Friday, August 2, 2013

Book Review - Becoming Sister Wives

Becoming Sister Wives: The Story of an Unconventional Marriage


Kody, Meri, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn Brown  

Category: Nonfiction: Memoir: Religion (Mormonism); Marriage; Families; Polygamy

Synopsis: The polygamous Brown family shares the story of their four marriages and one family.

Date finished: 7 July 2013

Rating: ****

Let me just say, I’m probably as surprised as you are to see this rated as a 4-star book. Honestly, I never expected this to be more than a 3-star voyeuristic read, with poor writing quality and lots of drama (or else an utter lack of drama, which would have been worse). I was pleasantly surprised. It’s hard to know how to review books on controversial topics. Reviewers, I believe, have to be careful not to review the lifestyle presented in the book instead of the book itself. In situations like these, I tend to distill it down to “how much did I like the book?” Thus, the four stars.

This was kind of five memoirs in one, because each of the wives (Meri, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn) and Kody (the husband) have a story. Each of these marriages was discussed individually by the wife and by Kody. After that, Kody bows out and lets the women write the book. This was a good move.

They were honest and forthcoming about their shortcomings as individuals, wives, and sister wives. This was a not a tawdry tell-all or a chance to air dirty laundry or bash other wives. Neither was it “safe.” I was sometimes surprised at how frank the women got about their problems with each other—past and present. I think in a family that contains five adults and four marriages—ten relationships total—they’re getting a difficult but rewarding opportunity to learn how to communicate with different types of people, how to be heard without dominating, how to listen without comparing, and how to get their needs met without bowling over another wife’s needs. 

Over and over again the women talked about how they lost themselves at various points in their marriages and relationships with the other wives. I believe this is a common feeling for American women, but I can imagine it could happen more in a family with four marriages.

There wasn’t much missing here in my mind except for a couple small things, such as Robyn not discussing what it was like for her three children to come into a polygamous family and gain three mothers and 13 siblings overnight. Also, although I’ve heard it discussed on their show, they didn’t discuss in the book what the likelihood is of their 17 children, some of which are college-age, choosing polygamy. How would they handle a child turning his back on that part of their faith? Lastly, there was no in-depth discussion about celestial plural marriage. I got the idea that it is considered too sacred to discuss out of family, but I wish I would have at least been told that. I wanted to know why polygamy was so important to them, from them.

But there was one big glaring pink elephant in the corner of the room that they didn’t address: legality. Regardless of how they want to live and what they want for their children, regardless of how successful they are at managing their family, regardless of their feelings that we should all live and let live, polygamy is illegal. Only one of the four marriages is recognized by the government as legal. The other marriages, in the eyes of the government, are nothing more than “shack-ups.” Someone—Janelle I think—did say that Kody’s first wife is his only legal wife, but there should have been a larger discussion in my opinion. How can you write a whole book about polygamy without really addressing this? How do they reconcile their church’s view with the state’s view of polygamy? What do they tell their children about being an “illegal” family? Do they believe it should be legal because it’s a sacred part of their religion? Or do they even care if it’s legal or illegal?

Watching the Sister Wives show is one of my guilty pleasures. I enjoy the couch sessions when they all get together and discuss things. They agree and disagree; they pout, blame, encourage, and appreciate each other. At the same time, I’m not sure I should be watching the show, because for me, it comes down to this: Any “principle” (which is how they refer to their call to plural marriage) that is based on illegality is not, by definition, principled. And unprincipled things live to be destroyed. Perhaps this is what the Latter Day Saints church realized in 1890 when they removed it from their practices. (Or perhaps they did so only to gain statehood….)

At any rate, the book turned out to be a thoughtful and worthy read. The writing, though not stellar, was much better than anticipated. And although they often glossed over things, they didn’t often gloss over big things. Likewise, the wives didn’t repeat things in their individual sections. Either they had help writing the book (no one was credited) or they had a very good editor, because the book flowed well considering there were five authors.

What I learned (my comments in italics):

Kody: Being in love with four women is easy, but not easy at the same time. (page 7)
Can you imagine having four marriages, each going through ups and downs, perhaps two or more struggling at the same time?!

Kody: Of course, a man must have the permission of his wives to consider a courtship. (page 8)

Kody: Our biggest struggles have been financial. (page 9)
After reading the wives’ sections, I wonder if they’d agree. I wonder if they’d say interpersonal relationships were their biggest challenges.

Kody: Quite often in our faith, it’s the woman who approaches the family she is interested in. …typically she builds a relationship with the first wife or wives, then she will tell her father, who then speaks to the father of the husband in the family. (page 43)

Robyn: The majority of men in our faith have two wives. Fewer have three wives, and hardly any have four. (page 73)

Janelle: Comparison is the death of plural marriage. (page 130)

Robyn (newest wife): I thought at first that my sister wives would just insist that their kids look at me as a mom, but I’ve realized that it is up to me to claim that role. (page 202)

And lastly, here’s a bit of their family tree that I had to draw out to make sense of:

Janelle (wife 2) was married to Meri’s (wife 1) brother. Janelle’s mom married Kody’s father. So, Kody and Janelle are siblings and husband and wife. And Meri and Janelle were in-laws before becoming sister wives and after becoming sister wives.

Would you recommend this to a friend?

I’d say if they’re interested, read it.

No comments:

Post a Comment