Monday, October 27, 2008

Book Review: Shattered Dreams

Irene Spencer's memoir, subtitled My Life as a Polygamist's Wife, was both fascinating and frustrating, and, when finally finished, I was glad it was over.

Irene's story is interesting for the most part. Raised in a fundamentalist polygamous Mormon community, Irene vacillated between her love for an outsider and her firm conviction that God commanded her to live in a plural marriage. Although her mother, who had left her plural marriage, tried to convince her otherwise, Irene ends up becoming the second wife of her brother-in-law, Verlan LeBaron. Life with Verlan and his wife (her half-sister) Charlotte is tough from the beginning.Verlan appears to be an egomaniacal jerk from a crazy family. In the first year of marriage, the threesome moves to Mexico to live in total poverty, and Irene's first baby dies. In the next 28 years, Verlan takes seven more wives and fathers a total of 56 children, 13 of whom belong to Irene.

Irene's life is one continuous battle. She continuously fought with all the other wives, competing for time with Verlan. She battled total poverty and constant danger for nearly three decades. She battled depression, poor health, low self-esteem, and sheer exhaustion from managing Verlan's obscenely large household. Strangely, one of Irene's primary concerns in this memoir seems to be her lack of a satisfying physical relationship with her husband. Verlan is obviously a selfish creep, and yet Irene laments having to share him in page after endless page.

The reader, obviously, wants Irene just to leave Verlan. She had a large non-polygamous support system and could have left at any time. Even when she does finally leave, when at least half of her children are already grown, she ends up going back to him. I understand that I can't understand her state of mind. I understand that she was completely indoctrinated from birth to believe that plural marriage was mandatory in the eyes of God. Still, you can't help but wish, by midway through the book, that she would stop whining and just leave him. Again, I know that I can't possibly relate to the psychological bondage under which Irene lived, but several other wives did leave Verlan. Irene seemed to feel a tremendous need to be, ultimately, Verlan's favorite wife.

I also wondered how, if indeed Verlan and his wives lived in such total poverty, how Verlan was always buying new houses, flying on airplanes, and even taking Irene to Europe. Some parts of the story didn't quite fit. And some stories seemed completely extraneous and repetitive in this narrative. I think Irene's memoir could have benefited from more careful editing.

That said, this really is a fascinating look at a practice that continues today among those who call themselves the fundamentalist Mormons. I'd recommend reading this in combination with Under the Banner of Heaven, John Krakauer's amazing look into this strange world of polygamy in America.

Other reviews of Shattered Dreams*
Natasha at Maw Books here
Hava at Nonfiction Lover here (Hava has also reviewed His Favorite Wife, by another of Verlan's wives)

* If you've reviewed Shattered Dreams, please leave a comment so I can add your review!


Anonymous said...

There is another polygamist story that was written by a girl that grew up in a polygamist family only to have it torn apart time and time again, how she was married off extremely young and how she finally got free. It was really good, and really sad all at the same time :) But a good read. It was called, "Stolen Innocence: My Story of Growing Up in a Polygamous Sect, Becoming a Teenage Bride, and Breaking Free of Warren Jeffs" by Elissa Wall. It is amazing the lives that they lead and how they are able to do it without interference from the law. An eye opener to say the least :)

Literary Feline said...

I hadn't heard of this one before you mentioned it, but it does sound interesting. I read Under the Banner of Heaven Years ago and really liked it. It was very informative. Thank you for the great review!

j said...

This sounds like one of those books I would like to read in spite of the flaws (I always wonder how much vetting of the details editors provide of these memoirs). Maybe I will check out Krakauer's book first.

And, like Literary Feline, I want to thank you for the great review, too!

Petunia said...

I am currently reading The 19th Wife which is about the wife that divorced Brigham Young. It has a secondary fictional story set in modern times. The secondary story is a bit sensational but the historical part about Brigham Young is very interesting and informative. It's very well written.

Anonymous said...

I remember thinking why in the world would she want to have a sexual relationship with her husband? She always looked forward to it and wanted more. I had to keep reminding myself she was very young when she was married, so very much sexually charged. If it was me, I would have been happy to not have to spend time with him! I have Stolen Innocence checked out from the library right now.

Anonymous said...

I found this post through Technorati, and just wanted to say thanks for the link to my post! Also, I ended up reviewing Shattered Dreams, and liked it the best out of all of the books I read about polygamy. I never did end up reading Banner Under Heaven, and I've kinda gotten out of the polygamy phase I was in, but perhaps I'll read it later.

I echo your thoughts exactly - how Irene could want sex with this guy after everything that happened is beyond me. I would have told him to shove it. ;-) But I was not raised in that situation, so it's hard to say that with certainty. Perhaps I would have put up with it better had I been born in the FLDS Church.


Hava said...

Bwahahah!!! I came over here to read your review, and then I saw - I had read it before! And even commented on it before! :-P

I am 28 going on 73, in case you were wondering. ;-)