Feature: Wednesday, May 30, 2002
They Do,They Do

The polygamy world is proliferating via the internet — Especially in Texas.

By Dave Mann

We a couple in our 40’s. We live in Texas in the greater DFW area. [She] is bi-curious. [He] is straight. We are looking for couples and or select singles. We may consider relocating for the right people. We are a Poly Christian couple.

Single Christian male seeking women to become my wives and start a family in which all of the wives would be bearing children at about the same time. Women should be single, 18-35 years of age without children and interested in birthing 3 or more children each. Beautiful, intelligent, voluptuous, and big-breasted women are preferred.

— Internet ads

You probably don’t think much about polygamy. Sure, you’re aware of it hypothetically, in the same way we’re aware of midget bowling or Komodo dragons, that they exist in some far off, backward place — in polygamy’s case, maybe a barren swath of Utah where some renegade Mormon cult leader acquires wives much as he’d build a stamp collection. Mostly, though, the idea of multiple spouses remains shunted to society’s fringes, off our collective cultural radar, only occasionally surfacing in the form of an MTV special or press coverage of a bigamy trial or a particularly outrageous episode of Sally Jesse Raphael. Or it’s a joke, the stuff of e-mail chain-letter humor — such as the Utah brewery that made national news last year with its Polygamy Porter and accompanying slogan, “Why have just one?” (After a public outcry, the beer and slogan were pulled. Apparently folks in Utah are a little sensitive about the P-word.)

But guess what?Polygamists, like the truth, are out there, and maybe not as far away — or as few in number — as you think. Hundreds of thousands of polygamist families now live in the United States. Millions more indulge in various other kinds of quasi-polygamous practices, generally called polyamory, involving committed relationships with multiple partners. The numbers of both groups are growing, and Texas is a particular hot spot: Most major Texas cities — including Fort Worth — have a polyamory group, and rural areas host an expanding number of “traditional” polygamist families, meaning one man and several wives.

The growth is due largely to — what else? — the internet, that great life-giver to all things alternative. When Oregon polygamist Michael Shone started his polygamy web site, 3coins.com, in 1997, it was one of just three such sites on the internet. Now, according to some estimates, there are more than 1,500 polygamy and poly sites. The web is like a full-service bank: It connects previously isolated poly-friendly people (most polyamory groups function through e-mail list-serves), and it offers matchmaking services to polygamists and “how-to” guides for living the multi-spouse lifestyle without getting arrested or losing your kids (bigamy, after all, is a crime in all 50 states). Like conspiracy theories, the idea of multiple loves has found a thriving home in cyberspace.

Go deep enough in the country, and you may find dope-growing, free-loving counterculture liberals farming next to gun-toting Bible-twisting right-wingers — drawn to the same spot by shared suspicions of government, but separated by a vast political gulf. The same thing happens when you venture into the fields of poly — an encompassing term meaning committed (though not necessarily married) multi-partner relationships.

On the far right, the stereotypical, ultra-conservative polygamists — Bible-thumpers who would make Pat Robertson look tolerant and who treat women like cars, things to be possessed and taken care of. They preach the biblical roots of polygyny (meaning one man with multiple wives) and say that anything else is immoral. On the far left, by contrast, pagan polyamorists whose approach to relationships rejects society’s traditional constraints and who become involved in committed, long-term (and usually unmarried) affairs with two, three, four, or more in which everyone is involved with one another like, as one polyamorist puts it, “spaghetti thrown down on a table — everyone intermingling.” Of course, most people who practice polygamy and polyamory lie somewhere in between these extremes, blending traditional religious values with progressive open-mindedness.

Some are in four-person marriages, some simply in long-term committed affairs with, say, five people — but eschew the polygamy label and its slicing social stigma. They instead choose harmless names such as polyamory or poly-fidelity. It all gets pretty confusing. The definitions and boundaries are fuzzy: One person’s polyamory could be polygamy to someone else. General rules, not surprisingly, are hard to come by, and many simply make it up as they go along. “There are as many definitions of this as there are people practicing it,” one polygamist says.

So, polygamy — who knew? Apparently, hardly anyone. The polygamists and polyamorists understandably keep a low profile, content to keep co-workers, neighbors, friends, even family members in the dark, which isn’t difficult in a culture just awakening to the idea of homosexual couples, to say nothing of poly.

