Over the next few days, the state of Texas will continue returning more than 450 children removed from a polygamous Mormon ranch to their families. According to the ruling of the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, the state did not prove that the children were in immediate danger. “Without such proof,” 38 mothers of the children argued, “the district court was required to return the children to their parents and abused its discretion by failing to do so.” The Texas Supreme Court agreed.
The children who were removed and the parents to whom they are returned seem like strangers from a distant world (or time) to you. But not to me. When I listen to the media describing their lives, they feel like distant kin. As the story unfolded, I found that I had more in common with these children than with people bringing me news of them.
I grew up in an intentional community—that’s commune to you. My childhood was as far from fundamentalist Mormonism as it could be without being lunar. Twin Oaks was founded in 1967 by flower children and devotees of behaviorist psychologist B.F. Skinner. The 100 people who composed my world were more likely to quote Karl Marx than Joseph Smith. The patriarchal structure of the FLDS would have made every woman I knew at Twin Oaks scream for subversion. Twin Oaks’ bylaws define the community as egalitarian. Its culture is decidedly feminist. When I was about 7, we had an all-female auto-maintenance crew. Yet like the FLDS children, I grew up in a place where my “normal” was far enough from the average American childhood to make Dick and Jane books read like cultural anthropology. Like the FLDS children, my caregivers were nearly innumerable. Sometimes, it seemed as if nobody in particular was raising us. The most striking similarity between my life and theirs is the sense of division you feel when you grow up somewhere that defines itself as an alternative to the dominant culture. The boundaries of the property become the boundaries of ideology, dividing right from wrong, us from them. I no longer read the division as a moral issue, but I still see a divide. That’s why, particularly when the news is of “outsiders,” I read the newscasters as closely as the news itself and remember my own childhood.
As a child, the grown-up I was closest to cooked my homemade mac and cheese (before the hippies learned to cook tofu in any edible form) and was the only one who could get me to take a bath. She had two long-term relationships during my childhood and had them simultaneously. Biologically speaking, she wasn’t my mother—but saying so is emotionally false. When I woke up from a nightmare (in the room I shared with a girl who is not my sister, but there is no better term to describe the person with whom I shared a room for 10 years and on whom I attempted to blame most of my childhood’s high crimes and misdemeanors), I would walk up two flights of stairs to be comforted by the purveyor of mac and cheese, warmth, and safety. On certain days of the week, there would be a black-haired man next to her; on other days, a blond. I knew these men tangentially, knew they were her lovers, and didn’t give them much thought. Whichever man it was would shove over. I would crawl under the blankets. She would put an arm around me. I don’t remember waking up there. She must have carried me back to bed after I fell asleep. The memory of moonlight is indelible.
Given the comfort of those memories, there’s something in the voices of even the most tolerant newscasters covering the Texas story that bothers me. In a piece on the FLDS custody battle a couple of weeks ago, NPR’s Howard Berkes reflected on the “amazing” polygamous women he has known—high-powered professionals who contrast with the image of barefoot pregnant women inside a compound. Yet unease lurks even under their assertions that many strong, capable people are involved in polygamous marriage. That unease makes Berkes’ protestations ring hollow as he refers to them as articulate. When the New York Times describes the teenage and ‘tween-age girls getting ready to return home, the focus is on the “identical navy blue dresses they had sewn themselves.” The Times quotes the director of a children’s home as saying the clothes are “their way of celebrating.” As she becomes the anthropologist introducing the reader to these “strange” girls, I wonder whether they’re really so different from any other young ladies getting dressed up for a big event. Is the American imagination really so attenuated that we can’t see excitement in these girls if they aren’t on their way to prom?
Underneath the desire to embrace cultural relativism and alternative definitions of family lurks a deep inability to reconcile the children who were taken into state custody with America’s picture of itself. Americans might have an extremely generous and expansive notion of alternative lifestyle choices. But our notions of what constitutes an acceptable childhood occupy a very narrow bandwidth. Given the hairline margin for deviation, it isn’t really surprising that the state of Texas’ desire to protect the FLDS children resulted in chaos.
I’m often asked what it was like to grow up “that way.” Whoever I am talking with wants me to build a bridge connecting the strange and the familiar. I tell them I converted to Christianity for two months when I was 6 to irritate people. Two years later, that same motivation led me to ask to join the Girl Scouts, even though I knew they were considered a quasifascistic organization. (I still haven’t figured out what the problem was there.) I try to give friends from the outside a sense of the summer when the community assigned someone to sit in a hammock and teach me—a dyslexic, headstrong little girl—to read. I also tell them about the hollow feeling that came when the adults I loved would wander off to find themselves. Many people return the favor by answering my questions about custody battles, church picnics, and the social function of betting on some phenomenon I am given to understand is referred to as “March Madness.”
I don’t have a huge polemic ax to grind where polygamy is concerned. The idea of 13-year-old girls being married to their uncles is indefensible. I’d call social services faster than you can say “alternative lifestyle” and happily pin the men in question to the wall until the cops showed up. Any of the members of nontraditional families I know would do the same, even while a month’s worth of news causes them to worry that a phone call and a state decision could break apart their own families.
The next time an intentional community stands accused of crimes, whether it’s of the FLDS, New Mexico’s Strong City, or another group, social services must better understand these children’s lives. The tacit recognition of strangeness seems to be a key feature of this story, but the willingness to see any sameness is absent. As soon as the specter of child abuses rises in the national consciousness, we seem to need to consider communities monstrous in every particular. Children will be removed with indecent haste and returned slowly. Still, I wonder what degree of empathy is possible in a social structure that persists in defining the lives of the children it is trying to help as bizarre.
I wonder whether the newscasters and social workers have a childhood memory like mine. They woke up in a house with one family and crawled into a bed whose occupants were conventionally associated with each other. It might be that they associate that feeling of comfort with the marriage that brought about that bed. I don’t know. What I do know is that despite my own distance from that Dick and Jane family you know, and like the FLDS children returning home from what must be a frightening spring, I too remember a window full of moonlight, warm blankets, and an arm around me as I fell asleep.