The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2011

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OCT 2011 Issue

An Excerpt from Secrets and Wives

It’s a low overcast day as I leave Salt Lake City. Splatterings of showers from a dirty sky. I’m heading for Manti, the home of a polygamous group called the True and Living Church of Jesus Christ of Saints of the Last Days (TLC), led by the prophet James D. Harmston. Now in his 60s, Harmston is said to have in the region of 14 wives and, according to former followers, he considers himself the reincarnation of Joseph Smith, a living messiah. In 1998, he was sued by a couple of women who claim he’d swindled them out of $287,000, a case summarized by the headline: “Two Women Sue Church When Christ Fails to Appear.” (The lawsuit fizzled out in the end, with no clear guilt established on Harmston’s part.) And by several accounts, he has a prophet’s penchant for young girls. In 2006, the book Polygamy’s Rape of Rachael Strong (by former polygamist John Llewellyn) argued that 20-year-old Rachael had been spiritually coerced into marrying Harmston, who at the time was married to Rachael’s mother.

Usually, bad publicity sends polygamist prophets scuttling for the shadows. But Harmston has displayed a rare taste for the limelight. In the late ’90s, he even allowed A&E to make a documentary about his church and consented to an interview. And he came across well on TV—gentle, ursine, and approachable, the kind of preacher who might just talk your ear off if you got on his right side.

So I drive south down I-15 to what locals call “real Utah”—the farm-raised, fetus-friendly state that dismisses Salt Lake as a Gentile-infested Gomorrah. As the miles clock up, the clusters of box-fresh homes beside the freeways peter out and give way to the occasional Home Depot or Comfort Inn until eventually there’s nothing but a bereft-looking barn every seven miles or so. The magnificent desert skies are interrupted by signs that pop up like spam, the signs that blight all American freeways—Denny’s, Chevron, McDonald’s, La Quinta, Motel 6. They herald the approach of a small town that has been colonized by corporations. Freeways have become as sterile, anonymous, and spatially dislocated as airports. The small towns have become the food courts.

Manti, however, is an exception. A picturesque hamlet, quaint and rustic, with a large white temple perched high up on a mound, keeping a matronly watch over the town. Mormons flock here every year for the Miracle Pageant, which celebrates the pioneer trek—but that’s not for a couple of months yet, so the town is eerily quiet. When I check into the Manti House Inn across the street from the temple, the receptionist tells me I’m her only guest.

“Now what are you doing here?” she asks. Her name’s Trish, she’s a bubbly woman in her 40s. “Ooh, polygamy!” She grabs a phone book. “I’ll give you some people to talk to you. We had Jim Harmston come here the other night with some of his wives. They think he’s a god but he’s just a sweet old man if you ask me. He always leaves a tip, you know. Tell you what, people who’ve left might talk to you. There’s the Harpers. They’re divorced now, and I think she’s living out in Virginia. But here’s her number. Hey, I’ll talk to you if you want—I was one of two wives. Yeah, that didn’t work out, ha ha!”

We chat for a while, Trish and I. Small towns can be lonely places for a stranger, given that everyone knows everyone else already and, this being Utah, there’s no bar to break the ice. So I tell Trish my plans, sparing none of the details. I tell her that I’m here to try to meet the prophet, but the only contact name I have is Merrill Jensen [not his real name]—he’s the guy that answers the e-mails on the website (which has since been taken down). Merrill said he would introduce me to Jim if he felt comfortable. So tonight, I’ve got an appointment at the Jensen house. Quite excited about it, actually.

“I haven’t heard of Merrill Jensen,” says Trish, thoughtfully.

“He makes harps. Apparently there’s a big demand for them in the next life with all those angels up in heaven.”

“Ha! Do you like toffee? We’ve got loads. Grab some toffee and I’ll show you around.”

She introduces me to the girl doing the washing up and the girl doing the laundry. A couple of guests have popped in for tea and she says, “Meet Sanchez, he’s doing a book about polygamy!” It’s all very chummy. And by the time I’m in my bedroom, I’m beaming. I like Manti. I like small towns in Utah. I’ve got a pocket full of toffee and a new friend called Trish. Time for a nap I think, before dinner.

When I first spoke to Merrill on the phone, he gave me the usual spiel—“we don’t like to talk to outsiders, we’re very private.” But then we chatted for an hour. And by the end, he told me, “We haven’t done any interviews in eight years, so you would actually be the first in the new millennium.” And he sounded positively excited about the prospect.

Certainly his eagerness is apparent from the moment we meet on his front porch. A large man in jeans and a flannel shirt, he ushers me in and tells his kids to run along. Would I like water? Would I like to talk at the table or on the sofa? And immediately Merrill sets about a rudimentary history lesson—the origins of Mormonism, the birth of fundamentalism. He has a didactic way about him, schoolmasterly and punctilious.

