The Mormons on HBOs "Big Love"
January 9, 2010 3:44 AM   Subscribe

Are there any similarities between the HBO series, Big Love, and the real Mormon/Latter Day Saints experience?

I have really gotten sucked into the HBO series, Big Love, recently. Mostly I am interested because it the show creates such a fascinating culture around the Mormon/Latter Day Saints religion. So is Big Love in any way like the real deal?

Colonies where the ladies dress in 18th century attire.
Polygamists incognito.
Devoted polygamists who strive to live normal suburban lives.
A split between what seem to be Purists in the religion (living set apart from others, and those who are embracing a more modern lifestyle?
Inter religious political maneuvering.
Kid's who don't want to be "branded" by society.
Others?

Thanks.
posted by boots77 to Religion & Philosophy (33 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
Check out www.exmormon.org and ask this question. The short answer is that yes, it is based on Utah reality. The ladies in prairie dresses and the polygamist compound are based on real groups, the Fundamentalist LDS or FLDS, of which there are many splinter sects. They have been disowned by the mainstream Mormon church, which renounced polygamy in the 1890s in order to become a state, but have quietly turned a blind eye to it, and kept polygamy in heaven as one of their "deep doctrines".

I have heard from some who grew up Mormon in Utah that there were and are polygamous suburban families who do not dress in a strange fashion or live in a compound, but who do follow the polygamous lifestyle quietly. Those who have lived it say Big Love is accurate in many details of the complex relationship between mainstream Utah Mormons and polygamous offshoots.

The FLDS are known for sexual abuse of children, young women barely into puberty forcibly married to old men, getting rid of young men (the lost boys) so that the old men do not have competition for the girls, and hereditary illnesses caused by generations of inbreeding. Check out the recent arrest of Warren Jeffs, "prophet" of one of these groups. It is ugly.

Hexatron's Wife
posted by hexatron at 4:17 AM on January 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


There's a great "This American Life" episode about the persecution of Warren Jeffs who definitely had characters based on him in "Big Love"

TAL 373
posted by mattsweaters at 4:23 AM on January 9, 2010 [4 favorites]


Short answer to the question as you have written it: no.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has not endorsed or practiced polygamy for over a hundred years now. Members of the church who are found to do so are subject to excommunication.

The show is somewhat vile in this respect, because it conflates the practices and beliefs of several offshoot groups (FLDS being the best-known among them) with the original LDS church - as, in the very first episode, depicting the Salt Lake Temple, a fairly well-known symbol of the LDS church, very visibly in the background of some shots.

So yes, some of what is depicted probably happens. Perhaps even most. But it has as much to do with 99.9% of people who call themselves "Mormons" as suicide bombers have to do with most followers of Islam.
posted by po at 5:06 AM on January 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


(Sorry, I should amend: I realize that the show does make the distinction between the LDS and other sects, even focuses on it. I haven't seen all of it. However, I have been asked similar questions by several other people who've watched the show, for whom the distinction between the offshoot religions and the mainstream LDS church seems to be very unclear. I don't mean to necessarily put the OP in that category, but that is the way the question was worded, and it annoys me a little.)
posted by po at 5:19 AM on January 9, 2010


The show certainly makes very clear the differences between the LDS and FLDS. They are very careful to not do what po accuses them of. I can't address the OP's question directly, but I do know that the show has many critics who haven't watched it. In fact, watching them walk that line is one of the most interesting parts.
posted by monkeymadness at 5:24 AM on January 9, 2010 [3 favorites]


If you want to know more about the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, read Jon Krakauer's "Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith." It has all the polygamy, anti-fashion, poly colonies, interpersonal politics you're looking for. It's also a true story.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:30 AM on January 9, 2010 [4 favorites]


...and po made my comment superfluous. That's what I get for typing on a phone.
posted by monkeymadness at 5:30 AM on January 9, 2010


I have no first-hand experience with Mormon fundamentalism but I found the wiki entry on both that subject, and Big Love more generally, interesting and pertinent to your question.

Like you, I wondered how realistic the show actually is and how realistic the producers intended it to be. I found myself disappointed when a character with a regional dialect that I'm intimately familiar with was introduced because the portrayal was exceedingly poor. If they can't accurately produce a character with a Boston accent, and it is actually embarrassing to watch them trying, I don't have great confidence they produce an accurate reflection of fundamentalist Mormons. Nevertheless, I do enjoy the show and can see why The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would much prefer keep its dirty laundry out of sight.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 5:34 AM on January 9, 2010


Short answer to the question as you have written it: no. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has not endorsed or practiced polygamy for over a hundred years now. Members of the church who are found to do so are subject to excommunication.

