Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Review: Secrets & Wives by Sanjiv Bhattacharya

Secrets and Wives: The Hidden World of Mormon Polygamy by Sanjiv Bhattacharya

Reviewed by Ingrid

Published: 2011

It's about/I thought: British-born journalist Sanjiv Bhattacharya is the U.S. correspondent for British Esquire and has written for magazines and newspapers including GQ and The Los Angeles Times, and holds a degree in philosophy from the University of Cambridge. Bhattacharya says that he first became interested in polygamy when he heard about the scandal with Warren Jeffs and subsequently produced a documentary for Channel Four in the U.K. called "The Man With 80 Wives."

In this book he visits the polygamist groups throughout Utah and exposes the abuse and manipulation that takes place within these communities.

Bhattacharya has strong opinions about polgamy and religion, and he isn't afraid to show it. This book is very much a subjective account. He explains that he uses his own experience as a thread to weave stories together. As a very clear outsider with darker skin and a funny accent, he believes that the way he was treated said a lot about the subjects. He also explains that the personal discussions he was having with these people included discussing his own experience, a giving much of himself that he felt necessary to develop trust and mutual understanding. He says that religion touches on a deep, personal place in peoples lives, and it seems dishonest to exempt himself from this. 

Faith and religion can be a difficult topic to write about, because faith functions on a different plane than rationality and thus is difficult to analyze objectively. Bhattacharya overcame this obstacle by being as frank as possible about his own subjectivity. I thought this was quite clever of him. 

So, this book is not meant to explore whether these groups are justified are correct in their faith, but rather is a sort of exposé of unethical practices done in the name of faith. Because of this, Bhattacharya believes strongly that polygamy should be decriminalized. At the beginning of chapter 8, "Legalize It," Bhattacharya quotes Louis D. Brandeis: "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman." If polygamy is legalized, (or at least decriminalized, which means that a man can't legally marry more than one wife, but he can't be charged for bigamy if he cohabitates with one legal wife as well as another spiritually-married wife,) manipulative polygamist leaders like Warren Jeffs will no longer have an excuse to demonize the law and use it to control their followers. Bhattacharya explains,
Sanjiv Bhattacharya (via)
The Warren Jeffs saga illustrates that poygamy's status as a felony makes true criminals harder to prosecute. Illegality is a bogeyman that polygamist leaders use to control and terrorize their followers--it's an excuse for secrecy, a cover for real crimes. 
The real crimes that take place in these communities are wide-spread and often quite shocking; the worst cases involve sexual abuse of young girls and sometimes boys, and in the case of the Kingston group, incest. 

While Bhattacharya does a great job uncovering these issues, he still lets the people within these communities get their word in too (though often framed by Bhattacharya's snarky commentary.) Throughout his time in Utah, Bhattacharya met many unique and interesting people with diverse experiences; some are shocking, inspiring, pathetic, sad, and some are noble. While he clearly has a subjective view, this author does a good job presenting both sides. He helps us understand why many people choose this lifestyle and why it is important to them. This is why I think this is the best book I've read on polygamy. Bhattacharya lays everything out on the table to be considered by the reader (as opposed to Love Times Three, which has a much more carefully controlled representation of the lifestyle.) It was also very, very funny. 

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf.

Reading Recommendations: I first heard about this book on Radio West; you can listen to the episode here. Sanjiv Bhattacharya was also interviewed on the podcast Mormon Expression, which you can find here.

Warnings: A few swear words, descriptions of incest and sexual abuse.

Favorite excerpts:

I'm there at ten sharp. It's me and two sixteen-year-old boys, Jacob and Matthias, sitting at a cleared table in the middle of Merrill's living room, our notebooks out and pens at the ready. Merrill wipes the white board clean and introduces me.

     "This is Sanjiv, he's from London. He's writing a book about polygamy and he wants to see how polygamists do trigonometry!" We all laugh. "I told him that our lives are pretty boring, but he doesn't believe me. So let's see if I can't prove him wrong!" He's loving it. It's the Merrill show. "I was explaining to Sanjiv last night that we don't usually let media report on us because they're so prejudiced. We've been quite badly burned by the media. That's why you've never read anything about the TLC for the last eight years. But I met with Sanjiv last night and we've spoken on the phone, and he's genuinely interested to see what our lives are like. So let's just have a normal class. Just pretend he's not there. Does that work for you?"
     The boys nod. I nod. Everyone nods. Then the phone rings and Merrill stops. "Hold on a second." And he retreats to the rear of the house to take the call. When he returns, minutes later, he's glaring at me. "Okay, we're going to have to stop this whole thing right here. You have to leave."
     "No more interviews. We can't continue this. You have to leave."

(read more of this excerpt here.)

What I'm reading next: Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller