewis quotes and conference talks. I grew up in a family of sisters. They had priesthood and lots of it, with five boys. They were returned missionaries who knew the gospel more than I did.

When they forbade another family member from dating a woman of Mexican heritage on the basis that the church “counsels us to marry inside our race,” I tried to find examples to counteract that heartbreak that caused the couple. It made things worse for me for interfering.

Their faith was foreign and rigid to me but because I had been raised to uphold patriarchal order, it was also just familiar enough to make me doubt myself and buy into the rhetoric that I was more prideful and selfish than I was correct. I learned early that as these arguments would come up, I was ill-equipped to speak up. For every quote or scripture I had to back up my ideas, they had ten and more. The discussion would always end with a reminder that at the end of the day, I was not a priesthood holder and that would always limit my credibility. Priesthood holders always had the last, authoritative say. I was just a woman and there was laundry that needed to be finished.

Our marriage continued like this for many years. When we first married, I had a good job and was in college but after I got pregnant I was heavily pressured to abandon both. My in-laws went as far to try and move us into their home to prevent me from working. When I protested that modern LDS people needed two incomes to survive, they held a family meeting where every woman got up and testified to me the blessings of sacrifice, citing that they had never worked and if I chose money over my child-rearing responsibilities, it would be my children that would ultimately suffer. In spite of formidable pressure, I did manage to find a work-from-home job. Unfortunately I did drop out of college, which would hurt me deep down for many years.

I remember a visit from the in-laws where my mother-in-law caught me reading a novel while my newborn baby napped. She called her adult daughters into the room and without addressing me she said, “Look. This is what I was talking about. She wastes her time on books when her dirty laundry sits there. ” The women laughed and told me I was the laziest woman they knew. Another said she wished she could be that selfish. A third looked at my sympathetically because I knew she liked to read when no one was looking. I set down my book and protested quietly that I didn’t think reading was selfish or a waste of time. She told me that reading wouldn’t make my house clean and snatched the book and threw it in the trash. After she left the room, I took the book from the trash and then cried myself to sleep.

At family gatherings, the men would leave for the day to swim and golf, attend movies, go hiking or ride motorcycles. The women weren’t just expected, but required to stay home and watch the children and prepare the meals. During our first year of marriage when I didn’t have children of my own, I tried to go to the movie once with my husband. The family expressly forbade it and told me my job was to babysit my nieces and nephews. When I politely protested, the men locked the car doors and wouldn’t let me in, quickly pulling out of the driveway. When they returned, we had dinner waiting and they complained about our cooking. I soon learned this is the way it would always be. Most of the men in my husband’s family have never changed a diaper, used a microwave or done a load of laundry. This was shocking to me at first, because I did not grow up this way but I soon learned I was the deficient one, not them. They had the scriptures and prophets on their side and I was reminded by it often.

Even when his family wasn’t there to point out my place, it was reinforced often at church or during conference. All the references about education and empowering women weren’t strong enough to match up to the other lessons that reinforced the patriarchy of my inlaws.

I can’t recall just how many times I saw the family torture animals for sport or kill them for “necessity.” Their cruelty was often a past-time on long summer days when stray cats, puppies or bird came onto their property. My resistance often made me the center of ridicule. I was a woman who was “too sensitive” and “too soft” and “too stupid” to understand why drowning puppies in the lake was a good revenge plot against a neighbor whose dog impregnated their own. I was too “whiny” to understand why I shouldn’t allow my son to learn how to shoot birds with a shot gun or for giving stray cats poison. I know they are from a farming culture, but there was a deadness in how they saw the land and resources they worked on. It was there for them, not the other way around.

Some of the most harmful rhetoric came from their racist ideas toward their immigrant neighbors and their deep disdain for their indigenous community members. Racist jokes were regular and casual. I would always speak up against them and be countered with doctrine and scripture. It made me resent Mormonism because it empowered their beliefs.

The family also has a suppressed secrets of sexual abuse. I’m hesitant to talk about it still, because I was taught for years to never talk about it, even though I had talked to the victims. I was deeply impacted by constant and consistent reinforcements of gender roles and me struggling to “learn my place.”

It’s impossible to recount the hundreds of times situations like these happened. Ranging from somewhat benign comments about my duty as a wife “was to follow around our husbands and clean up after to them,” to roaring reprimands from the family patriarchs. Our situation came to a crescendo when the family, concerned at my husband’s faith crisis, decided it was my job to bring him back to the church and blamed me for letting him falter. A family meeting was held and my husband sat quietly in the room while the family each went around the room and told me how I had failed them. My brother-in-law warned and threatened me that it was my desire to be so lazy in the gospel would destroy their brother and they would not “tolerate it.” My father-in-law ended with a violent, scathing lecture that had me run out of the room in tears. My husband sat quietly watching, unable to speak or defend me.

That was the beginning of the end of my marriage but it took years for me to leave. I knew that divorce meant leaving my kids more vulnerable to these sorts of influences and that kept me in my marriage much longer than I would have stayed otherwise. Unfortunately for me, it’s still a worry as I share custody with the family and my leaving the marriage left my husband unable to defend himself and to move back in with his family. My kids are still exposed to these ideas and their grandparents heavily advocate for them to look at me as unrighteous. And yet, I’m lucky. My story could’ve ended like Brenda Lafferty’s and it didn’t. I’m grateful for that.

For those asking. I did try to seek help from my own family. I complained to family and friends and we would make jokes about it, but what could be done? Divorce wasn’t “done” in either of our families and I knew after years of this that they would not change or be considerate of other viewpoints. My own mom was sympathetic and helpful, but at the end of the day she too was just a woman and her power was limited. She was my mom and she had more wisdom and experience than I did, but she had no more authority. When I did petition church leaders and authority for help I was told every. single. time. that my humility was out of order and that I was to do better. Leaders were kind and sympathetic, but the undercurrent was always that I needed to humble myself in prayer and yes, it was my job to manage the faith of my husband. Yes it was my vanity that may have gotten us here and Satan was out there to tell me otherwise.

All of this eventually became untenable and I stopped attending church, only giving my in-laws the proof they needed about how wicked I was. But even though divorce and unbelief weren’t done in our families, I did it anyway. If you would have told me I was lost in fundamentalist culture I would have explained to you the regular answer: We are mainstream LDS and we aren’t like those crazy polygamists. But the patriarchal priesthood was the same and we both use the same name for our God. In the end it didn’t matter what acronym I was part of, it was Mormon patriarchy.

As I navigate this new world and try to unlearn all these lessons I absorbed and participated in, I’m so happy that Under the Banner is telling Brenda’s story. Those who have shared her story with us, including her family, aren’t just advocating for her, they are advocating for me and my kids too. Thank you.


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