Inhuman Swill : March 2001

[from my ongoing memoir]

There was one group we tried not to tangle with, though: our archenemies, the Jehovah's Witlesses—er, Witnesses. If we were dogs, then the Jay-Dubs were cats. If we were water, they were fire. If we were Superman, they were Lex Luthor. We did not get along. I think the antipathy stemmed mostly from the fact that people were always mistaking one of us for the other when we knocked at their doors. In fact, I recall once later on my mission when I had just been transferred to a new area. My new companion and I were walking down a quiet, shady street doing callbacks on a sunny spring day when suddenly he stiffened and went pale.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"See that guy a few houses down, out watering his lawn?" asked my companion.


"Well, we knocked on his door last week and he came out just screaming at us, telling us to get the hell off his property and leave him alone. I thought he was going to kill us."

We crossed to the far side of the street, walking briskly and hoping to escape the man's notice, but just when we thought we were safe he called out, "Hey! Hey, you guys!"

We turned around. "Uh, us?" my companion called.

"Yeah, you. Come here!"

The guy was a bear, huge and shaggy, with arms the size of trees bulging out of his wifebeater T-shirt. He turned off his hose as we meekly crossed the street. "Hey, are you guys Mormons?" he asked, eyes narrowed in a threatening glare.

"Yes, sir," said my quaking companion.

"I kinda figured." He shook his head and sighed, looking suddenly abashed. "Oh, boy. I have to apologize for yelling at you the way I did before. I thought you were Jehovah's Witnesses."

To the casual observer, the one who doesn't give a shit, it can be tough to distinguish between Mormons and Jay-Dubs. Both groups have strange beliefs. Both go door-to-door thrusting books or pamphlets into people's hands. Both try to tell you they're the only ones who can give you the true religion, and both bristle at being called cults. But beyond that, the two faiths are really nothing alike, and they're about as pleased to be confused with each other as Mexicans are when we gringos can't tell them apart. It's an insult, but one the perpetrator is rarely aware of making.

We and the Jehovah's Witnesses hated each other the way only entities competing for the same ecological niche can. We could never have reasonable conversations with them. If we tracted into a Jay-Dub home the discussion always seemed to devolve into a fruitless argument, with us harping on them for the backward notion that only 144,000 souls would be saved and dwell with God and them twitting us for the evil belief that we could become gods ourselves. No one watching would have understood what we were fighting about, nor would they have cared.

My favorite Jay-Dub encounter came early one day when Snow and I were visiting Van Wagoner and Bishop, the two other elders in our district. It was about eight-thirty, and we had arranged to hold companionship study together that morning as a group. We were just getting started when someone knocked at the door. Elder Van Wagoner, a rangy fellow who had grown up on a ranch in southern Utah, went to see who it was. He was wearing his white dress shirt, but he hadn't put on his tie or black name tag yet.

There were two little old ladies at the door, arms loaded down with copies of The Watchtower and Awake! They asked Van Wagoner if they could come in and share the word of Jehovah's Kingdom. "Surely," he said. "Right this way."

He led the two ladies into the living room, where the rest of us were seated around a small table piled with copies of the Book of Mormon, our name tags as plain as the smiles on our faces. The poor old ladies froze, two rabbits who had just stumbled into a den of hungry jackals, eyes blinking like signal lamps behind their thick glasses.

"Er, actually," said the first, "I believe we have an appointment elsewhere. Perhaps it would be better if we came back another time."

Yeah, like the Second Coming.

Bringing the grand total to 859 ms pages. Shoot me now.

So there I was, just working on yet another redesign of the Sesame Workshop site, when I stumbled across this parenting article.

It describes me perfectly, and it was odd to hear myself described and potential explanations for why I am that way put forward. Of course, I haven't been paralyzed by shyness for a long time, but it does still get in the way of my social interactions sometimes, especially when I'm otherwise under a lot of stress. Weird.

Maybe some of the suggestions in the article for teaching kids to overcome shyness will work for me now.

Hefty spam

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Just got spam that says:

Guys, Add 4 Inches To Your Penis!!! Our Program Works Guaranteed!!! CLICK HERE TO SEE!!!
Uh-huh. And what do I want to do exactly? Puncture someone's stomach?

[Looks like marriage is in the air. For more info on what the heck is going on here, click here.]

