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When the Bigamist Is a Woman: Talking Love and Polygamy With Novelist Miah Arnold

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In Miah Arnold's engaging and enjoyable first novel Sweet Land of Bigamy, protagonist Helen cannot stop her husband from going to Iraq to chase big money as a contractor. Soon after he leaves, Helen falls in crazy-making love with an Indian poet. When the poet's mother falls so ill that he must return to India, he wants to leave married -- and, acquiescing, Helen finds herself a sudden bigamist. She has every stated intention of divorcing her first husband, but when he comes home maimed, and with a significant closed-head injury, her crisis intensifies. What is the solution when she loves both men deeply?

I found Arnold's themes of love and loyalty to be compelling -- but I especially loved thinking about bigamy from Helen's POV, for I have never associated polygamy with female agency. That is not to say that Helen doesn't experience strong consequences for her actions. But without revealing too much of the plot, I will say that it is a true blessing to live in a time, and a country, where a woman, even in fiction, could marry two men and when found out, not immediately led to the gallows.

Sweet Land of Bigamy kept me thinking the entire read: just how crazy, or not-crazy, is this premise? Personally, I could never imagine entering into bigamist relationship, but I can imagine how easy it might be for a woman to allow herself to be swept into such straits. And see, I used the word "straits." Part of the pleasure of Sweet Land of Bigamy is the notion that maybe, just maybe, these aren't straits. That this is how they're supposed to be -- one, um, big love. And as a reader, I enjoyed turning these notions over in my mind. So much so, I had to ask the author a few questions about her book, her youth in Utah, and the polygamous life.

Was there an idea, or an image, that sparked the creation of this story?
I am the descendant of polygamists, but that's not what sparked the story so I'll come back to that. Sweet Land of Bigamy began as a short story that was a cousin to another short story about the relationship of the narrator, Helen, with her mother, Carmen. When I was trying to flesh Carmen out -- an alcoholic woman with a bark and a bite and an indomitably charismatic personality -- the first picture that came to me was of these planters my aunt Jeri had filled with plastic flowers one year, in front of her house in rural Utah. When you put plastic flowers in a planter in a barren landscape you've given up so much, and you've refused to give up, all at the same time. In the short story it was a defiant act that broke her daughter Helen's heart -- and so the newly baptized, judgmental, twenty-something Helen spends the story trying to remedy the problem, but getting into her own kind of worse trouble, which is the story of their lives.

Kevin McIlvoy chose that story to win a big award -- it was called "The Original Carmen" -- and I loved the characters, and so when I set out on a novel I used the same cast. In the short story, Helen has an affair and when I wrote the novel I wanted Helen to go further. I decided she'd marry another man entirely, and as soon as I decided this I knew it was the story I was supposed to write. The novel takes place in Smoot's Pass, a fictional town in rural Utah. Because of Utah's association with polygamy, and my desire to write a book that confronts stereotypes about small towns without denying the truth of them, I thought a non-Mormon woman who marries a second husband would make an interesting backdrop. It sounded like the kind of story I almost hear all the time back home in Utah.

Even though the image of the plastic flowers isn't in my novel -- it is a slightly different Carmen -- the idea they represent is: of people who will neither give up their desire for beauty nor allow themselves to believe beauty can survive in the world they live in.

As a woman, I found the choice to make the female protagonist the bigamist to be a provocative one that upended my assumptions about polygamy, and who would choose such a life. Was this pure imagination on your part, or did you have any accounts that inspired you?
It was imagination, but it didn't seem very far-fetched to me. I thought, however, that a woman in a bigamist relationship would behave differently, and would treat it differently than the men we read about -- whether they're religious polygamists, or truckers, or world-travellers with families on different continents. Helen has a lot of shame for what she does and she grapples with it for a good part of the novel, but what I didn't expect to discover, is that she just really and truly loves two very different men. For very different reasons, sure, but she loves them both. The love for each of them is as pure and complicated as any other love. Plenty of polyamorous people in the world will tell you this is not only plausible, but fairly common. Helen's story is different because she's trying to hide her husbands from each other, and she's able to do so temporarily because one is at war.

Do you support polygamy? Do you support it more if the woman is the bigamist? Does it matter?
I think people should be able to love and marry who they want to, so long as they are doing so of their own free will and [are] old enough to choose. I don't think religion should be the arbiter of what loves are recognized, nor should religion dictate who a person can marry. Marriage law has a lot to do with property and child custody, and that's where legal polygamy would be hard but not impossible to implement. I do think, in terms of my book, you should not marry two people without telling them about each other.

