Monday, April 03, 2006

Big Love, or Not in My Family

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It took me almost a week to get through the pilot episode of Big Love. I was excited when I heard the premise--how could you go wrong with a show about polygamy? and nervous and excited about seeing mormonism dealt with in popular culture. But I couldn't get past the wives' sad eyes, their sinking realization that they would never be "the one." And I really couldn't stomach stupid Bill Paxton's reluctant, put-upon patriarch. How sad to have total dominion over other people's mortal and eternal lives. What a heavy responsibility. Get over it, you stupid baby.

But when I finally sat down and made myself watch the episode from start to finish, I thought it was pretty cool and that they are dealing with the complexity of negotiating a relationship amongst several grown-ups in smart and thoughtful ways. Sure, I wanted to officiously shout out corrections at the tv--mostly about their totally unrealistically immodest clothing, a real easy detail to get right, and totally non-negotiable rule in Mormonism, and yes, even, I would imagine, in polygamist, SLC-based "non"-Mormon Mormonism: Dress Modestly. Meaning, NO SHORT ROBES. NO TANK TOPS (not even in bed). NO TIGHTY-WHITIES. NO SKIN, EVER. But there were also many things that they did get right, and what seemed like lots of teasers to let the Mormons (are they watching the show? When I say Mormons, I mostly mean people who still identify ethnically, if not religiously, as Mormon) out there know that they get it, that they are being selective in what they feature. The Mormon girl chatting about Laurels, Mia Maids, and the Relief Society in the fast-food restraunt kitchen was a nice, easy nod to us. So are the opening credits, when the main characters, dressed all in white skate through filmy veils. That was a pretty obvious shout-out. But what about the last shot in the last minute of the credits, when the patriarch and his wives are holding hands around a table and they are on, and surrounded by, planets? Nice touch.

Watching Big Love and feeling a funny stomach-pitching mixture of pride and shame and embarassment and loss comes right at the time that my department is getting ready to celebrate the 20th anniversary of women's studies at my school, and as part of the festivities, we've been filming various faculty members talking about watershed years in their developing feminism. So far I've avoided giving my three minute narrative, because I have no idea how to describe my coming to feminism without also describing my leaving Mormonism, and my growing realization that you can never leave Mormonism. Or at least, that I don't want to. I don't believe the teachings, I don't attend meetings, but I will shout down anyone, member or non-member who tries to tell me it isn't who I am, an ethnicity as real and thick and heavy as any I can imagine.

Anyway, getting to the title of this post, and why I started blogging this in the first place, as many of the other inactive Mormons in the blogsphere have been reporting, I've been asked how I feel about this show quite a bit, and I often end up describing my family's primary polygamous tale, The Curse of Ann Bond. (Imagine a scary mwhahahaha voice intoning this) I wrote this a while back, when I had a livejournal account, with apologies to all my readers (both of them--Hi Mer! Hi Ronit!) who read this a few years ago.

**The Curse of Ann Bond**
The great, great-grandmother I never had left Provo early on an October morning in 1869. She roused her sons from where they slept next to their brothers and bundled them out into the morning with hushes and kisses. By the time the sun rose she was far up Provo canyon, on her way to Heber City, where she still had family. She kept the boys going by tossing a ball up the road and exciting them to get it; over and over she tossed the ball and over and over they retrieved it. She's left her husband and her sister-wives because her husband and the first wife recently returned from General Conference with a fourth wife. She's not upset that there's a fourth wife; she's upset that she, the second wife, and the woman she shares a home with, the third wife, weren't consulted first. She's devastated, and she's not going back.

That's the opening of the novel I want to write. That's what I know.

What comes next depends on who's telling the story. Sometimes her husband comes to get her in Heber, tries to apologize, tries to coax her home. As they talk David, the older son, hides in his father's wagon and returns to Provo and to his Aunt Jane, who's raised him, along with his mother, in a smaller home, at the base of the Wasatch Mountains, away from the first wife's home, in the center of the city. He coaxes his brother to join him, and by the time he's discovered, his mother has given up, tired of fighting. In another version the children don't have to sneak home; once their mother realizes how much they miss their other mother, and their other siblings, she allows them to return with their father. She stays in Heber for the rest of her life. Or she returns to Massachussets and has five more children, all of whom live, as opposed to the five of her seven children from her previous marriage, who hadn't lived past their early childhoods. In one version, her sons are ripped from her in a violent, tear-drenched scene and she stays in the West, slowly, carefully, plotting her revenge. This, apparently the most popular version in my family, has her befriending an Apache shaman and convincing him to curse our family forever, to condemn us to lives of poverty, alcoholism, divorce, incest, drug abuse, prison time, shot-gun weddings, bankruptcys, birth defects--including the completely unforgettable cousin born with a gill--suicides, murders.

