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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The story you're about to hear helped inspire the TV show "Big Love." In the fifth season of the HBO drama, Bill Henrickson meets with his three wives as he faces the possibility of a long jail sentence.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "BIG LOVE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) It's just not that simple, Bill. Things are going to change. Everything's going to change.

BILL PAXTON: (As Bill Hendrickson) Not between the four of us.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) Bill, please, there are - well for starters, there are women in this room who have needs they may not be comfortable expressing, needs you won't be able to fulfill for 20 or 30 years.

PAXTON: (As Bill) Some things we can discuss in private.

CHLOE SEVIGNY: (As Nikki) Plenty of women in my family have had to contend with husbands in jail. It's a burden we're used to carrying.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) Oh, it's easy for you to say, Nikki, you're the legal wife now. So you can get conjugal visits.

CONAN: Those characters are based, in part, on a real family: Joe, Alina, Vicki and Valerie Darger and their 23 children. They describe themselves as independent, fundamentalist Mormons. Their plural marriage is not recognized by any organized religion, and they live with the fact that it's also against the law.

In a new book, they describe a love story of consenting adults whose lifestyle works for them, even though they live in a community that views polygamy with scorn. If that is your life, what is it about your story we don't understand? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Ruth Simmons, the outgoing president of Brown University, joins us for an exit interview. But first, living in a plural marriage. Joe and his wife Alina Darger join us from member station KUER in Salt Lake City. Along with Vicki and Valerie Darger and journalist Brooke Adams, they're the authors of "Love Times Three: Our True Story of a Polygamous Marriage." And it's nice to have you with us today.

ALINA DARGER: Thank you.

JOE DARGER: It's great to be here.

CONAN: And can you tell us why you decided to write this book?

DARGER: Well, for me I thought the timing was perfect in there was quite a bit of misunderstanding through media about who we are and what we believe. And there never has been a positive book from inside the culture of a functioning family. And I always get asked about that, you know, how does your family work? I've read "Escape," and I've read other books. So I'd like to know how your family works. And so it was a really good time for me.

CONAN: Joe?

DARGER: Yeah, I feel like giving - given the climate of this country and some of the other advances we've made in civil rights, it's just for us, it's been a 10-year journey of trying to get our own rights. And we recognize that we're not going to get those rights unless we educate people about who we are and what we're about.

And so this was a deliberate attempt to do that and define for ourselves who we are.

CONAN: And you're not going to get those rights if you continue to hide your relationship and don't fight for it.

DARGER: Correct.

DARGER: Exactly.

DARGER: Yeah, this is a culture that's been pushed underground and marginalized from the rest of society, and that's - it's been destructive. That's led to some unhealthy implications within the culture, and it makes for a people that, if there are abuses, they don't dare to report them, and it makes for a lot of fear, and that fear is what we grew up with as children, and we didn't want our children to grow up that way.

CONAN: Because you both grew up in plural marriages, in families.

DARGER: Yes, for me it goes back five generations. This is very much a part of my culture and my history.

DARGER: Yeah, and for me, I talk about it a little bit in the book, some of the fears that I had because - you know, worrying about my dad going to jail and those kind of things.

CONAN: Well, now your children face that possibility, don't they?

DARGER: Absolutely. I think this was a very difficult decision for us to make, and it's been very hard for our children to have to be so public and deal with the ramifications of that. But we firmly believe the future for them is brighter and that this was a way to do it to give them a better future and more opportunity for them.

CONAN: There are some definitions we should get out of the way, one of which, Alina Darger, you were talking about the media representations. Part of that was the representations of the group called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, the group that was raided in Texas, which also has some people on the border between Utah and Arizona, as well.

And those images were I guess very vivid around the country but I think especially vivid there in Salt Lake City.

DARGER: Yeah, I - they were vivid, and they were disturbing, and it was, you know, it clearly needed to be stated that that's not us, and that's not how we believe. And so we definitely were happy when our book was coming out near the same time just to, you know, separate and show that we don't condone that, and we condemn that kind of behavior.

CONAN: The behavior that you would condemn is not plural marriage but that young girls, 14-year-olds, are being married off to much older men, young men driven out of the sect.

DARGER: Exactly.

CONAN: Joe...

DARGER: Go ahead.

CONAN: No, I'm sorry, just...

DARGER: I just - you made the point of labels, and some of those labels certainly are powerful, and they're misleading, even the term Mormon and what a Mormon is or what a fundamentalist Mormon is and confusing that with the fundamentalist Latter-Day Saint Church, which Warren Jeffs was the head of.

