Over the past few years I've spent a lot of time--too much time, probably--talking about polygamy. Because I've been working for the better part of a decade on a novel called The Lonely Polygamist, and because novelists are routinely asked about the book they happen to be working on, I've found myself answering questions like: How does the husband decide who he's going to sleep with on a particular night? What's up with the hair? And probably the most common one: What ever got into you to write a novel about that?
To this last question I always offer a very simple answer: without polygamy, I wouldn't exist. My great-great grandfather was a polygamist, and my great-great grandmother was his second wife. If these two people hadn't decided to join in holy matrimony--even though great-great grandpa was already happily married to someone else--I, and a whole leafy branch of the Udall family tree, wouldn't exist. Writing a novel about polygamy, then, seemed only the proper thing to do.
In 1998 I was commissioned by Esquire magazine to write a piece about contemporary polygamy. Though there was polygamy in my family history, and I knew more about the subject than most, I went into my research expecting what most anyone would expect: megalomaniacal men with their hair greased back and their shirts buttoned to the collar married to cow-eyed women in pioneer dresses and ostentatious meringue hair-dos. You can imagine my disappointment, then, when the people I met turned out to the regular, everyday sort of folk you'd run into at the post office. People who wore jeans and running shoes and drove minivans. People who lived in suburban townhomes and watched television after work. People with reasonably conventional hair. People like you or me.
Only they weren't like you and me, because you and I don't have six wives or thirty-eight children. These were normal people, sure, but they were living in an exceptionally abnormal way.
I was fascinated by the contradictions in such a lifestyle, and it was one of the biggest reasons I decided to write a novel about polygamy. And I was not alone in my fascination: Big Love came on the air, salacious polygamy stories started running with regularity on the evening news, and very soon polygamy became a national obsession.
Why the obsession? It has to do with sex, of course. Everything we are obsessed about has something to do with sex, and polygamy is no exception. But I think there may be more to it than that.
Many of the people I talk to are repulsed by polygamy, offended by the very idea of it. It is loathsome, they say, backward, deeply chauvinistic, or just plain weird. It may be all of those things, but in theory, and in practice, it doesn't deviate all that much from our cultural traditions. The Bible, as every one knows, is rife with polygamists, men of god rewarded for their righteousness with multiple wives and, in some cases, even hundreds of them. And while in the Western society polygamy has largely fallen out of favor (it is still very much alive in practice in the rest of the world--Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa, has three wives, twenty children and a fiancée), its patriarchal underpinnings remain in play. In modern day America nobody bats an eye as older, richer or more powerful men engage in serial polygamy--marrying and divorcing multiple partners over time--or go the simpler and cheaper route by keeping multiple mistresses under the cover of a monogamous relationship. Years ago a grizzled polygamist asked me why it was socially acceptable for Hugh Hefner to keep a harem of nubile hotties--all young enough to be his granddaughters--while he was considered a criminal under the law for formally marrying and committing himself to his three wives for life. I had no answer for him.
I want to say that I have no interest in defending or attacking polygamy and its adherents--I'll leave that to others. A fiction writer's job, after all, is not to buttress or to tear down, but to try to understand. And what I've come to during the course of writing The Lonely Polygamist is that polygamy, whether we like it or not, represents a portion of who we are as a country and a culture.
I also discovered that a polygamist family is a wonderfully complex and contradictory thing. You can look at it in many ways: as just another alternative lifestyle choice or as deeply patriarchal way of life that goes back thousands of years. It is both strange and conventional, conservative and wildly excessive--not so much different, really, than America itself.