'Celestial' wives mount earthly defence of polygamous lives
No one in
Nobody disputes the fact
that the fathers are often three or four times older than the mothers. And
nobody disputes that many are the "plural wives" -- or concubines
-- of men much older than them.
After all, when it comes
time to register the births, midwife Jane
says the fathers in this
religious community near Creston in south-central B.C. happily sign their
names on the forms that are sent to the provincial government.
They are members of the
Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and they believe polygamy
is the "new and everlasting covenant."
It is what separates
them from mainstream Mormons. Fundamentalists claim they are the true Mormons
and it is the mainstream church that has broken away from Joseph Smith's
teachings -- in particular his directive on polygamy.
What Marlene Palmer, a
plural wife and the public defender of other plural wives, disputes is
whether the women and girls have a choice about becoming "celestial
wives" in their
"Women and girls do
get to choose who they marry," she says emphatically. "Most are 17,
18 and some are as old as 20 when they get married. There have been some who
are 16 and occasionally some who are 15 . .
they never marry without their
Palmer, 45, is Winston
, a powerful businessman and
wealthy landowner, is the former bishop of
Palmer has six children
and works full-time for her brother's company, J.R.
and Sons Co.
"I was 17 when I
married the first time and 32, the second time and absolutely I had a
choice," she says. "It's fabulous. I really love the man."
However, she refuses to
say who her second husband is and how many sister wives she has.
The B.C. government is
launching a wide-ranging probe into every aspect of the reclusive,
57-year-old community. Among other things, the investigation is determining
whether what is happening in
There is a law in
Geoff Plant has promised a police investigation to find out whether any of
those laws are being broken. Plant also said the government will look into
allegations that racism and sexism are being taught at the
government-supported school, as well as allegations that plural wives are
claiming to be single mothers so they can collect welfare and child support.
confirms that the youngest
mother she has seen was only 14. But there have been others who are 15 and 16
when their babies are born. Most women, she says, have had their first child
All of her young mothers
are healthy and so are all of the babies that she's delivered so far.
"For the most part,
younger women have babies easier," says Jane
. "But the younger women
have other problems." She declines to elaborate.
is guarded in what she'll say.
Her caution and reluctance to criticize is not surprising. She wants to
first and only legal wife. Six
of their eight children still live in
"I left because I
was finished living that way. I just want to live..." she paused.
"More time will have to pass before I can say anything more than
"My concerns are
not mainly for the girls, but for the community in general. I'd like there to
be more education and more opportunities. The main change will come when
there is more education."
Debbie Palmer, 49,
shares none of her younger sister's ambiguity about which way of life is
She left the community
in 1988 and has been campaigning against what she calls the sexual
exploitation and assault of
women and children, the forced marriages, the
forced obedience and the dismal level of education ever since.
At 15, Palmer became the
third "wife" to Winston
father -- Ray
, a man 42 years older than her
at the time.
died, Debbie was re-assigned
first to 54-year-old Sam Ralston. By the time she left, she had had three
different "husbands" and eight children. She was never legally
The talk of abuse,
neglect, brainwashing and lack of education makes Marlene Palmer fighting mad
-- particularly at Debbie Palmer, who was once a sister-wife.
But it's difficult to
tell when Marlene is mad. She has taken to heart the church motto to
"keep sweet." Her anger is masked by smiles and laughter.
Palmer disputes the
allegations, especially the suggestions of abuse.
"I am part of
Creston's emergency response team," says Marlene. "I work with the
police. I would never, ever keep abuse quiet. If I knew a child or a woman
was being abused, I would go to the police."
But the tensions in the
community may have more to do with an internal power struggle over control of
the estimated 13,000 followers in
has become a pariah to nearly
half the people in
He now leads a splinter
group of perhaps 600 Canadians. The other 400 in and around