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The Independent Culture
THEY'RE CREEPY and they're kooky, the Kingston family. Holed up in Mormon central, Utah, with no contact with outsiders beyond their business transactions, they have, since 1935, intermarried and inter- bred to protect the purity of their blood line. The girls marry from the age of 14 and are expected to produce a child each year. According to one wife, who left after 30 years, genetic deformities have been rife within the family because of the inter-breeding: fused limbs, small heads, liver dysfunction and schizophrenia. When in 1998, a teenager escaped from the Kingston fiefdom, having been forced into marrying her uncle, she was captured and whipped 28 times. The court case that followed, resulting in the imprisonment of her father and uncle, was central to Inside Story: Polygamy (BBC1).

Next to the word "Osmond", polygamy has become synonymous with Mormonism, even though the act has been banned by the Mormon church for over 100 years. It is also proscribed by state and federal law. Yet, in Utah, the Kingston family are among some 30-50,000 fundamentalist Mormons who practise plural marriage.

Members of the Truth & Living Church of Jesus Christ allowed the camera to witness their services and interview some of its devotees. We were introduced to Randy Maudsley, an apostle at the church. He has four wives, in what is termed a "celestial" marriage. All live under the same roof. One of them deserted her 11 children for the privilege. "One day we want to be gods: someday in eternity," claimed the man of the house. He had the beard and build of Giant Haystacks, with as many bellies and chins as wives. "That's our hope, and to accomplish it we must live plural marriage." Maudsley's church encourages the "sister-wives" to find fulfilment through friendships with each other.

Roni Baker, who lost her husband to the sect, rejected numerous attempts to sign up. She believed its credo was something along the lines of: "women need each other, but they only need a husband as a vehicle - a sperm bank." It was a line that could have been lifted from the SCUM manifesto. Except there was more than a touch of Stepford about these wives, as they talked about overcoming jealousy in order to serve their husband, thereby serving God.

But what was merely odd beneath the apparent ordinariness of these people's lives segued into something more sinister. Despite believers intoning that polygamy was a passport to heaven, dissidents revealed it as a breeding ground for incest and child abuse. Several women that had bravely broken free from the manacles of fundamental Mormonism, shared their experiences and highlighted the plight of others, who remain the victims of fathers, brothers and uncles, but stay silent; afraid to leave the fold. One spoke of how her father abused her and her sisters in order to arouse himself sufficiently to satisfy his wives.

As a character once said in a Woody Allen film: If Jesus Christ came back and saw what was being done in his name, he'd throw up.

Robert Hanks is away