In the month of June I crossed the Virgin Mountains to the great red desert of southern Utah where I found a man called Joseph who had ten wives. Word of Alexander Joseph had spread throughout the land. It was said his wives were beautiful, talented and strong. It was said that he could sleep with three in the afternoon and have “a perfectly warm sexual experience with a fourth at night.” It was said that he had been kicked out of four states, that three hundred men had taken blood oaths to kill him, and that the FBI and IRS were stalking him but he was armed to make his stand, squatting on federal land.
His wives, it was said, lived in peace and without jealousy. They spoke differently than most women of their time. They knew their place, and because I did not know mine, 1 drove across the desert to seek out the Josephs and find the flaw in their story.
What is shocking about this country is that there is no shade anywhere. No trees, nothing but salmon-colored sand that stretches to the next mountain range. From this expanse rise pinnacles of rock, red mounds and crooked fingers pointing at the sky. Pilgrims in the hills see angels and whirlwinds, and if you turn on your radio you will hear the word of God.
Glen Canyon City, where the Josephs live, consists of several dozen trailers, a Stop ‘n Shop and an old cafe, the Red Desert Inn, which the Josephs own. When I pull off the highway, a teen-age girl is sitting on the porch of the cafe. Gnats swarm in the air. She draws a map in the sand and marks an X. “That’s where Alex is sleeping,” she says. “He sleeps until noon or one.”
I follow her directions down a gravelly road until I reach a green house, the only proper house in town. It is a small wooden box with a tar-paper roof and four cottonwoods stuck in the front yard. Alex and three of his wives live here, I learn, and the other wives live across the road in two trailers.
I knock on the door of the green house. Joan Joseph, who calls herself Jonie, lets me in and then sits down, sleepy-eyed, in a Naugahyde rocker. The furniture is tacky, all nylon and Formica, except for two Navajo rugs. As Jonie blinks and rocks, the house begins to fill with young women in bathrobes, giggling children, babies, cats and dogs.
Judy Joseph, who has an expression of sweetness and buttery yellow hair that falls to her waist, makes coffee.
Jonie asks what size shoes I wear.
‘T knew it,” she says. “So do I.”
I ask Jonie what she is getting from this marriage.
“We’re here because we love Alex and we cleave unto him. He’s a patriarch,” she says. “He’s our head and we do his bidding. He’s the authority, but we have the freedom to accept it. It makes for a very powerful system.”
The door bursts open. Carmen Joseph, who is studying for the bar and handling the family’s tangled legal affairs, sticks her head inside. “Did the sheriff come by?”
“No,” Jonie says.
“Where’s our husband?”
Carmen disappears out the door.
Suddenly all chatter in the room stops. Alex walks out of the bedroom wearing a blue satin headband, braids and jeans with a gun in the back pocket. “How’re you!” he says in a voice so piercing it could carry clear to Kanab. Jonie gets up from the rocker and Alex takes her place. “If somebody doesn’t make coffee,” he says, “somebody’s gonna be in trouble.”
He turns to me. “I know you, don’t I.”
Jonie says, “Sara has big feet. And she’s a Jew.”
“That so?” He smiles. “Get her some pickles, kosher pickles.”
He begins opening mail. An infant boy is placed in his lap. Judy brings the coffee and Jonie combs and re-braids his hair. Alex yawns. Two girls, Paulette and Melinda, come bustling in with their arms locked around each other’s waists. Alex says, “Next time, I want you to come in separate doors.”
“Why should we do that?” Paulette asks. She is the newest wife, sixteen, raised in Kentucky. She has large, spongy breasts under a tight white sweater and she looks hungry.
“So you won’t come in giggling and carrying on,” Alex says.
“You’d prefer that we come in frowning?” Paulette asks, leaning down to kiss his cheek.
“Yeah, if I got a preference.”
I try to start the interview. “What led you to …”
“It’s a long story,” he says. “Relax, there’s no way for you to pry it out of me.”
Then he says, “There are eighteen million eligible spinsters in this country.”
“Where did you get that statistic?”
“I made it up.” He laughs and catches my eye with an implicit wink. “Lots of men don’t want to get married, they don’t want the responsibility. But if you matched up the population one for one, you’d come up with twelve extra women for each man. So I try to take up the slack.”
He lights a cigarette. The girls nestle at his feet and Alex continues. “Monogamy in America is a miserable failure. I’m demonstrating a superior life-style—the polygamy of ancient Israel. With monogamy, you’ve got two people sitting there and they’re different. The man’s trying to bring the woman into his intellectual and social world and she’s trying to yank him into her structure. The more intelligent they are and the more vitality they have, the more ferocious the battle, the more oppressive it is.”
He says the worst part about monogamy is “that fifty-fifty crap. The husband should have a hundred percent responsibility to be a husband and the wife a hundred percent responsibility to be a wife. But how the hell are you gonna have fifty-fifty? If we had fifty-fifty here, it’d be ten-ten-ten and we’d spend all our time voting.”
Alex says that he makes all decisions for the family because he has the best perspective. “My wives understand that if they ever got up, as one voice, to oppose me, I’d run over them and keep goin’.”
Jonie says, “I wouldn’t respect him if he didn’t, if he were a mouse.”
“Let me show you what kind of dogmatic tyrant I am,” Alex says. “I was in Ogden with two wives and wanted them to come home with me. They wanted to stay in Ogden, so I said, ‘I’ve told you what I need you to do. Now you have the freedom to do what you want.'”
“What did they do?” I ask.
“What do you think? They came back.”
Carmen walks in again with a briefcase. “We have an appointment,” she says cheerfully. “Would you shave, please, Alex?” He walks to the bathroom and emerges with shaving cream smeared on his face. “People have spent thousands of dollars to come gawk at us,” he says. “Know why? I’m like an ape in a zoo.” He pulls the razor down his cheek. “They’re afraid I might escape.”
Alex is flying a twin-engine plane to Salt Lake. He has been charged with stealing a helicopter in Arizona and Carmen has drawn up a petition urging the Governor of Utah to stop extradition. I sit next to Carmen. She is twenty-three, with an easy, girlish laugh and a certain shy reserve in her blue eyes. Her hair is long and wavy and her jaw line is remarkable — firm and out-jutting like a prow. She wears aviator glasses, gray pants, a cotton blouse and a small turquoise bracelet on her wrist.
Carmen lived with two other Joseph wives, Jonie and Judy, at the University of Montana. They shared a house at 2411 South Higgins and were something of a legend—a house of famous virgins. Beautiful and intelligent, they were disdainful of sororities, committed to each other and to having good fun. “I wanted to reserve sex for marriage and the other girls felt the same way,” Carmen says. “We were unique because the University of Montana was a super-loose place, but we always had the neatest guys interested in us.”
Because she is sunny and flat-footedly good-hearted, people like helping Carmen. Her word is gold. She runs by “correct principle.” As Carmen puts it: “Since I was a little girl, I believed there was a right and wrong and made it my business to seek right.”
When she met Alex, Carmen saw polygamy as a hypothesis to be tested for its moral correctness. Alex told her that Jesus Christ was a polygamist. Forget Billy Graham, he said. Forget Christ being celibate. Christ was a sexy creature.
Alex told her to look up the original Greek version of the New Testament. The women who followed Jesus were referred to as “wives.” It was the Romans, Alex says, who mistranslated “wives” to “women,” because they wanted to outlaw polygamy.
When Carmen satisfied herself that Alex’s premise was right, she proceeded;
Given that Christ was a polygamist;
Christ demonstrated a superior life-style;
To know Christ, we should live as he did;
Therefore, we should live polygamously.
The principle was correct. Carmen simply couldn’t bring herself to apply it. Then her roommate, Jonie, dropped out of school and married Alex. Shortly afterward Judy did. Carmen flew to Utah to see the principle in action and became Alex Joseph’s ninth wife.
They were married “for time and eternity” on Brigham Plain. Carmen describes her wedding night as a “pleasant interaction.” It is clear by now that if there are benefits in the Joseph system, one of them is not an abundance of sex. The girls sleep together in double beds and Alex rotates, when he is not traveling or too tired. Sex is not tolerated before or outside the marriage. In an average month, each girl may sleep with Alex once, on which night her bedmate will sleep on the couch.
“All us girls want to be mothers,” Carmen says. “That’s the first priority in our house.” They take their temperatures and count the days, “and if you tell Alex, next Tuesday would be good for me, you can rest assured next Tuesday he’ll work it out to be with you.” I ask if this satisfies her. She grins and nods. “I don’t feel any frustration in the least. When sex happens, there’s such a specialness about it. A night with Alex is a celebration and it means three hours of uninterrupted talk. The next morning, Jonie and Judy will ask, ‘What’d he say?'”
The plane tips violently as Alex loops sideways to take a closer look at a bear. I have never been sick on a plane but it is happening now. This is too much to deal with. A thirty-nine-year-old phony Indian preserved in aspic from the Sixties and all these nubile, prim girls mouthing “correct principle.” Carmen is talking about jealousy. “I have eighty opportunities a day to be jealous. Maybe Alex doesn’t look at me and holds hands with Judy. I can choose to be jealous and unhappy, or I can choose not to be jealous. I know this in my head.” She points to her temple. “I have no reason to be jealous. It’s my own insecurity. I can’t be a better Judy than Judy, but she can’t be a better Carmen than me.”
The plane lands and I am still fighting nausea. Alex stares at me. “Are you married, Sara?”
“You live alone now?”
He nods. “Not too good, is it?”
Nightfall at El Brazo’s Red Desert Inn. El Brazo — “The Arm” — is Alex’s nickname. When he took over the restaurant a year ago, he covered the walls with pictures of people he admires: wrestling champions, George Wallace, Brigham Young and Orson Bean.
