Sins of the fathers

In the first of two interviews, the former wife of a polygamist talks about poverty, abuse and Mormon husbands' quest for the eternal screw.

Published July 28, 1998 5:13PM (EDT)

Last week a judge in Brigham City, Utah, ordered John Daniel Kingston, a prominent member of a polygamist group, to stand trial for the recent assault of his 16-year-old daughter. Kingston, a vice president in a Salt Lake City accounting and auditing firm, allegedly beat his daughter unconscious because she did not want to be the 15th wife of his brother, her own uncle, in a marriage arranged by Kingston, 43.

At the pretrial hearing, the teenager -- who is not being identified and is now in foster care -- testified that on May 24 her father took her to a remote family ranch near the Idaho border, ordered her into a barn and made her take off her jacket, then whipped her with his belt at least 28 times for rebelling against the arranged marriage to David O. Kingston, a blood relative twice her age.

The defendant, who pleaded not guilty Monday, faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted. According to former members of the Kingston group, as the fundamentalist sect of the Mormon church is often known, the defendant himself has more than 20 wives. Yet group leaders often deny that the church practices polygamy.

Not surprisingly, polygamy is a public relations disaster for both Utah and the mainstream Mormon Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which advocated the practice until the late 1800s. Most Americans find the idea of plural marriage abhorrent and primitive -- a woman who has one-half of a husband or less? -- especially since fundamentalist Mormon churches usually preach that wives must also be obedient to the husband. There are others, however, who argue that when polygamous adults are consenting, as they usually are, they should be left alone.

Further complicating the matter is that Salt Lake City is desperately trying to update its image in time for the Winter Olympics in 2002. The church, while growing steadily -- it has between 7 million and 10 million members worldwide -- is highly sensitive about its image. Because Mormonism prohibits smoking and drinking, it is often characterized as conservative and strict. An estimated 70 percent of Utahans are Mormon. And even today many mainstream Mormons are sympathetic to polygamy, believing that although it is outlawed in modern society, it is an ideal that will always be practiced in the highest levels of heaven, according to Utah historian Richard S. Van Wagoner, author of "Mormon Polygamy" (Signature Books, 1989).

There are an estimated 30,000 polygamists in Utah alone and perhaps the same number in other states. Most are members of fundamentalist Mormon splinter groups, of which the Kingston group is one of the most prominent. They often hide their "plural marriage" from the outside world because it is illegal and stigmatized.

The area that is Utah was first settled by Mormons in 1847, but their petitions for statehood were repeatedly denied because of their polygamy. It was only after the church officially repudiated the practice in 1890 that statehood was granted. And although the church has excommunicated polygamists since 1904, it is still a highly sensitive issue. The Mormons who first settled Utah had been fleeing persecution for their beliefs and practices. And to this day, Mormons are often wary of admitting that the church's early leaders practiced polygamy, or "spiritual wifery," as it is also known. In fact, Joseph Smith, the church founder and prophet, is often said to have wed more than 50 women by the time of his death in 1844.

The idea of polygamy harks back to the families of biblical figures such as Abraham and Jacob. Smith also had a revelation on the matter, now known as Section 132 of the famous decree "Doctrine and Covenants," a companion to the Book of Mormon that is still part of Mormon scripture. That particular revelation was also once described by Smith's successor, Brigham Young, who would become the first governor of Utah, as "one of the best doctrines ever proclaimed."

So although polygamy is embarrassing for modern-day Utahans, it is entwined with the history and religious beliefs of most of the state's population. Plural marriages are rarely prosecuted, even though Utah's Constitution specifically forbids them. In 1991, when a polygamist in Utah filed for custody of six children by his third wife after she died of breast cancer, the state Supreme Court overturned a lower court decision and said the polygamist had the right to adopt despite his plural marriages.

Last week, because of the outcry over the upcoming Kingston trial, Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, a devout Mormon, seemed to tread a fine political line. He indicated that Utah has not cracked down on polygamy because to do so might curb religious freedom in violation of the First Amendment. "It's clear to me in this state and many others, they have chosen not to aggressively prosecute it. I assume there is a legal reason for that. I think it goes well beyond tradition," he said at his monthly news conference. "What needs to be cracked down on, if there is to be such a crackdown, is any abuses of peoples' civil and human rights." Even so, the upcoming trial of John Daniel Kingston is attracting international attention because polygamy, especially in the United States, is so inherently fascinating yet so often completely hidden.