The modern church has plenty of embarrassing historical specters hanging around, but few haunt it the way polygamy does. The church has tried to distance itself from the practice in the past century, but with mixed results. If you ask most Mormons today whether or not they believe it's proper to practice polygamy, they'll tell you no. But if you ask them whether or not it's a correct principle, they'll say yes.

In fact, the practice of polygamy is an excommunicable offense, and has been for many decades. This has not always been the case, however—polygamy was once, deservedly (and still is, erroneously), the chief distinguishing characteristic of Mormonism in the minds of most Americans—and many Saints believe it may not always be the case in the future. They look forward to the day when the moral and political climate in the United States and other nations has cooled enough to permit the church to reinstitute the practice—though the more reasonable of these don't expect it to happen until Christ's Millennial reign on Earth. (Note that I specified "the more reasonable.")

So, what is polygamy, and how did the practice arise?

The word comes from Greek roots, and means, quite literally, "multiple mates." The more proper term for what Mormons practiced would be "polygyny," or "multiple wives," though a bit of polyandry ("multiple husbands") did creep in there at the beginning—much to the distress of the Saints to whom this fact is pointed out. (And lest we banish semantic confusion entire, I'll point out that Mormons prefer the term "plural marriage," though they're fighting a losing battle on that one, just as they are with the label "Mormon" itself.)

The first Mormon polygamist was, as you may guess, Joseph Smith himself. Critics sometimes charge he concocted the whole plural-marriage scheme to cover up and sanctify marital infidelities, but if so he did some very careful advance planning. The first hint of his unconventional philosophies to come can be found in the Book of Mormon, in a sermon delivered by the prophet Jacob to the people of Nephi, which Joseph wrote (or translated, if you prefer) in 1829:

. . . [T]hey understand not the scriptures, for they seek to excuse themselves in committing whoredoms, because of the things which were written concerning David, and Solomon his son.

Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord. . . .

Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none . . .

For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things (Jacob 2:23, 24, 27, 30).

This passage seems to suggest, if you squint at it sideways and cock your head, that God can, when necessary, suspend the laws of monogamy—presumably so that every woman of child-bearing age can get a legitimate bun in the oven and help His earthly kingdom explode in population like a warren of rabbits. In any event, when you recall that Biblical figures other than David and Solomon practiced polygyny with God's blessing, you see that, even this early in his prophetic career, Joseph was already trying to reconcile problematic aspects of the Old Testament with the conventional Christian morality of his day.

Evidence suggests that Joseph's first explicit "revelation" on the subject of plural marriage came as early as 1831, but even so, it's important to realize that his marital innovations were hardly unique. Other religious communities in the Northeast, including the Perfectionists and the Swedenborgians, experimented with nonstandard sexual mores during roughly the same period. But Joseph's teachings were destined to overshadow and by far outlive the others, both in actual implementation and in the nation's thrilled and horrified popular imagination.

Joseph had married Emma Hale in 1827, and commencing in 1830 he may secretly have entreated girls as young as twelve to become his "spiritual wives." But it wasn't until 1833 that his first well-documented plural marriage took place, when he wed Fanny Alger, a sixteen-year-old girl working as a maid in the house where he lived with Emma and their children in Kirtland, Ohio. Joseph's clandestine proposal may have been relayed to Fanny by her uncle, Levi Hancock, who is also held to have performed the ceremony at the prophet's behest. Though Emma knew nothing of this second marriage, she suspected a relationship between Fanny and her husband and threw the girl out of the house not long after the wedding. (Fanny may possibly have been pregnant with Joseph's child at the time.)

Joseph's next generally accepted marriage took place in 1838, to Lucinda Pendleton Morgan Harris, widow of the martyr William Morgan (the very man killed in 1826 for having written his famous exposé of Masonry). Lucinda was Joseph's first verifiable polyandrous wife; she was already married to minor Mormon leader George Washington Harris, when she wed Joseph.

This pattern would repeat itself many times over the next several years, as nearly a dozen of the at least thirty-three women he web polygynously were already married. Some had converted to Mormonism and moved west without divorcing their husbands, but others, like Marinda Nancy Johnson Hyde, were wives of other prominent church leaders. (Marinda, in fact, married Joseph while her husband, apostle Orson Hyde, was serving a mission for the church in Palestine.) Joseph also married the young (and dare I suggest nubile?) daughters of many of his closest associates, and you are entirely justified in wondering what led these men to put up with their prophet's shenanigans.

