BIG LOVE, SMALL PLOT
J.S. Holland of Louisville Mojo laments the final episode of The highly-acclaimed HBO series Big Love, wondering if it has jumped the shark. Big Love follows a Mormon polygamist family spending three seasons "carefully and meticulously building a story about human nature and the pros and cons of multiple partners in a marriage," against a backdrop of life in Utah and the intrigue between old-school practitioners of polygamy and the modern Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The polygamist family at the heart of the series lives not in some dusty compound, but in suburban Salt Lake City, in a luxurious home with TVs, iPods, SUVs and a pool. But as we dig into their lives (over the first three seasons) we see the cracks, the tears, the questions, the fears and, now and again, the madness of their lives and the lives of their relatives who practice "the principle" in the kind of compound the FBI loves to raid.
"The events of this season, however, have been so unrealistic and so bizarre," writes Holland, "that I almost wish the producers would pull a Dallas and tell us that the entire thing was just a dream."
A 4-year fan of Big Love, I wholly endorse this shark jumping accusation. The fourth season has been like switching from a nuanced, restrained Thomas Birch to a wild and sexy Reginald Marsh. I suspect ratings had a lot to do with the turn forced on the series. It’s probably easier to capture viewer attention with kidnapping and political corruption than with the torture of alienation from the mother church. Besides artistic quality, the biggest victim of this plot shift, the issue of polygamy in a modern world also took a hit.
WHY NOT POLYGAMY?
Many things make me wonder about the sanity of my adopted country, the United States. You can smoke here until your lungs become perforated and all society would do is support your pained breathing until your untimely death. You can drink yourself to the point of insanity and then drive a two-ton missile into crowds of defenseless pedestrians, and in many states, should you survive the ordeal, you might serve a couple years in jail or just be sent to clean the side of a highway. But if we catch you selling the flowers, leaves and stalks of the cannabis plant, or the ground up leaves of the coca tree, we put you in jail for decades.
Likewise, if you cheat on your wife in some seedy motel room, the worst that can happen is that she’ll leave you and take away much of what you own. But if you’re honest about it and legally marry a second woman, with your wife’s consent, you’ll rot in jail and we’ll take away your children.
Except it’s difficult to find a whole lot of evidence supporting polygamy as a decent way of life. Especially in Muslim countries where it is legal. Venera Djumataeva just filed a report with Radio Free Europe titled In Kyrgyzstan, Polygamy's Rise Takes Its Toll, that while Kyrgyzstan's secular laws officially prohibit polygamy, as Islam has moved to fill the void left behind following the Soviet collapse, some Kyrgyz men are using their newfound religious beliefs as an opportunity to take multiple wives. And the trend is having a damaging effect on family life. The subject of the report, Ainagul, is a 58-year-old native of the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, who has been married for 34 years and has four children and several grandchildren. Her husband became a devout Muslim and married a second wife. The news came as a profound shock to Ainagul, who even now keeps the news hidden from her children, friends, and relatives. The past two years have taken their toll on Ainagul, who suffers from insomnia and nervous anxiety.
Although her husband still spends half of every month at the home he has always shared with Ainagul, he has stopped giving her money. Ainagul, who spent much of her married life raising her children and caring for the family home, has been forced to start earning money at age 58.
Poverty is, in fact, the biggest threat to women who consider leaving an unhappy polygamous marriage. Shoba Aiyar writes for the popular Malaysian website Malaysiakini that many married Muslim women live in fear of their husbands entering polygamous marriages. This fear can be so crippling that it stops them from being able to live normal and happy lives. Some of the women experience fear of being abandoned and loss of love, on top of the fear of deep hurt and, in many instances, of being beaten by their husbands. "Living in fear is a form of domestic violence," she states. "It constitutes emotional and psychological abuse. This will affect the children, and ultimately it affects the institution of the family itself."
MONOGAMY NO GREAT SHAKES EITHER
Terry Hekker wrote Ever Since Adam and Eve in 1980, it was a passionate defense of her decision to eschew a career and spend her life as a wife and a mother, writes the Observer’s Paul Harris. Coming at the end of the Seventies, when feminism was in full bloom and career women ruled, Hekker became a poster child for old-fashioned values.
A few years later, Hekker's husband presented her with divorce papers on their 40th wedding anniversary and left her for a younger woman. The divorce left her facing an uncertain financial future, bereft of income and, after spending her adult life bringing up five children, lacking skills to make her attractive in the job market. Despite that, the judge in her divorce case suggested that, at age 67, she go for job training.
This explains Terry Hekker’s more recent book, Disregard First Book, in which she says her "anachronistic book was written while I was in a successful marriage that I expected would go on forever. Sadly, it now has little relevance for modern women, except perhaps as a cautionary tale."
The Guardian’s Amelia Hill wrote in 2006 about an 18-year, 30,000-subject study conducted by Richard Lucas from Michigan State University and the German Institute of Economic Research, which concluded that People who divorce are permanently scarred by the experience and never regain their former levels of happiness. Divorced people report a permanently lower enjoyment in life than married people.
Studies have consistently shown that marital status is associated with life satisfaction but the long term effects of divorce have never before been thoroughly investigated. Lucas's study found that happiness decreases for people in the years leading up to their divorce. Even among those who reported a rise in happiness after the divorce, their overall enjoyment in life never returned to previous levels.
THE SECRET OF LONGEVITY
You’ll note that the key component in both stories about miserable polygamous marriages and disgusting divorces, is the inability of the women involved to defend themselves, much less have their opinion be considered. The reason we are able to empathize with the polygamous family in HBO’s Big Love, is that we’re given to believe that the wives are willing, even loving participants in a marriage in which they are loyal not only to their husband but to each other, as well.
Much as rape, as a repugnant form of sex, should not impugn all sexual relations, the ravages of forced polygamy should not cloud our vision of a polygamous marriage which all the participants enter willingly. And while I, too, might question how willing is that first wife who must weigh the poverty and loneliness of a divorce against accepting a younger, new wife, I’d like to cite a story by Ewen Callaway in The New Scientist, titled Polygamy is the key to a long life.
After accounting for socioeconomic differences, men aged over 60 from 140 countries that practice polygamy to varying degrees lived on average 12% longer than men from 49 mostly monogamous nations, according to Virpi Lummaa, an ecologist at the University of Sheffield, UK.
If female survival is the main explanation for male longevity, then monogamous and polygamous men would live for about the same length of time. Instead, it seems that fathering more kids with more wives leads to increased male longevity. Men, then, live long because they're fertile well into their gray years.
Considering the fact that medicine in today’s more polygamous societies is inferior to medicine in monogamous ones, that 12% advantage in longevity could grow considerably. But, you know, we could probably draw different conclusions from the same data. It may be that it’s not necessarily having multiple wives which keeps men alive, although the idea is tempting. It could just as well be that living in an extended family, where you can be alone but not lonely, and where you feel useful because there’s always something to do, is what keeps you alive longer.