The dictator in the house

In the second of two interviews with polygamist wives, Vicky Prunty talks about how women become powerless in 'plural marriages.'

Published July 29, 1998 5:45PM (EDT)

It was in a McDonald's, with the smell of hamburgers and fries, that Vicky Prunty was first introduced to a pretty younger woman named Martha (not her real name), who would become her husband's second wife in a polygamous marriage. Right there in the fast-food restaurant, Greg (not his real name), a former Mormon missionary, whisked a ring off Vicky's finger and placed it on the hand of her new "sister-wife."

It was a highly symbolic moment in Prunty's plural marriage -- an institution that has been so stigmatized that it prompted fighting between Mormon settlers and U.S. Army troops almost 150 years ago and then delayed Utah's statehood until the practice was relinquished by the Mormon Church. Polygamy is still practiced by a surprisingly large number of people in Utah and nearby states. An estimated 30,000 or more adhere to what they see as a purer form of Mormonism.

Polygamy exploded onto the front pages of Utah newspapers this week. An alleged polygamist, John Daniel Kingston, 43, pleaded not guilty on Monday in a court in Brigham City to charges of beating his 16-year-old daughter unconscious because she refused to be the 15th wife of her uncle, a man twice her own age. Both men are prominent members of the fundamentalist Latter-day Church of Christ, or Kingston group, one of the best-known yet most secretive polygamous sects. Kingston faces a pretrial hearing on Aug. 24. A custody hearing is also scheduled for that day. Members of Kingston's family will reportedly try to regain custody of the young woman, now in foster care.

A group of ex-wives and daughters of polygamy, Tapestry of Polygamy, also made headlines on Monday in the Salt Lake Tribune when it urged Gov. Mike Leavitt, a devout Mormon, to take a firm stand against polygamy. The practice is, strictly speaking, illegal, although the state has not prosecuted anyone solely for polygamy since the 1950s. The ex-wives' group says that polygamy encourages abuse of women and children and imprisons them in poverty without an outside support network. Many polygamous wives have no skills for earning wages. And since only the first of a polygamist's marriages is state-sanctioned, later wives have no legal recourse if they leave; they may never see child support or alimony.

Prunty is the director of Tapestry and one of its founders. Now 35 and divorced, she is struggling to support five children ages 4 to 13. A sixth, her oldest boy, has returned to live with his father and Prunty's former "sister-wife." Prunty has found that leaving a fundamentalist polygamist marriage can be difficult. Upon leaving Greg, she briefly married a second polygamist husband, unsure about leaving the institution altogether. At one point after her divorce she was shocked and angry to learn that her children, while visiting their father and her former sister-wife, had been told to pray for Vicky's death because they claimed she was a sinner.

Prunty, a Californian, was not born into polygamy. A Mormon since age 10, she met her first husband, a Mormon missionary and an Englishman, at Brigham Young University when she was a freshman and he was a senior. Not long afterwards, when they were living as devout suburban "Mormon Yuppies" in Mesa, Ariz. -- she was a mother of two and he was a salesman -- they decided polygamy would be the best way of serving God faithfully. Salon interviewed Prunty by phone at her Salt Lake City home as she was caring for several children.

As leader of Tapestry of Polygamy, you told the media on Monday that Gov. Mike Leavitt's comment that polygamy may be constitutionally protected amounts to tacit approval of the abusive practice. Yet you chose to live in polygamy not once but twice.

I grew up with divorced parents. And at the age of 7, we were distributed amongst other relatives. So I was an orphan whose parents never died. Because of that childhood, I married a man who was older than me. He was 25 and I was 18. I was always needy of a father figure and wanted to be led by someone who was strong. I was always attracted to that. Then once we had married, my husband and I started investigating early teachings of the Mormon Church. We really wanted to please God and not man, to live the gospel as it first originated under Brigham Young and other early leaders. We believed that polygamy was a way of living by the commandments and preparing ourselves for Zion, when Christ would come back.

You read a great deal about Mormonism. How exactly was polygamy justified?

The teachings were vague. It's in Doctrine and Covenants, Section 132 -- kind of a companion to the Book of Mormon -- but it's vague. It doesn't tell you the reason except to multiply, to build kingdoms and principalities and the hereafter in heaven and here on earth and to bring about the birth of "children's spirits."

How do you see it now?

Now I think that polygamy is designed to oppress women and to keep them in bondage to men. Choosing polygamy because of religion, because you fear that if you don't chose it you'll be damned for eternity, is very different from choosing polygamy because you really want to take in a lonely widow -- to be kind to family, friends and neighbors. I mean, in this day and age do we really need to have polygamy? It's not as if there aren't enough men to go around! There are also so many orphan children and other unfortunate children in this world, I don't know if the answer is to continue having as many children as possible. That's why I say to polygamous men: "Do a good deed, don't just spread your seed."

