Thursday, January 29, 2015

Book review: Becoming Sister Wives.

Brown, Kody. Becoming Sister Wives: The Story of an Unconventional Marriage. New York: Gallery Books, 2012.

I have never watched a single episode of the Sister Wives TV show. I never had any desire to, and I have even less desire after reading this memoir by Kody Brown and his wives Meri, Janelle, Christine and Robyn--not because I was repelled by what I read, but because I don't want to see what "reality TV" editing does to these people I came to sympathize with.

Yes, that's right, my primary reaction to these fringe Mormon polygamists was sympathy, and more than a little identification. I don't see myself in the "polyamory canon" books like The Ethical Slut. I do see myself in these deeply religious people who are dedicated to their family. They stick together through some seriously rough patches, united in their commitment to their children and their children's well-being. This commitment gives them a solid basis for maintaining friendships and seeking compromise during the times when some of the individuals find it harder to experience deeper, more transcendent feelings of romance or sisterhood with each other. With three of the marriages now past their 20th year--Robyn, who married Kody in 2010, is very much the newcomer, relatively speaking--these kinds of ups and downs are not surprising for contemporary American society. It's all very Redbook Magazine, really.

Of course, there is one obvious way that I don't see myself in the Browns. They are very strict about "the principle" of one husband, multiple wives. Heterosexual polygyny, to be technical about it. My family of one wife with two husbands does not fit into their worldview. Kody is upfront about this lack of symmetry in one of his earliest sections:

"Perhaps there are people out there for who taking plural husbands is a viable lifestyle. Perhaps there is a religion where this is a sacred way of life. But this is not our faith." (6)

Now, it is possible that this expression of tolerance is not entirely sincere. It is possible that it is calculated to discourage any readers' assumptions about him being a patriarchal dinosaur. I am still grateful. It is more than I have ever seen from any writer in a mainline Protestant context, let alone evangelical or Catholic. (Or Orthodox or Pentecostal, but I don't read as widely in those traditions.) I could give Kody Brown a big hug and a kiss! Except I wouldn't, because I acknowledge his heterosexual polygynous convictions.

There is another way, perhaps less obvious, that I don't see myself in the Browns. They were not always open about their family structure, and in fact would tell outright lies about a wife other than Meri being a sister or another relation. Their children, already facing some ambiguity in how they were treated at home between whether they have one mother in a family with several wives or whether they have more than one mother, could not be open at school or with friends. My family is deliberately out, and always has been. For me personally, being public about my marriage is an integral part of what makes it a marriage, and we're all in agreement that we could never put our children in a position of feeling responsible for "protecting" our family. We also don't see any way to teach them that they have nothing to be ashamed of while telling them we need a cover story. I respect the rationale Meri gives for her decision to support the filming of the TV show:

"Secrecy breeds evil and unhappiness, and for too long, that is the only thing about polygamy that had been portrayed in the media...Ultimately, I wanted to world to know that what most people think of when they think of polygamy has no place in our family. We are a great family, with the normal disagreements and laughter, heartbreak and happiness of any American household. I guess I started to believe that our story was worth telling." (212)

I also respect that she recognizes that the danger of hearing only one kind of story actually goes both ways. She reports that her biological daughter has expressed a desire to one day be part of a polygamous family herself. In print, at least, Meri neither encourages or discourages her daughter's goal. But she does want it to be an informed decision:

"I believe in order for her to make this decision she needs to feel comfortable in the society of those outside our faith. She needs to have a wealth of experiences before choosing the path for her adult life. I want the world to be a safe and tolerant place for her." (214)

Obviously, she wants the world to be safe and tolerant for polygamous families. I choose to also read that last sentence as a wish for her daughter to not feel forced into a polygamous life because the "normal" world has only shown itself to be cruel and narrow-minded to people she loves. I want my own children to choose celibacy, monogamy or polyamory based on what suits their own temperaments and dreams best. I don't want them to miss out on relationship choices that bring them joy because society chooses to make opposition to their family of origin part of the package of monogamy. I also don't want them to miss out on religious choices that bring them meaning and discipline because faith traditions choose to make opposition to their family of origin part of the package of community membership. Thus, the importance of being not only out, but proudly and self-confidently out.

Each member of the Brown family writes something in Becoming Sister Wives that had me nodding along. Christine confides, "I wanted sister wives as much as I wanted a husband" (48). Robyn bemoans the absence of cultural and media representations of relationships that aren't monogamous: "
We have to navigate our situation blindly, without a map or outside help" (160). Janelle observes the formational effect of their multi-adult family: "We have all contributed something to the way our family runs...By adapting to and adopting one another’s traits, we’ve developed our own culture" (130). By and large, the parts of their stories I rolled my eyes at had nothing to do with their being polygamous, but rather with how completely in line with wide swaths of mainstream American society their expectations about gender roles and behavior were. The man is the head of the family, but he mostly smiles and goes along with how the women want to run a household. The women simmer indulgently about clueless male behavior. If it weren't for the number of adults and the nature of their relationships, I could see Sister Wives as an ABC sitcom instead of a reality drama.

On the whole, then, I recommend this book. Not as an example for polyamorous families to emulate--unless they happen to be Mormon heterosexual polygynous families, in which case I think the Browns aren't bad role models for how to live that life as a supportive framework instead of as a cage--but because their focus is always on something beyond "how can I achieve the most individual fulfillment and growth." They do appear to have learned a lot about themselves and how to be happier, both as individuals and as a family, but they are prouder of their dedication to God, their children and their marriages. I'll let "newcomer" Robyn have the last word:

"When I chose to marry Kody, I wasn’t just choosing him. I wanted a relationship with Meri, Janelle, and Christine...I know Kody loves Meri, Janelle and Christine. I wouldn’t respect him otherwise...All our marriages go through high and low points, but he needs to commit to them and they to him so that together they will work things out." (157-160)

I wish them the best, and many more happy years together.