And so there is a lot of confusion. In this book hopefully we educate people on what our faith is and the history of our faith and the history that we've had, and it helps kid of dispel some of those myths.

CONAN: There is also - at least from way, way outside, an impression by some that the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, the mainstream Mormon church, that they view plural marriage with a wink and a nod of approval. And as you describe in your book, that's not at all what goes on.

DARGER: Yes, it's not at all true. For over 100 years, they have banned the practice of polygamy, and if somebody is in the mainstream Mormon church and found to be practicing it, they are excommunicated. So they've definitely made a stand that that's not part of their - what they do now.

DARGER: And in fact in this community, the myth is that it's easier to live here this way, but in reality it's - many of our traditional Mormon neighbors are very uncomfortable, and they're the first ones that want to distance themselves from it and keep it criminalized. And so that's actually one of the obstacles we face.

CONAN: How - you'll forgive me, but how criminal is it? You're not exactly a secret anymore.

DARGER: Well, it's a third-degree felony in the state of Utah. So it's a serious crime, and it's nothing to be taken lightly for sure. The present attorney general has stated that he will not prosecute consenting adults, of which we feel we fall into that. But it's still a crime, and it still can be and has been used as a weapon against our people, and it's really a weapon of fear.

And that's what's not healthy. And so we're not trying to flout ourselves as some kind of lawbreakers as much as this is a deep, abiding part of our faith, a deep part of who we are and our culture and our history, and we cannot be silent anymore.

DARGER: And it's very real for us because we've all had grandfathers who have spent time in prison for practicing polygamy. So it isn't something that we take lightly. We really understand.

CONAN: We're talking with Joe and Alina Darger. Along with two other women, they form a plural family, and they are not connected to the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints nor with the Fundamental Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints. They call them independent.

If this is your lifestyle, call and tell us what we don't understand, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. We'll start with Rachel(ph), and Rachel's on the line with us from Kalamazoo.

RACHEL: Yeah, hi, I just wanted to say it's unfortunate that people push their views on other people, like the Mormons, you know, if somebody has a single-family marriage that they would push that on others. My husband is from Somalia. His dad has three wives not because he was some (unintelligible) or something, because it was a necessity there. The men only lived to be 40 due to the wars, and the women have to have children because they can't work.

And I think it would be sad for somebody to view him poorly because he did something, necessity for society. And I feel if the Mormons felt that this was a necessity for them or tradition, then I don't know why other people would condemn them for that.

CONAN: Joe Darger, would you - if plural marriage is OK for you guys there in Utah and other parts of the West, is it OK for Somali immigrants?

DARGER: Well, actually, one of the misunderstandings is this is just a Mormon issue. And in fact, we have a big African immigration population here in Salt Lake City, and some of the social workers we've worked with in our community and are working with in our communities have also talked about these issues with other immigrant populations, other Muslim populations.

So I think certainly in most populations around the world, most cultures, polygamy is not foreign. In our Western society, it is. And in fact, you know, I went back recently to Ellis Island and watched - we were looking at some of the exhibits there, and they had on there, one of the questions they had was: Are you an anarchist or polygamist?

And I think it's been used almost as a way of discrimination in keeping different cultures and different societies out in our past. So I absolutely would feel like this is - what's good for me should be good for anyone else, same rights.

CONAN: Well, it is viewed by some as - and thanks very much for the call, Rachel - it is viewed by some as, well, pretty far down the slippery slope. The - obviously federal DOMA Act, the Defense of Marriage Act, defines marriage as one man and one woman. That is incorporated now in the state constitutions of I think over 20 states, maybe over half the states. And I'm pretty sure that's in the constitution there in Utah, too.

DARGER: Well, as part of our statehood, they made it mandatory that plural marriage be forever banned as part of the state constitution because the federal government at the time was coming strong against the Mormons, and that was part of the compact.

But in reality, it's not a slippery slope. It's - that's the misunderstanding is that we're not asking for plural marriage to be legalized and recognized. We're asking to be decriminalized as a people. I really don't want the state recognizing my marriages, nor do I need it. I just want them to stay out of my bedroom and out of my life. So that's the big difference.

CONAN: I can understand that. As a practical matter, don't they do that now? There are not a lot of prosecutions.

DARGER: No.

DARGER: Well, one thing that people can say is there are not a lot of prosecutions, and they leave you alone if you're consenting adults. But it's kind of like the bully with the stick behind their back: Once in a while, they'll step out and smack you over the head with it. You know they're there, and the fear is still there.

DARGER: And quickly, it's also like an illegal immigrant thing. Just because they're not enforcing it doesn't mean they can't.

