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Fifty Years In PolygamyBig Secrets and Little White Lies
By Kristyn Decker
Balboa PressCopyright © 2012 Kristyn Decker
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Beginning and Little Sophie
On our front porch, which was also used as our laundry room, I climbed out of Mom's galvanized tin tub half full of cold, murky bathwater ringed with swirls of lye soap residue. The stiff yellow towel that had hung on our clothesline for a whole day felt scratchy around my five-year-old chubby body.
Inside our three-bedroom basement house, photos and memorabilia concealed most of Mom's pastel blue tricot bedspread. I longed to sprawl out and bask on its silky softness. Instead, I gently sat on the corner of the bed and stared at a five-by-seven picture of a younger version of her. I thought my heart would burst with pride.
I told her, "Mom, you look so pretty in this picture!"
Quickly, she wiped her tears from her cheeks and nose.
"What's the matter, Mom?" I asked.
"Oh, nothing," she replied.
"Then why are you crying?"
"Oh, I don't know. It seems like I'm always crying."
To me, my mother was always beautiful no matter her age or whether her eyes glistened with tears or sparkled with joy.
In her younger years, my mother, Vera Cooke, was a vivacious, slender, blue-eyed blonde. She loved to hang out with her friends, attend her LDS Church activities, swim, dance, and roller skate—but most of all she loved to hike.
Listening to my mother reminisce about the happy times in her life was always a joy to me. I pictured her joyous occasions as if they'd someday be mine.
"The twelve-mile hike up the steep hill to the Black Canyon Dam was as easy as pie," Mom told me years later. "I used to pick apples, sell magazine subscriptions, and watch children to earn spending money." Then Mom blushed as she brought her voice to a whisper, maybe so Dad couldn't hear. "It was that summer when I was only nineteen years old that I fell for Lee Flinders. He was tall and handsome!" She giggled a little. "We'd been going together for quite some time when a real pretty girl came up and asked me if I was in love with him. You know what I told her? I said, 'Well, I guess I am in a way,' but then all of a sudden the words that shot right out of my mouth were, 'No, I guess not, so you can have him.'"
Mother sighed. "I wonder who he married and where he's living now? Sometimes I wonder how different my life would be if I had stayed with him and not lived plural marriage with your father ..." After a long pause she said, "Well, you know what, Sophie? I really believe the Lord must have put those words in my mouth to keep me from marrying the wrong man!"
* * *
For many years before my mother was pregnant with me, her "devils" had been driving her mad. She'd been married to my father for sixteen years and been through plenty of heartaches. With my mother's seven children, my father's second wife Eleanor's three children, his third wife Maryann's son from a previous marriage, and my father and Maryann's one-year-old son, my father had twelve children to provide for, and another one on the way. According to my mother, it seemed her family was being blown to smithereens. Her sister-wife Eleanor's ongoing self-involved behaviors, Dad's inability to be fair, and the anguish she felt from her thirteen-year-old daughter Lucinda running away to Colorado City and getting married off—all fragmented her testimony of plural marriage and threatened her salvation. She'd either die of a broken heart, or God would have to intervene.
On March 30, 1952, my Dad moved my pregnant mother from her Draper home into Maryann's cramped four-room dwelling. Dad needed to use the rent money to build Mom's new basement house that would be just down the street from Maryann's and Eleanor's homes.
By the first week in September, Mom's three-bedroom house was completed enough for her and her seven children to move into. As always, Mother considered it her absolute "righteous duty" and sole purpose in life to share with, serve, and give to everyone. Never would she allow herself to consider her own needs, wishes, or desires before anyone else's, especially her husband's. So it came as no surprise to anyone when she gladly consented to Dad's latest request. She would share her home with Maryann and her two sons.
"I really was happy to be in our new home," Mom assured me years later. "When we moved in, I began to sink my roots and feel like we'd at last be safe. We could quit running and hiding from the law, but more than anything in the world I looked forward to having you, Sophia, my darling baby girl." She smiled at me tenderly. "Oh, how truly blessed we were!"
* * *
Between every persistent and arduous labor pain, my mother and her mother tried to visit with my father's sister, Beth, and Beth's husband, Lyman. Their home, just across the street from Mom's, was always like Grand Central Station—a constant gathering place for every polygamist in our neighborhood and from afar.
My mother squeezed her mother's hand tightly as each contraction grew closer and more intense. "I hate to end our short visit," my timid mother told Aunt Beth, "but I'd better get myself up to Eleanor's before I don't make it at all."
Between labor pains, Mother supported herself on Grandma's arm as they hastened along in small, awkward steps toward Aunt El's.
My swift and easy entrance into this world seemed to initiate my race with time from the very beginning. "You weren't going to wait one minute longer!" Mom told me many years later. "I thought you might be born right there on the street in front of the whole world, but I pled with God to make you wait until we got to Eleanor's house. I knew you wouldn't wait much longer."
