All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Shattered Dreams – Irene Spencer

on November 24, 2013

Shattered DreamsShattered Dreams
Irene Spencer
Hodder & Stoughton
2007, 385p
Read from my TBR pile

Irene Spencer was born into a polygamist household. Her mother was one of four wives, although she did leave Irene’s father when Irene was still a child. Despite the fact that Irene did not spend her entire adolescence growing up within a polygamist arrangement, she certainly had enough teachings of their fundamentalist Mormon faith to feel the need to fulfill her role as a vessel for a man. Although Irene had the chance of a monogamous marriage borne of love, ultimately she turned her back on this to marry her half sister’s husband, becoming a second wife at just 16.

Irene married Verlan LeBaron and moved to his family’s ranch in Mexico in order to avoid the US authorities cracking down on polygamists. For the next 28 years, Irene lived in Mexico and Nicaragua in startling poverty, giving birth to thirteen children, twelve of whom lived and she adopted a fourteenth child. As well as caring for her own ever growing brood of children, Irene often cared for those of her sister wives as well. Despite the fact that Verlan’s first wife, Irene’s sister Charlotte and particularly Irene herself didn’t particularly care for Verlan to be adding to the family, he was determined to be elevated to god status and went on to add many more wives and children into a family he couldn’t afford to feed, house or clothe.

But it wasn’t the isolation or the poverty that Irene struggled with – she was resourceful and she could cope with that. It was her husband’s stretched affections, the fact that she had to share him with other women and as the amount of wives grew and her husband traveled further and further to earn money or spread the word of the church, she could go months waiting for her turn to spend just a night with him. Irene constantly struggled with the desire to be a good wife and fulfill her destiny as a vessel in order for her husband to achieve his status. But on the other hand she was also a woman who just wanted love and attention from her husband, to be put first for once in her life.

I’ve read some fiction books around polygamy but apart from watching the car crash TV show Sister Wives I haven’t really investigated a lot of true stories. I think that this book is fabulous at stripping it back and letting people really see what the lives of polygamous women are like. Irene is married off when she is just 16, the third wheel with a resentful, distant sister wife (in more ways than one as Irene and Charlotte have the same father but different sister mothers). She isn’t in love with her husband but she wants to be and she wants him to be in love with her. Irene has a passionate need to be loved and wanted and from the beginning she resents having to share Verlan with Charlotte. When Verlan comes to Irene and says he wants to add a third wife to their family, she loses it, ranting and raving and refusing (sister wives are supposed to give permission) before Verlan talks her around. This sets a pattern that repeats itself often over the next nearly three decades: Verlan has word from God that he must take X person as his wife (usually younger, prettier) and Irene loses it but eventually ends up agreeing to do it because Verlan gets sulky with her when she doesn’t play by the rules.

It’s never fun to read about women being oppressed but in many ways, this is the grand-daddy of them all in terms of the subjugation of women. Women are nothing but slaves in the home and vaginas to birth children because the more wives and children a brethren has, the higher his status will be elevated to in the afterlife. I felt sympathy for Irene, who wanted a normal sexual relationship with her husband but he adhered to the fact that sex was only for the purposes of procreation and men should not have sex with pregnant women, those who have just given birth or those that are still lactating. Irene was also incredibly fertile: she basically got pregnant every single time Verlan went anywhere near her. She had thirteen pregnancies by the time she was 33 resulting in 12 live babies. Nearly all of her babies were born at home with only another church member attending as a midwife. Several times she was the one acting as the midwife and she wrote of her desperate fear that something would go wrong. At one stage she was caring for close to thirty children as several of her sister wives returned to America to work in order to attempt to support the expanding family. She was often depressed, run down and suffering from lack of sleep and nutrition. Their living environment was primitive, nearly always lacking electricity, decent heating, proper flooring, a functioning bathroom and enough room for all of them. At times they lived in a camper van as Verlan’s brother, the head of the church had one crazy idea after another about farming impossible land or living in a jungle.

As much as I found the story fascinating, at times it was incredibly frustrating. Irene was clearly never cut out for the polygamist lifestyle, she desired love and attention from her husband, to be considered special, to be considered his number one priority. Verlan was basically a manipulative prick, partially because it was the way he would’ve been raised and partially because I think with nearly all of these ‘prophets’ and seniors in these fundamentalist Mormon religions, it goes to their heads. They’re middle aged men and yet they’re having ‘visions’ or messages from God that they must marry that beautiful young 16yo blonde girl. Verlan wanted pretty, young brides and he didn’t really care what his other wives thought about it. He was going to do whatever he wanted. He may have wrapped it up in the Covenant or the Principle but partially it’s just a man with an ego taking advantage of girls who have been raised to do what they’re told. Several times, many times, Irene wants to leave and threatens to and it got a bit tedious in the end – just leave then! Take your kids and get out of the Mexican or Nicaraguan hellhole and go back to civilisation. And then she does do this and I was like hooray! Only for her to go back! It was claimed it would all be explained, that it would be understood why she went back but it really isn’t other than being a bit of mystical woo-woo about premonitions and visions and whatever, none of which I could take seriously.

Despite the fact that it did infuriate me, or probably because it did, it’s still a great depiction of what it is like for someone to live in this manner without the pious determination to be a good sister wife who never gets jealous or has issues. Irene Spencer does lay it all on the line, issues, jealousy and all.


Book #301 of 2013


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