An American Tragedy
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Last autumn, I was exploring a back road in southern Utah, when I came across a trail head and a sign pointing to a waterfall. Needing a break, and having a minor obsession with waterfalls, I pulled into the parking lot and headed down the trail.
It wasn't a long hike, only about a mile, a pleasant stroll with several nice views. I was only a little disappointed when I arrived at the end and found the stream and waterfall dry. This wasn't a total surprise given the time of year and the extended lack of rain. There was a nice scenic overlook there, and I felt the hike worthwhile.
Shortly after I turned around and headed back up the trail, I met a family group heading the other way; a man, his son, about 10, and his daughter, about 9. Just a normal group you might meet on an easy trail. Normal, except the daughter was "modestly" dressed in an ankle-length old-fashioned dress. Given that I was in southern Utah and close to the Arizona strip, this pretty well identified them as fundamentalist Mormons.
I passed them by with a cursory greeting and continued up the trail. As I reached the halfway point, I heard running behind me. I turned and looked. It was the young girl, running joyfully and gracefully, full of life. She passed me by, the joy of running freely showing clearly on her face. She had the pure and fluid motion you see only in the most natural of runners, she was running without apparent effort. It was a beautiful sight.
As she disappeared around a bend in the trail, I heard another runner coming. It was her older brother, huffing and puffing and straining. As he came up to me, I said, "You had better pick it up. Your sister's kicking your butt."
He stopped to catch his breath, then replied, "She always does that." And he then took off after his sister, with no hope of catching her.
I ran competitively for over twenty years. I have seen few who could run like that young girl, and they were great runners.
In an ideal world, you could imagine that five years from now, this young girl would be on her high school track or x-country team, getting some real coaching, and beginning to realize just how talented she was. And she would be thinking of athletic scholarships that would take her through university; and dreaming of the Olympics and gold. And the potential was visible in the brief glimpse I saw of that nine year old running.
But she doesn't live in an ideal world. She has to live in the real world of Mormon fundamentalism. In five years time, at fourteen, when she should be in her early high school days, dreaming of future glory and achievement, she will most likely be married off to one of her father's friends, married off as a sixth or sixteenth or twenty-sixth wife to a forty or fifty year old man, who has passed off one of his own daughters in trade.
I'm not against polygamy in principle, as long as it is entered into by freely consenting adults who are aware of their options in life, and provided those adults accept full responsibility for all the costs and responsibilities of their chosen living arrangements.
But the practice of marrying fourteen year old girls does not involve freely consenting adults. And girls raised in this particular community are not aware of their options. They are deliberately kept ignorant. Effectively, they are still children, And marriage to these girls is no more that religiously sanctioned child abuse.
Further, how do these men support multiple wives? Thirty and more are not unheard of in these communities. Quite simply, they use the welfare system. As the marriages are not legally registered, all the wives end up on the welfare rolls as single mothers. And depending on which fundamentalist Mormon community is involved, the taxpayers of Arizona, Utah, or British Columbia pay the welfare bill. The husbands are just irresponsible freeloaders on the system.
It is all too easy to ignore the evil society contained within Mormon fundamentalism. As long as you don't put a face to it, it is just an abstract concept. But now I have a face to put to it. I think of that one nine-year old girl, running down the trail, a trail which should lead to numerous choices and a selection challenging futures, but which for her, will just be a dead end. And that is a real American tragedy.