With the second season of Big Love (pictured, with Jeanne Tripplehorn, left; and Chloe Sevigny) coming to an end, we thought it was a good time to check in with one of the country’s foremost polygamy experts: Salt Lake Tribune reporter Brooke Adams. The plural life is Adams’ beat: She’s the one covering the trial of Warren Jeffs, interviewing Big Love-like families all over Utah and the border states and constantly updating the paper’s polygamy blog. Not surprisingly, she sees a lot of correlations between the plots on Big Love and real-life news stories, so we chatted about some of those last week via IM. —Shirley Halperin
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Are there any perks, for lack of a better word, to being first wife? It seems like a lot of this season has been focused on Barb’s inner struggle with the life she’s chosen while at the same time trying to assert herself and her position in this three-wife system. From the women you’ve interviewed, have you noticed this sort of first-wife issue?
BROOKE ADAMS: First of all, the plural wives I’ve spoken with say there is no such thing as a “first wife.” They say that for any wife to hold more power than the others makes the whole thing unworkable. The best explanation I’ve heard is that the wives have to view themselves as equals who are interested in the good of the group and want the same thing for the other wives that they want for themselves. That, at least, is the ideal.
Is the point of living ”the principle” to take on as many wives as possible (and, in turn, to have as many kids as possible), or is there usually a cap? Roman has something like 27 wives — is that out of the ordinary? Is Bill’s situation more common?
Bill’s situation is far more common. There are a few men who have many, many wives — I call them mega-families — but it is far more common for a plural family to consist of a man and two or three women, with about 20 to 30 children. I’ve been told that some of these men with really big families organize outings with their children by age range. All the 10-year-olds get together and go do something with dad, for instance. Warren Jeffs is said to have a huge number of wives, too, as did his father. But in the Jeffs’ case, many of those are wives only in the caretaker sense, not in real, procreative marriages.
Just how prevalent is polygamy in suburban Salt Lake City, anyway?
There may be as many as 10,000 plural families in the Salt Lake Valley… Some live like the Henricksons, some share one house, many live in separate houses that are in the same area, if not on the same street. There are about 37,000 fundamentalist Mormons in the Intermountain West, most of whom are in Utah. About half that number, which includes men, women, and children, live in plural families. The rest believe in it as a religious tenet but, for one reason or another, aren’t practicing it. The largest number are independents (about 15,000) who don’t affiliate with any group or leader. They would be like Bill Henrickson and his family. There are about four to six formal groups, with the largest being the Apostolic United Brethren (7,500) in the Salt Lake Valley. The FLDS would be next in size, followed by the 1,500 members of the Davis County Cooperative Society.
How is Juniper Creek similar to real polygamist towns?
The only thing close to Juniper Creek is Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, the two adjoining towns that are home base to the FLDS church. The abject poverty shown in Juniper Creek is not accurate, but many homes in the two communities are only partially finished, particularly on the outside. That is because residents don’t have mortgages — because the land is held in the United Effort Plan (UEP) Trust and not individually owned — so they build as they can afford to. But also, taxes are lower on a home that is still under construction. That said, there are many really nice, finished homes in the community. The scale is really different though — huge kitchens, sometimes several kitchens and room to seat 20 or 30 people, for instance. There is a Juniper Street in town, by the way, and the old name for the two towns was Short Creek.
Would the UEB — like the UEP — be a multi-million dollar operation?
The real United Effort Plan Trust is a communal property trust set up by the FLDS church but it is not a business trust. It is worth about $110 million and is currently under state control [see Warren Jeffs trial for more on this]. One group, the Davis County Coop, does operate a very successful business trust valued at $150 million or so. They own a coal mine, vending machine companies, a restaurant supply company, and, as in Big Love, gaming machines. One episode of the show showed Roman Grant looking over a list of companies that were paying tithes into the UEB; many companies listed were similar to those held by the Davis County Coop. Many fundamentalist Mormons have very successful businesses and most of their customers have no idea about their private lives. But that is one reason they guard their family lives so vigorously: The men in particular fear loss of jobs and livelihood if their beliefs are exposed.
