B.C.’s secluded sect of polygamists is a sore spot that many a lawmaker has poked at over the years. But as Daphne Bramham shows in The Secret Lives of Saints, none have succeeded in healing it.
Bountiful, the hub of fundamentalist Mormonism in Canada, was built and nurtured at an ethical impasse, with freedom of religion stacking up against longstanding laws that prohibit men from taking multiple wives. For Bramham, a columnist at the Vancouver Sun and longtime Bountiful observer, the community is no legal twilight zone, no Charter-protected grey area. It is, she argues, a shameful failure: a community where manipulative men rule over under-educated subjects, and where institutionalized gender discrimination is alive and well with its attendant evils – child brides, domestic abuse, and incest.
Beginning with the stories of pioneering Canadian polygamists like John Blackmore, the first Mormon elected to the House of Commons in 1936, Bramham navigates Bountiful’s interweaving family trees, all the way down to Winston Blackmore who, though excommunicated by jailed spiritual leader Warren Jeffs, remains the public face of the community (and, as of 2002, husband to about 26 of its wives and father to 90 of its children).
Bramham’s research is exhaustive, and she puts it to good effect, painting colourful portraits of the Bountiful patriarchs and giving human dimension to the stories of child brides, jealous wives, and boys driven from their homes by their spiritual leaders.
Her focus widens as the book progresses, taking in stories from Colorado City, the Arizona settlement of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and pausing to compare the sect’s leaders to the Taliban. This wide lens detracts somewhat from the strong B.C.-based story, and makes for some repetitious moments as Bramham steers the narrative in multiple directions. Yet compelling storytelling, coupled with a dose of out-and-out anger, makes this dense and complex story compulsively readable.