“We’re not like those other Mormon fundamentalists,” he explains. “Our authority stems from angelic ministrations in fairly recent times to our prophet and leader, Jim Harmston.”

I want to ask him what a ministration is—it sounds medical, or clerical, or something to do with soup. But a woman has appeared to our left, a squirming, uncomfortable presence. She’s trapped between not wanting to interrupt and an obligation to say hello—a pincer of politeness.

“This is my wife Natalie [not her real name],” says Merrill, dismissively. I stand to shake her hand, but she just stands there, smiling awkwardly.

“We’re just doing a bit of background here,” Merrill says, filling the silence. “So . . . how are the kids?” Natalie’s frozen, speechless. “Well you can stay or you can go,” he says, releasing her with a shrug. She leaves at once. “So anyway, four angels came and instructed him that they were to be referred to as Moses, Enoch, Abraham, and Noah—four of the grand patriarchs of the Old Testament. This was in November 1990, here in Manti. He was taken into a room which was totally light everywhere, but there was no light source. And he could see all the way around—which, by the way, is what happens in near-death experiences. And then these four men laid their hands on his head.”

There’s something endearing about Merrill’s enthusiasm. It’s his convert’s zeal. He wasn’t raised in polygamy; he chose this life himself, and now he wants to show off how far he’s come. It’s all too new for him to feel jaded. He’s 54 now and he’s only been living polygamy since 2004. He married Natalie in 1998 and Noralyn [not her real name] six years later. They’re 44 and 48, respectively. “It’s not easy, this principle,” he says, cheerfully. “We’re all stressed to the limit but that’s how we grow—it’s like weight training.”

They seem a little old for such a radical change of lifestyle, but this is often the way with converts. They emerge wounded from Mormon marriages and turn to their religion for consolation. But there they find that the Church has hidden whole chapters of doctrine and the discovery inflames them—these missing chapters must be the answer.

Merrill’s journey down that road began in 1997 while he was married to his first wife, a French woman. They were devout LDS Mormons and he was living and working in California as an Air Force engineer. But his life was falling apart. His marriage had long been disintegrating as had his trust in the Church, and he had begun to discover these suppressed teachings about polygamy. It was around the same time that he found the website for the TLC. “I just became on fire, reading this stuff,” he says. “I felt I had the spirit.”

Within less than a year, he dismantled his whole life—he left the Church, quit his job, left California, and divorced his wife. Then he moved to Manti, to the court of the new messiah, Jim Harmston, and even persuaded his mother to join him—“my brothers have never forgiven me.” It was a harrowing time. His sister died that year, and his ex-wife threatened him with never seeing his children again. He still has strained relationships with the children from his first marriage. But the upheaval and trauma only fortified his faith.

It’s a typical convert story—for men at least—but accelerated. First the disillusion with the Church, then the intense zeal for the new doctrine, the sense of scripture as a vortex of dogma sucking him in, closing off all exits, slamming all the doors behind him. The old life is disassembled by excommunication, divorce, the sale of a home, and the estrangement of family. Then the rebuilding, brick by fundamentalist brick, the sense of resolve only stiffened by the economic hardship and the social alienation that comes with the cult life, until finally the convert looks back over his previous life and revises his past to suit the narratives of the present—committing the same sin as the Mormon Church, the discovery of which began the whole cycle in the first place.

But for Merrill, it’s all worth it, because Jim Harmston is the messiah. “And you must understand, other people in the Gathering came to that realization before Jim did. He was not real excited when he found out.”

It makes sense that Merrill would “realize” that the man for whom he’d given up his life was the Savior. But I’m impressed that Harmston would make his followers believe that this was their idea and not his. There’s something messianic about that alone. When 150 people insist that you have special powers, then by some definition, clearly you do.

“He’s not a dynamic speaker with all the oratory tricks,” Merrill says. “But he does make actual prophecies, unlike some other so-called prophets! When my mother came here for the first time, she committed to baptism, so I said to him, ‘My mother will be here next Saturday to get baptized.’ And he said, ‘No, she’ll chicken out.’ And she did!”

“Does that count as an actual prophecy?”

“Of course! He predicted something and it was true.”

“It sounds like a hunch to me.”

“You have to know how this calling came about to fully understand. Before he was visited by angels, Jim had several very important spiritual experiences.” Merrill stops and adjusts himself in his seat. “These are very sacred special things right here, but I’m just telling you in order to give you some perspective,” he says, all sotto voce. “One time, Jim was given the gift to know the inner thoughts of the people around him. And he couldn’t pick and choose or tune it out. So he’d go near somebody and he’d know immediately what they were thinking and feeling.”

“Did he use his power on you?”