CONAN: We're talking with Joe and Alina Darger, two of the co-authors of the book "Love Times Three: Our True Story Of A Polygamous Marriage." If this is your life, what is it about your story we don't understand? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking with Joe and Alina Darger, a husband and wife. There are two more wives in their family: Vicki and Valerie Darger. Along with writer Brooke Adams, they've released a book about their choice to live in a plural marriage.

The logistics alone are daunting as they work to raise 23 kids under one roof. That's 10 loads of laundry every day. You can see a chart, The Dargers by the Numbers, in an excerpt from "Love Times Three" at our website, npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

If this is your life, what is it about your story we don't understand? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's go next to Jenna(ph), Jenna with us from Orem in Utah.

JENNA: Hi, yeah, I've been raised a member of the LDS church, and I still am, you know, very active. And, you know, I mean, polygamy was always something that I kind of had to deal with in the history of my church. And - but, you know, I honestly have had to come to terms with it, and I don't see any issue. I mean, as long as everybody is consenting adults, you know, everybody - you know, children included are being raised in a safe environment like, you know, this family is doing, I don't see why it shouldn't be entirely legal in the United States.

CONAN: I don't think you're going to get an argument from the Dargers.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DARGER: No, I think it's a great point, and I think it would be great for people to step back and kind of look at that, the polygamous heritage, because there are some really incredible and amazing stories and people that have believed and lived this way.

CONAN: Jenna, is this issue addressed in your church?

JENNA: You know, I mean, it's brought up as part of our history, and, you know, we do try to, at least, you know, from my experience, the church has tried to distance itself from, you know from current practices. But I don't - I just don't understand why it needs to necessarily.

CONAN: All right, Jenna, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

JENNA: Thank you.

CONAN: It was interesting to read the descriptions. I think, Joe, you were the one who said in your family growing up, there would be missionaries, effectively, from the LDS church coming to see if they could convert your family.

DARGER: Yeah, very much so, and we would welcome them in, and they were always surprised at just how much we understood the faith because we feel like we do - you know, for all intents and purposes, we are Mormon. We're just not allowed to be part of that church because we practice some of the more orthodox doctrines that we feel like that they no longer practice. And so that's the difference.

CONAN: Growing up, you were allowed to participate in some church organizations. Obviously, you didn't go to the church, but there were some church organizations you participated in. But that apparently fell away.

DARGER: Well, it - I was 12 when my dad took his second wife. And so when I was younger, I was very much welcomed. And some of those relationships exist to this day, some of the people I grew up with and knew. But there certainly was a change once he took another wife. We were not so welcomed there.

DARGER: And we were - as children, we'd go to the primary classes, but it did come to a point when you would grow up more, and you would need to choose. Or, you know, there came a time when you'd need to leave.

CONAN: And I should point out you all knew each other growing up. In fact, Joe, you said you as it turns out, by coincidence, were all baptized at the same place on the same day.

DARGER: Yeah, certainly, you know, there's a misunderstanding there in that there's not really one cohesive group. But of the independent Mormon fundamentalists, of which we would maybe classify, it's not really a group of people, it's scattered people with different beliefs. But there certainly was a large amount of families, and it's the largest. There's about, an estimated 15,000 of us here in this area.

And so various families that we would come to know, and even as we began to become public, we've met more people like us as they come forward. And so in our younger years, though, it was just a coincidence. I didn't know them at the time, that we got baptized at that time. But we found out years later we were all baptized at the same time.

CONAN: And Alina, you're the cousin of twins who are your other wives.

DARGER: Yes I am, and it's interesting because we have so many cousins with our big families. I really didn't know Vick and Val very well. I'd see them, you know, here and there over the years, but it wasn't until we got serious about Joe that I really got to know them.

CONAN: I wanted to ask, there's a part of your book I wanted to - this is your - the book is told from the points of view of all four of you. And Alina, this is from a point where you and Vicki are both dating Joe at the same time, and I wanted to read this:

As my feelings for Joe grew stronger, issues that would rarely come up in a, quote-unquote, "normal" relationship became a challenge. It was hard to have to think about and talk through every detail: What was the proper way to show affection for Joe in front of each other; who sat next to him in the car; when was it OK to hold his hand, to kiss? Where were the boundaries? What did we need to do to show respect for each other?

And I think people can imagine these questions only got more complicated.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DARGER: Yes, they did. They - it took so much communication and so much trust with one another and a lot of soul-searching to be able to make this work. And it definitely - if anybody thinks about this kind of relationship should know that communication and trust and even respecting each other and then again deep faith is going to be key in it.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Daniel(ph), Daniel with us from Albuquerque.

