Survivor’s tale

Author hopes speaking out will help other women leave polygamous marriages

“Five of my sisters married into the FLDS,” said Irene Spencer, a local author of a best-selling memoir of her life as the second of 10 wives in a polygamous marriage. The Fundamental Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) is a tradition-bound splinter of Mormonism that continued to practice polygamy after the main church disavowed it in 1890. Reports of statutory rape, forced marriages and child abuse at the FLDS compound in Texas, where more than 400 children have been removed from the church’s property by Child Protective Services, have put the sects in the news.

Spencer, who was married for 28 years to polygamist leader Verlan LeBaron and bore him 13 children, has family connections to all polygamous groups related to fundamentalist Mormonism. She’s the fifth generation to “live in the Principle,” as practitioners call it. Her father Morris Kunz was jailed during a 1944 crackdown on polygamists in Utah. Her uncle Rulon C. Allred led one of the larger polygamous groups, the Apostolic United Brethren, until he was murdered by her brother-in-law, Ervil LeBaron, who was attempting to seize control of all fundamentalist Mormon sects.

Spencer’s relatives among the FLDS, beyond those five sisters, include various cousins, nieces and nephews. As a young girl, “I’d go to their dances, which were a lot of fun, but then they gave up dancing,” she told SN&R. “I know Merrill Jessop quite well,” she said, from those dances. “His little brother wanted to marry me.” Jessop is a leader of the FLDS compound in Texas and a close affiliate of imprisoned FLDS leader Warren Jeffs.

Spencer details her past life in Shattered Dreams: My Life as a Polygamist’s Wife, which includes firsthand experience of the inner workings of the FLDS. “In fundamentalist Mormonism, your husband is your savior,” she said. “When you go to heaven, your husband will reach through the veil and pull you through and take you into the next life, so you’re dependent on him for resurrection.”

She gets angry at some effects of polygamy. “Women are nothing but pawns in polygamy,” she fumed. Spencer recounted the tale of a niece whose husband died of cancer. “The very same night that they buried her husband,” she recalled, “they assigned her to and married her to another man.” Another niece was married—as a sixth wife—to a man older than the girl’s own father.

Teenage boys don’t have it much better. “I’ve had nephews who were kicked out at 15; just sent out of town and told not to come back,” Spencer said. “In Colorado City, they were kicking out the young boys—sometimes just for kissing a girl or writing her a note—because that leaves more young girls for the old men.”

She’s quick to add that, even in less abusive polygamous groups, life isn’t healthy for wives and children. She described the loneliness of the women, who must compete with “sister-wives” for limited resources to provide for their children, and children who are deprived of childhood. “From the time they’re old enough to hold a baby,” she said, “they’re tending younger children and working the gardens.”

As children reach adolescence, “The boys are sent out to work to bring in money to support their father’s wives and other children, while the girls are married off to older men.”

It frustrates her that so many people blame the women for allowing their children to be abused and married off so young. “A woman in polygamy has obedience so enforced on her that she loses her identity,” Spencer said. Nine of her cousins, wives in plural marriages, have committed suicide, something Spencer herself considered. “I felt that I had lost everything, including my salvation.”

But most importantly, a woman may be told she’s free to leave if she doesn’t like it, but she knows she’ll go alone. “The men made the rules, and the children belonged to the man and his kingdom. They told us we could leave at any time, but we couldn’t take our children.” Spencer was unwilling to exercise that option.

“My mother never spoke up. My grandmother never spoke up. I allowed myself, like a mule, to be emotionally hobbled. When anybody gives up their identity, they’ve lost all they’ve ever had.”

Spencer, who left polygamy when her first husband died in a 1981 car accident, hopes that by speaking out, she can help others leave. She has been married—monogamously—for the past 20 years to Herbert J. Spencer. Between them, they have 138 grandchildren and 66 great-grandchildren, the lion’s share from Spencer’s first marriage.

“It’s not a family tree,” she said. “It’s a forest.”