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Love Times Three is sure to evoke strong reactions. Joe Darger and his three wives tell the story of their marriage with the aim of showing that they are ordinary people struggling with ordinary problems. They want intimacy, love, success for their children, and a good relationship with God. They identify as independent fundamentalist Mormons, which is a small group, separate from the Church of Latter-Day Saints, and unlike that main group, the independents still practice polygamy. All through the book, Joe, Vicki, Valerie, and Alina describe their friends and acquaintances who have many wives and astonishing numbers of children. They often talk about families with 20, 30, 40 or more children. Sometimes they all live in one house, and in other cases the different mothers live in separate houses or trailers. But the book is good at silencing worries about polygamy. The Dargers come across as model parents in most ways, giving their children discipline, values, and freedom. They don't force them to follow their religion, and they educate them about other religions. They use a mixture of home schooling and public schools, and the children end up doing well. The adolescents go through normal teenage rebellion and struggles, but they still love and respect their parents. The family seems to operate with cooperation and even democracy: never does it seems like Joe Darger lays down the law for everyone else. So their message that they should be allowed to practice their polygamy in freedom, without shame or threat of prosecution or discrimination, seems entirely reasonable.
Of course, polygamy has had very bad press in the last few years. Most notoriously, there has been the trial of Warren Jeffs, with accusations connecting him to the sexual abuse of young girls. If you search on Amazon.com for books to do with polygamy, you will find mostly tales of escape from Mormon sects where husbands mistreated their wives, who were often underage. Even in Love Times Three, Valerie talks about her previous marriage to another polygamist who did not live up to his responsibilities as a husband, and forced her to have sex when she didn't want to. So the book fails to address the worry that polygamy is not well represented by their family. My suspicion is that more typically polygamous families where a man has many wives involve women who are not the equal of the men in authority or ability to live independently. If the women are often mistreated and disempowered in these situations, then we should be far more cautious about making it easier for polygamy to occur. Indeed, the Dargers spend much more time discussing their own wonderful family than their religious beliefs and their ideas about the relative power and authority of men and women in marriage. So while they are eloquent in their case that they should not be discriminated against, they don't do much to set the reader's mind at rest about the possible inequality in these polygamous marriages.
One powerful point they do make, however, is that making polygamy illegal does not prevent it, but just makes people hide it more, driving it underground. If people are worried about being prosecuted for their polygamous marriage, then the women will be even less willing to come forward and try to get help because they are being mistreated. So making polygamy illegal may be counterproductive. The other powerful point they make is that spousal abuse and child abuse occurs in monogamous marriages, and yet people don't propose remedying that by making monogamy illegal. They make the very cogent argument that we should make harmful behavior illegal, but we prevent adults from practicing their religion when they are not harming anyone.
When reading this memoir, one also wonders about their position on gay marriage. Mormon groups exerted strong influences recently in California over the proposal to ban gay marriage. It would be entirely inconsistent for them to demand personal freedoms for their own lifestyle while at the same time working towards refusing the same freedoms to gay and lesbian people. Of course, their conservative religious beliefs will mean that they can't support gay and lesbian lifestyles, so this will be a difficult issue for them. Nevertheless, they have to recognize that what's good for the goose is good for the gander, and they have to support the legality of gay and lesbian marriage if they want the state to recognize their own plural marriages.
Secular liberal readers such as myself will find little to object to in the Darger's polygamy, but will be far more troubled by their extremely large families and will be puzzled by the bizarre theological beliefs of the Mormons and the teachings of Joseph Smith. The Dargers don't do anything to make their theological beliefs any more palatable or explicable, but they do help to explain the appeal of large families. They grew up in large families themselves and they look back on their childhoods with great affection. People unfamiliar with such experiences wonder whether the parents would be able to remember all the children's names and they note that having so many children generally means that they have to live a simple life because they have little money to spare. The Dargers show that such concerns are not well motivated: of course the parents remember their children's names and care for each, even if they don't have the same time for each that they would if there just 2 or 3 children. Just because there is little money does not mean that the parents are able to love their children less, and they remember their childhoods as extremely full and rich. Of course, one might wonder whether having so many children is ecologically responsible at a time when the earth will soon not be able to sustain all the humans inhabiting it, but this sort of worry is far removed from the quality of experience of family life, and in the absence of a thorough comparison of the ecological responsibility of living a wide variety of lifestyles, is hardly a serious objection to such large families.
In summary, Love Times Three is a provocative and enjoyable book that will lead many readers to question their own prejudices, and as such, it deserves attention.
The unabridged audiobook is performed by four narrators who bring a great deal of natural enthusiasm to the reading. It is an energetic and compelling performance.
© 2011 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York