He calls me in the kitchen. “What do you want to eat? Will you have whatever I have?” I nod, visualizing a king’s feast. A half-hour later Jonie brings us hamburgers and bags of potato chips.
Alex wants to talk about the differences between men and women. “There’s no way in the world that men and women think alike.”
“Could you be more specific?” I say. “What about decision making, do you have a sense of how that’s different with women?”
“Enough sense so I don’t let ’em make any decisions.”
Jonie slips beside him in the booth. “He doesn’t mean that.” She turns to Alex. “You let two wives make that decision to come home from Ogden.”
“No I didn’t, I forced the decision on them.”
Jonie falls silent.
Alex leans across the table. “Let me put it to you this way. Let’s say you had a horse you could reason with. And you told the horse: You get to choose who you’ll belong to. This one man won’t require much of you. He’ll give you first-class stable accommodations and you’ll have a nice pleasant life.
“Now this other man will work you from the time you’re a colt. He’ll feed you good hay, he’ll care for you well, but he’ll push you to run faster than you dreamed you could run. He’ll force you to be the best horse you can be. He wants you to win the Kentucky Derby. Now which owner do you want?
“And the sad news,” he adds, with mirthful irony in his eyes, “is that like all horses, no matter who owns you, you’re gonna die anyway. So that’s what we get in life—we get to choose our master, to choose how we’re gonna be used up.”
I ask Alex who owns him.
“God. I give myself to him but I reserve the right to withdraw. That’s what I exercise with my wives—voluntary ownership. I reserve them the right to withdraw at any time.”
Alex is playing with his gun, a .41 magnum with a silver and turquoise handle on which is carved “For Christ’s sake.” He points it at Melinda’s nose.
“Is that thing loaded? It makes me nervous,” I say. He unsnaps the clip and shows me the bullets. “Try not to be nervous, dear.”
Jonie says, “It would be an honor to be shot with that gun.”
The Book of Joan
“I am coming to a better understanding of obedience to one’s husband. Knowing myself in wifeliness as the helpmate and chattel property is neat! It feels pretty and it feels right! Being where you belong is a liberating thing.” —from the Journal of Joan Joseph.
She is, to me, the most complex and interesting of the wives. Her carriage is elegant; she has a rounded torso and small waist, a rosy complexion and wide brown eyes that are mischievous, suspicious and curiously naive. She has the kind of mind that cleaves to powerful ideas, the kind that will commit itself to die for a belief. As we talk, she stops periodically to seize my notebook. “I want to see how badly you’re misquoting me,” she says. I suspect she is irritated. She nods. “Alex is going deeper with you than he does with most reporters and you’re bein’ an ingrate. You’re not believing him.”
I ask if Alex’s ideas were easy for her to believe. “The idea of a relationship being eternal was a strain on my brain,” she admits. But then, what could eternity mean to her, sitting in a pink ruffled room at college with a shelf of great books and a diary filled with dates? It was only after she went to live in the desert with the dust devils and gnats and crusted walls of rock that eternity began to seem palpable.
When Jonie quit college to marry Alex, he was a Boy Scout leader with short hair, leading the upright life of a Mormon fundamentalist. He was unschooled and raw but he had the most original mind of any man she had met. He understood her as she had never felt understood. He told her she had been deprived of love. What he did not know yet was that she was one of triplets adopted at the age of three. He told her it was a shame she had to wear make-up, she was so pretty just as she was. Jonie wrote in her journal, “Alex is breaking me open and I feel exposed, like so much wreckage.”
She found Alex a welcome contrast to the examples of “quiet manhood” in her family—her father and brother. “The boyfriends I picked before Alex weren’t mouses,” she says. “They were always intelligent but I was always a little bit more so.” She thought that would be true with any man she could meet, except Alex.
So she held her breath and leaped. She became a polygamous wife, knowing she might never again have contact with her former roommates, family or friends. After a honeymoon with Alex, she found herself tucked in a crowded house with five women who had barely finished high school.
“I had a real disdain for people who weren’t cultured and intelligent,” she says. “The other wives reacted to me fiercely. They were either hostile or else real silly. But I loved Alex so much I maintained my courtesy and waited for things to smooth out.”
She was lonely when Alex left home on business trips and wrote about nights when she lay in bed watching her life tick by:
Again I am the little girl, awkward and skinny in junior high. All the futile crushes. New loafers. Math awards. The art history survey paper, the Green Man sculpture. And I am the high school Jonie: the perky haircut and aloof manner. Football games and gymnasium dances. Porch kisses, car kisses. Summer night dates. The coffeehouse: black lights and slow dances. And so short a time since it was Jonie the college girl. Ben Shahn and Henry Moore . . . Warm smiles, intent eyes. And I slipped out of that world. Dropped out of sight. Into the world of Alex Joseph. Alex Joseph’s wife.
