I still carry scars from middle school, a traumatic time of my life. I had just moved to a new school district, and I had to make new friends. I was young, naive, awkward, socially inept, too smart for my own good, arrogant, and scared out of my mind. I did a lot of really stupid things, a lot of really embarrassing things, and a lot of really awkward things that I replayed them in my mind over and over and over. For the longest time, I felt like my life after middle and high school was to shake off my uncool past and become even cooler than anyone could imagine. I oscillated between smug self-acceptance (“they just don’t understand what real cool is, the unwashed masses”) and self-hatred (“I am the most uncool person in the world and I must totally remake myself if I’m ever to overcome my horribly uncool past”).
You may think this is kind of hilarious, and it really kind of is, but at the time, from the age of 12 to 24 and beyond, I struggled with this. I moved away, and, out-of-touch with any of my old school friends, I replayed those uncool instances, which only became more and more uncool, which sent my brain into feverish justification mode for my uncoolness in an attempt to spin it into a better type of cool, or I just hated myself. This drove a lot of my mentality, especially in social situations.
Then, I got married, I had some hard life lessons, and I moved back home. Despite a still-haven’t-graduated-from-college status and unemployed-except-for-freelancing-work-here-and-there-because-my-wife-encourages-me-to-pursue-my-dream-to-be-a-writer status, my old school friends, ranging from med students and doctors to non-profit social workers and teachers, welcomed me with open arms, accepting me for who I am, and being the nicest bunch of people to my wife, who they had never met before. Sometimes, when we sit around and talk, an embarrassing story of me crops up — and like everyone else, I just laugh. Suddenly, in the light of day, they aren’t as bad as I thought, and I realized that even though I did some really bizarre, awkward things as a kid, that’s just what they were — bizarre and awkward and embarrassing. They were no real blemish on my character, or some kind of moral deficiency that created a sense of uncool. I realized that everyone does some really weird things, and you know, it’s okay.
I tell this story because our Church is still growing up when it comes to polygamy. Try it. Mention polygamy around a faithful Mormon member. Watch their face turn red. Watch their eyes narrow or bulge. Their mouth will begin to motorize into overdrive mode while their brain frantically pulls out all of the justifications for why it happened:
Whoa! Chill out, my Mormon brothers and sisters!
Sadly, the polygamy issue is still on our American society’s zeitgeist, mostly due to things in the news (FLDS compound raids), media (Big Love and Sister Wives), and literature (The Lonely Polygamist). And you know what? That’s okay. Because, let’s all say this together, polygamy was a part of our past.
There. Okay. Breathe. And say it again.
Polygamy was part of our past.
Polygamy is very much a part of our past, a part of our culture, and even a part of our doctrine still today. It permeates almost everything, from our genealogy to our temple covenants. Most Utahn and Idahoan Mormons claim polygamous ancestry. My wife does not have to trace her line very far before she ends up becoming related to them. At least four of our prophets were polygamous. Even some of the house architecture in Utah still reflects the polygamous mindset.
A lot of people are uncomfortable with polygamy because it is weird. Many feminists don’t like it because it can perpetuate abuse. Conservatives don’t like it because it conflicts and competes with the standard nuclear family concept. And yet, there it is. The more we deny it, the more we look like ostriches with our heads in the sand. The more we run circles and try to rationalize and distance ourselves from it, the greater our angst towards polygamy and our own Mormon identity grows.
The minute someone says, “Oh, you’re polygamous, right?” many Mormons think smugly, “Oh, how ignorant of them.” This, I repeat, this is a defense mechanism. You put yourself above the person so that you cannot be touched by any of their possibly hurtful comments, no matter how flippant. But this is wrong. We are left with two choices with this kind of thinking — straight up denial (which is not truth) or running away from our heritage (which we can’t unless we are truly prepared to scrub all traces of polygamy from our Church, which I don’t see happening anytime soon). But there is a better, third, middle way — acceptance.
Polygamy is a part of our collective history. It might be embarrassing. Maybe it’s even painful to recollect. But it’s there. The longer we deny it or try to change it, the longer we as a Church will continually bob back and forth between self-hatred (and try to recreate ourselves as a completely anti-polygamous group and hate on others who practice it, which is dangerous, uncharitable, and disingenuous) and smugness (and try to label anyone who brings up polygamy as ignorant and laugh haughtily at their stupidity and discount anything they say, which is dangerous, uncharitable, and disingenuous).
When I see us backpedaling and running around trying to tell the world that “Oh my GOSH we are NOT polygamous OKAY?!?!?!??!?!!!”, all I see is our own angst and embarrassment, exposed for everyone to see. It’s clear that we as Mormons are more uncomfortable with our polygamous past than anyone else, and it makes us look kind of guilty, guys.
I remember a friend writing a play, and in that play one of the characters was obsessed with people thinking he wasn’t gay. And so, in response to every inquiry, he would shout, “I’m NOT gay!” In one of the funniest parts of the play, his roommate during a gathering of friends asks him for a sandwich, to which he yells, “Guys, I’m NOT gay, okay?! Geez, lay off!” Silence. And then, a friend meekly asks if he’s gay. Because when you deny it that much, when you become obsessed with the idea that people might think you are, people start to wonder if you really are. In a way, we might actually be perpetuating the idea ourselves with our incessant insistence, even when the topic of polygamy comes up as a matter-of-fact statement (like the weather) and not an accusation.
One of the owners of the company my wife works for just recently found out she’s Mormon. Upon hearing this, he asked her, “So, are you a first-wife?” When he saw her puzzled expression, he turned to one of the other owners and asked, “Mormons are polygamous, right?” My wife laughed.
“No, we were once, but we’re not anymore.” No angst. No rationalization. No backpedaling. Imagine instead if my wife tried to explain men to women ratios or Biblical patriarchs or something about having to restore all things in a restoration or (more commonly) angry, hostile reactions of “Oh my goodness, how stupid can you be?” A simple statement, a laugh, and crisis averted. Nothing here to see, people. Move along.
Corrected, they shrugged. It made more sense that way anyway.
My hope is that with all of this gay marriage stuff and the inevitable trend of our society’s normalizing and accepting it, polygamy will also follow suit. And then, finally, we can set it behind us as just another fact in our collective history and let it go and, as a people, move on. The problem is, when that opportunity comes, will we drop the burden and give a sigh of relief, or will we hold onto that burden tightly, unwilling to drop it because for such a long period of our culture’s history, it has provided us with some sort of co-dependent purpose and identity?