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SHATTERED DREAMS by Irene Spencer

SHATTERED DREAMS

My Life as a Polygamist’s Wife

By Irene Spencer

Pub Date: Aug. 22nd, 2007
ISBN: 978-1-59995-719-7
Publisher: Center Street/Hachette

An engrossing, though flawed memoir about poverty, procreation and polygamy south of the border.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints banned the practice more than a century ago, but some communities of self-styled “Mormon fundamentalists” continue to practice “plural marriage.” In 1953, when the author was 16, she became the second wife of Verlan LeBaron, who was already married to her half-sister Charlotte. LeBaron and his wives (he eventually acquired ten) lived in Mexico, which was less zealous than the U.S. in enforcing anti-polygamy laws. But the patriarch couldn’t provide for all those spouses and their offspring. They lived hand-to-mouth; Spencer fashioned undergarments from flour sacks and learned to get by without toilet paper. She recounts not just the financial difficulties, but also the emotional struggles of LeBaron’s wives, who competed with one another for his affection and attentions. He often provoked the women, as when he gave one wife’s wedding dress to a new bride to wear. Nonetheless, the author notes, genuine friendship and love grew among some of the wives. Much of her narrative focuses on sex and childbirth; she enjoyed making love with her husband and tried to cajole him into more frequent romps in the sack. Spencer gave birth to 13 babies, and her descriptions of labor, as well as the pregnancies she attended as an ersatz midwife, become tedious. There are curious omissions here. The author seldom explores how growing up in a polygamous household affected her children. And she offers little detail about how she adjusted after LeBaron finally died. The epilogue tells us that Spencer later became a “born-again Christian” and entered a monogamous marriage, but that seems an insufficient coda to such an intense story.

Gives the lie to the suburban cheer of HBO’s Big Love.