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Brown family listening intently as the opposing group of polygamy has their turn to speak to the audience (Photo/Jennifer Rodriguez).
Brown family listening intently as the opposing group of polygamy has their turn to speak to the audience (Photo/Jennifer Rodriguez).

Victims of Polygamy Face TLC’S “Sister Wives”

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UNLV welcomed the stars of the controversial TLC reality show “Sister Wives” for an open panel discussion on the mysterious world of polygamy at the Marjorie Barrick Museum auditorium on April 25.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has disapproved from the practice of polygamy since 1904 when former church President Joseph F. Smith disavowed the practice before congress.

This led to several small “fundamentalist” groups who wanted to continue the practice of polygamy to separate from the LDS church.

The Browns are not like any average American family. Patriarch Kody Brown shares his life with four wives—Meri, Janelle, Christine and Robyn.  The family is made complete with 17 children, one of whom currently attends UNLV.

The family resides in Las Vegas, but is originally from Utah. According to the Browns, they moved here due to prejudice.  In an attempt to shed a positive light on the practice of polygamy, they have put their every move on camera for the world to see.

“My family discussed the idea of becoming public as a counter balance and broad picture of what Mormons were like,” said Kody Brown, who sat in the center of his four wives. When he spoke, they had a look of admiration on their face.

Meri Brown reassured the audience that this commitment was done in free will. “We were not forced into this. We knew we were going to have more wives, but didn’t know how we would go about this, it just happened,” Meri said.

Kody and Meri recently celebrated their 23rd anniversary.

Janelle Brown agreed with Meri as she took the microphone and spoke about the children’s upbringing.

“I am very career-oriented, my children have had a very rich, complete life, and my life has been very blessed by my choice. I love my rich life. I have been able to do everything I wanted to do,” Janelle said.

Janelle expresses how grateful she is to have her sister wives help her with her children.

Christine Brown was raised with two mothers. She tells the audience of her “awesome family upbringing,” and how she realized from a young age that she too wanted sister wives.

“When I was a teenager, I thought it would be nice to have other mentors for my children. I was happy to be Kody’s third wife, very happy. Our kids were raised like brothers and sisters,” Christine said.

Robyn Brown is the most recent addition to the family. She was born and raised in the religion. Robyn’s first marriage ended after eight years due to abuse and miscommunication.

“We were monogamous until the end because he was not worthy of another wife,” Robyn said.

That is when she met the Brown family and fell in love with their way of living before she knew Kody on a personal level.

“My family is perfect and I wouldn’t make any other choice. I’m happy where I am at,” Robyn said.

The Opposing Views

Although the Browns attempt to put the aspects of polygamy the media has exploited to rest, such as forced marriage and sexual abuse, there were three opposing views on the idea of the plural marriage lifestyle.

Sitting opposite of the Brown family were Kristen Decker, Willy Steed and Kollene Snow.

Decker was born and raised in a Mormon fundamentalist community. Her mother was the first of 13 wives and she was the first of 47 children. Decker recalls her mother as “miserably happy.”

“I would always see my mom cry. She started to tell me why but she would catch herself because you’re not supposed to be negative. We have to endure till the end, our blessings were in heaven. She said plural marriage is the way to the celestial kingdom,” Decker said.

Decker’s childhood was anything but happy. When her mother went to work, she and the other children were physically abused by a sister wife in charge of watching over the children.

When Decker married she was afraid of the day her husband would find a second wife.

“When my husband started courting other women, my heart was broken. I told myself I could not feel this way, jealousy was not an option. It was a defect of character to feel like this,” Decker said.

Decker fled the community and is now an anti-polygamy advocate.

Steed lived under the rule of Warren Jeffs, who was also his father. Jeffs was former president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints who was convicted of two felony counts of child sexual assault in 2011.

“My father was not a nice father; I have no love for my father. My mother was the only thing that I ever had,” Steed said.

Steed has no more than a third grade education because he was pulled out of school when he was 8 years old to be put to work. He believes polygamy has made his life a living hell and only benefits the needs of the patriarch. He is currently obtaining his high school degree online.

Snow was the fifth child of 12. Her mother was the seventh wife of 14. She was born into the polygamist community of Kingston near Salt Lake City.

“I grew up in an abusive life, my father ended up going to jail. My whole life I never wanted to be where I’m at,” Snow said. “The more wives a man has, the more holy and righteous he is. Women are seen as jewels. It is a business not a religion. They just put the name to it.”

Snow was married at 16 years old and divorced a year later when she decided to flee the community. She is now in a relationship and recently received her license as a master aesthetician.

Professor William Jankowiak of the anthropology department at UNLV was the moderator for the discussion.

He has done extensive research on the subject of polygamy for over 20 years.

According to Jankowiak, the Brown family is a special case due to their “sister wives who are more prone to cooperation than conflict.”

Jankowiak found success in this type of living arrangement can be difficult.

“I estimate 25 percent or one in four families were able to achieve a satisfactory marriage or living arrangement, about 35 percent families were in some state of ongoing, albeit manageable conflict and 30 percent were  dysfunctional or in complete disarray,” said Jankowiak.

This result is based on his study of the Colorado City polygamist community.

The Brown Family is currently filming episodes for the next season of “Sister Wives” and continues to thrive as a family.

“I love my wives, all my children, and the blessings we have received along the way. Polygamy is not for everyone, and will continue to be an issue in society. As for me and my family this is where we belong,” Kody Brown said.

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