And she could not help asking herself in those moments, “What the hell kind of marriage is this?”
Jonie worried she would never feel at ease with Alex’s wives. But Margaret and Dale were showing her how to cook, and seventeen-year-old Pamela taught her to ride horses and drive a shift truck, and “it happened under my nose—I started falling in love with them.”
In November, when Alex went to Montana for a court hearing, Jonie urged him to visit her old roommates. A week later, Jonie was at the door of the trailer when Alex returned in the pickup truck. From a distance, Jonie spotted another figure in the truck. She went running down the steps. Alex climbed out. The figure inside slipped out the far door. Jonie sped around the cab and saw her former roommate Judy, beaming, with her hair in long braids. Jonie grabbed her by the shoulders. “Are you a Joseph?” she asked.
Judy nodded her head yes, happy/sheepish.
Jonie screamed. She was so excited she couldn’t contain herself. She slapped Judy on the back and kicked her in the shins. She was crying and she had a reputation for never crying. “Why the tears?” Alex said. Joanie said, “It’s the fire, the smoke from the campfire.”
She grabbed Judy’s arm and ran with her to the creek, still slapping her and kicking and squealing over and over: “Isn’t he neat, isn’t he neat, isn’t he neat!”
The next morning when Jonie saw Judy in the trailer, she said, “I can’t believe you’re here.” Judy whispered, “Oh, Joan, Alex is asleep. Let’s go kiss him awake!” And Jonie began to hurt. “I felt so bad,” she says. “Judy was so loving and uninhibited. I remember watching her pick up Alex’s hand and kiss it. I felt so inadequate, I wanted to go through the floor.”
But Judy was in heaven. She laughed. She glowed. She thought she was living with Christ and all the sister wives were angels. Then four months later when Carmen arrived, it was Judy’s turn to feel pained. Carmen was her best friend. She had been missing Carmen, longing for her and urging Alex to marry her, “But when he did,” she says, “I got tested about how much I wanted Carmen to be there. I saw how crazy Alex was about her and that hurt.”
Carmen’s arrival nettled Jonie as well. She and Carmen had been intellectual rivals and for six months they knocked against each other and avoided eye contact. Carmen went off to law school, and at Alex’s request Jonie visited her and ended up staying months. They would sit on the floor at night and moon over Alex’s picture. By the time they rejoined the family in the summer, Jonie recalls: “All us girls started learning to be more loving and demonstrative with each other.”
Jonie remembers one night they spent on the ranch Alex bought in Cottonwood Canyon. They had eaten a picnic dinner and shared a jug of wine and were standing around the campfire singing “Blow the Man Down.” Ten girls in a line, arms around waists, swaying and smiling and harmonizing. Alex moved down the line and kissed each girl. Later he, Jonie and Judy took a walk through the cottonwoods whose thin leaves shimmered like paper chimes. Jonie says, “We were holding hands and kissing each other and it was just so beautiful! I felt the reality of the union. We both loved this man, he loved both of us and we loved each other and we were just one.”
The Book of Joseph
Alex Joseph grew up in Modesto, in the flat central valley of California. He was always outspoken, always assumed authority and liked to argue: the sort of person who attracts followers and enemies. He was student body president and captain of the debating team, but high school bored him so he quit to join the Marines. He made sergeant while in his teens. He drank heavily and read paperbacks about religion and murder. After four years he decided the Marines were “a bunch of pansies,” so he went back to Modesto and became a cop.
It is hard to get a fix on Alex because he controls what you see and he presents a paradox: scam artist and saint. Shotguns and God. Alex calls himself an “occupational tramp.” He has managed a horse ranch, sold cars, been a tax consultant and a fire fighter, taught school, sold health food, set up an underwater gold-mining business and written a column for a singles newspaper. “As soon as I get proficient at something, I lose interest and want to do something else.”
He was working at three jobs, living in Sonora with his wife Shirley and their two children, when he converted to the Mormon church in 1965. According to his sister, Diana, it was not long before Alex was “practically running his ward.” He preached and studied Scriptures and the life of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, until he passed everyone by. No one in the local church could answer Alex’s questions. On a visit to Salt Lake, he met members of a fundamentalist Mormon sect who practiced polygamy and they answered some of his questions.
The rationale they gave for polygamy, or “celestial marriage,” was that it had been revealed to Joseph Smith by God; it had been practiced by the patriarchs in the Old Testament; and it encouraged propagation and survival of the race. But what appealed to Alex was the notion of being a governor, a wise king, “a responsible masculine figure.” Alex says, “Polygamy demands that I take on the attributes I’ve wanted to develop anyway: patience, tolerance, judgment and industry. When women invest confidence in you, you can accomplish four times as much. You’re forced to give up ego and expand your capacity for love.”
He taught the doctrine to his wife Shirley and to everyone around him, which led the church to excommunicate him in 1969. Trailed by his sister and twenty members of his ward, Alex moved to Pinesdale, Montana, where there was an illicit settlement of polygamists led by an osteopath, Rulon Allred.