DANIEL: Hi there. My name is Daniel. It's great to see you courageously on the air. Thank you, ladies and sir.

DARGER: Thank you.

DARGER: Thank you.

DANIEL: I've been living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I have a husband and two wives. We have four sons. And the school loves us. There's always one of us available to volunteer for something.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DANIEL: They've got a picnic, they need an adult there, one of us can be there. And we're not quiet about it. Hi, this is my husband Shane(ph). Hi, this is my wife, Wendy(ph). You know, we get out there, and we do this. And I'm - I think that one of the things that I'd like to introduce into the conversation is how much of an asset this is in raising children. You actually have extra hands available.

I have no idea how my parents did this. I come from a nuclear family and sort of entered this in a backwards way. So it was - it's a real blessing in my life.

CONAN: Well, you can imagine economies have scaled in some respects, but Alina Darger, doesn't this sort of get out of hand with 23?

DARGER: Well, it can, but he makes an amazing point, and we have found that strength and that structure. And so sometimes people imagine us having 23 five-year-olds running around and a couple of, you know, a bunch of three-year-olds, and we're changing diapers and things. But some of the children are 21.

And, you know, we raise our kids to grow up and help us, too. So there's a lot of support, even emotionally.

DARGER: And we always have at least a mother at home.

DANIEL: (Unintelligible) shows up for a PTA meeting, oh, I bet that's impressive.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Daniel, is your plural marriage based on a religious belief?

DANIEL: It hasn't, and it ended up incorporating one because as the lady had mentioned, having that great faith that's standing behind your union is really important because you have to get a lot of traffic signals. And we grew up in America, where there is sort of this undercurrent notion where your husband owns your wife, or your wife owns your husband, and there's no room for other people.

And really you have to make your own new traffic signals on communicating. It ends up being a geometrically bigger communication net when you add another person, and if you have four people, that's amazing. And if you have four people and 23 kids, you have to keep talking constantly.

DARGER: You do, and I think it's a good point to - for people to understand that we don't look at relationships in the same light. When I entered into this plural marriage, I fully expected and condoned and wanted Vicki to have a relationship with him, too. So it's a different kind of a think, a little bit.

DANIEL: Yes, it is, and the desire to see other members of your family sharing with each other is - it's something that was a retrofit for me because all my other previous relationships never had that. It was about guarding my singular relationship with someone else.

CONAN: Daniel, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

DANIEL: You're welcome, thank you for having this show.

CONAN: OK, here's a follow-up from Alison(ph) in Schwartz Creek, Michigan: How do you handle the petty jealousies that arise among the wives? Alina, I think that's to you.

DARGER: Yeah, definitely, and those do arise because you can imagine living together every day and the numerous circumstances that would come up. And again, it goes back to - and we address those a lot in "Love Times Three," but it goes back to the key elements of the faith and the trust. And sometimes, you just have to go power through it and communicate and talk to each other.

And a lot of times, you know, we've had a problem and talked about it and found out, you know, I see why you, you know, viewed it this way and why you did it. And it's a lot of trust. And so it's just working through it day by day.

CONAN: Let's go next to David(ph), and David's on the line with us from Gainesville.

DAVID: Hi, there. I just wanted to applaud you all for, you know, raising such - it looks like you have a very good family and for showing people that a non-traditional family, a non-nuclear family, can actually work. That was my first point.

And my second point is a question that kind of goes off-topic, but you discuss it: the social stigma. I guess the first thing is how do you deal with it? And my second question, which is getting off-topic, is: Can you make a comparison to this social stigma and the situation with other non-traditional lifestyles, for example two men living together or even two women wanting to raise children? And I'll take my comments off the air. Thank you.

CONAN: All right, David, thanks very much.

DARGER: Well, the social stigma is very a difficult thing to deal with. And one of the things we have that sustains us is a strong belief in what we're doing and why. And so we don't go about it with shame. But in the past, we certainly have gone about it with, you know, this quietness and keeping a lot of relationships at arm's length because of it. And we've realized that wasn't healthy, and so now it's just the opposite. We even bared everything and tell all in our book. So this has been a little bit different for us and yet it's a little liberating. I think it's a better way to just say this is who we are, and you don't have to be afraid of it. You don't have to fear it because you misunderstand it.

That said, the second part of this question is certainly it helps to be a little bit more open with our lifestyle when we see - there are certainly a lot of - whether it's gay couples, whether it's people living together, whether it's blended families or grandparents in homes that are taking care of children, there's so many different forms of families that are out there that - as long as they are a family and they're about love and they're about creating an environment for children to grow up, they all should be accepted as part of the fabric of today's society.

