On Friday, July 3, 1953, Charlotte LeBaron placed the hand of her sister Irene Spencer into the hand of her husband, Verlan LeBaron. And just like that, in a hurried ceremony in an out-of-the-way corner of the Mormon Temple grounds in Salt Lake City, Spencer joined a plural marriage. At age 15, she had begun living "the principle," the polygamous mandate handed down by Brigham Young but later abandoned by the Latter Day Saints. Spencer's memoir, Shattered Dreams: My Life As A Polygamist's Wife, is a horror story of poverty, abandonment, jealousy, sexual frustration, and eventual suicidal depression. Although her writing style is often naïve, raw, and repetitious, she offers an eye-opening look inside the walls of a secret polygamous compound.
Spencer had only been a second wife for a few weeks when the word came down that the sects needed to flee south of the border to avoid an anticipated government crackdown. She spent the next 20 years in Mexico, Baja California, and even Nicaragua as her husband hauled their bloated family from one new Eden to another. Before turning 35, Spencer bore 14 children, and she spent months at a time as the sole caretaker of the entire LeBaron brood—upward of two dozen kids—while Verlan and his other eight wives lived and worked hundreds of miles away. Worst of all, she felt like a failure because she could find no joy in a principle that denied her affection, physical intimacy, and even the basic necessities of life. At every turn, she was told she needed to believe more, work harder, and look forward to an eternity of exaltation instead of seeking fulfillment on earth.
Outsiders view fundamentalist Mormon polygamy as a patriarchal paradise—a system where men get everything they want and women swallow their pride in order to be saved through their husbands. But Shattered Dreams reveals a way of life that makes nobody happy. The principle dooms huge extended families to brutal poverty, forbids taking pleasure in sex, sets up wives for constant competition, and forces men into a kind of spiritual pyramid scheme where they can never get ahead. Ironically, Spencer's mother escaped plural marriage but couldn't overcome years of indoctrination for her teenage daughter; likewise, three of the writer's own daughters are currently living in polygamy. From the inside, the hardships they endure provide proof of the righteousness of their cause. From the outside, Spencer's disastrous marriage is an object lesson in religion's power to make an upside-down world look like plain common sense.