The Pinesdale group was one of many that split off from the church in 1890, when Mormon leaders banned polygamy due to pressure from the government and public outrage. The rebel polygamists carried on in secret, even after the State of Utah outlawed polygamy at the turn of the century. To date, the law has rarely been enforced. Authorities estimate there are thirty-five thousand polygamists scattered in the Western states.
As Alex sits at home in Glen Canyon City, he describes the outlaw networks hidden in the mountains from Canada to Mexico. “Whenever you make a practice illegal—whether it’s liquor, narcotics or polygamy—you drive it into the hands of gangsters,” Alex says. “Atrocities are committed and people have no recourse because they’re outside the law, like the Mafia.” He spins a tale about settlements where the women wear puritanical clothes and are tried at church court if they appear “too friendly.” Men acquire wives by trading daughters or claiming divine revelations. “In one town in Arizona,” Alex says, “the high school graduating class is lined up every year and the men take their pick according to rank. I know of two sisters, twelve and thirteen, who were married to a sixty-year-old man. In most of these families the wives live in separate houses and hate each other’s guts.”
Alex says the groups put forth rival prophets and carry on vicious doctrinaire wars. They publish pamphlets and volumes of books called Truth. Men write letters to be sealed until their deaths. Houses are burned. Extortion notes are left on cars. Secret posses train with M-i carbines equipped with infrared scopes for shooting at night.
As an example, Alex talks about the LeBaron brothers, Ervil and Joel, who started a colony in Baja California called the Church of the First Born in the Fullness of Time. The brothers quarreled and Ervil split off, founding the Church of the First Born of the Lamb of God. In 1972, Joel was murdered. Joel’s other brother, Verlin, swore a blood oath against Ervil. “They believe in what they’re doing,” Alex says, “and they believe they got the right to assassinate anyone who interferes with the building up of God’s kingdom.”
People who join the sects are asked to turn over all their income. “So when a dispute happens, you got lots of land, ranches, factories and million-dollar combines at stake,” Alex says. “For a century, these groups have been killing each other. Now a miracle happens. They’ve put aside their differences and come together for one purpose—to stop me.”
“Because I threaten their structure. I live openly what they do underground. If I were to have polygamy legalized, like I’m trying to do, their financial empire would collapse.” He says he’s also a threat to the Mormon church because polygamy is still part of their doctrine. “It’s against the law so they don’t practice it. They believe they got a pass in their hip pocket to go to heaven and it’s all punched. Now if, all of a sudden, you tell them they have to get the ticket repunched, they have to conform to the tenet of plural marriage, you’ll have mass desertions. The wives are against it and the men don’t want the responsibility.”
Alex take’s out the gun with the motto, “For Christ’s sake.” Carmen is idly stacking bullets on the table. “Now you know why I carry this,” he says. “The people who’re after me know that if they come here, they’ll get wasted.”
“You could do it single-handedly?”
He smiles and again there is the implicit wink. “It’s a bluff game, isn’t it?”
When Alex moved from California to Montana, according to his account, he immediately added two wives to his family and lived with them under one roof. Other men in the colony had been foraging for years to get a second wife. They complained that Alex had no business marrying until he could build each girl a house of her own. “He’ll pay someday,” they said.
Alex fought with the prophet, and the following year Shirley, his first wife, divorced him and took the children. Alex set off again with his remaining brood and followers. He says he discovered the rare herb ginseng growing wild in the desert, went to Hollywood to market it and then bought land in southern Utah.
At this writing, he has been married thirteen times. Three wives have left, so he is living with ten wives who range from sixteen to twenty-nine, five children and two younger sisters of wives. The sisters are pledged to marry Alex when they turn sixteen. The children in the family call their mothers “Mom” and the sister wives “Aunt.”
At four in the morning, nearly everyone is up drinking coffee and eating homemade bread while Alex talks. Lorraine, fourteen, is composing a history of the family, with a chapter on Alex’s most recent arrest. Alex has never been arrested for polygamy but he was indicted for squatting illegally on public land, stealing a helicopter and selling game fish illegally in his restaurant. He expects trouble from the IRS because he does not pay taxes, and the FDA is investigating his ginseng operation.
“I retailed three million dollars’ worth of ginseng last year,” he says.
“Who distributes it?”
“None of your business.”
“I’m just trying to substantiate this wild claim.”
“So is the IRS,” Alex says with a laugh.
He asks Margaret to fetch his bank statements. She brings him an envelope filled with canceled checks that bear mauve and pink Arizona desert scenes. Over a sketch of the Grand Canyon is a draft for five thousand dollars. “Large quantities of money pass through me,” Alex says, and starts tossing me checks he has written for several thousand dollars each. “This is only one account. I wouldn’t tell you about the others.”