DARGER: And I would say about the social stigma, interestingly enough, it starts really early. My 7-year-old daughter came - talked to me yesterday, and she was saying, I don't want to go to school tomorrow. And I asked her why, and she said, well, this boy that I sit next to - and she's like, back in first grade - she's in second grade now, but she's like, back in first grade, when I didn't know that it wasn't a good idea to tell everybody you were a polygamy, I told him and a bunch of kids that we were. And yesterday, he said, you're a polygamy and you're dumb. And she said, well, that's rude and it hurts my feelings, and you shouldn't say that. And he said, I don't care because polygamies are bad and you're dumb. And so we had a good talk about this, and it was really interesting going back to - going through those things myself as a child and a lot of why we wrote "Love Times Three" is kind of to create a better understanding.

CONAN: Email question from Heidi in Minneapolis: I'd like to ask Alina if it's OK for her to marry more than one husband?

DARGER: Well, it's OK if I marry more than one husband if I'm not, you know, it's not part of our faith. I have the choice to, you know, go into that relationship if I desire. But part of my faith doesn't embody that.

CONAN: Not in your faith, but in theory it'd be OK for somebody else?

DARGER: Yes, exactly.

CONAN: OK. Alina and Joe Darger, along with their wives, are the author of "Love Times Three: The True Story Of A Polygamist Marriage." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's get Melissa on the line, Melissa calling us from Cincinnati.

MELISSA: Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

MELISSA: I think it's incredibly important enough for people to understand that if you're in a marriage, a monogamous marriage, and you choose to shift into a polygamous marriage, that it's essential that you understand the reasoning behind that. I experienced adding a second wife to what had been a monogamous marriage, and it created a complete disaster because we didn't recognize the importance of dealing with childhood trauma and why a childhood trauma might create an uneven ground to build a plural marriage from.

DARGER: Sure.

CONAN: So it is - I don't think beyond the realms of possibility as a lot of monogamous marriages don't work out. A lot of polygamous marriages don't work out. Melissa, did you suffer in yours?

MELISSA: Absolutely. I thought that it was going to be a good idea. I thought that adding a second wife to the marriage was going to do the things that they've talked about on the radio, you know, more hands in the kitchen or more hands with the kids. And what it did was it marginalized my existence. It made me - it created a feeling of being second rate. And I don't know, you know, there is a great deal of childhood trauma that myself and the other wife had that you never know how much you need to cope with that until new situations create additional issues. And to enter into a polygamous - to a plural marriage is devastating when you're not in a culture that expects it.

CONAN: And...

DARGER: Yeah. I can definitely...

CONAN: Go ahead. I'm sorry.

DARGER: I can definitely see and understand that and - which especially in "Love Times Three" we talk a lot about the deep faith and the deep soul searching that it takes to do this. And also, I think your point is really well taken about the issues and things that you feel, where if you're working together, it comes out, you know, you help each other above those. And I understand to that, definitely that point that you're talking about.

CONAN: And, Joe, I wanted to ask you - because these relationships are not public, when you mentioned earlier when there are abuses, people are afraid to report them.

DARGER: Yeah.

DARGER: Yeah. That makes it more difficult because there is that fear and you do feel a little marginalized and somehow maybe like this would be your fault because, you know, what a plural relationship does is it magnifies everything. You're not just adding a third person, you know, like almost to the third power because of the dynamics of relationship. And the one that works well - and there's a lot of love and support, it works very well. And as you say - and if there's trauma, there's other reasons behind it, it's going to magnify some of those insecurities or negative things, and that can be very destructive in a relationship. In a monogamous one, it can, but it certainly enhanced in a plural relationship. And so it's not anything that we would ever advocate anyone do lightly. They must know why and do it - for us, it's very deliberate and sacred of what we do.

CONAN: Melissa, thanks very much for the call.

MELISSA: Thank you.

DARGER: Yeah, thank you.

CONAN: And we'd like to thank both of you for your time today. We've been talking with Joe and Alina Darger, along with Vicki and Valerie Darger and journalist Brooke Adams, the authors of "Love Times Three: Our True Story Of A Polygamous Marriage." They joined us from KUER, our member station in Salt Lake City. Thanks again.

DARGER: Thank you, Neal.

DARGER: Thank you for having us.

CONAN: Up next: a decade after she became the first African-American president of an Ivy League school, Ruth Marcus(ph) plans to step down. She'll join us next to talk about lessons learned in a long career in higher education. Stay with us for that. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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