Well, around this same period, Joseph was also developing his doctrine of celestial marriage, which states that men and women who are "sealed" together by priesthood authority on Earth will remain married eternally in Heaven. His lieutenants may have permitted (or rather, not opposed) Joseph's celestial marriages to their wives and daughters in order to ensure the proximity of their own links to his in the great dynastic chain he was forging for the life to come. These were magnanimous gestures on the parts of his followers, though heartbreaking when you realize that because women were (and still are) allowed to marry only one husband eternally, these men were in effect sacrificing their own celestial marriages with their first and presumably most beloved wives for the sake of the prophet.

(Joseph for his part may also have been testing the loyalty and obedience of his closest counselors. Tradition holds that an agonized Parley Pratt, then an apostle, consented to let the prophet wed his cherished wife Mary Ann, only to have Joseph let him off the hook at the last second. Their faithfulness proven, Joseph told the relieved Pratts that they were blessed for their obedience but that the sacrifice would not be required of them after all. Psych!)

As Joseph's plural marriages proliferated, so did the rumors flying around Nauvoo (the city in Illinois to which the Saints had meanwhile relocated) of his sexual malfeasance. Only those who had to know were taught the principle of plural marriage, and Joseph publicly denied the rumors of its practice time and again. Not even Emma knew the truth of the matter, though she certainly suspected Joseph of continual infidelity. The situation at home came to a head when Eliza R. Snow, Joseph's fourteenth or so plural wife, came to live and work as a teacher in the Smith's home. In February 1843 Emma's jealousy of Eliza reached such a pitch that she angrily tossed the other woman out of the house and into the night. (One account claims that Emma actually kicked Eliza down the stairs, causing the younger wife to miscarry Joseph's child.)

So many of Joseph's lieutenants were now living in polygamy as well that it was harder and harder to keep the practice hidden. Joseph was finally forced, lest she murder his suspected mistresses, to let Emma in on the secret. She didn't take the news well, but did assume responsibility for selecting Joseph's next wives. Evidently Joseph hadn't told her the whole truth, however, because the first girls Emma chose to wed him, sisters barely out of their teens named Emily and Eliza Partridge, were already his plural wives. Joseph staged a second marriage ceremony with the sisters so Emma wouldn't feel more angry and humiliated than she did already, after which the girls moved into the house. Another sister pair selected by Emma, the teenaged Sarah and Maria Lawrence, soon joined them.

Emma never embraced the practice of polygamy, however, and found the necessity of living under the same roof with other wives nearly intolerable. (Joseph's polyandrous wives for the most part lived with their original husbands, and many others boarded with families privy to the secret.) She begged Joseph so fervently to disavow the principle (either that or permit her to take "spiritual husbands" to assuage her horrid loneliness) that when he finally issued a revelation from God legitimizing plural marriage, it contained a side note to Emma, telling her, in so many words, that if she didn't shut up and get with the program she'd be "destroyed" (D&C 132:54).

Emma really didn't take that well. Later, after Joseph's death, she repudiated polygamy entirely, going so far as to deny that Joseph had ever had any wife but her. She stayed behind when Brigham Young led the great exodus to the Salt Lake Valley, and her son Joseph Smith III became the president of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a sect headquartered in Missouri that claims prophetic succession passes only from father to son.

The practice of plural marriage flourished in Utah. Apostles Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball between them married (for time only, not eternity) the bulk of Joseph's wives who didn't already have other husbands, and of course they and other leaders had already amassed plenty of wives of their own. Lesser leaders and other prominent men acquired plural wives as well, though rarely more than two or three apiece. Unlike Joseph, these men actually supported all their wives and their families, and in 1852 Brigham Young, by now accepted as the new prophet, at last publicly acknowledged the Mormon practice of polygamy, canonizing Joseph's 1843 revelation on the subject.

Though plural marriage in this era was practiced within a strict moral framework, with little bawdiness and often less joy, the rest of the country was outraged by the deviant proceedings in the new territory of Utah. Starting in 1862, the U.S. Congress enacted an escalating series of laws intended to root out the evil of polygamy and restore decency to the nation. Utahns laughed at the earliest of these laws, for local enforcement lay in the hands of Mormon-dominated courts, but later legislation sent Federal agents to the territory to ensure that scofflaw polygamists went to jail.

