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Video: How One Polygamous Family Changed the Law

This video is a companion to Andrew Solomon’s forthcoming article on contemporary polygamists, to be published in The New Yorker.

Excerpts from the transcript

There is a false narrative that the Nuclear Family is the typical family, and that’s not really true. People seem to think that Leave It To Beaver was a documentary, it wasn’t. It was an idolized representation of what people aspired to, and since that time the nuclear family has been held to be the ideal, and all other families have been held up against it.

I’m writing a book now in which I try to look at ways in which people who consider themselves family have to contend with the system that tends to give greater validity to mainstream families. And I’m interested in the idea that this nuclear family really was an invention of the 20th century. It originates from a 1950s idea that there was such a thing as an ideal family, and originates a lot from the idea of normality. It began in mathematics, and in mathematics it meant “the thing that occurs most frequently.” That idea of normality was very much celebrated. People wanted to fit in, they wanted to be the same, eccentricity was devalued, originality was devalued. And while the pressure on human beings was significant, it was nothing compared to the pressure placed on families. Families had a way they were supposed to look, and there were roles. There was a breadwinner father, there was a caretaker mother, there were a couple of children, maybe three. There was a dog, there was a cat. It was idealized in media representations, and the assumption was that in these households — free of disability, free of difference, free of so many of the things in which we have sense come to find meaning — that it was in these households that people would have the best, the optimal, the most wonderful experience. So, we came to a very sentimental and a very narrow notion of what it meant to be a family.

Joe has had a number of insights crucial to bringing about decriminalization in Utah. In the first place he said, “We have tried for many years, the freedom of religion argument, and it has never worked.” He said, “The freedom of religion argument does not in fact cause people to open up and say that they want to accept those of us who are practicing polygamy. It was defeated by the Supreme Court in the Reynolds decision, in the late 19th century, it has been defeated in courts over, and over again.” He said, “Polygamy is a free speech issue.” He said, “Nobody gets in trouble, because he has slept with a bunch of different women and had children by them.” He said, “I have children with three women and I call them my wives. And it’s because I use the word wives, that our lives are stigmatized.” He said, “That is a free speech issue, I should be able to call them whatever I want to call them.” And so, it was the revelation, I think, that this could be negotiated as a free speech issue, that was his great primary insight, and the beginning of the shift toward decriminalization.

(For the complete transcript of this video, please visit The New Yorker website.)