Alby and that strange ritual with the hat, when he proclaimed himself to be the new prophet: What was that about?
Much of what the show depicts draws on real events and this was one of them. Joseph Smith, founder of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, used a “seer stone” to help him translate the golden plates inscribed with what became The Book of Mormon. I also believe he at times peered into his hat while offering translation to a scribe. ”Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine….” This is from the writings of David Whitmer, who witnessed some of Smith’s work. So Alby was using a stone and peering into his hat to get revelations about his position in his father’s church.
And Adaleen, Alby’s mother, yelled out that she had also received testimony. Is this based in real Mormon ritual?
I think that reference is related to Warren Jeffs’ takeover of the FLDS church. According to people who were there, one of his wives and a brother seconded his ascension to the presidency after his father Rulon’s death.
What other correlations to Warren Jeffs have you seen in the show this season?
Well, of course, the background TV broadcasts about the hunt for a fugitive prophet called Oren Abbot is directly based on Warren Jeffs. There has been a reference to the ”Polygamy Primer,” a real document crafted by the Utah Attorney General’s Office to explain fundamentalist groups, their beliefs, etc. One early scene showed women in Juniper Creek washing an airplane; the FLDS members who formerly ran the Colorado City Unified School District, a public school system, got a bunch of flak that led to their removal for buying a plane to help ease traveling to Phoenix for meetings.
What about Bill’s business with Weber Gaming? Several commenters on our TV Watch were wondering where the casino was — on the border with Nevada? Is all gambling illegal in Utah?
There is no gambling in Utah. There were a few bingo parlors, but I think recent legislation made them verboten, too. So, any depiction of gambling is fiction. I don’t know where they meant that parlor to be. It struck me as a clandestine operation, perhaps.
How about the kids? Are there a lot of instances of teen runaways from polygamist families? The teens on the show — from Ben to Rhonda to Sarah — really seem to be struggling with their parents’ chosen lifestyle.
The FLDS have had a number of teens leave their community. They have been referred to collectively as the ”Lost Boys.” And they are mostly boys, though a few girls have left, too. The other groups don’t have any more problem with teen runaways than the average monogamous family. Only a fraction of children raised in a plural family go on to adopt that lifestyle as adults. I recently did a story about a plural family and the husband was the only one of 18 children to become a polygamist. His three wives said only a handful of their siblings adopted the lifestyle as adults, too. I think that is typical. It can be difficult for children in plural families because they can’t be open about the ”three moms” at home with everyone they meet. Rhonda is loosely based at this point on the story of the two “Fawns” — two teens who left the FLDS community a few years ago and said they were worried about being married off to older men. One of the girls said her father had written her name in the “Joy Book,” which Rhonda mentioned on a recent episode and Roman showed Joey once. I don’t think the real book looks anything like what Roman used. The two Fawns made many appearances on television talk shows, just like Rhonda appears to be doing now.
Who are the renegade Greens based on?
The Greens are based on the Ervil LeBaron story, a fundamentalist who set up the Church of the Lamb of God. Ervil LeBaron tried to get Rulon Allred, then leader of the Apostolic United Brethren, to recognize his authority and when Allred ignored him, sent two women to kill him. Rulon Allred was shot to death at his medical office in 1977 by two women wearing blond wigs. The women and Ervil were eventually convicted of Allred’s death. Other LeBarons set up the Church of the First Born and many of them still live in various locales in Mexico.
What do the polygamists you’ve interviewed think of the show?
The fundamentalist Mormons I’ve spoken to have mixed feelings about it. As might be expected, given their conservative leanings, they are very uncomfortable with the sex scenes. Many don’t like the way Bill Henrickson is portrayed, saying he is shown as too overwhelmed. Other aspects of the show ring true for them, particularly in showing the relationships between the women.