"I still hate waiting," I reminded Mom as we tenderly looked into each other's eyes.
"Well, God answered my prayers." Mom sighed. "Right then your Uncle Marvin showed up. He helped me in his car and rushed us up the street. Eleanor had no sooner helped me get settled onto her bed when you flew out. If she hadn't been there to catch you, I don't know ..."
"Wow!" I chuckled. "No wonder I have so many dreams of flying." Mom and I laughed together.
"Your Uncle Rulon got there just in time to check on you and make sure all of your parts were put together properly," Mom said proudly. "Since I had four boys in a row, everyone was in awe of our new baby girl." (My Uncle Rulon was the Allred Group's leader and prophet as well as our group doctor. By then he had literally delivered thousands of babies.)
My thirty-seven-year-old mother had no idea I'd be her last child. It wasn't her choice to quit bearing children after me. She had two more miscarriages after I was born. From her LDS upbringing and her strong commitment to plural marriage, she believed she should have as many children as the Lord would allow. We were taught that if we obeyed this edict, God would provide for us, no matter how large our families grew. Even more promising than guaranteed provisions, the more children a woman had, the more glorified she would be in heaven. My mother said she never did feel she'd fully completed her duty to God and her husband's posterity. She tried for many years after me to have more children. When she was unable to do so, she felt it was due to her lack of righteousness.
* * *
Polygamy was just as illegal then as it is now. In the early years, my father and his wives had fled from the law several times. After a 1944 raid on fundamental polygamists, fourteen men were imprisoned, including my Uncle Rulon. The fear of that raid left believers and their families in constant fear and ready to flee. After Maryann and her kids returned to Murray after one such fiasco, Mom's basement home was once again full of Fundamentalist polygamists who were feeling funduh-mentally insane.
Mother's five sons and Maryann's two sons haggled over the undersized space in the small north bedroom. The middle bedroom was packed to the hilt with me, my sister Francine (before she ran away to get married at the age of fourteen), Maryann's two daughters, and one of Dad's wives—depending on which one wasn't sleeping with him every third night in the south bedroom.
Even though our living arrangements inside were quite dismal, our home was nestled in the midst of acres and acres of clover fields, grasslands, cow pastures, and swampy wetlands—a child's paradise. Along each side of our dead-end unpaved road, were eight or nine more homes overflowing with Fundamentalist friends and loved ones. It was our childhood wonderland that outsiders and some of us insiders called Polygyville.
One afternoon, in our dreary, dark basement, just before I started kindergarten, my mother gave me a squeeze and excitedly told me that she'd be going to school to become a nurse. Full of giddy delight, she explained, "I'll be able to help other people get well and make some money to help your papa support our family. I'll still have to work in the kitchen at St. Mark's Hospital some of the time, so I won't get to see you very much, but Aunt Maryann will look after you and your brothers while I'm away."
Seeing my mother so happy made me feel like I could giggle all day long. To me, it seemed she cried most of the time. The time I climbed out of the bathtub and onto her soft bedspread, she was sobbing even while she sorted through piles of pictures. Whenever I asked her why she was crying, she'd always say, "Oh, nothing. I'm okay. I'll be all right." Now I hoped this promise of happiness would come true.
* * *
Dad drove me to the Allred Group's alternative doctor, a "nonbeliever." Apparently, Uncle Rulon was in hiding again, delivering another baby, spending time with his huge family, or counseling one or more of his polygamist adherents.
"It's just a checkup," Dad said when we got to the doctor's office. "The doctor is going to see if you're healthy enough to go to kindergarten."
Other than the couches that were backed up against every wall, the huge waiting room seemed white and bare. A few of my Dad's waiting friends smiled at me warmly. When the doctor called me, Dad gently nudged me in his direction.
"Go ahead, honey. I'll be right here waiting for you."
The doctor took my hand and led me into a cluttered examining room with the overwhelming smell of Hexol cleaning solution that my mother always used. As soon as we were in the room, he let go of my hand, locked the door behind us, and told me to take my clothes off and climb on the table.
In a petrified stance, I stared back at him. "My dad didn't tell me that I have to take my clothes off!"
"I said take your clothes off and climb on the table like I told you to!" the doctor ordered. "I'm not going to hurt you. I have to see if everything is normal down there."
I couldn't move. Tears began to stream down my cheeks. The doctor stared back at me angrily, obviously expecting me to do exactly as I was told, but I was still frozen with fear. He grabbed me with his huge hands and plopped me down on his clammy, cold table. He hurriedly and roughly removed my dress and panties and told me to lie down on my back. When I still couldn't move, he pushed me back onto the table.
"Just relax now," he snapped while he spread my legs apart. But I squeezed them tightly together and began to whimper. When he roughly pried them apart again, my chubby white legs began to tremble. The doctor traced my labia up and down, over and over again. Through foggy tears, I saw him lick his fingers and leave them wet with spittle. Trying to squirm my way into a sitting position, I sobbed and begged him to leave me alone. "Stop it now! Hold still!" he commanded again. His flat palm pushed my chest firmly back against the table. Holding me down, he put his face right next to mine and emphasized every word. "Do not make one more sound, little girl! If you do, you will bother everyone out there, and that will make them really mad at you."