In 1887, with many of the church's highest leaders already in hiding to avoid prison sentences, Congress passed the toughest law of all, the Edmunds-Tucker Act, which legislated the LDS church out of existence and placed its assets into receivership. (Say what you will about polygamy, this response to it was one of the more shameful acts in Congress's shameful history.) John Taylor, third church president, died in hiding that year, having already overseen the transfer of most church property into private hands to prevent its seizure by the government. His successor Wilford Woodruff announced the official end of polygamy in 1890, in a declaration that set the stage for Utah's admission to the Union in 1896 and the eventual restoration of the church's sanctioned legal status.

The Manifesto (as it was known), for all its rhetoric, did not disavow plural marriage as a correct eternal principle, but merely forbade the Saints from practicing it. He and his two successors continued to sanction certain secret plural marriages until as late as 1907, however, despite continuing skirmishes between Congress and the church and a "Second Manifesto" from sixth president Joseph F. Smith in 1904 reaffirming the cessation of polygamy.

Most Mormons abided by the new declarations, but a zealous minority continued practicing plural marriage underground, believing either that the Manifestos were just for show or that the leaders of the church had gone astray and betrayed bedrock principles faithful members were required to follow to achieve salvation. Polygamous communities thrive to this day, largely in remote areas of Utah and Arizona, though quietly practicing families can be found in most every large city in Utah. (A polygamous family lived up the street from us in Bountiful, in a dilapidated house on a large corner lot so cluttered with rusting cars and overgrown with shaggy trees that it looked like it had been transported whole from some poor backwoods hamlet circa 1930. I never saw any of the parents, but I understand there were something like three wives and eleven children in the house. The boy my age was named Zed—short for Zedekiah—and he came to school in homespun clothes that looked like they'd passed through the hands of several older brothers. He was a sweet kid and I liked him, but rarely was he allowed to play with the rest of us on the block after school.)

How does the law view polygamy today? It's still illegal of course, though traditionally state governments have left polygamous families alone. As more and more instances of child and spousal abuse and even incest among these families come to light, however, prosecution is growing more common. Certainly not all polygamists are otherwise lawbreakers, but the ones who are bring plenty of unwanted attention to the ones who aren't, and give a bad name to them all.

The modern church takes a unilaterally hardline stance against polygamy. Any orthodox Mormon found to be practicing polygamy get excommunicated—no if's, and's, or but's. The church has worked so hard over the past century to buff itself up for the media and drag itself into the respectable mainstream that it can't abide any association that harks back to the days of cultish infamy. And that's fine with most polygamists; the ones who still call themselves Mormon belong to splinter sects and no longer acknowledge the authority of the leaders in Salt Lake City. There's no love lost here.

Plural marriage in the afterlife still stands as an enticement to mainstream Mormon men, however. If your first eternal wife should die before you, you have perfect freedom to get sealed to a second (provided, of course, that's she's never been sealed to a different husband), and in that event you don't even have to get the first wife's permission! Not only that, but Mormon tradition holds that there will naturally be more women than men in the Celestial Kingdom, and every man who makes it will have more than his share assigned to him as wives. (And they'll have perfect bodies, too, even if they didn't in this life!)

Bottom line: If you're a Mormon man, you have strong incentives to behave in this life and a lot to look forward to in the next—even disregarding the ever-present hope that polygamy might be reinstated as an earthly institution within your lifetime. Woo-hoo!

If you're a Mormon woman—well, the story for you is a little different. Rather than launch into an elaborate treatise on the subject, I'll simply reproduce something my friend Benny wrote me in E-mail as we were corresponding on the subject of this very book:
Regarding plural marriage, I'd almost suggest that you mention something about the average modern Mormon woman's attitude toward it. Simply put, if the church tried to reinstitute it now, the Relief Society wouldn't have it. One of my wife's few sore spots concerning LDS doctrine is the notion that she will have to share her husband with myriad other wives. I tried rubbing her nose in it one time, and it nearly provoked a request for a divorce. The contradiction speaks volumes, doesn't it?
That it does. And if you're a Mormon woman, about the best thing I can say about what you have to look forward to in the next life is that at least you'll have plenty of sister wives to share your misery.

Plural marriage—it's a grand institution, just grand.

Krasner v. Pollock

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So here are the details some of you have been asking for. For an inexcusably long time.

Laura and I have been seeing each other for about two and a quarter years now. It's always been exclusive; it was pretty much instant magnetism from the start, that night in December 1998 when we sat deconstructing our religious experiences until the wee hours of the morning, to the exclusion of all the vanished friends who had been sitting there in the bar with us earlier that evening.