Presumably at the time you couldn't stay in the Mormon Church as polygamists. You'd be excommunicated.

Yes, so we returned to Utah and joined a small fundamentalist group and -- quite literally -- lived in a rock in Moab, a cave blasted into the side of a sandstone rock in the desert. It had a concrete floor and a wood stove. We lived there collectively with a polygamist, his three wives and children. Now it's a bed and breakfast.

When was it that your husband took a second wife?

We'd been married about seven years and had three children when Greg met her. He had been visiting the Singer/Swapp clan while traveling to and from Salt Lake City to Moab.

The clan was the fundamentalist group in Heber Valley that bombed a Mormon chapel in January 1988 to get back at the "Mormon-run state" for shooting dead their patriarch, John Singer, a few years earlier. And within months of the bombing, a stand-off with the FBI and police in Marion, Utah, left one police officer dead.

Yes, when the leaders of the clan were jailed, Greg had to spend time with Singer's widow and her family. While living there, he met the young redheaded daughter of the clan's lawyer, Martha. She was about 19 or 20. He married her and came back and I had to give her to him in a ceremony, which is typical. I put her hand in his. I felt uncomfortable with it, but I wasn't convinced that it was wrong.

I believed that we would be living polygamously at some other time, perhaps in the next world. I thought that trying to practice polygamy on this imperfect earth was like eating your favorite Marie Callender pie in a dump. I mean, I thought this world is so monogamous. Cars are not built for polygamous marriages. You have only two front seats, not three for a man and two wives. It's very difficult to fit in if you have more than one wife. When my husband went to business dinner parties, we accompanied him alternately. As a wife, I was also bothered by the imperfections of man. Polygamy meant I had to follow my husband as he was the patriarch. That was what we believed. It was our law. You're following an imperfect human. And who wants to follow an imperfect human?

So what happened? I know as a family you moved several times, and at least twice lived in Salt Lake City.

Well at first I went along with the marriage. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. We lived in the same home. I was in the marriage for a few years. I lived upstairs and she lived downstairs and we pretty much shared the middle floor. She had a nice big wedding and reception. I had to hide in the background -- I was told to act like a friend of the family -- because he wanted the image of marrying monogamously for his career. I'd just had a baby a few days earlier. It was so difficult. It was not natural, for me at least. Yet the whole time I was trying to convince myself that polygamy was right and I was wrong because of the religion behind it.

How was it decided who spent the night with whom?

We just had an arrangement, every other night.

What about her -- did you like her?

I liked her, but I didn't understand why he had chosen her. I had always thought that plural marriage would be more charitable, something you do to help women without husbands, the single women. But I knew that in his heart he would not have married somebody who was just a service project. He chose this woman because of her body proportions.

Didn't that make you jealous?

He had told me he wanted someone who was shapely. He chose her partly for her body. That hurt me, and I realized that he was more in it for himself than anything else. I mean those brownie points in heaven were his. It wasn't like the law of Sarah in the Bible. It was the law of Abraham. It was all male-oriented. I felt as if I was the martyr of the whole thing. It was just a charade. I realized -- and it took me a while -- that the dynamics and the institution did not emancipate a woman. I only realized this when all of a sudden our partnership turned into a dictatorship. In monogamy, our relationship wasn't perfect but it was pretty balanced in terms of power. But when he became the husband of two wives, the only way to keep order in the home was to become more powerful. Otherwise he'd have two wives going different ways. He had to put his foot down to get consensus.

How did he demonstrate this power?

He started saying things like, "You're mine to dispose of unless I find you worthy." Or, "I'm the tree with the shade, and if you don't like my shade, you can leave." He'd also give my nights with him to my "sister-wife" if he was angry with me. The problem was, he didn't tell me how I could leave. What was I supposed to do without money and all these kids? I also have a copy of a scripture he wrote in which he said, "If the wife is subject to her husband's law, then she truly has no right to refuse his taking other wives beside her in her lifetime. She is, after all, under his dominion." Martha was also obviously his favorite, so it wasn't at all easy. At various points, Greg would even try and convince me that I was possessed by demons, because I was rebellious and unhappy. Some of the other men in our group would try and exorcise me.

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What was it like for the children?

You have to realize that one of the really deceptive things about polygamy is the love that children have for their siblings, their half-siblings. But it mixes things up in a way. It's great to have a large family, to think of humankind as all being brothers and sisters and taking care of each other. But when you don't have your individual families, when you don't understand the responsibilities and associations of family members, it can get very confusing. When I was picking my kids up this weekend from visitation, my daughter had this present and it was signed from her "Mom and Dad." All the kids, my kids, have to call their stepmother "Mom." That's one of the rules of their family. To them, in the eternity, that's who they've been taught will be their mother because I'm a sinner and I have been cut off from the family for leaving. So it mixes them up. Of course, none of these things you could ever prove in a court of law because emotional and mental abuse is much harder to prove than physical abuse. Their word against mine. That's the sort of indoctrination we go up against.

What do the children think about calling Martha "Mom"?

Well, I just saw that gift card and we haven't discussed it yet. I know that if I call the children up when they're there, they say "Mom said this, Mom said that." I say, "Well I'm your mother." But I can't force them not to say it when they're there. I'm their mother. I have made a huge sacrifice on their behalf and there's no way she will ever love those children like I do. I really struggled to be a good mother and the one thing that has really spurred me on, especially to do what I'm doing today, advocating for other mothers, is that I think that motherhood is the greatest job in the whole wide world. I have a hard time when people give lip service to that and to families. It's been very hard for me as a single mother to leave my children to go to work when I feel they need me at home.

When did you leave your marriage?

I left 11 years after we married when I realized that I'd put myself in a position to be used for his glory, his ego. I'd gotten pretty used to not having an intimate relationship with anyone.

You didn't want to have more of a relationship with him?

I didn't know what a good relationship was. Even in monogamy, our relationship wasn't that great. I'm sure that's why he took a second wife. It was a relief not having him around sometimes because you could do your own thing. I disciplined and fed the children and did all the same things for him. I had to baby him, and when he wasn't around I didn't have to do it. It wasn't a real partnership when we were monogamous either. But I continued to think that plural marriage was a good thing, it was just the guy I married is a power freak.

So I went into another plural marriage as a third wife. The husband, Carl, knew my first husband and his family seemed like they were very happy in polygamy. The first wife, Judy, had three children and the second wife, Maggie, was pregnant. I told them I didn't want to be full-fledged wife but I wanted to be part of a family as I want my children to have a father -- at least a part-time one.

But then Carl revealed to us that he never believed in polygamy, that he had just taken wives because he wanted to have sex with more than one woman. He was honest with us. Of course it shocked me and I had to run into the bathroom crying and wondering what was going on. I felt sick because I had actually started to fall in love with this man. Another thing that I noticed was the first wife was going through the same things I had gone through when my husband took a second wife -- jealousy, insecurity. And her husband was sometimes strutting around like this rooster. She became almost became numb. I could see her almost becoming a zombie. This woman was a really strong woman. Then I became pregnant with his child.

Where were you living?

Salt Lake City.

Did the neighbors say anything about your plural marriage?

I think that here in Utah we're pretty used to polygamous families. I eventually moved out and moved back to California for a couple of years. I thought I could get some support from my family. I found out that my first husband was praying for my death with my children, because he thought I was such a sinner. He and his wife don't pray for my death now. But when he did it was almost like a predator, a lion, going for the weakest one. I was very weak.

Why did you return to Utah?

I wanted to do something about polygamy. I went to court because I had a hard time accepting that my husband had visitation rights. The children have always been with me. Raising them has not been a partnership. He was just the breadwinner. He was going from house to house, between his two wives, but my children were always with me. Why all of a sudden when I get a divorce should it be any different? At least with monogamy, the husband is with his children in one home.

You were initially in a shelter when you left because you were so poor.

Yes. That was when I left him and moved to California. When I came back to Utah, I wanted to go to school to get my degree. I was getting some child support but it wasn't enough. I tried living near my second husband. I rented from him. But it didn't work. After about 18 months of living there, I left and had to go to a shelter. And I realized that my dream has really been to help women to get out of abusive situations and to get the resources and their needs taken care of.

Do you think polygamy can ever work?

If a woman wants to be treated as an equal and she wants a partnership in rearing her children, monogamy is probably the way. If she wants to have a husband who has sex with other woman and she wants to be submissive and have lots of children, then she perhaps should go into plural marriage. It's a lot like being a single mother except you still have a leader. But you're usually lonely and don't have much money. About 30 percent of polygamous wives in some communities get welfare. As for me, I definitely want something better for me and my children.

Does polygamy attract certain women?

Oh yes. They have to be quite sheltered. Young is good too. Innocent, not very educated. They prey upon women who aren't strong, with low self-esteem. Often women are just brought up as plural wives. I didn't grow up in it so it was easier to get out. We're finding thousands of children are being brought up in it and their lives are ruined. And it's becoming more prevalent as there are so many different lifestyles. This is just one of them, though it's based on power and control so it's not just another alternative lifestyle. Religion is also man-made and this type of marriage is one of those things that men use to overpower women. Any organization that is based on a male book is not my thing.

Why are you speaking out against polygamy now? Because of this upcoming case involving John Daniel Kingston?

I think that all of us [at Tapestry of Polygamy] got sick of the abuse -- it's been so hush-hush. It's like Utah's dirty little secret. And because we've been involved in polygamy, we wanted to do something about it after we got out. We wanted to help others who are still involved and are trying to get out. We wanted to say to this young girl, "Hey, we're here for you."

By Ros Davidson

Ros Davidson is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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