Completely petrified, I tried hard to hold still and not make a sound, but I couldn't help it. When I continued to whimper, I feared the doctor might hit me. It seemed like forever that I stared at the ceiling squares and quivered in terror while he pressed his fingers just inside my vagina. Suddenly I felt something large and cold start to push further inside my tiny orifice. It hurt so much that I couldn't help but scream. Again, I sat up and tried to push the doctor away. He abruptly backed up and looked at the door behind him. Then he said in his guttural voice, "Get dressed now, naughty little girl!" At last, he unlocked the back door and disappeared.
All alone, I could hardly catch my breath or move. I slowly sat up on the end of the sticky leather table. Burning tears poured onto my chest and bare legs. I slid down to the footstool a little at a time until my small feet landed on the frigid linoleum floor. I found my underwear on a chair and pressed them between my legs in hopes the burning pain would stop. Finally, I slid the underwear over my pale legs and pulled my dress over my head as fast as I could, before the doctor could come back in.
As I shuffled into the waiting room, I looked at Dad through hazy eyes. He was oblivious and still talking, and I wondered if I'd explode inside and out.
Why did my father leave me alone with that doctor? Why did the doctor do that to me? What if he comes out here and tells Dad that I was a naughty girl and that I misbehaved? Dad might make me go back in there and behave myself!
Next to my father, I leaned way back, pushing myself as hard as I could against the green vinyl couch. I forced away my tears so he wouldn't ask me what was wrong. I wished I could become invisible. He won't believe me if I tell him what the doctor did, my thoughts repeated. So I forced myself into perfect compliance.
On the way home, I thought again about telling Dad about it—about saying something to him. He smiled and said a few things as if nothing in the world was wrong. A million things were going through my young mind. I'm supposed to respect my elders and do as they say. Guess the doctor had to do that to see if I am okay, just like Dad said. What if my mother gets angry because I let the doctor touch me "down there"? That's what the doctor called it, too. I must be a bad girl for not holding still. Maybe if I had, it wouldn't have hurt and made me feel sick all over. I think I'm going to throw up! I won't, though, and I won't ever tell anyone. I'm sure they'll be really mad at me.
In September, I started kindergarten at McMillan Elementary School, just a few blocks from home. I thought the first day was the best day of my whole life. "Kindergarten must be what heaven is like!" I told Mom. I was so happy to be in Mrs. Holiday's class that I woke up every morning eager to go to school. I wasn't afraid of her, and I believed she really loved me.
Near the middle of my kindergarten year, while my friend Tia and I were playing house, I asked her how many moms she had. When she told me she only had one, I bragged that I had three. She was pretty excited for me. "Why do you get to have three moms and I don't?"
"I don't know," I told her.
The next day Tia said her mom told her that my dad was a "pig-a-mess and a very bad man, cuz he don't follow God's rules." Tia smirked and went on. "And my mom told me I shouldn't play with you any more cuz you're a pig-a-mess kid."
"My dad is not a pig-a-mess!" I protested. "He does too keep God's rules! And my dad does too keep all of his things nice and clean. He's not ever messy. Sometimes my mom says my brother's room gets messy just like a pig sty, so maybe ... just maybe ... I guess they are pig-a-messes, but my dad isn't a pig-a-mess!"
The other kids looked at both of us in wonder and listened to Tia's remarks. "Well, your dad is a pig-a-mess cuz my mom said he is! So maybe he should keep his room clean. Then he won't be a pig-a-mess anymore!"
As young as five and six years old, my innocent public school peers were conned into their taunting chants: "Sophie is a pig-a-mess kid, Sophie is a pig-a-mess," they teased.
I hid in the toy closet behind the shelves and cried. All of the kids watched as my teacher gently pulled me out by the hand. She held me in her arms and reminded the kids to be nice to everyone.
They were nice to me, at least for a few more years.
That summer, a huge white station wagon pulled up our driveway, over our dirt yard, and stopped right next to the stairs that went down into the basement house. The homely male driver leaned toward the passenger window. "Good afternoon, Sister Vera. We're going for an ice cream cone and want to know if Sophie can go with us."
Mom prodded my shoulder, as she assumed I'd like to go with Brother Maynard and my cousin, his new wife.
"No!" I blurted out, feeling terrified of that man. Even though I didn't know why, I did know that he made me feel icky inside. I didn't want to be in his car or near him, ever.
Mom seemed embarrassed by my perceived rude behavior and her need to please others, so she continued to try to coax me into going along. The more she pled with me to go with Brother Maynard, the more anxious I felt that she'd make me go.
Excerpted from Fifty Years In Polygamy by Kristyn Decker Copyright © 2012 by Kristyn Decker. Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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