For journalists, that mysterious line called “objectivity” is fragile under the most ideal circumstances. Then there’s what happens when someone you’re preparing to write a book about sends you messages asking for help.
British-Indian writer Sanjiv Bhattacharya was in the middle of researching what would become Secrets & Wives: The Hidden World of Mormon Polygamy in 2007, visiting Manti, Utah, to interview members of the True & Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days (TLC). There he met Angie Mower, one of the spiritual wives of TLC prophet Jim Harmston, who was 41 years her senior.
“Things had gotten very tense in their marriage, and she was on the verge of leaving,” Bhattacharya recalls by phone from his current home in Los Angeles. “Because she has the ability to charge Jim Harmston with statutory rape if she so chooses … this was a big deal.
“She literally asked me what I thought she should do,” Bhattacharya continues. “She thought [Harmston] … could curse her and crush her car and her kids would die. I told her … I’d help her if I could. I guess I sort of argumentatively shook her by the shoulders and said, ‘It’s not true! He’s a false prophet!’ It didn’t really work at first, but ultimately, I think it did.”
That distinctively personal voice makes Secrets & Wives a unique approach to a controversial, often sensationalized subject. Bhattacharya interviewed LDS Church historians, anti-polygamy activists and practicing fundamentalist polygamists, attempting to present a comprehensive picture of the diverse world of Mormon fundamentalism he called “a bubbling diaspora of cults.” But he did so making no pretense that his own beliefs and preconceptions wouldn’t be part of the story, as well.
“I made a deliberate choice to inject myself into the story,” Bhattacharya says. “When it comes to my own biases as far as religion go, I have them. And I found that it was relevant in this case, because I was having very personal conversations about faith and family and eternity with people, and there were lots of views I couldn’t stomach.
“Part of the reason I was so fascinated with this world was specifically because it was so different from mine. The extent of the religious belief was something I just didn’t understand, something I continually tried to understand. … I was coming into their world very, very much from the outside, [and] I had to explain my perspective. Otherwise, the reader is left with, ‘Why is this guy just so perpetually skeptical?’”
That skepticism often turns to skewering in Secrets & Wives, and while Bhattacharya’s lively writing makes the book an entertaining read, his observations can be brutal. Describing the homogenous order of an LDS conference weekend, he writes, “Outside of Japan or the insect world, I’ve never seen anything less unruly.” He describes Salt Lake City itself as “vast, vacant and alienating … a scene from 28 Days Later, peopled only by missionary drones stalking the streets searching for new souls.”
Audio: Interview with Sanjiv Bhattacharya
Bhattacharya is somewhat contrite about his more acidic observations. “I think I was a bit harsh on Salt Lake City; perhaps I should have toned it down a bit. Please take into account that when I was writing this book … I was very much living the life of bad motels and fundamentalists.
“I’m familiar with the quick and negative impression; I’m living in Los Angeles, probably the most maligned city in the world. I guess I’ve been a part of the same problem with Salt Lake City.”
His observations about the mainstream LDS Church do ultimately play a crucial role in some of his polygamist case studies. Many of the fundamentalists he profiled were once LDS Church members who began exploring doctrinal and historical details that the mainstream church prefers not to address. “I described the Mormon church as feeding fundamentalism; it’s sort of their supply school,” Bhattacharya says. “All of the beliefs that exist within fundamentalism—and the passion behind them—stem from Mormon history, Mormon culture and Mormon doctrine. … These are all things the Mormon church has flip-flopped on. And that doesn’t sit very well with fundamentalists.”
Yet for all his uneasy interactions with polygamists and his progressive, atheist perspective, his work on Secrets & Wives ultimately led him to the belief that the best approach to polygamy would be decriminalization. “Let’s leave [aside] the horrible hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty of fundamentalists hitching their wagon to the gay-marriage lobby, people they despise,” Bhattacharya says. “The objective is not to benefit fundamentalists that feel they are being persecuted, but for the victims of the culture. There are strong arguments to be made for shining a light, removing the bogeyman of illegality which has been used by cult leaders to oppress and control them.”
That’s the human side Bhattacharya saw when he decided to step away from his role as objective journalist and help Angie Mower. “If somebody’s asking me [for help],” he says, “I can’t be dispassionate about it. And I never was.”
SECRETS & WIVES:
THE HIDDEN WORLD OF MORMON POLYGAMY
By Sanjiv Bhattacharya
Soft Skull Press, 2011
367 pages, $16.95 paperback