“I don’t think so. This was before I knew him. He was working as a businessman at the time. He was a very successful developer—we’re talking millions of dollars. But when he went to work he knew what his business partner was thinking. He’d pull up next to people at traffic lights—same thing. And the private thoughts of men are a terrible thing. So he prayed to God that this thing be taken from him, and after three days it was. However from time to time he still has this gift given to him in times of appropriate need. I can see it reflected in his eyes.”

“Merrill, I’ve got to meet this man. He sounds incredible.”

Merrill umms and ers. “Well it’s possible, sure. Tell you what, why don’t you come over tomorrow morning. I’m teaching a trig class around 10 in the morning. You can see how we educate our children in the TLC. Then we can give you a tour of the assembly room and depending on how that all goes, I can introduce you to Mr. Harmston.”

I’m so close, I can smell it. My first prophet! Hallelujah. I love Manti.

I’m there at 10 sharp. It’s me and two 16-year-old boys, Jacob and Matthias, sitting at a cleared table in the middle of Merrill’s living room, our notebooks out and pens at the ready. Merrill wipes the white board clean and begins.

“This is Sanjiv, he’s from London. He’s writing a book about polygamy and he wants to see how polygamists do trigonometry!” We all laugh. “I told him that our lives are pretty boring, but he doesn’t believe me. So let’s see if I can’t prove him wrong! Let’s just have a normal class and pretend he’s not there. Does that work for you?”

The boys nod. I nod. Everyone nods. Then the phone rings and Merrill stops. “Hold on a second.” And he retreats to the rear of the house to take the call. When he returns, minutes later, he’s glaring at me. “Okay, we’re going to have to stop this whole thing right here. You have to leave.”


“No more interviews. We can’t continue this. You have to leave.”

“What happened? Who was that on the phone?”

“Did you talk to a girl called Angie?”


“You’re staying at the Manti House Inn, correct?”


“Well, you talked to someone called Angie there.”

“No, I talked to Trish.”

“Yes, and you also spoke to Angie. She says that you are here to do a sensationalist, anti-polygamy book and you were asking for numbers of people who have left our group. So our interview is over. That’s all I have to say. Now you must leave.”

“Wait a minute. This isn’t true! I talked to Trish and then I talked to you. That’s it!”

“Have you spoken to Rachael?”


“Well, that’s not what I’ve been told. There are people who have left who will give you a very different and frankly a very false perspective. Have you spoken to a boy called Jacob?”


My mind’s racing. What’s happening here? Who’s Angie? Is “Angie” Trish’s real name? Is Trish a member of the TLC? Who’s Jacob? Who just called him now? Why doesn’t Merrill trust me anymore?

“Look, Merrill, I don’t know what’s going on here, but you know where I’m coming from. I’m not an anti-polygamist. I don’t believe polygamy should be a crime. I believe it should be demystified. We discussed all of this.” I’m scrabbling for a hold, the rocks are loosening.

“I’ve been told that you’ve misled me,” he says, grimly.

“Was that Angie that called just now?”

“No, it was Jim Harmston. He has spoken with Angie.” His boot heel is poised over my fingers.

“But I never spoke to Angie!” Fingernails scraping down the cliff face. “I spoke to Trish and she recommended that I speak to lots of different people and she gave me some numbers. But I haven’t rung any of them. I just accepted her help in the spirit in which it was given.”

“So you’re saying that Angie is lying?”

“I don’t know who Angie is!” My branch is breaking, the rope’s unraveling. Either Angie’s lying, Jim Harmston’s lying, or I am. And by defending myself, I’m attacking one of them.

“You need to leave. I’ve already said too much. You just need to leave.”

The trig students watch me stand up and grab my bag. But I can’t just walk out. I need some sort of an exit. “You tell me that your prophet can read hearts and minds,” I say, a little louder than expected. “Well, if that’s the case, why doesn’t he read mine? I’ll tell you why—because if he sat there and told me I had a conversation with Angie, then I would know for sure that he was a false prophet. He’d understand that I’m telling the truth, goddammit.”

I make for the door, and struggle with the latch. It’s all going wrong. Merrill has to come and help. He seems to pity me somewhat. “What I’m hearing from you and what I’m hearing from Jim just doesn’t add up,” he says. “Who knows what he’s basing his knowledge on right now?”

As I turn back to say goodbye, I see Natalie at the end of the room, looking alarmed. Jacob and Matthias staring. Merrill’s standing at the door, his hands on his hips and his head tilted to one side, a rather fey pose considering the tension of the moment.

“Goodbye Merrill.”

“Goodbye Sanjiv.”

And the door smacks shut behind me. Walking to my car, listening to the pebbles crunch underfoot and my short quick breaths, all I can think is, “Shit, I shouldn’t have said ‘goddammit.’”