Tapestry of Polygamy, an unusual support group for those leaving polygamy, consists of ex-wives and daughters from polygamous households. Eight members of the group attended last week's preliminary hearing in which John Daniel Kingston was ordered to stand trial. Salon talked with co-founder Rowenna Erickson about what members of her group say is an often abusive and poverty-stricken lifestyle that, under the umbrella of religious belief, relegates women to the role of subservient breeding machines and leaves children virtually fatherless. Members of the group also held a news conference outside the state Capitol in Salt Lake City yesterday to try to draw the governor's attention to what they say are widespread civil and human rights abuses of women and children in polygamy.

Rowenna Erickson, 58, was born into the secretive Kingston church and lived for 34 years as the second of two wives. She bore eight children in 13 years. For about a decade of that, until she moved in with a daughter, she was so poor that she was on and off food stamps and collected recyclable aluminum cans for money. Then, in 1992, she was excommunicated for questioning what she saw as the church's harsh treatment of women and children. A grandmother of 10, she says she is all too familiar with those involved in the Kingston case. Her former husband, Leon Kingston, is a first cousin of defendant John Daniel Kingston and his brother David O. Kingston. And the defendant's lawyer, Carl Kingston, is her former brother-in-law and, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, believed to be the father of 20 children by two wives and another child from a wife who left him.

You've lived most of your life as a polygamous wife, but your parents weren't polygamous. How did you come to your decision to live a polygamous lifestyle?

My mother very much believed in it because of her Mormon background, although my father, a Lutheran, didn't. My mother idealized it. She felt that, since she hadn't done it, at least one of her children should. Also, she thought she'd get religious "credit" and that she'd be more likely to get what we called "celestial glory" in the hereafter, which is what Mormons call heaven. That's because our church believes that polygamy offers the only true path to the "celestial kingdom," the highest level of heaven, and that no family member will reach it unless a daughter is married to a leader of the Kingston church. Marriage is considered eternal. So she conditioned me. I was married in 1960, when I was 20 years old. My husband, Leon Kingston, was the firstborn son of the church founder, Charles Elden Kingston.

Your husband already had one wife. Did you know her?

Yes, she was my older sister.

Your older sister? Isn't that rather, er, weird?

It does seem that way to other people. But when you're in that sort of group it seems completely normal. Your thinking, doing and being are all controlled by the church. If the church said something, we jumped. My marriage wasn't recognized, though, by the law of the land. Usually only the first of a polygamist's plural marriages is legal.

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The marriage must have changed your relationship with your sister profoundly.

Yes. She was eight and a half years older than me. It was very, very hard for her. She didn't know how the first wife typically feels, as no one had talked to her about it. She became depressed. She was angry, hurt and jealous. We talked about it at the time, but it was still hard. In polygamy, the first wife thinks she's going to live "God's law" by having a "sister-wife," and it turns out to be hard. So my sister blamed herself for not being able to please God. They'd had three children and she got pregnant again just three months after I married him.

Did your sister attend your wedding?

Oh yes. The first wife gives the second wife to the husband; the second gives the third, and so on. It's a religious ceremony. The ceremony is seen as validating the "celestial marriage" for all eternity.

The term polygamy actually refers to having more than one spouse. I don't suppose a woman ever took several husbands?

Gosh no! (laughs)

Now you were in the marriage for 34 years and you had eight children in the space of 13 years. It sounds like you must have almost always been pregnant.

Yes, I had six girls and two boys. At one point I had three children in the space of three years and two days. And my sister had six children.

So you didn't use birth control?

Oh no! Oh don't ever do that! You don't want to stop any of those little spirits from coming here to earth. You should have as many children as you possibly can. Some people probably practice it, and I thought about the rhythm method. But as my doctor said to me, "You know what they call people who use the rhythm method? Parents."

How did you work out who spent the night with the husband?

We all lived together for 11 years in the same household, then I lived elsewhere and he commuted between the two of us. We alternated nights and I was dutiful and never refused him. It was very formal and sterile because my relationship, my marriage to him, had to be secret because it was illegal. My kids -- like quite a few other kids in our church -- didn't even know who their father was. It wasn't even known at first within the Kingston group because the group had been investigated by a grand jury in 1959 for polygamy, and I think welfare fraud, so it was all relationships were secret. It seems so stupid now. I'm ashamed and embarrassed. We were so obedient to the organization, so loyal, and we kept all the secrets.

