Friday, August 5, 2011

I could have danced all night with the Prophet of Polygamy

I felt as if I were twirling ecstatically with Arthur Murray.
     I have found myself in numerous unusual situations over the years (oops, I did it again), but one of the most memorable was the time I spent in the arms of Rulon C. Allred, the prophet and spiritual leader of an  estimated 10,000 Mormon polygamists in the U.S. and Mexico.
    No, we were not in the throes of “replenishing the Earth,” as Dr. Allred, a homeopathic physician, regularly reminded his flock to do “with vigor, pleasure and the love of God.”
    We were dancing.

Rulon Allred, despite misgivings about my "Big City ways,"  treated me with kindness and trust.
    Although I hadn’t done any ballroom dancing since being forced to do so in elementary school (Do they still do that? It’s quite perverse.), Dr. Allred  and I twirled, trotted, soared and swooped around the dance floor with the greatest of ease. To me, it was magical, as if I were in a musically enhanced blur of a dream. All around us, watching good-naturedly, were hundreds of his followers.
    I was in Utah writing a magazine article on polygamy, mainly to get a free plane ticket home to visit friends and family. When I first called Dr. Allred at his Murray office asking to meet him, he icily refused to “cast pearls before swine.”
    Later that night, he called me back and said God had told him that I had a good heart, and that I would do his people no harm. He scheduled an interview with me the next day in his simple but clean, pleasant office. When we had finished discussing the basic tenets of his faith, he invited me to a dance that evening at a building on the Salt Lake County Fairgrounds.
    I had expected to be a very unobtrusive spectator at this gathering -- just here to get some “color commentary” for my article -- so when Dr. Allred welcomed everyone, and introduced me, and then said he and I would kick off the evening  by dancing together, I was mortified. I am not a dancer -- at least not when I’m sober!
    I had read that all a woman needs to do in this situation  is to submit completely and unquestioningly to her competent partner (sounds like a basic Mormon precept!), and he can maneuver her body into graceful and even complex, rather flashy dance moves that she never dreamed she could achieve.
Dr. Allred and I didn't get this carried away, but we were pretty dang spectacular.
     It worked! I felt quite ravished  by the beautiful show we had just put on. All I’d had to do was to go limp and Trust in the Prophet. He had taken care of the rest. He was a master at getting a female body to do whatever needed to be done, while remaining a perfect gentleman (that sounds like another basic precept).
   Because of his slenderness and height, and his benign, bemused expression, Dr. Allred  reminded me of Arthur Murray, whose television program appeared from 1950-60 and inspired millions to get up off that couch and do the waltz, the cha-cha, the fox trot, the tango and the merengue.  The lanky Arthur and his wife Katharine were among the most beloved personalities of the era. They made dancing look as refreshing as a mouthwash commercial -- all tingly and energizing. The satin swooshed, their heads turned to and fro, and their facial expressions reflected effortless pleasure.
    After the showy display provided by Dr. Allred and me, many others in  the crowd joined us in what they called a ‘Round Robin.’ The men formed a circle, and the women -- who I later learned were the single ones among the group -- arrayed themselves into an outer circle. Then, when the music began, we females were embraced by the nearest man, twirled about, walked arm-in-arm for about five seconds, and then flung to the next one.
    It was one way, I later learned, for the men to meet  “marriageable” women. Kind of like speed dating. Not my style!

    I spent many hours with Dr. Allred, his charming wives and several couples in his flock. I attended a service, which wasn’t the slightest bit bizarre, at his Bluffdale church.
Dr. Allred's church in Bluffdale was simple but serviceable.
    Then, I went back to New York to write my article about him, and just as it was about to go to press in May, 1977,  he was assassinated by members of a rival polygamous sect, led by Ervil LeBaron. He was only 71, and left behind at least seven wives (16 others are said to have been “sealed” to him) and forty-eight children.
Rival polygamist leader Ervil LeBaron was convicted of ordering Allred's death.
    I am writing this primarily as a counterweight to the horrendous portrait of the polygamous lifestyle that was presented at the trial of FLDS leader Warren Jeffs.
    I am nowhere near being an expert on plural marriage, but I do believe that what I saw during my time with the Allred group was a fairly credible representation of how “The Principle” is lived among his followers.
    Dr. Allred was a complex man. His moral certitude could make him seem cold and condescending. But after we spent some time together, he showed himself to be engaging, generous and gallant.
    He was no warm-and-cuddly Gordon B. Hinckley, for whom even a non-Mormon such as I could feel something akin to love. Dr. Allred had a hard edge that was palpable. He was a man who I could imagine feeling "wrathful" and making sweeping proclamations accompanied by thunderclaps and shivers up people's spines.
    But he was no pervert, and I don't believe he would tolerate anything even resembling child abuse or spousal abuse among his people. He was proud, dignified and -- most importantly I believe -- he was a good and moral man.
    I was honored to meet his wives, who ranged in age, I would estimate, from mid-30s to mid-70s. They were very sweet and relaxed. They looked like “regular people” -- not dressed in the old-fashioned pioneer getups we often see on TV. They behaved like “regular people” as well -- chattering, laughing, teasing and reminiscing among themselves.
    They and the other polygamous families I met discussed their lifestyle candidly -- admitting that jealously was one of their challenges, for example, and describing the satisfaction of overcoming it as one grew to love one’s “sister wives.” They also confided that it was a relief to be rid of their husband sometimes -- let somebody else listen to his monologues and submit to his bedtime shenanigans! -- and they agreed that having several “mothers” in a household can make for a very helpful and enjoyable division of labor.
    All of them expressed a belief that I heard over and over again: It is much harder for a man to be a polygamist than to live in a monogamous situation. Whatever sexual variety is involved, they suggested, was far outweighed by the intense financial and familial pressures the husband has to endure.
    Men who enter polygamy thinking it’s going to be a carnal wonderland don‘t stick around very long, they assured me. Most of them are so exhausted by the end of the day, they wish they didn’t have even one wife waiting around for some good conversation and/or sensual comfort and pleasure, much less three or six or twelve!
    Dr. Allred, and his entire community of about 400 -- who were living in Short Creek, Arizona -- were taken into custody in 1953 in what has been described as "the largest mass arrest of men and women in modern American history."
These are among the polygamists who went to prison for eight months, years before the Short Creek raid. Dr. Allred is first row, fourth from the left. Law enforcement scrutiny during that period scattered families and caused great suffering. Many moved to Mexico, and many remain there.

    Some 263 of those rounded up were children. One hundred fifty of the children who were taken into custody were not permitted to return to their parents for more than two years, and some parents never regained custody of their children, according to a 1990 article in the Utah Historical Quarterly.
    The brutal raid, involving several agencies, dozens of officers, and a slew of invited reporters was such a spectacle -- and ensuing trial and the "targets" looked like such harmless, pale, ordinary men (not leering devils -- led one commentator to suggest that the raid was "probably the first time in history that American polygamists had received media coverage that was largely sympathetic.”
    It would not be prudent to generalize about polygamy from my glimpse at the Allred flock. Rulon and his brother, Owen, who succeeded him, were regarded as moderate and open, relative to other polygamous sects.
    But I feel compelled to support the Apostolic United Brethren, often known as The Allred Group, in its statement today condemning abuses in the Jeffs group and denying that it is involved in these depraved and criminal activities.
    I trust that, for the most part, they are good people, attempting to live in a very challenging way because they believe it is God’s will.