I drive back to the Manti House Inn and find Trish on reception, sunny as ever. “Hiya, Sanjiv! You’re back for more toffee, I know you are.”

“Trish, someone’s been telling lies about me and I don’t know who it is. I feel like I’m in a fucking Kafka novel, excuse my French.”

I tell her the whole story and she smiles. “Now you know what it’s like in polygamy. These people have secrets you know, if you start poking around . . .”

“But who’s Angie?”

“You met her last night. She was the one doing the dishes. She’s one of Jim’s wives, basically. I’m not supposed to say, but she has a secret and Angie’s secret could ruin the TLC. The whole thing could fall apart.”

“What secret?”

“I can’t say. It’s too big.”

“Did you talk to Angie after talking to me last night?”

“Oh we talked for a good hour. She said, ‘He’s going to write one of those anti-polygamy books full of lies.’ I think that’s what she told Jim. And Angie’s a queen in that group. Whatever she wants, she gets.”

“Is she here?”

“No, she gets here at 4 p.m.”

I look at the clock. “Four! That’s five hours away. Can I call her at home?”

“I can’t give you her number, I’m sorry. Here, take some more of this toffee. Take as much as you like . . .”

Five hours to kill in Manti. I try watching TV in my room, but I keep pacing around, replaying the scene in my head. I try driving around town and traipsing around the shops, but it’s no good. I’m a duck moving across a still pond—apparently calm on the surface, but paddling away furiously below the water. Why would Angie lie about me? Why didn’t Trish tell me about Angie before? How can I salvage this?

At 4 p.m. sharp, I head back to the Manti House Inn to confront Angie. There’s no sign of Trish, just a couple of girls in the kitchen, one of them sitting up on a worktop eating ice, the other wiping down a surface.

“Are you Angie?”

“I might be,” says the girl with the rag in her hand. She’s pretty and petite, with dark brown eyes and big lashes.

“I’m Sanjiv. I think we have something to talk about?”

“Do we?”

“Do you want to go somewhere private to talk?”

“No, we can talk right here.”

“Okay, then. Did you tell Jim Harmston that you had a conversation with me yesterday? About my book.”

“Uh-uh. I didn’t call Jim. Why would I say I had a conversation with you when I didn’t?”

“That’s not what Merrill Jensen said.”

“Oh, Merrill Jensen, I wouldn’t believe him. Why are you talking to him? He’s just trying to flaunt his family because he’s got two wives. But he’s a bad example of polygamy. He’s very arrogant.”

“He says Jim called him and said that you spoke to him about me. You said I was writing a negative book about polygamy.”

“Well are you?”


“Are you here to talk to Rachael?”

“No, I don’t know how to get in touch with her.”

“What’s your book about anyway?”

So I give her the pitch. A book about polygamy as it’s lived today, an investigation of several groups and stories in the culture. And at every step, she questions my motives, my honesty, my credentials. “What makes you different than other journalists?” “How can you write about this if you haven’t got any faith yourself?” “Why do you care? What’s your agenda?” And she rejects my every answer. It’s exhausting. I’m doing a backfoot jig here, doing all the talking while she bats back everything I say with a skeptical spin. The portcullis is up. The crocodiles in the moat are snapping.

“Can I call you sometime?” I ask. “I want to continue this conversation.”


“Is e-mail better?”


“Well . . . do you want to talk to me again, or are you done?”

“I don’t mind talking to you. If I’m here when you come back and if I’m not busy working, we can talk then.”

“But Angie, I’ve come from L.A. That’s 600 miles away. I can’t just come up on the off-chance that you’re here.”

“That’s not my problem.”

“Can I at least leave you my details?”

“You can do whatever you want.”

So I write them down on a piece of paper and hand them to her. But instead of taking the note, she turns around and walks away. “Leave it on the side.”

My hope shattered, I leave Manti, still none the wiser as to how things took such a bizarre turn.

Then a few days later, the e-mails come flooding in. Four in a day, long urgent letters, all from Angie—full name, Angelinna Mower. This time her tone is warm and confessional. She apologizes for her attitude, for causing me inconvenience, and she wants me to forgive her.

“I do not intend on staying in the situation I am in,” she writes. “So I am feeling extremely insecure about my circumstances at the moment. You see, I am only 25— 26 in September. According to law I was a ‘child bride.’ I have spent 50 percent of my life living this way. I risk a tremendous amount just by speaking with you over the e-mail.”

It seems beneath all that bristle is a nervous and sensitive young mother on the verge of a momentous decision. Angie doesn’t only want to talk. She wants to leave Jim and the TLC and escape to California. And she wants me to help her.

Sanjiv Bhattacharya’s Secrets and Wives: The Hidden World of Mormon Polygamy was published in June by Soft Skull Press. Reprint by permission of Soft Skull.


Sanjiv Bhattacharya


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2011

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