When your children asked about their father, what did you tell them?

I told them he was in the Army. When I think about it now it was such a terrible thing to say. It was cruel because they kept expecting he would come home sometime and be their father. They imagined all these wonderful things about him. They certainly didn't like the man they thought was their uncle -- who in fact was their real father. He reprimanded them so much and never showed any love or affection. My oldest daughter still doesn't like him at all.

Your sister became depressed after you married. Was it easier for you as the second, younger wife?

Well, I was very strong. I'd grown up competing with four brothers. I was able to do it, but I was so very lonely. I had no affection, no attention from this man. Intimacy was never talked about. I remember I'd shower at night and I'd just cry in the shower so no one could hear me then. It was horrible. I never had male companionship. I never loved him. When I was pregnant he wouldn't even ask when the baby was due. Never a word.

What about your family's financial situation? Poverty is common in polygamist families because there are so many children -- the wives are almost always pregnant or nursing. And your church practiced consecration, whereby group members pooled their income with the church, although you could withdraw some if you could prove you needed to. You also paid a 10 percent tithe. In fact, it's not uncommon for polygamous wives to need welfare and to qualify for it as single mothers, which they usually are in legal terms.

We were so poor, I used to watch other people's children for 32 cents an hour and collected aluminum cans and pop bottles for extra money. I was on and off food stamps for more than 10 years. I baby-sat my sister's children. The men usually think that each wife should bear as many children as possible, regardless of whether they can support them. And you're always pregnant. Our church requires you to produce as many children as possible, because little spirits are waiting to enter the world, via a male-female union, so they can be sent on their eternal path upwards and one day become Gods over their own worlds. I began to become aware of a real discrepancy between the spirituality of polygamy -- that it's the ideal marriage -- and the poverty and abuse that polygamous families actually live with. It's demented.

Isn't the Kingston group affluent enough? It's been estimated that their business empire is worth up to $150 million. In fact, in the last high-profile case involving the Kingstons, in 1983, the then-leader, John Ortell Kingston, was estimated to have assets of some $70 million. That came out because the state had sued him for massive alleged welfare fraud. It was charged that he had four wives and 29 children who had collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in public assistance over a 10-year period. [Editor's note: The case was settled out of court. Kingston repaid $250,000 and did not have to take court-ordered paternity tests.]

Yes, the Kingstons have money, but they use members as virtual slave labor. The money was for God, so it was invested in businesses so the Kingdom of God could grow. We were working for less than minimum wage. At one point the state stepped in, so after that we had to pretend we got minimum wage even though we weren't. We weren't supposed to complain or question the church authority or God would disapprove. It's a big scam.

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At what age do most girls in the Kingston group marry and have children?

Most girls get married at 14, 16, 18, and have a baby every year. They cannot keep up financially, and the children live in poverty, and the mothers are overwhelmed. There's arguing amongst the women, and there's a lot of eating disorders because they try to keep slim for the husband because they want to catch his attention because they don't see him very much.

In the Kingston group, which has about 1,500 members, the patriarchs had multiple wives. John Daniel Kingston, the defendant, has more than 20, and you claim the leader of the group, Paul Kingston, has 30-plus. There must be many young men left single. What happens to them?

They are allowed to marry someone outside of the group and she then becomes an automatic member. But if a girl married on the outside, she was out. That was it. We actually have a man who wants to become part of our group, Tapestry of Polygamy, the brother of one of our members. He's a child of polygamy. He was physically abused and he says polygamy warps a person's view of sexuality.

You also said you saw quite a lot of abuse toward children from other wives, so-called sister-wives of their mother, which makes sense to me. Sort of like the wicked stepmother.

My family wasn't really that way. My sister and I were strong, and we really didn't need him, our husband, although I suppose he was a good sperm donor because our children are really outstanding. But there was a lot of abuse, and I heard about it a lot in other polygamous groups. The most disciplined children were considered the best children. Mothers would threaten their children to make them obedient. They were under so much pressure themselves and everyone wanted to look good. I couldn't stand it

When you were still in the church, how did you view the outside world, what members of your group sometimes call "Babylon"?

We more often called them "the outsiders," and we thought they'd all go to hell. Each polygamous group, including ours, believes that it alone has the key, that their leader is the greatest prophet on the planet. And we believed if a "celestial marriage" is not sealed by the right people -- your own church leaders -- you won't have that husband or wife on the other side, for eternity.

