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Book Challenge: Polygamy, Healing from Abuse, Sister Missionaries

By Emily Milner

Book Challenge:* Letters of Catharine Cottam Romney, Plural Wife; The
Glass Castle
;** and 18 Months.

Letters of Catharine Cottam Romney
let me peek into the life of the second wife of Miles Park Romney, an ancestor of Mitt Romney. Mitt is descended from Hannah, the first wife (you can read more about Mitt’s genealogy here). Catharine marries Miles in St. George; the course of her life runs from St. Johns, Arizona, to Colonia Juarez, Mexico, as they escape anti-polygamy laws, and then back to Utah because of the Mexican Revolution.

Things that stood out to me:
1-Her parents weren’t too keen on her marrying Miles, not because she would be his third wife, but because his second wife had divorced him, and he had a drinking problem. She married him anyway, explaining to her parents that they were both praying for him to “over come [sic] his faults and over come [sic] temptation” and that if their marriage was right that “[Catharine’s parents’] feelings towards him might change.” After his marriage to Catharine, she never mentioned this again.

2-Little mothering details: traveling in a wagon with young children:
“[Claude, age 1] stood the journey well, driving the team where it was good road, and fighting when he couldn’t, throwing the whip and other things out, and requiring most of my time to look after him.” I read this after driving to Bear Lake with my kids. I had always wondered how women traveled with small children back then. I like knowing about Catharine’s humanness; sometimes I think women were saintly mothers a hundred years ago. But traveling with kids has never been a picnic.

3-There are many noble stories we’re not familiar with because we have cut out fifty years of uncomfortable history. Until college, I didn’t know much about the history of polygamy beyond the fact that it existed, there were laws against it, persecution from the government, and finally”“Whew!”“the Manifesto, that allowed us to all be normal again. I never heard much about polygamy at church; all the popular pioneer stories stop with arrival in Utah, or maybe getting called on a mission by Brigham Young. The polygamy stories exist, but non-historians like me aren’t too familiar with them. We have to hunt them down, we’re not fed them. They are buried in family histories and relatively obscure books like Letters of Catharine Cottam Romney.

By “polygamy stories” what I mean is tales of women like Catharine who left their families and lived with kind strangers for months at a time, so they wouldn’t be forced to testify against their husbands… or stories like Hannah Romney traveling to Mexico alone in the winter with all her little ones, so she could be with her husband in exile. Or the sweet companionship that existed between Catharine and her sister-wives”“an example of unselfish sharing, as they cared for each others’ children, and rejoiced over each others’ successes. We get the Nauvoo pioneer stories at church, we are humbled by the sacrifice of the handcart pioneers. But if we hear tales of polygamous nobility at church, they are usually edited, so that we do not see the very thing that made them noble: their commitment to the gospel by living the difficult law of plural marriage.

We’re missing out.

So: how do we write about, how do we talk about, our difficult past? Jeannette Walls faces this question in her powerful memoir The Glass Castle.** Her mother is a sometime-teacher, an artist, neglectful to the point of abuse, but also loyal to her kids; her father gives them stars for Christmas presents and tells them dramatic stories, but also wastes their money on alcohol and whores. Walls and her siblings delight in the glass castle dreams their father tells them, but scrounge for food in garbage cans at school. Walls does a brilliant job of weaving the joy and pain of her past together; she does not allow bitterness towards her parents to cloud her memory of their strengths. She doesn’t whine, nor does she excuse them: she tells the whole thing, and by doing so, she forgives.

This is why the genre of memoir is so important: it allows us to process and learn from our lives, heal from them; it also gives us a way to tell our stories and form connections. That’s why 18 Months, a soon-to-be-published manuscript from Millennial Press, edited by Melissa Baird Carpenter, made me want to write more about my mission. It’s a collection of personal essays from sister missionaries; I will be reviewing it in the fall issue of Segullah.

For now I will just say that I loved it. I read these lines: “Bugs hovered and waded through the soupy air, and our neighbor’s samba music blasted through the patch of still, grey sky between the roof and walls of our windowless room…” (from “The Butterfly” by Amy Ward McLaughlin) and I was back in Ecuador, a bewildered greenie, trying to figure out my place in the mission. And Rosalynde Welch’s “Being Sister Frandsen” articulated the difference Rosalynde and Sister Frandsen, but I felt like it could have been written about me, Emily, and Hermana Bishop, the missionary. They always seemed to be two different people, and as I read her piece I kept thinking, “I could have written this. This is exactly how I feel.” I’m grateful to the women who took time to write about their missions, and help me to see my own in new ways.

