Polygamy as lifestyle choice and TV brand

The Brown family of ‘Sister Wives’ has turned its cause into a minor industry.

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICEJanuary 9, 2014 

LAS VEGAS — Kody Brown, his four wives and 17 children want to be the new face of polygamy, what some consider the next frontier after same-sex marriage.

That is why, the Browns say, they invited TLC television cameras into their homes for their hit reality show “Sister Wives,” why they have written a best-selling book about their lives, and why they challenged Utah’s polygamy ban in federal court.

Fear of prosecution under that law led them to flee to Nevada. Last month, a federal judge partly overturned the ban, ruling that prohibiting “cohabitation” violates the First Amendment guarantee of free exercise of religion.

In their first interview since the decision in that case last month, they presented a family whose polygamy is more “Father Knows Best” than fundamentalist patriarchy. It was also clear that going public opened a path toward wealth.

The Browns promote their family arrangement as part of a growing wave of individual lifestyle choices, managing to anger both The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which abandoned polygamy in 1890, and to some extent their own Mormon fundamentalist offshoot, the Apostolic United Brethren.

Eric Hawkins, a spokesman for the LDS Church, said polygamists, “including those in reality television programs,” have “no affiliation whatsoever” with the church, “despite the fact that the term ‘Mormon’ is sometimes misleadingly applied to them.” Of the lawsuit, he said, “The current legal efforts will have no bearing on the doctrines or practices of the church.”

As for the Browns’ own church, it promotes polygamy but does not condone homosexuality, and its leaders have quietly suggested that they are uncomfortable with the way the decision in the Browns’ lawsuit has been held up by some same-sex marriage advocates as supporting the underlying issue of personal privacy.

The Browns have been put off by the avid interest in the specifics of their intimate lives and the questions they get. They do not “go weird” in the bedroom, as Meri, another wife, has put it; their sexual relations are separate. “These are wholesome, individual marriages,” Robyn said. “It’s actually pretty boring.”

A recent afternoon with the family here suggested that Brown is far from the domineering figure of past polygamy horror stories like Warren Jeffs, the leader of another fundamentalist group who is serving a life sentence for child sexual abuse. Brown comes off more as a beleaguered sitcom father facing the challenges of scheduling family time split 21 ways.

The Browns face the same financial challenges of other families, but more so. College costs are a problem for everyone, but multiplied by 17 they present a nightmare. Until the show (which began in 2010) and the book, times were lean, and there were crises along with bankruptcy filings.

The Browns are reluctant to talk about those times, since they know that fundamentalist Mormons have a reputation for, as Brown put it, “bleeding the beast” — living off government assistance. Robyn said bankruptcy laws and food stamps existed to help people who fall on hard times.

“There are people who abuse it,” she said, “but not in this family.”

Brown and each of the wives works to support the family. Along with the income from the show and book, the Browns have an online jewelry business and are involved in a health supplements distributorship.

Kody Brown’s first and only legally recognized marriage was in 1990 to Meri, the second in 1993 to Janelle. A year later came Christine. Those early years required complicated accommodation, as well as loud arguments and slammed doors. In 2010, Brown married Robyn at Meri’s initial suggestion, throwing them all into turmoil again but, again, reaching more of an equilibrium recently. Robyn has a knack for mediation that helped them all learn to argue more constructively.

Opponents of polygamy say that the Browns obscure the true damage that their lifestyle involves. Kristyn Decker left an unhappy polygamist marriage and now leads an organization, Sound Choices Coalition; she is also a second cousin by blood and an aunt by marriage to Christine Brown, one of the wives.

“Polygamy is harmful,” she said. “It’s very coercive, and it’s spiritual blackmail.” The Browns, she said, “are a very rare family.”

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