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03.10.11

Sister Wives Season 2: Polygamy's Strange Charm

As TLC’s hit polygamist reality show Sister Wives returns, the threat of criminal charges against the Browns looks unlikely. Joyce C. Tang talks to them about shaking the stigma of plural marriage.

Since “coming out” to the world as Mormon polygamists on TLC’s reality series Sister Wives, the Browns have had their share of growing pains. The biggest, they say, was adjusting to new wife Robyn. In January, the family packed up and moved from their spacious home in Utah to Nevada. In their new community outside of Las Vegas, they don’t have a church, and it’s been a challenge finding a home that can fit all 21 of them. Currently, they’re scattered among four different houses, one for each wife: Meri, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn.

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The separation is only temporary, until they can build their own polygamist-style house with separate living quarters for each sister wife. And “there have been a lot of benefits,” Janelle said about the show.

On a recent afternoon, the family nibbled on fruit and sipped bottled water in a suite at their hotel across from Central Park after appearing on the Today show the day before. Meri and Christine laughed about never going outside anymore without doing their hair and makeup. Robyn, looking a little worn out, was curled up under her coat on the couch next to Christine. And Kody, in jeans and striped button-down shirt, reclined in an armchair opposite Janelle. Polygamy aside, the Brown clan looks and acts no different from your average Mormon—or Midwestern—family. They wear jeans and T-shirts (no Temple garments required) and have modern haircuts. Their kids are allowed to watch television, surf the Internet, and play video games, and some have attended public schools. And with boyish Kody as the patriarch, the Browns are a far cry from the terrifying images broadcast during the 2008 raids on Warren Jeffs’ Yearning For Zion ranch in Texas.

At 32, Robyn is the youngest wife to 40-year-old Kody. She and her “sister wives” are self-professed “outspoken” and “independent” women, and their brood of 16 children, currently being watched after by a team of grandmothers back in Nevada, appears happy and well-adjusted. The unorthodox family, whose lives are being chronicled for a second season of Sister Wives, premiering this Sunday, can sometimes seem more Brady Bunch than Big Love—it was a surprise hit for TLC, the network that has brought you both Sarah Palin and Kate Gosselin, drawing an average of 2.2 million viewers over Season 1.

When asked why they would thrust themselves into the spotlight, even after the first season sparked a bigamy investigation by the Lehi, Utah, police department, Kody said, “There are a lot of families much more like ours than what’s being perpetuated in the media.”

In the season premiere, he puts it another way: “To be transparent makes us more safe to [America]. We're hoping that other fundamentalist Mormon polygamists will follow our example.”

“Our kids being able to be completely open has been liberating,” said Kody Brown.

Friendly and mainstream, the Browns present a picture of fundamentalist Mormonism at odds with what many have come to expect. Many incorrectly assumed when the show first aired that they were members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Though they're are reluctant to identify which fundamentalist Mormon group they belong to, they’ve been publicly criticized by LaMoine Jenson, the head of the Apostolic United Brethren, for participating in the show without his blessing.

The AUB is a splinter group of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, and differs most obviously in that its members believe that plural marriage is a religious calling. In short, the more wives a husband has, the holier he is. The LDS renounced polygamy long ago in response to bigamy laws, and doesn't recognize any splinter groups that practice polygamy.

Unlike the FLDS, Kingston, or LeBaron groups, which tend to be cloistered and abusive, the AUB, or as it's also known, the Allred group, aims to be more open to and integrated with mainstream society. In a 2008 public statement, the AUB outlined its disapproval of arranged or underage marriages and incest, discouraged members from government assistance, and claimed no affiliation with the FLDS.

Children are free to live a polygamist lifestyle once they’re older. Or not. One of the Browns’ own children—that is, one of Kody and Janelle’s children—has already decided she won’t, and that’s fine with her parents. Among the AUB, reported rates of child abuse are similar to those of monogamous communities, says Janet Bennion, a professor of anthropology at Lyndon State College who lived among Allreds to research her dissertation.