Can the sister-wife life be good for women?
On Big Love it seemed that was the best part of their life. I've read a number of stories about bigamists and polygamists over the years, in which a group of people find each other and commit. We speak a lot about our fractured families in America. Parents pulled in so many directions they don't have time for kids and each other and their work. Certainly adding another person to the mix might ease these tensions. I read somewhere about a polyamorous family that decided to have kids, and that asked one of the women in the relationship if she would raise the kids. So there was a working mom, a working dad, and a homemaker mom. I read somewhere else about a polygamous family in which the two women had jobs -- I know one was a lawyer, the other maybe a doctor or teacher -- and the husband was a stay-at-home dad. Our world is changing so rapidly, and yet we maintain this thousands-of-year-old idea about what a family should look like. Today, most families in the United States are not "traditional," nuclear ones. Yet, we continue to create laws and economies that punish women and children and men who are not in nuclear families. In Sweet Land of Bigamy, I imagined women and men charging their ways through to another way of living.

What is it like for a child to grow up in a polygamous household? Is there a psychic toll? Are there benefits?
I don't know this. I would say that my hunch is that it depends on the household. If it is a healthy, happy, supportive, loving family that is thoughtful, the kid will be all right. There is a psychic toll on any upbringing, and a psychic boon, if you will.

What did you know about polygamy growing up in rural Utah? How did you feel about people living in those relationships?
I didn't know any polygamists, as far as I know, in rural Utah. In eighth grade, when I lived in Salt Lake City, I met a girl who was taking her last year of school before marriage. She wore an old fashioned dress, and her hair in two long braids, and insisted that she was excited about her new life. I had a hard time understanding, and I thought it was wrong that she could be married off so young. But I also marveled at her degree of conviction and purpose because I was, like most of my other peers, so confused and jumbled about my own.

The women who leave polygamist communities in Utah write about feeling exploited, manipulated and abused. In communities as patriarchal as the ones in Utah, I find it hard to support the polygamist lifestyle. I might feel better if the children there had the chance, like the Amish youth, to live away from their community for a year or two before marrying and settling down. However, if mutually consenting adults find each other within the wider society and want to form a polygamous bond, I think that's could be wonderful.

Can bigamy work? Is it a sustainable way of life?
Monogamy isn't sustainable for many. People across the planet have lived bigamous lives. Maybe we can figure out a just and fair way to accommodate different ways of being.

I am embarrassed to admit that prior to reading your novel, I assumed nearly everyone in Utah was a Mormon. Would you speak to religious diversity in the state, and how that shaped what you thought of as normal or abnormal growing up, especially regarding bigamy?
Mormonism is an issue I've thought of my whole life. I'm not Mormon, though my great-great grandparents were polygamists. They left the Church of Latter-day Saints when God told church leaders to quit polygamy just a few weeks after the U.S. government made statehood for Utah contingent on the elimination of polygamy. Polygamy was not only abandoned by the Church of Latter-day Saints, but it was made illegal and was severely punished. Men were imprisoned for visiting their families. My great-great-grandmother was forced into single motherhood. As the second wife, my great-great-grandmother and her children were abandoned by their 'husband.' This caused my family to become anti-religious overnight -- and this is a feeling you find in a lot of communities in Utah. The state has a strong but largely unrecognized secular history. My great-great-grandmother's son was a founder of the town I grew up in. He ran the trading post. That history is one of the reasons why, when I decided to make the narrator of my novel polygamous, I knew it was the story I was meant to write

My feelings for the Mormonism have always been conflicted. Some Mormon kids were pretty mean to me growing up in both Myton and later Salt Lake. But a few were very good to me -- and there are countless stories of large Mormon families taking in friends of their children in times of need. They have a whole social services system built into their church -- they look after the elderly, they aid the poor. They volunteer a lot. It's all moving to me. What is more painful is the place of women in the church: it has this vibrant history of women as leaders and idea makers that has been pasted over by traditional paternalisms. Mormon girls are pushed, like boys, to be smart and well-rounded and theatrical and fascinating people; then they're told not to use all this intelligence in a career. They use it to rear their families. For some women this is great, it's what they want; for at least as many it's pretty depressing. Utah was reported to have the highest number of women on Prozac in the nation. I find the place of women in this church born of such equalizing potentialities infuriating.

In a way, your assumption that everyone in Utah is Mormon is true. People who are not Mormon in Utah are so rampantly not-Mormon they are still defined by the religion. Meaning there is a lot of heavy drinking, drugs and promiscuous behaviors. Extreme behaviors. Sort of like there's a pendulum with proper Mormon behaviors on the right, and the exact opposite on the left. It's a curse, and it makes growing up in Utah hard. It's hard growing up anywhere that you spend your time defining yourself in opposition to the majority, especially when doing so demands you engage in harmful behaviors. How much luckier my family would have been had the Mormons been the heavy drinkers, smokers, and druggers who hated school.

For more about Sweet Land of Bigamy, click here. Miah Arnold will be reading at the Renegade Reading Series in Brooklyn on Wednesday, March 13 at 8:00pm.