But that's exactly what they depict in the show -- the characters are in hiding from the Mormon community, and in the last season, one of the characters faced the possibility of excommunication when she was exposed to church elders as a polygamist.

Having grown up in very Mormon parts of AZ, I am astounded at the attention they pay to detail when it comes to the minutiae of the Mormon lifestyle. Some of these quirks are portrayed respectfully, almost lovingly -- the show has a brilliant way of tricking you into accepting and even liking characters whom you might avoid or dislike in real life on principle. Many of its characters are "good Mormons" who grapple with their faith in interesting, realistic ways.

If you ask me, the church has made a huge mistake in disowning this show. Their instinct is to obsessively bury and denounce any portrayal of their religion that they don't have complete control over, but this could have been an excellent chance to reach out and participate in the mainstream curiosity about their actual beliefs and practices. Their silence and/or outrage means their public image will wind up becoming more informed by the show than by anything they're actually doing. It's a missed opportunity, but they're too paranoid to see that.

To sum up and answer your question, I would say that the show is more realistic in its cultural details than people have any right to expect from a cable drama. Though of course these details are manipulated heavily in order to conform to complex storylines.
posted by hermitosis at 6:21 AM on January 9, 2010 [5 favorites]


I read somewhere that the producers of the show did five years of research before beginning production. They certainly intend it to be accurate.

However, I have been asked similar questions by several other people who've watched the show, for whom the distinction between the offshoot religions and the mainstream LDS church seems to be very unclear.

Really? They've watched the show?

I am STUNNED. That's like watching "King Kong" and not realizing that he's tall. Either this people are lying when they say they watch the show or they are very, very stupid. The entire show is based around a "war" between three groups: the cultish Mormons on the compound, the polygamists who are trying to "pass" (and who know that they'll be in BIG trouble if LDS finds out about them) and mainstream LDS.
posted by grumblebee at 7:13 AM on January 9, 2010 [8 favorites]


The question is whether anyone would say that FLDS is "the real Mormon/Latter Day Saints experience".
posted by smackfu at 7:16 AM on January 9, 2010


If all three groups claim to be the one true Mormon faith, who do you believe? Same with all religions that develop offshoots. Who are the real Christians, Protestants or Papists?
posted by gjc at 7:21 AM on January 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


True, everyone thinks they are the "real" thing. But the FLDS are vastly outnumbered by the other LDS, and that should be kept in mind.
posted by smackfu at 7:30 AM on January 9, 2010


I am a Mormon who has lived in Utah, but who does not currently live in Utah. I do not have HBO so I have not seen Big Love. However, I do think I can at least partially answer how much the FLDS reflects the "average" (note, specifically, not using "real") Mormon experience. I do not think the FLDS and other offshoots experience is very reflective of being an average Mormon. When I lived in Utah I did know that there were some small communities where polygamy was practiced. I do not recall ever interacting or knowing personally any polygamists in Utah, and it was not something of major concern to most people.

However, as a kid, I grew up in a small Mormon town in Canada and there was one normal family in town that I had been told was a polygamist family. They mostly kept to themselves and were left alone to practice their religion.

I think the issue of the FLDS and other polygamist offshoots becomes much smaller once you leave Utah. There are Mormons all over the world now, in fact a majority of church members live outside the United States. For almost all Mormons outside of Utah they will have had no interaction with any polygamists. In my experience there is also no sense of a war between us. It is true that if you are an active polygamist you can not be an active member of the LDS church, but there are also many other issues where that is true.

Finally, I do think there is some tension in the church about the doctrine of polygamy. Yes, the church used to practice polygamy and we do not now. For some current members this is troublesome to them because they do not like the idea of polygamy. Personally, I do not really care. I would not want to have multiple wives, but it does not trouble me if others did in the past. My understanding of the church doctrine regarding polygamy is that in the eternities some (most likely a very small minority) people will be in polygamous relationships, because those relationships were created in the temple during the time when polygamy was practiced. However, I have no idea how that will work.
posted by bove at 7:45 AM on January 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


I haven't seen the show. Saw a preview, but based upon what you listed up above, I'd say that's very fringe and not something you'd likely ever see unless you sought it out.

Salt Lake City is my hometown. I'm not Mormon, I'm Catholic. My family's from Kansas, but my Dad got a job out there, so there's where I was born and raised.

