Joe Darger and wives Alina, Vicki and Valerie are fighting polygamy's stereotypes.
Five waffle irons sit on the granite countertop, two large pitchers nearly overflow with syrup, and dishes piled high with bacon, eggs and hashbrowns top two long kitchen tables. Joe Darger sits at the head of one table, his family filling in the seats around him, bowing their heads in prayer over the meal and then joking as they load up on breakfast. It’s as wholesome a family scene as you’d see on Walton’s Mountain or in the Cleaver home—save for the fact that Darger has three wives and two dozen kids ranging from toddlers to twenty-somethings.
A decade ago, Darger wouldn’t have considered opening his Herriman home to the public eye, but thanks to Hollywood, things are starting to change. The world—at least the millions who have tapped into HBO’s Big Love or TLC’s Sister Wives—no longer sees Utah polygamists like Darger and wives Alina, Vicki and Valerie as pariahs in prairie dresses associated with sexual abuse, welfare fraud and child brides. They have become minivan-driving moms and baseball-coaching dads just like the ones you see in every Wasatch Front neighborhood. A family just like yours—but with a lot more sharing.
"It does us all a disservice to characterize polygamy in black and white," says Darger, who doesn't associate with a particular sect and co-authored Love Times Three in 2011 with his wives and Salt Lake Tribune reporter Brooke Adams to dispel some of polygamy's most pervasive stereotypes. "There's stereotypes and fears born out of ignorance. I'm sure there are people who think we're just glamorizing the situation, [but] it takes a high amount of commitment for us, and the commitment is rooted in our religious faith."
Lingering on the fringes of society as cultural novelty for the better part of a century, polygamy grabbed the national—and international—spotlight in 2008 when authorities raided FLDS leader Warren Jeffs' Texas compound and rounded up hundreds of children and women on reports of extensive sexual and physical abuse. But with Big Love—the fictional story of the Hendricksons, suburbanite polygamists living in Sandy—then going into its third season and already attracting more than four million viewers, the perception of Mormon-rooted plural marriage had already begun to shift beyond Jeffs' seamy world.
"Big Love was really instrumental in broadening the public perception of who polygamists are," says Adams, who began covering polygamy for the Tribune several years earlier. "It took an initial negative reaction and softened it. You can read about Warren Jeffs but know there's a lot of other people practicing this lifestyle in a very different and healthy way ... It's not one monolithic thing, no more so than monogamy is."
The Dargers gather for brunch just like any wholesome family, except their's consists of one husband, three wives and 23 living children.