So: polygamy stories, abusive childhood, sister missionaries. Interesting books, and I have questions, answer any or all: How many stories do you know from that “lost period” in Mormon history, about 1855-1900? Should we tell them more, or will the necessary explaining of context shake faith too much? How has writing helped you heal? How does writing help you process your life?

*True confession: I did not read them all in the space of a week. But I did read them all in August.
**Disclaimer: This is a moving, powerful, well-written book, but it has bad language and violent situations.

About Emily Milner

(Poetry Board) graduated from BYU in Comparative Literature, but it was long enough ago that most of what she learned has leaked out. She would like to mention other hobbies or interests, but to be honest she spends most of her free time reading (although she does enjoy attempting yoga). She used to blog at hearingvoices.wordpress.com. For now, though, Segullah is her only blogging home, and it's a good one.

10 thoughts on “Book Challenge: Polygamy, Healing from Abuse, Sister Missionaries”

  1. When I wrote my mission memoirs, I was frequently forced to decide how honest I was going to be in my writing. Did I really need to expose the embarrassing situations, my mistakes and missteps? If my children read this someday, do I really want to include THAT story?

    It gets even more thorny when your writing has the potential to embarrass others. On the whole, I was probably much more honest about myself than I was about certain companions and members. 🙂

  2. I wish we did hear more from "our polygamous past". I think it would help us understand and process it better. And I feel that we seem to have a need to silence all those women who lived in polygamous marriage. I have tremendous respect for them.

    As for books about abuse, they are too hard for me to read. My sister was sexually abused. I just can't stomach reading about other children being abused. It's too hard. But applaud those who have the courage to write about their abusive childhoods and show healing.

    I find writing to be profoundly healing. I've been going through some tough times this summer. And, when I stopped writing, my ability to cope faded. When I returned to writing, I felt a lot more strength in my life.

  3. Writing feels so intimate and solitary, and yet, here at least, it is so public. That pretend intimacy can lead to writing that hurts or injures unwitting parties. I've had to force myself to remember that on several occasions. Interesting comment, Matt.

    Emily, great reading! Do you think we all need to heal from our past? Does everyone have something painful to overcome? It's an interesting subject.

  4. This is a great post, Emily.

    I think "story-telling" is one of the most profound characteristics of Mormon writing. It distinguishes us as a culture and religion. So much of our writing,whether its collections of essays like 18 Months, or fiction novels like The Giant Joshua, or whatever it may be–Mormons write about their past to do exactly what you said: connect, heal, learn. I also feel like Celebration is another big reason we write the way we do. There is so much to rejoice about when we think about our heritage, our present experiences, and our future.

    In both the act of writing, and the act of reading, these things are realized I think. Writing about my mission has been a much longer process than I imagined it would. Most of what I have is unfinished because I don't think I've made closure with a number of things, and trying to write about them has caused me to just sit there holding my pen, with unfinished sentences and thoughts.

    I still haven't come to terms with bishop who let his best friend be a counselor in his bishopric, even though he didn't live in the ward boundaries, because he was in an adulterous relationship and didn't want to show up at his own ward. Or, the branch president who spread rumours about our investigators and made the whole ward believe they were something they were not, causing 0 attendance at their baptisms.

    At times I feel like the convert who doesn't go to church because they don't understand that people aren't perfect. You could say I'm the writer who doesn't write because I can't find the answers. 🙂

    Thanks for this post, Emily.

  5. Matt and Kristen, if I ever get around to really writing about my mission, I will face the same issue: how much negative truth about myself and others will I include? About myself, most of it, I think. As Brittney says, "If it hurts when you pick at it, dig deeper." Exploring my own weaknesses makes for good writing.

    About others, I don't know. The first month of my mission was hellish because of deep apostasy among the missionaries there. It was awful. I've never had a worse month. To tell that story truly, I'd have to speak ill of someone, even if I gave them a fake name. I'd rather not do that. So, it's a tough call.

    Tiffany, I also wish we did not silence the women living in polygamous marriages. They're a part of our history too. There must be a better way to deal with that than what we do now.

    I also feel stronger when I write–as I write and rewrite, I figure out the truth of my life.

    Justine, that "pretend intimacy" is absolutely right. It's the same problem I have with ropes courses–total tangent, but when I've done them they have created this illusion that because we completed some course together we are now bonded, but it isn't really true.
    Same with writing, in a way.

    And I do think that everyone has something they need to heal from… everyone I know, anyway. They might not need to heal by writing, but they need to heal some other way. I think the most powerful writing faces the pain and works through it to joy, or, if not joy, then at least healing…

    Thanks to all for your thoughtful responses!

  6. Writing and stories have just helped me LEARN. About myself, about life, about other people. Everything.

    I loved the little snippet about Catharine's son, Claude. Long road trips are tough with kids! And I've never even thought what that would be like to cross the plains with little buggers! Funny!