Laura's been married before, and when we started going out she had just gotten out of a bad relationship with a fellow she had been seeing for four years and had lived with for six months or so. (They bought a beautiful East Village apartment together, and then he kicked her out, citing being in love with fucking someone else.) She understandably didn't want to see me if I were seeing anyone else at the same time. For my own part, I had recently gotten out from under a horrible two-year-plus long relationship, I was feeling pretty fragile and gunshy as well. I was seeing a German woman at the time, and I agonized about what to do. After wrestling with myself for a full night, I decided to stop seeing that German (who turned out later to have been having an affair with a married fellow at the time, and making cuts in her wrists on top of that), and it's been all Laura and me, all the time, ever since.

Laura's story at first was that she didn't ever want to get married again, but sometime late in 1999 that started to change. We'd gotten past the part where she worried that I was going to break her heart and where I worried that she was going to discover there was something wrong with me, and we started batting around the idea of cohabitation. A commitment in terms of marriage would have to precede that, she decided, much to her own surprise.

We've been batting around the idea ever since then, and I'd been unsuccessfully trying to put aside enough money to buy an engagement ring. Meanwhile, living in two different apartments had begun to be a real drag for both of us, since neither apartment was big enough or memory-free enough to house both of us, and since I was always lugging six tons of shit back and forth from one apartment to the other, and to work, and to karate class, and so forth (since I, being the one who lives in Brooklyn while both of us work in Manhattan, have the less convenient apartment).

So our plans have been getting more and more solid, little by little, and finally in January or so of this year we were starting to put together a real timetable for the wedding, the moving in, the honeymoon, and all that. We just weren't officially engaged. Laura didn't know whether or not she actually wanted an engagement ring—she thought she might want a wedding band that wouldn't exactly go well with a flashy accompanying ring—and that's pretty much the only word I was waiting for.

Well, Laura finally decided in mid-February that she didn't want an engagement ring. That meant there was no obstacle to my just proposing to her and getting ourselves engaged. I was trying to figure out what the best time and place would be to do it when, on Sunday, February 24, we stopped by our favorite Indian restaurant, Baluchi's, for some dinner. We were discussing our plans when Laura broke off and said, "You know, I don't feel like we can really be having this conversation when we aren't even engaged yet."

"So you want to wait until we're engaged to talk about this stuff?"

She sighed. "I feel a little like Lee Krasner here," she said.

We're both admirers of Jackson Pollock (she's a huge admirer), and we had just seen the Ed Harris film a few days earlier, so I knew exactly what she was talking about. She was talking about the scene where Krasner has to give Pollock an ultimatum to get him to marry her.

Hey, I only need to be hit on the head five or six times for something to get through to me. I took her hands across the table, looked into her eyes, and said, "Laura S—— C——, would you do me the extreme honor of becoming my wife?"

She said, "Yes. Yes, I would."

And we kind of raised ourselves half out of our seats and kissed across the table, and presto! we were engaged.

And you know what? I'm the happiest guy on earth! When I was a little kid, I used to lie in bed wondering if I would ever get married, and if I'd like my wife when I grew up and if she'd be smart and beautiful and fun. I was worried that none of those things would ever come to pass, but now it looks like they will. Can you believe it? Childhood dreams sometimes do come true!

Pinch me.

Foreign orals

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Hey, everybody pop over to my friend lightningrod's journal and pester him to write about the oral exams he recently took in Wahsington D.C. for the Foreign Service. I've heard it, and it's fascinating stuff. Let's get him to post it!

The subject of the new chapter is, of course, in part, polygamy in the early Mormon church. This one was a long slog, and brings the stack to 835 ms pages.

I got email from my agent this morning. Sophie Harrison at Granta passed on the manuscript, saying:

Thanks for your note, and thank you for letting me see William Shunn's manuscript, which I've now read. It's an interesting story with an appealing narrator, and I've certainly never come across anything that gives such a clear insight into the Mormon philosophy and way of life. However — regretfully — I have to say that I don't think it's a book for the UK market; I suspect that it would be much more meaningful in a US context. But it's an intriguing book and I wish you and the author all the best for it.
Okay, girding up my loins for the next foray.

...and this one to 801 pages.

Two chapters born at pretty much the same time, strangely enough. This one brings the total to 778 pages...

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