But it’s clear that the realm of love, sex, and marriage — where there was once one “right way” — has fractured into an ever-expanding honeycomb of “alternate lifestyles.” Just read the alphabet-soup codes of the personals. (“DBBiM slave seeks same for mutually beneficial relationship” That’s personals code for “divorced black bisexual male.”)

Beyond the stereotypes and the jokes, the idea of polygamy and other poly versions still seems shockingly sexist and oddball. All kinds of goofy questions come up: How do they file tax returns? Is there a schedule on the refrigerator for who sleeps with whom when? Can they raise healthy kids living like that (another morally booby-trapped issue)? Ask Austin resident Terri Avalon, formerly involved in a four-way marriage. Her response? Aren’t people’s private lives their own business? If multi-partner dating or marriage makes people happy, what right does the government have to say they can’t do it or to yank away their children?

Those who have seen the destructive potential of relationships in which men use polygamy as a power mechanism to control and isolate women and children think the current growth in such arrangements is alarming. Polygamists and polyamorists, however, say those few horror stories should not indict the whole concept of multiple loves; they contend they’re involved in just another consensual alternative lifestyle, and, like homosexuals, are looking for acceptance and tolerance. They object to any suggestion that they are social outcasts — they work in large companies, live in nice neighborhoods, send their kids to good schools. As Avalon says, “The weirdest thing about it was that it felt so normal. We were Ozzie and Harriet, Ozzie and Harriet.”

You don’t, it seems, wake up one day and decide to be a polygamist. Brian Murray-Wachtendorf, like the dozen or so other polygamists and polyamorists interviewed for this story (none of them Mormons, by the way), had always practiced monogamous relationships, even a monogamous marriage. Now he’s about as polygamous as they come. A child behavior specialist, guidance counselor, and writer, Murray-Wachtendorf lives on a sprawling estate in Waller, a rural community of heaving farmland about 30 miles outside Houston, with his two wives, seven children, two dogs, and a hamster.

If there’s such a thing as a national spokesman for polygamy, it’s probably Murray-Wachtendorf. He recently wrote an autobiographical pro-polygamy book called A Three-Ring Marriage: Beyond dysfunction to a dynamic family life. In stumbling prose, he chronicles his disturbing childhood in Little Rock, Ark., public housing with an abusive father and alcoholic mother, and his suffering through a string of beatings and sexual violations by family members and neighbors. Following his troubled childhood were several stops and starts as an adult (including a jail stint for insurance fraud) before finally finding happiness in polygamy. On June 7, he plans to marry a third wife in a purely symbolic ceremony (he says he doesn’t need government sanctioning for his marriage) that will double as a polygamy photo op. Seeking press coverage, he has pitched the event to 48 Hours, The Dallas Morning News, Playboy, The New York Times. It soon becomes clear I’m not the first reporter to interview the family. He’s admittedly trying to boost sales for his book, but he insists his main mission is to “increase awareness, understanding, and tolerance for this lifestyle. I don’t believe [polygamy] to be the answer or a better answer, just an answer.” We are sitting in the expansive living room of his family’s stunning log cabin-style house. If Donald Trump ever built himself a log cabin, it might look like this place: 24-foot ceilings, built-in bar, and 60-inch television perched above the living room.

It’s a cloudy day in early May, and Murray-Wachtendorf has allowed me to visit his home on two preconditions: that I mention his book in my story and that I remain open-minded. He’s a tall man in his early 40s, with wide shoulders and sagging gut, his black hair in a ponytail. He talks in a slow, occasionally condescending, cadence, colored with a slight Southern accent. Clearly well-read, Murray-Wachtendorf seems tempted to tell you everything in his head at once, diverging on tangents and unrelated topics before dead-ending into a “What was the question, again?” or “Now, what was I talking about?” Leaning back in his leather chair, he starts down a riff on the biblical, historical, genetic, and social basis for polygamy. Of course, polygamy has been with us as long as marriage, and we know that, in the Bible, King Solomon had more than a hundred wives. Murray-Wachtendorf and other polygamists often point out that 80 countries around the world permit polygamy in some form. “Even if it had total social acceptance, no more than 10 or 15 percent of the population will ever practice it,” he says. Still, that would mean 25 to 30 million polygamists in the United States, roughly 20 times the population of Dallas (current estimates, though extremely rough, put the number of polygamists at about 500,000). Murray-Wachtendorf argues that 10 to 15 percent would fill a critical need for a society that has a surplus of unmarried women, especially with more women spending their 20s building a career. Polygamy, he says, gives women more access to reliable husbands and fathers. “If [married] men were permitted and tolerated to open up their homes to other women, we wouldn’t have as many fatherless children; we wouldn’t have as many husbandless women.