The week I was in Utah, I did not see Alex engage in any activity that seemed to produce income. The wives worked in the restaurant but business was minimal. When one wife asked if she could be a clerk at the Stop ‘n Shop, Alex said he preferred she not work outside the family.
As he rimes through the checks, Jonie and Judy begin singing a John Prine song about moving to the country. Margaret sidles up, kittenish and demure, to kiss Alex good night, and in moments there are six women tucked around his body.
I ask Alex if he has any thoughts about why there have been no historical examples of polyandry—one woman with many husbands. “There would be no purpose,” he says. “Our purpose here is enlargement. My family’s a bunch of grapes, one stem with twenty-five fruits. To see one fruit with twenty-five stems is grotesque. And it would be destructive. The children wouldn’t know who their father was, and I can’t imagine ten men who’d submit to one woman and confine themselves to her sexually.”
He adds, “If you can do it, I’d really be interested to see it. But let’s not play with structures. I got a real structure here. I got three houses, a restaurant, a three-hundred-twenty-acre ranch, a caterpillar, an airplane, horses, automobiles and the family—that unique family you traveled all the way from Los Angeles to see.” He pulls off a red white and blue striped headband and twirls it around his finger. “We’re here to make a demonstration. And all this conversation isn’t worth twenty-four cents.”
Judy is upset. Her thermometer is broken. We are driving to the ranch, raising clouds of dust, but Judy, in a soft yellow blouse and brown slacks, looks as fresh as if she’s just stepped from a bath. “You pray and pray about getting kids, it doesn’t happen, and sometimes a month passes and you don’t even have a chance to try,” she says. “But I’m not going to buy another thermometer. I believe that if you were to psyche yourself up, your body could throw an egg, so it’d be in a position to get fertilized.”
When Judy married Alex, her father contacted the FBI and started a campaign to bring his daughter home. In the process, rumors were raised: the Joseph wives were lesbians; the wives were having orgies; the wives were frigid. “None of that is true,” Judy says. “Sex is played down a lot in our family.” She says Alex doesn’t sleep with her as often as he does some of the wives “because he knows he can count on me to be mature. I won’t complain about not getting my fair share.”
I ask if she ever feels frustrated. Judy pauses. Her blue eyes go distant. “I don’t know what it’s like to feel horny. I just think about when I can get pregnant.”
We turn off the highway into the dun-colored canyon, where the earth is being turned for a new polygamous culture. Alex and his followers have staked out twenty-three homestead sites on public land. The soil looks hard, rocky and ungiving but they intend to prove it can be used for dry farming. Alex is presently involved in a court battle with the Bureau of Land Management, and if he wins, millions of acres of federal land across the country could be opened up to homesteaders.
Until legal matters are settled, twenty-three families are camping in trailers and army tents. At the Lassen family site, Patsy Lassen is frying tortillas on an open fire. Her husband, Erick, a towering blond, met Alex four years ago and introduced him to Jonie, Judy and Carmen.
Erick was a graduate student in philosophy at Montana when he had a “fateful car accident.” He had to buy a new Toyota. The salesman was Alex Joseph. They became friends and for Erick it was a “love-hate attraction. Alex and I used to fight like cats and dogs,” he says. “I thought Alex had some really good ideas but some of the stuff he said was wild, off-the-wall shit. Like Christ being a polygamist, I thought that was weird. So I’d go home, go to the library, look up documents and take notes, thinking, ‘I’m gonna poke a hole in his balloon.’ The next time we met, I’d have all this ammunition but he’d resolve the apparent contradictions and lay some more on me.”
As Erick and Patsy became closer to Alex, they started thinking about practicing polygamy themselves. “It was an excruciating decision,” Erick recalls. “We had a good marriage and I was looking forward to a beautiful academic life. I didn’t want to marry anyone else. I didn’t want to plunge into unknown territory.” He resolved to do it, finally, because he wanted to follow Alex.
It was Patsy who selected Erick’s first plural wife. She started telling her daughter, Amy, who was then four, that a new wife was joining the family but Amy didn’t seem too interested.
What Amy recalls of the wedding is this: “I remember we went to this person’s house and my mom was pregnant. She was crying and my dad looked real scared. He was standing by this lady, Laurie, getting married, and I was sitting in a chair watching the cuckoo clock, waiting for the bird to come out.”
Now that is the edge.
“But it all worked out,” Patsy says. “We have three wives now and we’d like a dozen more.”
Patsy seems incorrigibly buoyant. She talks, as all the Joseph wives talk, about the need to stop women from oppressing men. “Most women follow the examples of their mothers and want to be pushy, to run a man, domineer him,” she says. “In monogamy, the wife can say, if you don’t do what I want I’m leaving.’ And the man is cowed. But in polygamy, if she tries that, the husband can say, ‘Okay, you go, because there are other people here and I have to be fair.”
Carmen and Judy nod.
Patsy says, “It’s really fun to have a man come along and say, ‘This is gonna be done now.’ Not, ‘I think it should be done,’ but ‘It’s gonna be done.'”
