Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Big Love and FLDS

Within one of the countless articles on Roman Polanski, I came across a criticism of Hollywood not taking child sex abuse seriously, by Professor Marci Hamilton:
First, as I discussed in a prior column, we had Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson producing HBO's "Big Love," which merely winks at the sexual degradation of girls in the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints enclaves, but never shows the system in an accurate light that would reveal its true, abhorrent nature. If the pretty fictions were stripped away, the show would be unrelentingly bleak and horrifying: a portrait of a male-dominated society that is inherently inimical to women's rights, progress, and power.
The author in that prior column argues,
Under the "Big Love" scenario, the community needs a three-women-to-one-man ratio. That's distorted enough in comparison to male-female birth rates. In reality, though, many polygamous arrangements involve more than three wives per each man, so more boys have to be discarded.

The distortion of the male-female balance also leads the husbands to seek younger and younger women. The result is that too many girls face abuse: When a girl is secretly "married" before the age of consent, which happens all too often, the marriage's "consummation" is more accurately described as statutory rape.

In other words, polygamy rests, inevitably, on child abuse and neglect.
She takes on a John Tierney column that spoke of polygamy in favorable terms.
Tierney also argues that "[p]olygamy isn't necessarily worse than the current American alternative: serial monogamy." But that's bunk: Divorced couples do not routinely discard their male children on the streets to increase the odds of the father getting the women, or girls, that he wants. And while a divorce may result in one ex-partner (almost always the ex-wife) receiving public assistance, at least the marriage wasn't initially predicated on anyone's receiving public assistance, as the many illegal relationships within many polygamous marriages must be.
I think she both overstates and understates her case. Yes, Big Love is set in a world in which, outside the auspices of its version of FLDS, polygamy is depicted as somehow viable and consensual - what the author describes as "syrupy speculations about how polygamy might be just fine in some possible world". That's the world of entertainment. The show does show some of the dark side of polygamous sects - the casting off of boys, the involuntary marriage of girls, the prophet's control over the lives of the people within the sect, banishment, excommunication, the separation of parent and child, the sect's control of the police departments that supposedly enforce laws on their compounds, violence, tax fraud.... but the focus is on the syrupy world of the main characters who live upper middle class lives outside of the compound. But even with all of that, the show only hints at the darkness.

In fairness to HBO and the show's producers, it's not just their show that diminishes the abusive elements of FLDS-type sects. The 2008 raid on an FLDS compound in Texas, for example, (which in fairness followed an anonymous report of abuse that appears to have been phony) had any number of people demanding the return of the children to their mothers on any number of grounds, none of which involved a good strong look at the abusive environment into which those children were returned. For example, law professor David Bernstein argued,
In the previous thread, some commenters seem to assert that the CPS may take all of the FLDS's children away because (a) there has been documented abuse of children at other FLDS communities; and/or (b) the "culture" of the FLDS is inherently abusive, as it encourages early marriage and leaves its children inherently isolated by homeschooling them and not exposing them to social events, television, and the like. The latter criterion, at least, would place Amish and some of the more insular ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in jeopardy.
Take a look at some of the literature by former FLDS members, such as Lost Boy. You'll find out about a system of indoctrination and control, and how Rulon Jeffs (Warren's father) pulled the sect away from the secular world, eventually banning not only virtually all television programming, but children's literature (really, pretty much any literature that wasn't FLDS material), imposing sometimes bizarre dress codes and the trademark FLDS hairstyle for women, and how he created a school, run by his son Warren, where children were taught very little conventional educational material, but in which some were reportedly sexually abused by headmaster Warren Jeffs. The FLDS aren't the Amish.

Moreover, the emphasis within the community is on "keeping sweet". Prior to Rulon Jeff's becoming "prophet", young girls were allowed to express some preference in terms of who they married, albeit one attributed to messages delivered to them through prayer. But if you didn't "keep sweet", meaning capitulate to the church and male authority, you could find yourself married off to just about anybody. Call it consensual if you will, but when the prophet tells a teenage girl (or adult woman) "this is your new husband", and he gets to force himself on her, that sounds to me like rape, and not (just or even necessarily) of the statutory sort. (According to the author of Lost Boy, Warren Jeff's nephew Brent, some of the men in the community very much enjoyed that moment.) If you were married and had children but didn't "keep sweet" you could find yourself sent away, separated from your children. Oh, and having the prophet marry you off is a "blessing" - have you guessed yet? If you're keeping sweet, you don't reject a blessing.

On the other side of things, teenage boys could be sent away for not "keeping sweet", in some circumstances to other compounds where it was intended that they learn to capitulate. Girls could become "poofers" - being simultaneously sent away and married off to a man they had never met, with no way of knowing if or when they would see their parents or siblings again. For others, whether for not "keeping sweet" or for being too much of a potential challenge to the prophet, banishment follows - they become the lost boys, separated from their families, without any real world knowledge, and with few other than each other to turn to for support.1 They come out of a culture of dependence, a world where control is kept in no small part by not letting people think independently - giving people little input into even the mundane decisions of everyday life - which not only leaves them unprepared for the outside world but, as Brent Jeffs describes, can at times inspire a longing to return to that world where you don't have to make decisions.

Brent Jeffs explains how his father came to leave the church. One of Brent's older brothers, who had married, had a baby die of SIDS. Their father allowed him to come home and held a funeral. Brent's father was called in by the prophet, his own father, and was told that for "harboring gentiles" he had a choice: He was to be stripped of his wives, and that his wives and children would be assigned to other husbands, and he could be on probation inside the church, or he could leave the church but his wives would still be assigned to other husbands. Do you think the wedding nights following reassignment would be consensual in any meaningful sense of the word? Does this still, to Professor Bernstein, sound like it could be an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community?

I don't think there can be any doubt that the polygamous sect depicted in Big Love is styled after the FLDS sect headed by Rulon Jeffs (who seems to be the model for the prophet in the show, Roman Grant) and Warren Jeffs (who seems to be the inspiration for the closeted homosexual, patricidal son, Alby, who hungers to take over the role of prophet). So when Professor Hamilton speaks of "the 'Big Love' scenario, the community needs a three-women-to-one-man ratio", she should consider the importance of that number to the FLDS. Under the teachings of that sect, a man must have not less than three lives in order to become the god of his own world after he dies. (No, I'm not making that up.) If a young man does not keep sufficiently sweet, and does not devote himself sufficiently (in the sometimes arbitrary eyes of the prophet) to the church, he won't be promoted through the priesthood, and he won't be awarded the wives he needs to become a god. (Really, I'm not making that up.)2 Yes, that number does create the imbalances Professor Hamilton describes, but it's a real-world imbalance, not one confined to an HBO drama.

Watch a movie like Osama3, and consider the Taliban. Take away the burkas and public executions, and for a young woman how much distance is there between life under a Warren Jeffs-style prophet and life under the Taliban?

1. Alcohol and drug abuse appear to be enormous problems for the "lost boys".

2. And fossils? They're not proof of the age of the world, or of past life on Earth, but are parts of other, failed worlds that were recycled to make our world. No, I'm not making that, up, either. FLDS "science" makes those "evolution is just a theory" stickers seem downright scientific.

3. The "Osama" of the film is a young girl, not Osama bin Laden.

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