Wednesday, March 31

When Men Become Gods - Stephen Singular

The subtitle tells you all you need to know: Mormon Polygamist Warren Jeffs, His Cult of Fear, and the Women Who Fought Back. Indeed, When Men Become Gods is the well researched story of how a community of Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (carefully distinguished from the official LDS church) developed over decades and was fragmented by a combination of legal reform, police work, good luck and the tenacity of women who left the compound and sought assistance.The first half of When Men Become Gods focuses on the history of FLDS communities, from the revelations of the angel Moroni to LDS founder Joseph Smith and his subsequent persecution (which itself contributed to the growth of the religion) to the outlawing of plural marriage, only tokenistically applied in regions where it prevails, and the emergence of fundamentalists branches from the officially recognised religion. Singular then traces the history of this branch, including the circumstances that contributed to Warren Jeffs' personality, his gradual takeover of power, and the consequences for his community.
I know that the way Big Love (an HBO series about an LDS family that includes one husband, four wives and a number of children) depicts plural marriage is considerably more egalitarian and palatable than the reality of plural marriage for many of these women, a note Singular touches on several times. However, it's in part due to that series, which also shows small communities like Jeffs', that drew me to this text when I came across it by accident.
And it was this aspect that I found the most interesting - how the culture arose, what it's like for the people (particularly girls) growing up within it, what happens to those who don't fit, and how sustainable it is. After all, if you start with roughly equal numbers of male and female children but allocate spouses unevenly, you have to have a whole lot of leftover boys, and I'd have liked to know more about these Lost Boys.
I found myself far less interested when Singular turned to the chase, when Jeffs became a fugitive, abetted by his parishioners, the investigation, and the subsequent trial. It's not that I'm unimpressed with the effort, nor the clear bravery shown by those young women who came forward and testified against the head of their church. It's just that I found that part less absorbing than the sociological component - perhaps an unavoidable consequence of my academic leanings.
Some of the writing was a little breathless, and I found the odd description (like that of PI Gary Engels on p. 118) unnecessarily detailed, but overall I found When Men Become Gods accessible and engaging. I would have liked a little more examination of internal contradictions, like the necessity of government support in maintaining the financial viability of this group and the effect of having so many FLDS-affiliated members in local law enforcement (both areas touched on in the book), but in fairness that's not the aim of the writing. - Alex

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