Edmonton Journal

 

 

THE JOURNAL    Saturday, August 07, 2004



The secret lives of Bountiful's wives.

 

The Fundamental Mormons in Bountiful, B.C. believe in polygamy. But are many of the commune's 'celestial wives' really just teenage concubines?

 

Daphne Bramham

CanWest News Service; Vancouver Sun


Saturday, August 07, 2004

 

BOUNTIFUL, B.C. - No one in Bountiful disputes the fact that most first-time mothers who walk into this polygamous community's midwifery clinic are younger than 18.

Nobody disputes the fact that the fathers are often three or four times older than the mothers. And nobody disputes that many are the "plural wives" -- or concubines -- of men much older than them.

After all, when it comes time to register the births, midwife Jane Blackmore says the fathers in this religious community near Creston in south-central British Columbia happily sign their names on the forms that are sent to the provincial government.

They are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and they believe polygamy is the "new and everlasting covenant."

It is what separates them from mainstream Mormons. Fundamentalists claim they are the true Mormons and it is the mainstream Mormon church that has broken away from Joseph Smith's teachings -- in particular his directive on polygamy.

What Marlene Palmer, a plural wife and the public defender of other plural wives, disputes is whether the women and girls have a choice about becoming "celestial wives" in their teens.

"Women and girls do get to choose who they marry," she says emphatically. "Most are 17, 18 and some are as old as 20 when they get married. There have been some who are 16 and occasionally some who are 15 ... . But they never marry without their parents' permission."

Palmer, 45, is Winston Blackmore's sister. Blackmore, a powerful businessman and wealthy landowner, is the former bishop of Bountiful. He has 26 wives and more than 80 children. Blackmore has repeatedly said that polygamy is a religious practice and as such is protected by the Canadian Constitution's guarantee of religious freedom.

Palmer has six children and works full-time for her brother's company, J.R. Blackmore and Sons Co.

"I was 17 when I married the first time and 32 the second time and absolutely I had a choice," she says. "It's fabulous. I really love the man."

However, she refuses to say who her second husband is and how many sister wives she has.

The B.C. government is launching a wide-ranging probe into every aspect of the reclusive, 57-year-old community. Among other things, the investigation is determining whether what is happening in Bountiful is legal.

There is a law in Canada that prohibits people in positions of power and authority from having sex with anyone under 18. There is a law against forcible sexual intercourse with anyone regardless of their age. There is also a law prohibiting polygamy or multiple spouses.

MOTHERS AS YOUNG AS 14

B.C. Attorney-General Geoff Plant has promised a police investigation to find out whether any of those laws are being broken. Plant also said the government will look into allegations that racism and sexism are being taught at the government-supported school, as well as allegations that plural wives are claiming to be single mothers so they can collect welfare and child support.

Midwife Jane Blackmore confirms that the youngest mother she has seen was only 14. But there have been others who are 15 and 16 when their babies are born. Most women, she says, have had their first child by 18.

 

All of her young mothers are healthy and so are all of the babies that she's delivered so far.

"For the most part, younger women have babies easier," says Jane Blackmore. "But the younger women have other problems." She declines to elaborate.

Blackmore is guarded in what she'll say. Her caution and reluctance to criticize is not surprising. She wants to remain Bountiful's midwife. But more importantly, she wants to maintain her close family ties.

Jane Blackmore is Winston Blackmore's first and only legal wife. Six of their eight children still live in Bountiful, even though Jane left her husband and the town two years ago.

"I left because I was finished living that way. I just want to live ..." she paused. "More time will have to pass before I can say anything more than that."

However, she does say of the women who only have one husband: "They are really lucky."

Jane Blackmore wants Bountiful to change. But pressed about what changes she would like to see, she is reluctant to give specifics.

"My concerns are not mainly for the girls, but for the community in general. I'd like there to be more education and more opportunities. The main change will come when there is more education."

WIVES ARE 'ASSIGNED'

Bountiful's women have families far in excess of the Canadian average. By the time they make their last trip to Jane Blackmore's clinic on Bountiful's main street, they usually have nine or 10 other children at home. Those children are part of large extended families that usually include one or two of their father's "plural wives" and dozens of half-brothers and half-sisters.

Debbie Palmer, 49, shares none of her younger sister's ambiguity about which way of life is better.