“Now this sounds really sexist, and I’m sure I’ll get calls and have to defend it,” he continues, lurching into another riff. “Most every woman is looking for a man in whom she can trust enough to yield some of the control of daily living. Now there’s a word we call that. The word has been so bastardized and so defamed that even when I use it, understanding what it really means, it’s embarrassing for me to use. I don’t use the word because of all its connotations. Guess which word I’m referring to?” He pauses. “It’ll come to you. The word’s in your vocabulary. Most every woman is looking for a man in whom she can trust to yield some of the control of daily living. What is that word? Whisper it, because if you say it very loud they’ll put this big brand on your chest.” He gives me another chance. I shrug. “The word is ‘submissive.’ ” He adds with a laugh, “Now, be careful with that one.”

Murray-Wachtendorf first seriously contemplated polygamy while attending the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. That’s where he met Pam, now 38. They married in 1985, just as he finished school. He says that, while he loved Pam and was happy with their marriage, he felt something was missing. In his book, Murray-Wachtendorf admits to chronic philandering when his wife left town. One night, he met Kathy, who later became pregnant with his first child. It was then, he writes, that he realized he loved Kathy and his child, yet still loved his wife. He says he started to question why he couldn’t love them both. No one would doubt that a parent could love two children at once, so why couldn’t a man love two women? Breaking the news to Pam, his wife of two years, was one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do, he says. Kathy then moved in, and Brian married her in 1987.

Didn’t that break the law? No, he says, since it was a symbolic ceremony. As far as the state of Arkansas was concerned, he was married only to Pam, even though Kathy had become what’s known as a “sister-wife.” This is how most polygamists avoid prosecution — for all intents and purposes marrying a second or third time, though not registering the marriage with the government. “The state has no business in such matters,” Murray-Wachtendorf says. Some polygamist families even incorporate themselves to ensure life insurance and health care benefits cover all partners.

Later on, I ask if jealousy and bitterness ever bubbled to the surface, and he confesses that it had. “Pam fussed and fought a bit,” Murray-Wachtendorf says. “She had some insecurities about whether I could still love her and Kathy. It was about a year and a half before things really began to solidify between us.”

For their part, the wives are as gung-ho on polygamy as their husband. Pam and Kathy raved about the financial advantages (three incomes), added care for the children, and less housework. Now that they’ve been together 15 years, Pam says, she couldn’t envision life any other way. I point out that most people would label polygamy a sexist institution. Pam argues the opposite, that it allows her and Kathy, who are college-educated, to pursue careers (Pam as an executive with a chemical company and Kathy as a Yellow Pages salesperson) without surrendering their kids to daycare. “I’m not a feminist by any means,” she says. “But I tell people all the time that I don’t know what I’d do without Kathy. If it were just me and Brian, he’d feel burdened because I’m just not as patient as Kathy. It wouldn’t be as happy a home.”

Since moving to Texas five years ago, Murray-Wachtendorf says, the family has had no negative reactions to their lifestyle, which he says most people in his small community know about. “We’re not the stereotype,” he says. “We have these wonderful kids who walk and talk and their teeth are straight and their eyes are straight.” If they don’t bother anyone, most Texans, Murray-Wachtendorf says, will let his family be. He speculates that Texas is a hot spot for polygamy and polyamory because of the state’s deeply held mentality of “whatever you do on your property is your business, as long as it doesn’t bother me,” Murray-Wachtendorf says. “It’s the frontier mentality. The tolerance we’ve found here has been very refreshing.” That’s in contrast to some incidents of harassment when the family lived in Conway. And, for the most part, Texas polygamists have little to fear from law enforcement authorities. Since few polygamists register their second marriage with the state, they technically sidestep the bigamy statutes (bigamy is only a misdemeanor in Texas, anyway). Michael Hess, ombudsman assistant with state Child Protective Services, says polygamy in and of itself is not cause enough for his agency to remove children from a home — a pattern of neglect and abuse must be established for the state to step in.

Still, the family tries to limit its interactions with the government. And in case you were curious about their taxes: Brian and Pam file jointly as a married couple and claim all seven children as dependents. Kathy files separately.

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