Pros: Incredible story about polygamy. Timely, yet not too broadly covered.
Cons: After awhile, it gets hard to keep everyone's story straight.
A couple of weeks ago, my husband Bill and I were on vacation and I happened to be reading People magazine. Bill noticed Irene Spencer's 2007 memoir Shattered Dreams: My Life as a Polygamist's Wife among that issue's book reviews. People made the book sound fascinating, so we sought it out the next time we were at Barnes & Noble. I'm happy to report that Shattered Dreams far exceeded my expectations.
Shattered Dreams is Irene Spencer's incredible story of how she grew up a faithful member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS). The FLDS sect is an offshoot of the better known mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The official LDS church does not associate with the FLDS sect. Members of the FLDS sect are scattered throughout North America, including Canada, Mexico, and Central America. Irene Spencer grew up in Utah and is related to some of the FLDS members who live in the fundamentalist Mormon communities of Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah, which are located side by side on the Arizona and Utah borders. The area was once known as Short Creek.
On July 3, 1953, sixteen year old Irene Kunz became her first husband's second wife, having wed Verlan LeBaron, who was also married to Irene's half sister, Charlotte. Irene was herself the product of polygamy. Her mother was the second of her father's four wives and Irene's generation was the fourth to practice polygamy. Although Irene's mother was miserable as a polygamist's wife and eventually left Irene's father, Irene felt obligated to enter into a polygamous marriage herself. She had been trained since birth to live life obedient to what she and her family referred to as the "Principle", described as follows:
Men were to have as many wives and as many children as they possibly could during the few years they walked this Earth. It was upon the conclusion of those trying, earthly years that we would all reap the divine rewards for our obedience to the Principle (7).
When Irene was fifteen, she fell in love with a shy, twenty-eight year old bachelor named Glen. Glen was what was known as a jack Mormon. He considered himself a Mormon, but didn't actually practice the faith. Irene loved Glen very much and wanted to marry him, but he didn't live the Principle. Irene wasn't sure she wanted to be a polygamist's wife, but her religious beliefs required that she adhere to the Principle. So, even though her heart was breaking, Irene eventually agreed to marry Verlan LeBaron, a man who did live the Principle and was faithful to Irene's beliefs. Verlan had everything Irene thought she needed in a husband. At sixteen years old, Irene secretly married Verlan and moved to Mexico, where over the next twenty-eight years, she would go on to have fourteen children. At one point, Verlan had ten wives; the youngest one was just fourteen years old when he married her. When he died in 1981, he had fifty-eight children.
This book's title, Shattered Dreams, makes it sound like it's going to be a tragic story. Indeed, Irene Spencer's life as a polygamist's wife was very difficult. She and her sister wives and children lived in extreme poverty. They shared one man, who would take turns sleeping with them and had to work constantly in order to support their ever enlarging family. What's more, Verlan would only have sex in order to procreate. Consequently, by the time she was just thirty-five years old, Irene had given birth to thirteen children and dealt with multiple health problems. Her first child, Leah, died shortly after birth. Her ninth child, Sandra, was adopted from a Mexican woman who was even poorer than Irene was. However, while Irene Spencer lived an extremely hard life and this book's title suggests that, I can't think of this story as tragic. For one thing, although the family endured extreme hardships, Irene managed to maintain a wonderful sense of humor and feistiness, which comes through in her often very witty writing.
Shattered Dreams includes pictures, which show Irene Spencer as an impossibly young, beautiful bride and her ever increasing brood. There are pictures of most of the other brides as well. The book itself is divided into three parts, which helped me keep everybody's story straight-- something that became increasingly difficult to do as more wives were added and more children were born.
I found Spencer's story fascinating and engaging. I had a hard time putting this book down. If I had to list a weakness, it might be that Spencer's story is jam packed with action, almost too much so. Shattered Dreams consists of 383 pages, yet I almost feel like it only skims the surface of Irene's experience as a polygamist's wife. She mentions each of her children's births, but they get little face time because there are simply so many of them, along with the babies born to the other wives, which also get mentions-- mainly because Irene was often called upon to deliver them. The whole time Irene was married to Verlan LeBaron, she was tending to all of her own kids and those of Verlan's other wives, making do with the barest minimum. I could tell it was a difficult life, but the details were spread thin because someone was always having a baby or getting pregnant. It does help that at the end of the book, Spencer includes a chart, which shows the family tree. The visual aid is definitely helpful as the story progresses.
Besides Irene's wonderfully witty writing, I admire her for her spunk. Irene had a sense of humor and wasn't above playing pranks to keep the mood light. She wasn't a meek, submissive type to simply take her husband's constant slights and broken promises. She spoke up often, even threatening to leave Verlan several times. Irene Spencer stayed with Verlan because the Principle dictated that she would forfeit her blessings and the rights to her children if she left him. And she also didn't feel that she could survive because polygamy was all she knew. She lacked a formal education and had nowhere else to go. Still, Irene had a lot of guts, even as she went along with her husband's constant demands that she do less with more. She constantly had to share her things, including her bed, with the other wives. Irene even allowed Verlan's ninth wife to borrow her wedding ring for the marriage ceremony.
Even though Shattered Dreams seems like it should be a sad story, ultimately I found it to be very inspiring. I commend Irene Spencer for being brave enough to pen this story, which definitely showed me why polygamous lifestyles are so difficult. And ultimately, the story ends on a positive note. Irene Spencer did eventually leave her polygamous lifestyle and is now happily married to a monogamous man. Most of her children survived to adulthood and went on to lead productive lives, and most of them did not enter into polygamy themselves. At age 70, Irene has 118 grandchildren and 37 great grandchildren with more on the way. Six of her progeny were named Irene.
I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who is interested in learning more about polygamy. I would also recommend it to anyone who just wants to read a hell of an interesting story about a topic that is timely as well as not too often covered due to the secretive nature of polygamy. By the same token, this book reminds me that while nowadays, our society tends to look at enormous families as an oddity, it wasn't that long ago that supersized families were much more common. Indeed, as amazed as I am by people like Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, who just had their media celebrated seventeenth child, Shattered Dreams reminds me that there are people out there even today who are raising even larger families. Irene Spencer's enormous brood would be huge for most men. But her husband, Verlan LeBaron, eventually had fifty-eight children calling him daddy... The concept of that just blows my mind.