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Secrets and Wives: A British Atheist Spends Time Among Mormon Polygamists

The English-Indian author talks to Religion Dispatches about his latest book, an investigation of modern polygamy in the Mormon tradition.

The following is reprinted with permission from Religion Dispatches. You can sign up for their free daily newsletter here.

RD: What inspired you to write Secrets & Wives: The Hidden World of Mormon Polygamy? What sparked your interest?

Sanjiv Bhattacharya: I'm one of those unbelievers who's obsessed with religion, so moving to America from England was a bargain. The Bush presidency was underway, the Christian right were on the march, and the country was going down the tubes so fast you could hear a sucking sound.

But I was only peripherally aware of Mormons. I remember the polygamist Tom Green appearing on Jerry Springer once with his harem, but it wasn't till Jon Krakauer's book Under The Banner of Heaven came out that I started paying attention. And right on cue, Warren Jeffs, the prophet of the FLDS, went off the deep end in epic style -- he banned laughter and the color red and set about building a giant temple in Texas with the FBI in hot pursuit. There are few things I find more entertaining than a cult leader going clear off the reservation.

I've always been drawn to outsiders and fringe groups -- people who stand apart from the mainstream. So the mere existence of a subculture of 40,000 fundamentalists living outside the law in America struck me as tremendously exciting. Not to mention the fact that their faith is American -- t could scarcely be more so -- and yet they live in hiding, worshipping at secret churches with scores of secret wives. I couldn't resist.

I wrote a few articles and made a documentary, all of which focused on Warren Jeffs and the FLDS, as most media coverage still does. But it soon became clear that the FLDS was just one group. There were 30,000 other polygamists out there: a broad diaspora of smaller churches and independents that remained discreetly marbled into the populations of Utah and Arizona especially. What were they hiding? Was hiding really necessary? Would they open up to me if I asked nicely? That's how Secrets & Wives began.

What's the most important take-home message for readers?

There are a few. That Utah is bubbling over with self-declared prophets and messiahs -- the Mormon religion is strong potion. That the illegality of polygamy is a boon to cult leaders who wish to control their flocks and commit sex crimes with impunity.

And most of all, that not all polygamists are alike. Attitudes seem to have shifted lately from suspicion to sympathy; many now see polygamists as victims of persecution who ought to be left alone. But this is as insufficient as the opposite view that polygamists are sinister deviants who must be prosecuted. The truth is more complex. Certainly, some groups like The Order, did strike me as sinister -- the practice of incest, for instance, or of changing surnames to mask identity, not to mention the allegations of child labor and underage marriages. No question about it, there are shocking stories of abuse within fundamentalism. But equally, some groups are comparatively benign and more inclined to open up to outsiders.

I believe it's time to decriminalize polygamy and bring these people out of the darkness. Too many awful things happen in the dark.

Anything you had to leave out?

Some stories were cut for length. The story of a liberal businesswoman from the Bay Area for instance, who fell in love with a younger fundamentalist carpenter and became his second wife. Her mom was a hippie and now she lives in an exclusively polygamist community in Arizona. That's one of them.

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