Authors: Joe Darger, Alina Darger, Vicki Darger, Valerie Darger, and Brooke Adams
Like many people, my entire knowledge of polygamy comes from how it’s represented in sensational news stories, TV shows, and novels — many of which have their own reasons for presenting polygamous marriages as salacious, abusive, and culty. Controversial even when Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, instituted the practice of “celestial marriage” in the 19th century, plenty of people today despise polygamists with a burning rage that drives them to violence and hate crimes. So, whatever you may think of the institution itself, it did take courage for this polygamous family — Joe Darger and his wives Alina, Vicki, and Val — to come forward and tell the story of their marriage, as a counterbalance to polygamy’s glamorized yet tawdry media portrayals.
The (ghostwritten) story is told alternately by each of the four participants in the marriage. In a nutshell, Alina and Vicki met Joe when they were all teenagers, and reconnected a few years later in college. Joe’s mother noticed both girls’ interest in Joe, and slyly suggested that they consider plural marriage; after some heavy thought, discussion, and prayer, the three decided they wanted to do it. Typically, a husband marries his first wife and they develop a relationship as spouses before later adding other wives to the mix, so Alina and Vicki’s parents were concerned about the joint courtship and marriage; while Joe, Alina, and Vicki admit that there were challenges and jealousies associated with developing two sets of sexual and romantic bonds simultaneously, they say that in the end, it deepened their trust and commitment. Meanwhile, Vicki’s twin sister Val — didn’t see that coming, did you? — was trapped in an unhappy plural marriage to a much older man who was emotionally abusive and a gambling addict. Finally fleeing with her children after over a decade, Val looked to her sister Vicki for support, as well as a model of a happy marriage; what none of them expected was that Val would eventually join the family as Joe’s third (and final) wife.
About all that can be said for the quality of the writing is that it’s clear and simple, and seems to accurately reflect each person’s natural voice. There’s a strong flavor of gee-whiz, willful wholesomeness running throughout the narration, so prepare yourself for a lot of G-rated cuss-word substitutes, rapturous descriptions of picnics and trampolines, and exclamation points. The point of view trades off frequently, so you do end up reading duplicate accounts of the same events at times, but it can be interesting to see their differing perspectives. Fortunately, we’re not here to savor the prose; we’re here to learn about polygamy from the inside, and for the most part, they fulfill a reader’s curiosity. There are even short chapters from a couple of the Dargers’ kids, although they’re pretty boring, frankly.
Okay! Let’s talk “celestial marriage,” aka the practice of “living plural marriage.” What many of us might consider the squickiest part of the whole tale – the fact that two sisters married the same dude – doesn’t faze the Dargers, because, they say, this is a pretty common arrangement for polygamous societies around the globe. If you dearly love your sister and you dearly love your husband (goes the logic), what greater gift could you give her than to share your happy, fulfilled marriage so that she can experience and share fully in its joy? Well, there are socioeconomic reasons why this might be pragmatic or even beneficial in certain circumstances, but it can also lead to the devaluing and objectification of women, increased crime rates amongst alienated young men who can’t afford spouses (or who are exiled from the community to reduce competition for wives), and damaged relationships when patriarchs are financially and emotionally spread too thin. At least for consenting adults who voluntarily enter into a plural marriage, especially if there’s no history of it in their own immediate family, it seems more likely that they’re choosing it because they genuinely feel it will lead to fulfilling relationships with their partners. And, according to the Dargers, it really is a personal choice for each individual: polygamous parents don’t necessarily beget polygamous children (and vice versa), the number of sister wives per family varies widely, and some marriages remain permanently monogamous, and all are accepted equally within their church.
Sad to say, if you’re looking for prurient thrills, you may come away a bit disappointed, except for the twin-sister-wives thing. But if you want to read a firsthand account of actual people living in polygamy — or you just really like circa-1980s and -1990s photos of big bangs, white pumps, and tucked-in blouses — this is an enjoyable and interesting peek into a world that most of us, for better or for worse, will probably never experience.
– Stephanie P.