Book Review - Property The True Story of a Polygamous Church Wife
ICSA Today Vol. 10 No. 1 (2019)
Book Review - Property: The True Story of a Polygamous Church Wife
By Carol Christie, with John Christie
Reviewed by Andrea Moore-Emmett
Dundurn: Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 2013. ISBN-10: 9781459709768; ISBN-13: 978-1459709768 (paperback). 160 pages. $11.59 (Amazon.com; $6.15, Kindle)
Author Carol Christie begins this short tome about her escape from a polygamous cult with an out-of-sequence moment that eventually weaves into a chronological but incongruous narrative. Black-and-white photos in the middle pages include the author’s early childhood and her happy new life “on the outside” after leaving the group. Only one photo, which is also used for the cover art, allows a visual glimpse into Christie’s main thesis.
Throughout the book, Christie shows respect to both self-ascribed prophets involved in her story by using a capital to begin all pronouns that reference them. Thus, the two men who stole nearly four decades of her life are given continued deference with the capitalized He, Him, Himself, and His. This is a disconcerting aspect of the book, but not the only one the reader encounters.
Christie writes that she did not finish high school and was raised by a religiously fanatical and controlling mother and a barely-there father. The family’s religious affiliation jumped from the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, to Mormonism (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), and finally to The Church of Jesus Christ Restored in Ontario, Canada.
Christie alludes to a “restoration movement” within Mormonism to explain how the last group came about. She dates this occurrence at 1972, which may be the date this particular group was established. Factions have occurred throughout Mormon Church history; however, notable restoration movements have occurred only during two significant periods. The first period was during the late 1880s through the early 1900s when doctrine on polygamy changed in order for the Utah Territory to gain statehood. Within a series of convoluted events over those tumultuous years, Mormon fundamentalist polygamist groups were formed based on the belief that polygamy was essential for “immortal glory” (Van Wagoner, 1989, p. 143). The second and most contemporary disaffection occurred in 1978 when the Mormon Church’s First Presidency announced a change in doctrine with regard to race. This new policy allowed Mormon men of African descent the right to male priesthood, and also temple access to all “worthy” African-descended Mormons. This shift troubled many members, who were told repeatedly that those individuals would be not be included in full fellowship as long as “time endures” (Tanner, 1980, p. 292).
It is within Christie’s involvement in The Church of Jesus Christ Restored, a splinter group of the Mormon Church located in Ontario, Canada, that most of Property… is concerned. While in her early twenties, the obedient Christie is delivered to the leader as a new plural wife by her equally obedient mother. In the book, Christie furtively reveals, but does not acknowledge, that the leader raped her. “I was terrified the first time… My wishes, however, did not enter into the picture at all” (p. 41). She then recounts how the leader later became interested in group sex with his numerous wives. “…indulging in the sex act with me alone was not enough” (p. 42) … “Several times, there were up to five women in bed with Him all at once…” (p. 46). She does not tell the reader how many wives eventually made up this harem; however, early on she says there were eight and later mentions that numerous additional underage girls had been added.
The contradictions the author makes between her fond memories and her harrowing experiences collide and veer back and forth as she reminisces fondly of the first leader: “He also had a kind and generous side” (p. 69). Then she writes, “…the other women and I were nothing short of sex slaves…” (p. 46). She writes highly and lovingly of the man who, several pages earlier, she outs as having taken a 10-year-old bride: “His compassion for people in need was, at times, awesome…” (p. 69). She then observes, “We were at the beck and call of the Man in Charge, and woe unto you if you were ever less than obedient, and less than prompt in your response to His requests” (p. 71).