Allred women can be in charge of anything from household finances to their husband’s sexual rotation schedule, according to Bennion. Her first book on the AUB, Women of Principle: Female Networking in Contemporary Mormon Polygyny, also chronicles the high conversion rate for women into this particular group. For conventional households with two working parents, the alternative lifestyle can almost begin to make sense.

As shown in Season 1, Kody and Janelle are the breadwinners of the family, and Christine is the homemaker of the bunch. She credits having sister wives for “the freedom it got me.” Meri, who married at 19 and never went to college, has returned to school to get a degree in psychology (yes, education is encouraged). “Having the support system of each other as we work together, it just makes each of us better,” Meri said during Season 1.

In an era of divorces, remarriages, and mixed and nontraditional families, are the Browns simply another notch on the evolving spectrum of modern family? Despite the bigamy investigation in Utah, it’s unlikely any charges will be brought against Kody, especially now that the family has relocated to Nevada. Paul Murphy, a spokesman from the Utah Attorney General’s office, told The Daily Beast that the office has “not focused on crimes involving consenting adults.” In fact, beginning in 2003 Utah government agencies have worked closely with polygamist and nonprofit groups. “There is a dialogue now that wasn’t here for 50 years,” Murphy said.

Bigamy laws have meant that many polygamists grow up in hiding, with constant fear of being taken from their homes, losing their jobs, and being ostracized by their surrounding communities. Though Meri “felt very integrated into mainstream society” growing up as a polygamist Mormon, it was at the cost of “shar[ing] my whole truth,” she said.

The experience of going public for their children has been different, the Browns say, and they credit that to society’s increasing tolerance and open-mindedness. “The kids have loved being open about their family,” Kody said. And there's no turning back now. “We’re coming out to the world,” Kody says in the first episode of Season 2.

The parallel drawn between gay marriage and polygamy has been made before. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer has argued that “it is utterly logical for polygamy rights to follow gay rights.” But blogger Andrew Sullivan has called this line of reasoning the “polygamy diversion,” insisting that “sexual orientation is a deeper issue than the number of people they want to express that orientation with.” As for the Browns’ personal views on gay marriage, they’re all for adults choosing what makes them happy. But according to the polygamist advocacy group Principle Voices, “Fundamentalist Mormonism, like mainstream Mormonism, accepts Biblical denunciations of homosexuality.”

Personal choice and faith aside, to many the Browns still confound our monogamous-minded instincts. Even among sister wives, jealousy is inevitable, and evolutionary psychologists’ have speculated that jealousy evolved in humans as a fitness advantage.

But another instinct could also be at work. Some point out that many women who convert into the AUB are divorced, widowed, or single mothers. Robyn, Kody’s fourth wife, was a divorced single mother of three, who had lived among the polygamist community but had never been in a polygamist relationship. Though monogamy is accepted by the AUB, like mainstream Mormonism it’s still an undeniably patriarchal faith. It’s looked down upon when a woman goes from a monogamous relationship to a plural one, and for women who divorce, custody tends to favor the biological fathers. And with so many more mouths to feed, most fundamentalist Mormon families live modestly, and many just scrape by.

For all their optimism and eagerness to open up their lives, the Browns still tread carefully. Some say they and the show are whitewashing the realities of a polygamist lifestyle. Of their curious move to Nevada, Kody joked that it was prompted by the lure of warmer weather. Publicly the family’s attorney has simply said it was to “ pursue new opportunities.” They’re adamant about not being the poster children for every fundamentalist Mormon family. When pressed about their specific faith, the Browns demurred. “We don’t talk about it,” they said, nearly in unison. And despite the positive reactions they say they’ve gotten from the larger world, that from their own community has admittedly been mixed.

Ironically, the Browns' recent move, which will be chronicled in the new season, has brought them to the brink of Sin City, where temptations loom large. But then again, they’re used to that.

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Joyce Tang is outreach editor for The Daily Beast. Her work has appeared in Mother Jones and The Miami Herald.