She left the community in 1988 and has been campaigning against what she calls the sexual exploitation and assault of Bountiful's women and children, the forced marriages, the forced obedience and the dismal level of education.

At 15, Palmer became the third "wife" to Winston Blackmore's father -- Ray Blackmore, a man 42 years older than her at the time.

After Ray Blackmore died, Debbie was re-assigned first to 54-year-old Sam Ralston. By the time she left, she had had three different "husbands" and eight children. She was never legally married.

Palmer took all of her children with her when she left, even though the polygamous group teaches that mothers have no rights to the children.

And while her sister won't say how many wives Winston Blackmore has, Palmer says the 48-year-old has 26 wives and half of them were "assigned" to him before they finished high school and before they turned 18.

The talk of abuse, neglect, brainwashing and lack of education makes Marlene Palmer fighting mad -- particularly at Debbie Palmer, who was once a sister-wife.

But it's difficult to tell when Marlene is mad. She has taken to heart the church motto to "keep sweet." Her anger is masked by smiles and laughter.

Palmer disputes the allegations, especially the suggestions of abuse.

"I am part of Creston's emergency response team," says Marlene. "I work with the police. I would never, ever keep abuse quiet. If I knew a child or a woman was being abused, I would go to the police."

But even she concedes that it is sometimes difficult to know what happens behind closed doors of people's homes whether it's in a polygamist colony or in the broader community.

'WE ARE FREE AGENTS'

Cherene Palmer emphatically agrees with Marlene (who, according to one genealogy chart of Bountiful's twisted and complex family arrangements, is Marlene's step-mother).

Cherene also says if there were abuse, she'd know about it through her close connections in the community and through her work as a teacher's aide at Mormon Hills elementary school -- the school Winston Blackmore set up after he lost control of the Bountiful elementary-secondary school to a rival leader in the community.

She waves a set of keys as she talks.

"We are free agents," says Cherene. "I have a bank card. I have my own car and my own home. Absolutely no one is pushing me."

Cherene is 57 and the mother of 14 children, all of whom live in and around Bountiful. She claims to have the largest family in Bountiful. She never legally married her children's father, who is now dead, and she has retained her maiden name.

Marlene Palmer -- like her brother -- welcomes the wide-ranging probe into allegations of sexual exploitation, sexual abuse and claims of racist and sexist teachings at Bountiful elementary-secondary school.

"I think it's wonderful. If they go through the homes and if they find something, I wholeheartedly support getting it corrected," she said.

Marlene is so convinced that all is well in Bountiful that she agreed to take us on a tour of Bountiful after going for a workout at Curves -- a ladies-only gym where she works out daily in her long dress (community members are supposed to keep legs and arms covered).

However, after a bit of working out, Marlene has a change of heart about being tour guide. Cherene offers to do it instead. And we were almost out of the office when Winston Blackmore called.

The women had a brief meeting in a back office. When they emerged, Marlene said Blackmore didn't think it would be a good idea if any of them went with us to Bountiful.

(Blackmore also refused to take us on a tour and he refused repeated requests for an interview.)

She says Blackmore doesn't want to exacerbate tensions at Bountiful.

But the tensions in the community may have less to do with the provincial investigation and more to do with an internal power struggle over control of the estimated 13,000 followers in Canada and the United States.

SPLIT IN THE FAITH

Blackmore -- the once powerful bishop and a loyal follower of Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints president and prophet Rulon Jeffs -- has become a pariah to nearly half the people in Bountiful. He now leads a splinter group of perhaps 600 Canadian Mormons. The other 400 in and around Bountiful follow Warren Jeffs, Rulon's son, an American who wrested control of the church from senior leaders like Blackmore after his father's death two years ago.

Warren Jeffs has ex-communicated virtually everyone who might challenge him -- including Blackmore. Hundreds have been ex-communicated in Colorado City, Ariz., and in Hildale, Utah, where the sect is based.

The split has been heart-wrenching in Bountiful.

"I totally stay away from them," Cherene Palmer says of the Jeffs' faction. "I don't know what they believe. I don't want to know. I know what I believe."

All of her children live in Bountiful and all but one -- a daughter -- is in the Blackmore camp.

"I occasionally say hi to her. But that is about as far as it goes. ... My daughter doesn't want me talking to her children. She's afraid I'll tell them something and they'll get into trouble."

Cherene doesn't believe the rift in the community can ever be healed.

© The Edmonton Journal 2004