Irene Spencer currently lives in Anchorage, Alaska with her husband of 19 years, Hector J. Spencer. She has 118 grandchildren and 37 great-grandchildren. She travels extensively with her husband throughout the United States and Mexico visiting her numerous family members.
Among her many talents, she is an accomplished seamstress, a great cook, is fluent in Spanish, and has traveled to 23 foreign countries and 23 states speaking on polygamy and related issues.
Secrets of Polygamy Revealed
By Irene Spencer
CBN.com Illegal in the U.S. and prohibited by the mainline Mormon church in 1890, the practice of polygamy still survives today and, in fact, may be on the verge of a resurgence. Those still practicing plural marriage, termed fundamentalists, believe in attaining God-like status based on the number of wives and children a man possesses.
At 16 years old Irene Spencer became the second wife of her brother-in-law Verlan LeBaron in 1953. From a fourth generation polygamous family, it had been drilled into the young girl that plural marriage was required to enter Heaven. A few months later, the government raided one of the polygamists’ camps at Short Creek, Arizona, and the LeBarons fled to Mexico, joining Verlan’s fundamentalist brothers Joel and Ervil.
Some fifty-four years later, Spencer, now a born-again Christian and in a monogamous marriage, reveals the trials and tribulations of being a polygamist’s wife in her book, Shattered Dreams: My Life as a Polygamist's Wife (Center Street).
“I wanted to be able to tell it like it is,” Spencer says in her book.
“All the books I had read on Mormon polygamy were vivid accounts of sacrificing women who upheld and emphatically stated they loved ‘the Principle.’ Yet, I was convinced that these committed women had done as I’d been taught to do—to…stubbornly maintain its advantages over monogamy. They had been forbidden to give way to their true feelings, so they smothered their own agony and wrenching pain, as I too had been emphatically instructed to do.”
Irene’s obedience, intended to guarantee her a place in Heaven, brought her nothing but misery on earth for twenty-five years as she moved to and from various encampments in the Mexican deserts, mountains, Nicaragua and later, California. On the run from LeBaron’s brother, Ervil, a psychotic who with his cult followers butchered twenty-five to thirty people including former wives, a daughter, and rival members of polygamous clans including brother Joel, the family—or at least Verlan—moved frequently. Most of their dwellings were simple shacks with no electricity, running water, heat or the most minimal of necessities all the while housing a growing community of children and an expanding number of wives.
During her twenty-eight-year marriage to Verlan LeBaron, who later became President of The Church of The Firstborn, a cult group within the fundamentalist Mormon movement, Spencer bore 13 of LeBaron’s 58 children while sharing her husband with nine other women. Sharing communal chores, moving often, living in sub-standard conditions in remote villages, mass child-rearing—for a time caring for twenty-six children on her own—Spencer’s toughest cross to bear was sharing her husband’s love.
Spencer finally made good on repeated threats by leaving Verlan after twenty-four years of marriage. However, she would be pulled back into the situation to live another year with her husband until he was killed in a car wreck in 1981.
Now, the favorite and only wife, Spencer has been happily—and monogamously—married for nineteen years. Recovering from the emotional damage polygamy dealt, Spencer believes Shattered Dreams will provide the closure she needs and, she hopes, will help other plural wives to find their own freedom.
She recently discussed her book.
Irene, your book, Shattered Dreams, is an indictment of plural marriage. Tell us a bit about your upbringing. Were you raised in a polygamous family?
I was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1937 to a polygamist father who had four wives at the time. I was one of his thirty-one children.
Despite seeing your mother’s anguish as a plural wife, you, too, became a second wife in 1953. How did that come about?
I lived in constant fear that my mother would go to hell because she gave up polygamy. So when she married in monogamy and I saw the abuse she endured, I felt it was God’s punishment for her abandoning polygamy. So, I decided to sacrifice, no matter what the cost, to live in polygamy in order to avoid hell.
How did your half sister react to you marrying her husband? What were the most uncomfortable moments?
She was very cooperative. She, too, had been taught that it was a requirement for exaltation. Though I could sense the pain, she complied by placing my hand in her husband’s, giving me to him.
As for some of my most uncomfortable moments, well, he discussed my wedding plans in front of her. I was literally sick with panic attacks for a week before my marriage because I had never kissed my future husband, and I wondered how I could kiss him in her presence.
Yet the most uncomfortable moment was immediately after we were married when he left me in his parked car for twenty minutes while he entered the Greyhound bus station and bought her a ticket so she could travel forty miles to her home with her baby in her arms. I felt like a traitor to my own sister.