Never saw anything like what you've described. Mormons tend to be very middle to upper class, intellectual, and extremely PC.

I've never even seen anything like that in small Utah towns. The closest I've ever seen to the description you've provided is in Northern Arizona. And it was weird and I got out of there fast.
posted by VC Drake at 11:50 AM on January 9, 2010


"there's where" = that's where
posted by VC Drake at 11:56 AM on January 9, 2010


You can watch the PBS Frontline program The Mormons which has lots of information about modern Mormons (FLDS and otherwise) plus interesting historical stuff. I watched Big Love and had the same kind of questions, and this show was very good.
posted by stinker at 12:14 PM on January 9, 2010


Yes! But not the main church. It's based on the Fundamentalist LDS, who are based in Colorado City/ Hildale on the Utah / Arizona border. They have used numerous incidents (then fictionalized from the starting point) based on true stories of various polygamous Mormon sects.

For example, the Southern Utah town in the show is based on Colorado City/Hildale and the Salt Lake area where they live is probably based on the neighborhood near where "prophet" Rulon Jeffs' and later prophet, his son Warren used to have a compound.

Those two would fly on their private jet to preach in Colorado City, but lived for most of the time in Salt Lake. Then Rulon prophesied that the Salt Lake Olympics would end in a terror attack and they left the Salt Lake compound. It is still there, eerie and rotten-- I've been in and seen the hidden passages between the wives' rooms and the room where they held their services.

I co-wrote Brandon Jeffs' memoir, Lost Boy. He's the nephew of the real FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs and was raised in a real life Big Love-- in fact in the Salt Lake compound I mentioned above. Three moms-- in his case, two were sisters who came to hate each other-- 19 brothers and sisters. Brent is an amazing person-- he survived being raped by his uncle when he was just five, then eventually became one of the "lost boys" which are young men expelled from the group or who leave under pressure, because the older men want all the young women to themselves.

Other than Krakauer's book, there are two memoirs by women who left that are quite fascinating as well, Carolyn Jessop's Escape and Elissa Wall's book the title of which I am spacing. Elissa was the one who was forced by Warren to marry her cousin when she was 15, I think, anyway, it was her case that sent him to jail for "arranging a rape."
posted by Maias at 12:52 PM on January 9, 2010 [8 favorites]


Adding my incredulity to grumblebee's, po. You can't even state the show's premise in one sentence without adverting to the distinction between polygamists and LDS. Who are these viewers?

And I'm not sure if you meant to amend this part or not, but I don't see how imagery of the Salt Lake Temple implies a connection between the polygamist characters and LDS. In the context, I'd think the temple would represent both the characters' public face and a threat to their private life, not a vile conflation between that life and LDS. (I agree with you about the conflation going on in the OP's phrasing, though.)
posted by Beardman at 1:05 PM on January 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Jon Krakauer's book that MonkeyToes linked to is the most comprehensive as well as the best written about the FLDS, but recently there has been a flood of memoirs by wives and children of Polygamists such as Escape by Caroline Jessup.

I would say most of the Polygamists left Utah and moved to Arizona and Mexico such as the infamous Ervil LeBaron.

Yes the hair and clothing favored by the fundies on Big Love is typical of real FLDS-- in fact they bought clothing from Carolyn Jessop for the show.

As for how modern day Mormons feel about polygamy, I'm not Mormon so I cannot say for sure, but consider this: the two most important leaders of the church, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were polygamists and preached that plural marriage was a fundamental, essential part of being Godly. The church went so far as to fight a war with the United States over this issue. It was only when Utah wanted to become a state that the church leaders had to renounce polygamy because otherwise the United States would not have accepted Utah into statehood. It took at least one generation, perhaps even two, for members in good standing to stop the practice in secret. Was it merely a political move as the FLDS claim? Or is monogamy really what God wants now as the LDS claim? I do know that modern day polygamists are an embarrassment, but much of that embarrassment stems from the other illegal activities that follow-- the underage sex, the poverty, the welfare scamming, even murder and rape. Don't forget that many modern Mormons can trace their ancestry back to polygamists.

I think the interesting thing about the show is the mixed feelings that everyone has over plural marriage-- is it Godly? Is it evil? Is it natural and beneficial or is it creepy and poisonous? Is Bill a lecher or a good family man?
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 1:59 PM on January 9, 2010 [2 favorites]


There's a great "This American Life" episode about the persecution of Warren Jeffs

If I wrote this sentence, it would either have said "the persecution BY Warren Jeffs" or "the PROSECUTION of Warren Jeffs."