I ask if Erick does this.
“He didn’t at first,” she says, “it was real hard for him, but he’s learned to be decisive. And he’s become very self-sacrificing. He’s a man aspiring to heights and just being around him is the greatest thing going!”
The Song of Paulette
“I have a hang-up,” Paulette says. “I’m too old-fashioned to come right out and ask Alex to sleep with me.” She is sixteen, with Egyptian eyes, a ripe body and straight black hair. “In the three months I’ve been married,” she says in a genteel Southern voice, “I’ve slept with Alex five times and had sex three times. We count ’em.”
She takes my hand and leads me across the road to a white trailer where she shares a bed with Melinda, and for the next two hours Paulette tells her story.
It begins in Kentucky. Paulette has won the title of Miss Teenage Kentucky, and at fifteen she is engaged to a boy from Frenchburg. Her brother, Michael, who is “hungry for God,” meets a prophet called Joseph who practices celestial marriage. Michael wants Paulette to have a celestial marriage. He takes her to Utah to meet Alex and learn the vows, so she can return to Kentucky and marry for time and eternity.
But Paulette never makes it back to Kentucky. She is sitting in the Red Desert Inn Sunday morning, playing twelve-string guitar and singing “Me and Bobby McGee.” Alex stares at her for a solid hour. She wants to impress him. She walks boldly to the booth and sits down with Alex and a guitarist named Richard. They offer her coffee. Richard says, “Paulette, are you and Alex gonna be man and wife?”
Paulette spills her coffee.
“Because if you’re not, I want you to marry me.”
Paulette looks at Alex. She realizes in that second that he is her husband, the father of her children.
Richard says to Alex, “Are you in love with Paulette?”
“Damn near it,” he answers.
“I’m leaving,” Richard says.
That night Paulette writes to her fiance in Kentucky: “I’ve made new friends, I’ve come into Godly contacts and I’ve decided there’s more to the world than getting married at fifteen.” Shortly after she turns sixteen, she marries Alex on the ranch. The ceremony is filmed by KUTV in Salt Lake. Paulette wears a white muslin dress and a silver and turquoise wedding band she is paying for on time.
After the ceremony, there is a campfire cookout and sing-along. All the sister wives cry and hug and kiss Paulette. Then Judy takes her to the white trailer, changes the sheets, brings out clean towels and turns on the furnace against the chill. Judy kisses her good night and Paulette is alone. She puts on a gift from her mother—a silky white nightgown with little red roses in front. Midnight. Where is her bridegroom? She pulls on woolen knee socks and is sitting up in bed, reading the Book of Mormon, when Alex comes in and flops on the bed. “Ya know something? You married a maniac.”
He reads her passages from the Scriptures that he says are about him. “Are you afraid of me?” he asks.
“Do you want to go to bed?”
“Alex,” she says. “What a dumb question to ask a girl on her wedding night.”
He takes her hand. “I’m gonna go in the bathroom, shave, put on my Brut, brush my teeth and come back and make love to you. Would you like that?”
“Yeah, it’s a date.”
He turns off the light. A full moon is shining through the trailer window and Paulette is trembling. As she will tell me later, “I feel like I’m about to go to bed with God.”
For the first three weeks of her marriage, Paulette sleeps with Judy, who teaches her correct principle until she knows the lines by heart. “I love Judy not only because I love her but because my husband loves her,” she says. “My biggest goal is to be a perfect Paulette.”
I ask what that means.
She twists her ring.
“I want to have a baby right now, more than anything. But I’m shy about asking Alex. It sounds like I’m horny. I’ve always been old-fashioned, I think the man should make the advances.”
Just a week ago, though, after climbing in bed she called Alex into her room. Her stomach lurched. If the lights hadn’t been out, she couldn’t have said these words: “Will you be busy tomorrow night? I want a baby, you know.” Alex smiled and said, “I was beginning to wonder about you, Paulette. I think you’ve grown up a lot tonight.”
The next evening, Paulette’s roommate slept on the couch and Paulette waited for Alex alone in her bed. He never came. In the morning he said there had been a mix-up, he hadn’t known where she was sleeping.
“You can’t imagine how utterly awful I felt,” Paulette says. “I expended every ounce of courage in my body to ask him and he didn’t come that night or the next. I told myself, I’ll never ask him again.”
She pats strands of dark hair neatly off her face. “There’s no problem in my marriage. I’m in love with Alex and all the wives. What’s happening is more or less newlywed growing pains.”
Her voice has fallen to a monotone. “I have only one regret about getting married,” she says. “I regret that I didn’t do it sooner.”
Today is the day all the Joseph wives are driving to Page, Arizona, to watch themselves on a television special filmed a month before. The white trailer sounds like a dorm on Friday night. “Want to wear my headband?” “Who’s got some shampoo?”
The girls laugh and roll on the beds. They try on ribbons, beads and boots. They eat grilled cheese sandwiches and do bust-developing exercises and pass around snapshots of Alex.
