Friday, May 22, 2009

Review: The Secret Lives of Saints

The Secret Lives of Saints: child brides and lost boys in Canada's polygamous Mormon sect
3 stars

Reason for reading:
it was this month's book club selection

From the Book Description: "From its very beginning, the Mormon church, an offshoot of Christianity, found itself on the margins of both convention and the law. In addition to their unorthodox interpretation of the more mainstream Christian denominations, the Mormons embraced one tenet in particular that others found hard to accept: the idea that only by engaging in polygamous marriage could a man enter the highest realms of the kingdom of heaven.

In 1890, under immense pressure from the federal government in the United States, the Mormons agreed to renounce polygamy in return for the right to the status of statehood in Utah, where they had settled. Since then, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has officially taken the position that plural marriage is unlawful and is not to be pursued.

However, colonies of renegade fundamentalist Mormons have continued to practise polygamy and thrive to this day in Canada and the United States, despite the fact that they are flouting the law. In the U.S., the "prophet" Warren Jeffs made headlines when, having been placed on the list of America's Most Wanted, he was apprehended in 2006 and was convicted as an accomplice to rape. While his acolytes and subjects lived in poverty, Jeffs was driving around in a luxury SUV when state troopers pulled him over.

The story is much the same here in Canada, where the "bishop" of a fundamentalist sect in Bountiful, B.C., Winston Blackmore, heads up a multi-million dollar group of companies and flies on private jets while his supporters and employees live hard-scrabble lives and tithe their meager earnings to the church.

Daphne Bramham explores the history and ideas of this surprisingly resilient and insular society, asking the questions that surround its continued existence and telling the stories of the men and women whose lives are so entwined with it — both the leaders and the victims."

My thoughts: This book is shocking and I expected it to be. It's the point of the book. I've been vaguely interested in Bountiful, BC since hearing about it in high school (a Mormon friend roundly denounced the documentary we watched in class because she felt the teacher hadn't distinguished that it depicted a rogue sect rather than actual Mormonism).

The book suffers a bit from repetition, but that's something I often find in nonfiction. There's a fine line between trusting the reader to remember what they've been told and repeating information to make sure of it, I guess. A lot of it is hard to follow because the entire community shares about 10 names, but that's not the author's fault. But I think it could've been made clearer with less repetition and less back-and-forthing.

The book really points out how governments in both Canada and the US have failed to stop these pedophile scam artists for decades. They get hung up on "freedom of religion" and therefore don't investigate the actual crimes (above and beyond polygamy) like child rape, underage labour, and cheating the government out of vast sums of money, particularly for their "schools."

I was actually almost as shocked by the complete failure of the school inspectors as I was by the child abuse. Despite sermons preaching hatred against blacks and gays being piped through the loudspeaker (hate speech is illegal - but apparently all the inspectors heard were quaint homilies) and a huge ratio of "administrators" to students, inspectors have never found anything wrong with the 2 schools in Bountiful.

The author included examples from a grade 11 Biology final exam from the school. It had only 11 questions. Here are 2 standouts:- How many goldfish are in the aquarium?
- What is this year's school motto?

Of the samples in the book, only 2 involve biology and both are vague - what are some interesting/practical things you've (hopefully) learned in class this year and what would you like to study in Biology 12 next year. Other questions asked about golf terminology, suggestions for next year's school motto, and students' personal viewpoints on various elements of FLDS life.
How can that not be completely and obviously a breach of their requirement to teach a standard curriculum and therefore a reason to completely cut off their funding?

And how can 13 year-old girls applying for birth certificates for their kids not be evidence of child sexual abuse? Apparently in both the US and BC, the "officials" (whether FLDS or not) didn't think it was "significant" to report on cases of pedophilia and child abuse.

One of the reasons that Blackmore is so wealthy is that his lumber companies can undercut others in the area because he uses the 12 year-old boys who aren't allowed to go to school as labour. How can people see boys on top of roofs or driving trucks or using chainsaws and not report it?

It seems that unaccompanied teenage girls cross the border between Canada and the US constantly and half of Blackmore's wives appear to be illegal American "immigrants." Again, no government agency can notice this and do anything about it?

The book ended with Warren Jeffs' trial for assisting a rape (by forcing a teenage girl to marry her 19 year-old cousin - oh yeah, isn't cousin marriage illegal, too?), which was interesting (what a freak show Jeffs is - he makes Blackmore look almost normal), although it wasn't really connected to Bountiful (although it made Blackmore very happy, of course).

The verdict: Although I suppose it's hard to separate all of the threads, I'd have liked the book to focus more on Bountiful. I think there are quite a few books about the American communities and while this had a lot about Canada, there was so much back-and-forthing it got pretty confusing and then it ended with all of the stuff with Warren Jeffs. But I guess there hasn't been a defining moment like that in Canada yet. I also would have liked even more stories of "escapees." There seem to be quite a few biographies out by former "sister wives," so I might try one of them. But overall, an interesting book.

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