This is how I heard the story, about a year ago. After a lifetime of silence, all these different versions came tumbling out of my mother within the space of one phone call. She was actually telling me about a phone conversation she had just had with a cousin who had just finished a sentence for shooting someone in a mall parking lot. His excuse? Ann Bond. I interrupted my mom to say, "Ann who?" because I had never heard of her. Me, the one completely obsessed with her ancestors, the one who didn't leave Aunt Zova's living room to play cops and robbers with her cousins in the deadly Arizona heat, the one who sat at dying aunts' feet and listened to their stories, told in fragile, lilting voices, of life during the time of Geronimo, of fires that lost all but one precious rocking chair, of monstrous births, and Job-like plagues--the time Aunt Naomi had that cauliflower-like growth all over the back of her hand, or the time she gave birth to a fourteen pound child who split her nearly in two--a child who would never hear. Me, the one who cares so much about this family, much of whose identity still rests on having been loved--really loved--by my grandmother, who grew up surrounded by the remnants of this polygamous family, a woman whose vivacious feminine energy and comportment I try so hard to emulate. Me.

I didn't know this story. I didn't even know, really know, that our family was polygamous. We weren't a fancy family. We weren't the upper-class of Mormons, not aristocracy like the Romneys or the Huntsmen, and usually polygamy was a privilege of the most properous. But here it was: the great great grandfather I had spent my life hearing about (he married a woman he met on his mission in England; he returned to the states a few months earlier than she did; she set out in a hand-cart company eager to get to Utah. Having used green wood to build their hand-carts, they got stranded somewhere in the middle of Nebraska and had to be rescued. He rescued her.) had four other wives. My great great-grandmother was the first. That makes me a descendent of a first wife. That's a good thing in Mormonism.

The second wife, the one who left, was named Ann Bond. What do you think of that name? Isn't it great? Isn't it clean and tight and reddish orangish? If I was going to write a book, I'd use that name. Or maybe I'd try to give her a Dickensian name like Jerusha Mudgett, something deeply symbolic for me (Julie Andrews=Mary Poppins=hot=also plays Jerusha in 1970s adaptation of James Michner's novel Hawaii) and charmingly eccentric to the New York Times Book Review reviewer, who is stunned by the novel's beauty, its passion, the naturalness of its prose.

Big Love seems intent on exploring the nuances of an impossibly difficult situation. It's not a pro-polygamy show. As it so powerfully demonstrates, this isn't an institution that makes sense in the 21st century. There isn't enough work to do to justify this arrangement--hence Nicki's frantic consumption followed by boredom and tears. But I still go back and forth in my mind over whether or not this arrangement made sense in the 19th century. During my undergrad at BYU, my first feminist friends and I used to talk about polygamy a lot. We wanted to believe that somehow our female ancestors had been freed by polygamy, raising their children with other women, caring for each other, blessing each other, free to be both wives and not-wives, mothers and not-mothers. As young women trying to reconcile the only way of life we had ever known, and a church we loved, with the dawning realization that there was no place for us in this world, knowing that even though we were being educated, our church didn't really want us to use those educations except as they helped us in our lonely roles as wives and mothers, sister-wifehood sometimes seemed like a utopian option. But, we always ended up conceeding, since sister-wives answer to one patriarch, absolute and infallible in his power, it also sounded terrifying and humiliating. Better to just leave.


Anonymous What Now? said...

What an incredible story! Or rather, range of stories.

Now I want to read your novel. So you could start writing it, right, knowing that you already have an audience?

10:43 PM  
Anonymous What Now? said...

By the way, a couple of years ago I gave my American Culture students a research project based on Western autobiographies; they had to choose one of a few options I gave them, do extra research, etc. One of the texts I offered was Mary Ann Hafen's memoir of being a handcart pioneer and a second wife, which a lot of students chose because it was the shortest. Kind of a disaster all around. My Catholic students (even the really smart ones) all wanted to write essays about how polygamy was wrong, and I kept telling them that this wasn't that kind of paper, and what did Hafen herself have to say about multiple marriage, but they just couldn't seem to write anything else besides the wrongness of it all; one student even kept saying in her essay that God defined marriage as "one man, one woman." All rather sad and pathetic.

10:49 PM  
Blogger Margo, darling said...

That reminds me of the time I taught Aubrey Beardsley's pornographic story, Venus and Tannhausser (assigned it w/o reading if first. oops) and the students couldn't stop talking about how it went against their beliefs when Venus gave her unicorn a handjob. I was like, okay, but Goddess? Unicorn? not really real, right? how do sex acts between mythical beings and their mythical pets fit into your belief system?

2:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi back! (I know, I owe you an email. I suck ... but I'm back, so maybe I'll just call.)

3:40 PM  
Anonymous joanna said...

The only other Mormon text I've read by a woman was Leaving the Saints, and I thought then that the author was being a bit flip about Mormonism, given that she was writing about having been sexually abused by her father, a Mormon elder. I think what you've written here is beautiful and educational. I hope that you develop this and publish it.

5:46 AM  
Anonymous No Chaser said...

My dad was raised Mormon but fortunately didn't inflict it on me. Thanks for this wonderful post.

2:51 PM  
Blogger undine said...

Amazing story. Wonderful post.

9:18 PM  

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