Carmen, who is chief of maneuvers, assigns everyone to cars. I end up next to Margaret, who interests me because she was raised in polygamy in Pinesdale, Montana. Her father had seventeen children and two wives, who were “really close,” Margaret says, “because they were mother and daughter.”
What? Margaret explains: “My grandmother had my mother by a previous marriage. When my mom was fifteen, she married her stepfather, who became my father. So my mom is really my sister. And I’ve got brothers and sisters who are my aunts and uncles also.”
Margaret speaks in a very high, whispery voice. Slender and quick, she has a heart-shaped face, blue eyes and a Kewpie-doll mouth. She was homecoming queen in high school and had turned down almost every man in Pinesdale when she met Alex. “I was sick of men hounding me,” she says. “They wanted to marry me just so they could be in the principle of plural marriage.”
When Alex arrived in Pinesdale, he and his wife Shirley requested permission from the prophet to court Margaret, as was the custom. They took her out together, and later Alex visited Margaret alone and proposed. “He looked kind of dippy, wearing baggy pants, but he treated me real nice,” Margaret says. “We went for a walk and he told me, ‘You’re gonna say yes, so why don’t you just say it and get it over with?'”
Judy calls from the back seat, “Did he hold your hand?”
“Yes,” Margaret says.
“Did he kiss you?”
“Yeah, that decided it.”
Carmen squeals, “He’s such a good kisser.”
Judy laughs and whispers, “Did he French kiss you?”
“Yeah,” Margaret says.
All the girls giggle and squirm. Carmen says, “He kisses better than anybody, but it’s his most hated thing. He says it’s a distraction.”
When the laughter subsides, Margaret says, “You know, Sara, if you stay much longer you’ll have to stay forever. Us wives do the recruiting.”
The Holy Family
It is early evening and Judy is cooking spaghetti. Alex sits in the rocker answering fan mail, writing in pencil on every other line of a spiral notebook. “My finger hurts,” says three-year-old Marianne. “Lie down and be peaceful a moment,” Alex says. “If it doesn’t stop hurting, Daddy will look at it.”
Judy brings Alex a plate of spaghetti, then sets the pot on the table. There is a good deal of murmuring among the wives: “You first.” “No, please, after you.”
Alex finishes eating, holds his plate in the air and two wives reach for it.
Paulette pads up to his chair. “Can I interrupt you?” She composes herself. “I am being treated unfairly.”
“I think it’s important.”
“I’m busy now.”
Her eyes narrow. “In other words, kiss off and we’ll take it up later?”
Alex turns to me. “She’s making a play for attention and she’s not gonna get it.”
“It’s not a play,” Paulette says.
“I can tell it’s petty. You’ll live to be sixty, whatever it is.”
Paulette stands angrily and as she brushes past Alex, he squeezes her hand.
Later Alex explains: “Because of all the press people we’ve had here recently, I haven’t had the opportunity to be as close to this girl as I would like.” He says he’s encouraged the media attention because he wants public opinion on his side for his court battles.
He asks who knows the other side of Paulette’s problem. Judy says she does. She has just made up a work schedule for the restaurant and left Paulette off. Alex nods. “I want Paulette to work more closely with me. I want her to read my journals and write down her ideas so I can see what her talents are. She thinks it’s unfair but actually she’s going to get some special attention.”
Margaret sits in his lap. “I’d like some special attention, Alex.”
He laughs. “Take Margaret off the schedule too.”
As they hug and kiss, it occurs to me that I’ve seen enough. It’s possible I have stayed too long. I’m beginning to see how the marriage works for these people, how each wife adds a new dimension to the family. Another reporter, a man from Salt Lake, stayed too long. He was drinking beer with Alex at the restaurant when he blurted: “I’m sitting here taking notes and staring at you, and suddenly my life has become absurd.”
I ask Alex if there is anyone he looks up to.
“Naw, I wish there was. I suffer a great deal from loneliness. But there’s nobody who can show me a better way. What it comes down to is that I’m happy and you’re miserable. You’re trying to analyze my good health.”
What it also comes down to is that neither Alex nor the women could live with one person. So this is the solution. Alex says, “You couldn’t extract a monogamous couple from this family. If I pulled out Carmen, Joanie or Margaret, there wouldn’t be enough there to make a marriage.”
Margaret adds, “And none of us wives could handle living with one man. That’s why we live with one man and ten wives.”
Alex says, “It’s a phenomenon, it’s done with mirrors and a plastic head. It’s illusion.”
The clock strikes 2 A.M. Carmen slips next to Alex and Jonie drapes herself around his feet. Alex strokes Jonie’s cheek. Her eyes flutter shut. “When we get the family complete, there’ll be only one person. Alex will go away, Margaret will go away.” He looks around the room and names each wife. “We’ll all go away and there’ll be one well-rounded person. One person out in the desert.”