In 1953, at age 16, Irene Kunz of Utah secretly married a man who was already married to her half-sister.
"My mother warned me against polygamy because she was four generations from polygamy, and she had seen her mother and her grandmother suffer trying to live this law," says Irene.
Polygamy was banned by the Mormon Church in 1890, and it was illegal in the United States. But Irene belonged to a fringe fundamentalist cult. She was duty bound to become the second wife of Verlan Lebaron.
"I was taught from the very beginning, from as long as I can remember that we were to live the principal which meant we should enter into plural marriage," she recalls of her days in the cult.
According to the principle, women would go to hell if they didn’t marry into polygamy. Irene barely knew Verlan before the day they married. In fact, she was in love with another man.
"I felt absolutely terrible giving up somebody that I loved in order to live the principle. It was more than devastating."
The three-some hid from the Mormon authorities while one of their priesthood brethren performed the quick ceremony in a secluded park.
"When the moment came for my sister to take my hand and place it in her husband’s, I saw this sadness in her eyes and I knew that she was just living her religion and trying to smother her feelings," says Irene.
As disappointing as the ceremony had been, Irene’s wedding night was to be stranger yet.
"When I got there, we had literally no intimacy the first night. He just had me lay on his arm, and he told me that I was the key to plural marriage. I was the key that was going to get him into heaven, and someday he hoped to have a least seven wives and 50 children. I lay there so disappointed because I wanted to be more than someone’s key to get somewhere."
Verlan and his first wife, Charlotte soon fled to Mexico to begin a life far from the reach of the law. Two months later, Irene joined them.
"Well, I was absolutely shocked when I arrived to the ranch. It was nothing but three or four adobe houses. My husband led me to a three room adobe hut and said, 'Welcome home Irene.' He told me that we had no electricity. We had no inside plumbing," she reveals.
"If I had known Spanish, had a way and I hadn’t been so sheltered that I was so full of fear, I would have hitch-hiked out of there and gone to Salt Lake City by myself."
Irene stayed, but soon realized that poverty and jealousy of Verlan’s other wives would be her greatest challenges.
"I really didn’t feel love at all by my husband because he couldn’t show me any affection, and it was against our religion to have intimacy except for procreation. So, we didn’t bond very well, and you couldn’t really talk to him or tell him what you wanted to say because you had another wife in the house."
Within four months, Irene was expecting. By then Verlan was busy courting his third potential bride, Lucy.
"That pain that you feel when a man is giving another woman attention, it’s like having your skin peeled,” she says.
"When my baby was born, Charlotte was there to attend me with a mid-wife. Verlan was not home, and I gave birth to this little baby girl, but I found out later that I had toxemia, and that is what she died of. She only lived for 20 minutes, and then she passed away."
Irene was distraught, and Verlan’s news that he would now marry Lucy was hard to swallow.
"We were always told, 'Don’t betray the brethren.' And yet, when they married 14 and 15-year-old girls, we kept our mouths shut. When they married a widow and married both of her daughters that were young, we kept our mouths shut. When they whipped women and gave them beatings, we kept our mouths shut. We did not betray the brethren."
As years went by, more wives meant deeper poverty and more children to feed. Irene faithfully delivered a child every year. Because Verlan couldn’t make enough money, other mothers had to go to work. So, at Verlan’s request, Irene ended up taking care of 26 children and getting 15 of the older ones ready for school each day.
Irene recalls, "I had to stay up the night before and iron all their uniforms. I had to get up in the morning and make breakfast, which I usually made hot cakes or wheat mush. We didn’t even own toilet paper. We’d cut up little rags to keep in the outhouse. We were that poor."
During her twelfth pregnancy, Irene developed blood clots in her legs. Their polygamist cult didn’t believe in medical treatment, so she discretely visited doctors who gave her serious advice.
"They told me if I had another child that it might be the end of my life, and my husband did not believe in birth control. You were told you’d go straight to hell if you practiced it, and I felt that I could not go on. When I had my nervous breakdown, I was absolutely in total despair, and I had been threatened with hell for so many years -- if I didn’t give my husband wives, and I didn’t live up to his expectations."
"And all of a sudden during that breakdown, I looked around and I realized that I was already in hell. They couldn’t send me anyplace because I was already there," she says.
Still, Irene endured two more years and incredibly delivered her thirteenth baby. However, her endurance had its limits. When Verlan announced that he was marrying wife number 10, she took seven of her children and headed to the U.S.
"In our religion the children belonged to the man, but I took them and I stole his children, and went to Vegas for a new life. I had one bedroom and I had seven children, but I was in heaven," she remembers.
"When I first moved to Las Vegas, I ran into some very nice Christians that actually helped me out with food and clothing for my children. I realized they weren’t these wicked gentiles that I had been taught to believe as a child. I saw the love that they had and it re-influenced me to see how they acted."
After three years, Irene decided to visit Verlan. She wanted her children to see their father, and she asked him for an official divorce. He wouldn’t even consider it. He was in a rush to leave for one of his church conferences in Mexico City.
"I told him that I was leaving him for good -- that I was taking the children and going back to the states ... and that I was just living in denial of all of this, and I wanted to leave his religion, leave him and move on. He looked at me and said, 'You know what? Maybe I just won’t be coming back, and I’ll do you all a favor.' ”
Verlan never did come back. On the way to the conference, he was killed in a head-on car crash. All 58 of his children attended the funeral.
Three years later, Irene moved to Alaska to live near one of her married sons. He had become a Christian and invited Irene to her first church service. During the singing of the 42nd psalm, she had a breakthrough!
Irene said, 'God, whoever you are God, I want to know you. I want to know the truth.' And in that moment God actually spoke to me, and He called me by name." "[God] He said, 'Irene, where have you been that you have never praised and glorified me?' And I started weeping from the depths of my soul to think that for so many years, I had worked and given my husband wives, working my way into heaven and Christ whispered and said, 'I am sufficient.' "
That day Irene went to the altar, her life has never been the same. She tells her story in her book, Shattered Dreams. And her message is clear: she was completely set free from pain, depression and 28 years of deception and bondage.
"I tell you that I have had nothing but peace. Christ said He will give you peace, joy, and love, and I’ve had a smile on my face ever since. I’m glad to be a child of the King!"
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