In this book, written only 4 years after she left the cult in which she had lived for 37 years, Christie writes of her dark past while she is in the midst of a new romance. Somewhere within her and outside of time and place, she seems to see the horrible as the not so bad, demonstrating how the mind can accept cognitive dissonance and remain locked in a self-preserving worldview. This is a victim’s account, and perhaps it is in contrast to the sadistic second prophet that Christie’s inner contradictions about the first leader took hold while she struggled to conform and survive. Also, in my numerous interviews with women who leave polygamous fundamentalist cults, I found they have long been conditioned to believe they are of little consequence; thus, they minimize what they have endured as much as they minimize themselves. There simply is not enough of Christie’s story to glean a thorough analysis.
After the death of the first leader, Christie writes how the second leader and heir to the church reins over his people with an unmatched brutality. Like his pedophile father before him, he too takes a 10-year-old bride. The followers endure the emotional and physical abuse of the elderly, underage children, and men and women alike as “chastisement” and “correction”: “…(S)eniors… could be beaten and kicked along with the rest of us, including, many times, the Prophet’s own mother” (p. 98). And “He slapped this [boy of 12] … so hard I thought the kid would fall… Everyone gasped yet beyond that reflex, we dared not show any other reaction for fear that we too would bear the brunt of an outburst” (p. 96).
Christie then recounts the abuse she and her sons suffered: “Countless times, He grabbed my hair and yanked my head back… [In one beating] He pounded my body against that pillar … literally hundreds of times” (p. 105). And “I heard my son plead for mercy... Our leader had ordered the boys to form a circle … then lay an unspeakable beating on [my son] … accented, many times by kicks squarely in the groin” (p. 116).
Not long after her eldest son finds the courage to leave the cult, Christie follows. She writes how, with difficulty yet perseverance, she was able to reinvent a new life for herself, including a happy marriage. (Her husband has written an Appendix for the book and is given a secondary byline.) The reader also learns that Christie bravely and successfully sued the second leader; however, most of the information about the lawsuit comes from the Foreward, written by Nancy Mereska, President of the Stop Polygamy in Canada Society. For her part, Christy barely mentions this very important act of self-empowerment, which could serve as “bread crumbs on the path” for others to follow.
As one of the few, if not only, voices coming out of this particular group, Christie leaves the reader with a dissonant, short report and wishing she had not held back on key elements of her story. She sums up her work best when she writes toward the end, “I also had a few choice words held deep inside me … but I’m a lady and will not share them here and now” (p. 120).
Property… is a book whose main contributions are the addition of another voice in the dialogue concerning fundamentalist polygamy and new information about this particular splinter group from Mormonism. Contrary to other sources of information, we learn from Christie that this group is still operating in Ontario, Canada. It did not dissolve after the death of the first leader; and in fact, according to Christie, human-rights violations that include elder abuse, child abuse, sexual abuse, assault, and labor violations continue to occur.
This book will be of interest to those studying the phenomena of Mormon fundamentalist polygamy and also others interested in cultic dynamics and the survivors who come forward.
Van Wagoner, R. (1989). Mormon polygamy: A history. Salt Lake City, Ut; Signature Books.
Tanner, J., & Tanner, S. (1980). The changing world of Mormonism: A behind-the-scenes look at changes in Mormon doctrine and practice. Chicago, IL: Moody Press.
About the Reviewer
Andrea Moore-Emmett, MA, LMFT, is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in California, where she helps individuals dealing with former cult affiliation. She authored the book God's Brothel, The Extortion of Sex For Salvation in Contemporary Mormon and Christian Fundamentalist Polygamy and the Stories of 18 Women Who Escaped. She is the author of several articles covering polygamy for various national magazines and was the researcher for the A&E documentary, Inside Polygamy, which also aired on the BBC. As a journalist, she has been the recipient of five awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, Utah Headliners Chapter, including the Don Baker investigative Journalism Award. She was also awarded a Women in Communications Leading Changes Award and the Leadership Council on Abuse and Interpersonal Violence and the Institute on Violence, Abuse and Trauma 2008 Award for Distinguished Service and Excellence in Journalism. Moore-Emmett served as Utah NOW President and on a Salt Lake City Mayor’s commission for Bridging the Religious Divide.