Take us through a few of the shocking events you detail in the book that happened during your twenty-eight-year marriage to Verlan LeBaron.
I was isolated on a ranch in Mexico with no electricity, no radio, and no music of any kind. In spite of our poverty, my husband continued to marry other wives. I almost died from typhoid fever, and my first baby died.
At what point did you seriously begin thinking about getting out. Had you heard of other wives divorcing?
It was on my first trip back home to visit my mother after my baby’s death. I wrestled with the idea, but the fear of hell restrained me. My longings to leave were constant. I felt trapped, yet I didn’t want to be a failure and be criticized by my peers. I felt compelled to live by the script I was given, especially after being in the fourth generation of polygamy. I did not want to be accountable for breaking the religious laws that my forefathers had painfully sacrificed to live. When polygamy is your only identity, you cling to it.
You have 14 children of the 58 LeBaron offspring. How did you handle raising such a large brood, especially when the other wives’ kids were thrown in?
It was very difficult. We had no inside bathroom. I hauled water into the house from a well. In the cold night, I’d heat up my baby’s milk in an enamel cup held up over the flame of my kerosene lamp and then pour it into the bottle. Almost all I could give the kids was love.
Was Nicaragua the lowest point for you? Where were the worst living conditions? Describe them if you can.
Definitely, it was Nicaragua. I lived on dirt floors and washed on rocks in the creek just like the natives. My kids all got intestinal worms and tick bites. It rained to the point of mildew forming on our clothes before they’d dry out because of the humidity.
Given the poverty, the physical hardships and the competition and jealousy among the wives, why did you stay with Verlan?
I stayed because of fear -- fear that I’d be damned, fear I’d be known as a traitor to my group, fear of the unknown. I’d only had a ninth grade education. I could not go into a foreign environment and make it on my own. I feared going on welfare believing I’d implicate my husband. I feared the wicked outsiders. After all, we were God’s chosen few. I was 40 years old before I even got a driver’s license.
Tell us about Ervil LeBaron. Your book tells us a bit about him and his desire to kill you, Verlan, and other family members. Can you share a bit about being on the run for your lives? What eventually happened to Ervil?
My brother-in-law Ervil was mentally sick! He declared himself to be a prophet and swore death to those who would not follow him. Twenty-eight people, including some of our family and friends, were put to death by his orders. My husband Verlan, my sister Charlotte, and I were on his death list, so we went into hiding. That’s why we went to Nicaragua. Ervil died in prison just three days before Verlan died in a car accident.
What was the breaking point for you? When you did decide to leave?
Actually, when he married his tenth wife, Priscilla! To me life was futile. I’d lost hope of any love, comfort, and companionship. Warnings of hell entered my mind, but I analyzed it emotionally and realized that no one could send me to hell; I was already there!
As a 16-year-old, did you ever imagine your life would turn out as it did?
Absolutely Not!! I would have run.
What type of relationships are your children involved in?
Of my 12 living children, nine are in monogamist relationships and three are still caught up in polygamy.
What do you want other women in a plural marriage to hear?
I want them to learn to listen to their inner longings and desires and to become empowered. They need to learn to trust their own inner voice affirming their self-worth. They should never relinquish their identity to anyone.
Do you think polygamy is on the verge of resurgence?
No. I feel that the new generation has seen the pitfalls and the unhappiness of their parents. Many are choosing to leave this lifestyle.
It’s been written that polygamy is just bad social policy and that it would lead to increased poverty and single parent households. Agree?
I believe that it’s a bad policy because women usually aren’t old enough nor do they have ample education to choose their own paths. Of course, the more wives a man accumulates, the more abject poverty results. I believe these women are controlled by fear exactly as I was. After living in polygamy for twenty-eight years, believe me, it doesn’t work! Period!!
Do you believe that fundamental Mormonism is a cult?
Absolutely. When you abrogate your choices and blindly follow someone else’s script, you become a puppet. You lose your identity and your freedom.
What are the warning signs a loved one might be involved in a cult?
2. Being denied the right to visit outsiders. (My own sisters couldn’t contact me for years). 3. Unwillingness to listen to anyone else.
What is your spiritual life like these days?
Like God said, “Know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” I believe in one God and undeniably we have access to Him. He is our inspiration. I believe in Jesus, who gives us peace, joy and love.
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Interview courtesy of The B&B Media Group.
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