Why did you finally leave the group? I know you were eventually excommunicated, but I'm wondering what led up to that.

I was taking classes in hypnotherapy and eventually realized what a lie I had been living. It's just like [mega-selling author and recovery movement guru] John Bradshaw says, you're as sick as your secrets. I went on this big spiritual quest and realized I'd never loved my husband and that I was unhappy. I thought, "OK God, all these women here are complaining about you and thinking you're not very nice to them and how could a God love women and tell them they had to live polygamy?" I was excommunicated in 1992 for writing a letter to one of the church higher-ups telling him off for never preaching love and for ruling by fear, and not many months later I left my marriage. I had been dying inside. I became sick with asthma, I was depressed and stressed out and I had so much tendinitis and bursitis in my hip, I was bedridden. I was broke, although I'd been given a house by my former husband. But I had no skills that would help me get a job.

Were your children supportive?

My children really encouraged me to get out, otherwise I might not have been able to. I realized that I couldn't still be a polygamist and help people get out of polygamy. When I came out, I started going to the media, and whoever else I could to point out illegal activity in the Kingston group -- the IRS, the FBI, the U.S. attorney, anywhere I could find to tell them that the church [allegedly] was cheating on its taxes, paying members less than minimum wage and stealing members' property.

Are any of your children still members? They were all adults when you were kicked out, so I presume custody wasn't an issue.

My daughter Stacy is also a co-founder of Tapestry of Polygamy. My children were way ahead of me. They thought polygamy was stupid all along and were waiting for me to catch on. One of my daughters did marry someone from the group. She's not a plural wife but her husband is still a group member, and he treats her like a plural wife -- he's somewhat abusive, and he can't get close or emotional to her. She has to work hard and he doesn't contribute. He has his own money but she's supposed to support the family. I don't intervene though. She has to work that out herself.

Don't your husband and sister still support you, though? How do they view your founding Tapestry of Polygamy?

I try to keep them out of it, as they're embarrassed by it. My sister has a business and caters to a lot of fundamentalists, so I try not to expose her. But now that the focus is on the Kingstons, because of this case, Tapestry of Polygamy is getting a lot of attention.

You know the Kingstons who are on trial, right?

Oh yes. John Daniel, who's married to his half-sister, he had his daughter marry his brother when she was 15 or 16. She was the 15th wife, but she couldn't do it, couldn't marry him. She kept running away so John Daniel [allegedly] beat the daylights out of her to make her do what he wanted her to do. You beat them up and threaten them. That's what polygamy's about -- coercion, fear and abuse. It's a question of power and control and a lot of sex. Polygamists are not as spiritual as you're led to believe -- there's wife-swapping, ménage à trois, use of pornography. There's no end to it. John Bradshaw came to Salt Lake City and said, "There's a high rate of incest whenever there's a patriarchal order." And I thought, "Wow John, you're pretty brave coming to Mormondom and telling them that." There's a lot of genetic problems because of the incest.

Do you think polygamy should be outlawed? If the adults are consenting and there's no abuse?

Some of the women in the group think that polygamists should be prosecuted, others say if you prosecute them, they will become victims and martyrs and go underground. Most of them will never change anyway. I just want the abuses prosecuted. There was a case in Colorado City, Ariz., about 15 years ago where a woman tried to run away and she was returned to her husband by the police.

Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt recently commented on polygamy and even admitted that his great-great-great-grandfather had "many families," which sounded to me like a bit of a euphemism. He also said that polygamy may be a constitutional right because of religious freedom.

It was a whitewash. He brushed it off. Polygamy is Utah's dirty little secret. They just don't want to deal with it because Mormons and polygamists are kissing cousins. If we have to, we'll go to Janet Reno to get the abuses prosecuted. I also want people to know that polygamy is not because of God. It can't be, because of the abuse and the deprivation of women and children.

Can polygamy work? For others, if not for yourself?

No. I don't think it ever works. You cannot live with polygamy, because that would mean ignoring the pain, abuse, neglect and poverty. As a friend of mine, who's in pain and agony because of polygamy, said, "It's one big eternal fuck."

One big eternal fuck?

Spiritually speaking, you're going to be with him and have his children to populate other worlds, for eternity. Well what does it involve? He's going to have sex forever and ever and ever. And she's going to be pregnant forever and ever and ever. So this woman said, "It's just one big eternal fuck."

By Ros Davidson

Ros Davidson is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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