In my opinion, Warren Jeffs is no victim. He victimized thousands of people--not just the young teenaged girls he "married" or forced to "marry" his cronies, but the families he broke apart for perceived infractions of his slightest whim, the boys and young men he cast out to maintain the hegemony of the old men's harems, and the children he forbade to attend any schools but his own, where he taught nothing but the cult of his own repulsive personality.

Warren Jeffs is in jail for outrageous criminal behavior. His victims are trying to rebuild shattered lives. I have no sympathy for Warren Jeffs; if I had ever had, it would have vanished after I read his nephew's heartbreaking memoir.

As for Big Love, it's like The Sopranos to me. It puts an appealing face on a sordid criminal enterprise. I admire the actors and the scripts seem well-crafted, but the distance from reality gets to me.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:27 PM on January 9, 2010


Yes, I meant to write prosecution. It was late.
posted by mattsweaters at 6:56 PM on January 9, 2010


I'm not a Mormon myself, but I grew up in an extremely Mormon part of the country, and as a result, I've got a bit of a penchant for FLDS history. (Especially the seedy parts. I'm not 100% proud of this.) Big Love is therefore a continuing source of delight for me.

A great many of the macro-level events in Big Love directly map to important events in FLDS history, and there are nearly 1:1 correspondences between characters and major FLDS figures.

The Greens are the LeBarons. Roman Grant is Rulon Jeffs, and Alby Grant is Warren Jeffs. The more FLDS history you read, the more correspondences you'll see. I don't want to get into this too much, because here there be spoilers-- but it's solid. It's really, really solid.

W/re: urban, assimilated FLDS types trying to pass in everyday society: These folks also exist. I've read numerous articles by and about women in these kinds of relationships defending their families and their choices. My husband is in the process of herding me out the door right now, so I don't have time to dig any of these articles up for you, but they definitely exist.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 7:17 PM on January 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


As for Big Love, it's like The Sopranos to me. It puts an appealing face on a sordid criminal enterprise. I admire the actors and the scripts seem well-crafted, but the distance from reality gets to me.

Confused.

Are we watching the same show?

Warren Jeffs is no victim. He victimized thousands of people--not just the young teenaged girls he "married" or forced to "marry" his cronies, but the families he broke apart for perceived infractions of his slightest whim, the boys and young men he cast out to maintain the hegemony of the old men's harems, and the children he forbade to attend any schools but his own, where he taught nothing but the cult of his own repulsive personality.

That's like a word-for-word description of Roman Grant. I don't see how the show has romanticized him. He's fascinating, but I don't see how he has an "appealing face."

What aspect of the show do you see as greatly distanced from reality? It has a Warren-Jeffs-like character, and it portrays him has a murderer, rapist, megalomaniac.
posted by grumblebee at 8:33 PM on January 9, 2010


That's like a word-for-word description of Roman Grant. I don't see how the show has romanticized him. He's fascinating, but I don't see how he has an "appealing face."

What aspect of the show do you see as greatly distanced from reality? It has a Warren-Jeffs-like character, and it portrays him has a murderer, rapist, megalomaniac.


The scale and the impact. The same as The Sopranos--the scale and the impact seem enormously off to me. It's like "Oh, this is so horrible and brutal and there are crimes and these folks live in terror and all, but let's look at how the people in this subculture get along and what they eat for dinner and their interpersonal lives which don't seem to be affected by the criminal shit that's going on all around them except every now and then when it's relevant to the plot."

But I haven't seen all the episodes, so I may have missed the episodes where the main characters get a better sense of the scale of Roman's crimes.

And it may just be me and my weird way of viewing media. Just saying why I don't watch it, not saying that other people should respond the way I do.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:13 PM on January 9, 2010


"Oh, this is so horrible and brutal and there are crimes and these folks live in terror and all, but let's look at how the people in this subculture get along and what they eat for dinner and their interpersonal lives which don't seem to be affected by the criminal shit that's going on all around them except every now and then when it's relevant to the plot."

Yes, that's a realistic portrayl. Criminals and the victimized both have to eat dinner, and both find ways to rationalize/cope. Sometimes that leads to Stockholm syndrome, self-hate in victims, cognitive dissonance and Arendt's "banality of evil" in victimizers. What's scarier than the cackling Nazi rubbing his hands together in glee as he tortures his victims? The same guy at home after a long day at "work", being a loving father to his kids: During his working days, Höss presided over the murder of more than a million people, but once he came home he lived the life of a solid, middle-class German husband and father.