    (And true…)

  7. I generally subscribe to John 8:32: ". . . and the truth shall make you free." I believe in the truthfulness and broad application of that statement with vigor. I know I sometimes disclose too much about myself, but I'm trying to find that balance, and I very much prefer it to being closed.

    While it may shake some people to know more about our church's history, I think if the information were presented by the church, it would do a lot more good than harm, especially considering the tremendous amount of tainted information that is presented by antagonists.

  8. When I was a teen, I read "Saints" by Orson Scott Card. It's a historical fiction about a woman who joined the church in England, came to Nauvoo, and eventually became a plural wife to Joseph Smith, and then again to Brigham Young. The thing that struck me the most at the time, and has stayed with me, was the portrayal of the point of view of someone who was "not the first wife". And just how noble that really was, for so many.

    And then, just a few years ago, my dad sent me a two volume family history of my great grandfather, James Henry Denning, who had two wives and ended up serving a jail sentence for polygamy around the time of the Manifesto. My great grandmother, Emma Jane Celestia Squires, was his second wife. She endured things like living in a dugout in southeastern Idaho trying to keep her children alive during the winter when it was so cold she had to chip away the layer of ice from her door to get outside. Or hiding behind a false wall in her sister wife's home like a fugitive. Or like being forced to testify in court. I thought, how could anyone WANT to live that way unless they had an AMAZING testimony that it was God's will?

    She had 12 or 13 children (mostly girls) and my grandma was one of the youngest. How I wish she was still alive today (she died when I was 14) so I could ask her what it was like growing up that way! She never spoke of herself as being the daughter of a polygamous family. I'm not sure if it was because it was sort of "swept under the carpet" or if it was just normal life to her. Probably some of both.

    These stories definitely need to be told.

  9. Brooke, I loved that little kids story too. I also loved once when she mentioned how her kids complained about not getting any mail… mine do the same thing.

    Wendy, I agree that the truth–the whole truth, with lots of mercy in there, since that is true–makes us free.

    Martha, what a great story. I am glad you shared it–thank you.

  10. How many stories do you know from that “lost period” in Mormon history, about 1855-1900? Should we tell them more, or will the necessary explaining of context shake faith too much?

    One of the best stories from this period that I know is Mormon Odyssey: The Story of Ida Hunt Udall, Plural Wife edited by Maria Ellsworth. This book was given the Mormon History Association's award for best biography of the year in 1993. From the review at buy.com:

    "Mormon Odyssey is the captivating story of Ida Hunt Udall, a plural wife of David K. Udall, an early Mormon leader in Arizona. Her story is told through her memories of her early life, her journal…and selected letters. Born in 1858, Ida Hunt Udall began her Mormon odyssey when she was quite young, pioneering with her family in Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. With the coming of the anti-Mormon crusade focusing on polygamists, Ida was forced to go into hiding soon after her marriage in 1882. She vividly describes her marriage, her life on the "underground" and the prison experiences of her husband as reported to her in letters she copied into her journal. Maria Ellsworth, Ida's granddaughter, weaves these materials into a compelling tale of hard work, courage, sacrifice, and devotion to a family, a religion, and a cause that defined her being and gave meaning to her life. She includes details of Ida's life based on the journals of Ida's sisters, family recollections, and historical documents. Mormon Odyssey provides a 'window' on polygamy, with all its conflicts and disappointments, as well as its rewards. Here are keen insights into pioneer life in Arizona from the 1880s to 1915. The book will appeal to those interested in family history, Mormon history, frontier history, and women's history."

    Interestingly enough, Udall lived in the same community as Romney (St. Johns, Arizona). She was also a second wife (though you learn much about the first wife and the related challenges). I truly enjoyed the first-person point of view; she wrote in her journal, and it's up to your own interpretation.

    Polygamy was an issue I struggled to understand during high school/college, and my seminary teacher told me to push it to the back burner, which I did. When it came time to serve a mission, however, I knew I would be confronted about the topic, and wanted to be able to say what I felt/knew about it from my heart. So, on the 10-hour drive to the MTC, I read this book, reading much of it out loud to my parents. Not only did it help me understand and appreciate those who lived the law of plural marriage, but my testimony grew and I was inspired by their conviction, hope, and unfailing recognition of God's hand in all things. Do I completely "get" polygamy after reading this? No, not really, but it certainly doesn't bother me like it did. If you've heard the quote "Feed your faith and your doubts will starve to death," (sorry, I don't know who said it), that's what my experience was like. I had doubts, and although they weren't completely resolved, reading that book surely "fed" my faith, helping those doubts diminish greatly.


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