"Big Love" is all the more realistic for exploring the -- sometimes loving, sometimes sentimental, sometimes trivial -- family ties that bind the people to their "prophets" and compounds and The Principle.
posted by orthogonality at 10:03 PM on January 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


You can't even state the show's premise in one sentence without adverting to the distinction between polygamists and LDS. Who are these viewers?

Um. People who have seen like four or five episodes at friends' houses and aren't invested in the shows so they don't see the bigger arc? I had no idea that this issue had been explored so explicitly on the show. (And I watched in the first place because I was super-curious about how polygamy would be portrayed, since I have a non-insignificant number of polyamorous friends, and thus am kinda invested in the portrayal of multiple-partner relationships.)
posted by desuetude at 10:51 PM on January 9, 2010


I may have missed the episodes where the main characters get a better sense of the scale of Roman's crimes.

Yes, you have.
posted by grumblebee at 5:07 PM on January 10, 2010


disagree with Po as well, cause the main famuily are portrayed as such outcasts in the larger Mormon community.

And I think roman is protrayed as quite very evil and powerful.
posted by mary8nne at 8:18 AM on January 11, 2010


What amazes me is that, to my viewing eye, if you set out to make a series that showed how people like Warren Jeffs are evil, you'd have a hard time doing better than "Big Love." If anything, you could criticize the show for making Roman completely unsympathetic -- not well-rounded enough as a human being to be a believable character. The mind behind "Big Love" LOATHES people like Jeffs.

The ONLY way I can imagine anyone criticizing the show for going soft on Roman is if the criticizer didn't really watch the show, or he just caught an episode or two, and those happened to be ones that didn't focus on The Compound. (In which case, why is that uninformed person commenting?)

Spoilers:





repeatedly, the show has portrayed Roman to be a murderer, child rapist and kidnapper. It has shown him to be a megalomaniac who rules his entire community as a tyrant. It has shown that he's happy to use members of his own family, including his children, as tools. It has shown has his actions have even affected people outside of the compound. It has not attempted to justify or explain his actions in any way. The show makes it clear that he is a power-hungry sociopath.

And this portrayal is not a small part of the show. Every episode deals with it at least slightly. Many episodes are centered around it.

Yes, the show also features domestic incidents. But the thing is, real life contains a lot of domestic incidents.
posted by grumblebee at 10:10 AM on January 11, 2010


If you are still interested on learning more about modern day polygamists, Brooke Adams blogs about Polygamy for The Salt Lake Tribune; mostly she covers FLDS members in the news. I tried to find this last week when the topic arose, but only just now stumbled across it.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 6:46 PM on January 15, 2010


The Polygamists is a recent article and photo set about the FLDS and "Short Creek" in National Geographic.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 3:46 AM on January 30, 2010


I'm super late to this thread, and I won't really give a complete answer to the question (which would include a lot of the points made above). But let me add this datapoint that might give some perspective:

I was raised in the Mormon church. My parents were raised in the Mormon church. Their parents were raised in the Mormon church. Their parents were also raised in the Mormon church. And their parents were converted to the Mormon church and were Mormon pioneers with covered wagons and whatnot. Not one of the people I have just mentioned was a polygamist.

I have been a Mormon my entire life. I went to BYU. My wife was raised in a multi-generation Mormon family, and I spend a lot of time with them in Utah. I have held many callings in the Mormon church and have been deeply involved in the Church my entire life.

And I have never met a polygamist. I have never had any occasion to be involved even remotely in anything having to do with polygamist sects of Mormonism. The closest that I have come to anything resembling in any way the primary characters of the show Big Love is listening to the This American Life episode referenced above. Oh, and the time that I saw some people in a parking lot during a road trip through Southern Utah whose clothes fit the Warren Jeffs sect's description. I assume that they were polygamists, based on what I have seen on national television programs.

I have watched several episodes of Big Love. I wasn't offended by it in any way. It seems like a well-written and produced show that apparently is about characters with whom I have almost nothing in common. But the only parts of the show that I noticed as saying anything at all about the church that I have been in my entire life are the things that I imagine would resonate with anyone who has ever been part of any church. The references to apostles, prophets, and other Mormon things seemed to me to either be portraying a version of Mormonism that I am not at all familiar with or to be completely erroneous. I suspect it's the former.

So maybe there are some people in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who can relate in some way with some tangential aspects of Big Love. But I have seen nothing on the show that is similar to my own "Mormon experience."
posted by The World Famous at 5:07 PM on February 16, 2010


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