Irene Spencer,
Shattered Dreams: My Life as a Polygamist's Wife
(Center Street, 2007)

Shattered Dreams is the autobiography of Irene Spencer, a woman raised in a fundamentalist polygamous sect of the Mormon faith. Irene was raised to honor the Principle (of plural marriage and reverence for the sect leader) to achieve eternal salvation. Despite her own mother abandoning the Principle, and despite a suitor who promised Irene a monogamous, mainstream lifestyle in the LDS church, Irene married a polygamous man in 1953 at the age of 16.

From girlhood through motherhood, Irene grappled with her own mortal desires to have a husband all to herself, to bear only as many children as she could afford and to achieve stability and financial security. As a member of a polygamous sect, Irene prayed to banish these selfish desires and worked to obey her husband's desire for a kingdom of seven (or more) wives, which would ensure him godhood in his faith.

Polygamy is punishable by ex-communication from the LDS church, so Irene's marriage was a secret from her closest friends and family members until her husband moved Irene and his first wife, Charlotte, to rural Mexico, where they could avoid both LDS scrutiny and the law of the U.S. With their husband Verlan, Irene and her nine sister wives moved across Mexico and South America in search of farming and business ventures that would ensure their survival. She lived in unfinished homes without running water or electricity for most of her life, but she formed a community with the local Mexicans, sharing U.S. surplus clothing and blankets as well as food. Irene even adopted a local abandoned baby who was turned out by the family patriarch.

Her stories are humorous and heart-warming, despite the fact that, in reality, her family was constantly at the edge of survival. Irene is a terrific storyteller who often ends a chapter with a zinger of a punchline.

From the title of this book, I expected to read more ruminations on the "shattering" of dreams. Irene's story is no tell-all expose against polygamy. She left the lifestyle after she was widowed, and she has lived in monogamy for the last two decades, but she does not crusade against her former sect. Irene has instead chosen to share the story of a wife and mother struggling to find balance and contentment in life. The reader is left to draw his or her own conclusions from Irene's life of poverty and personal sacrifice.

The author does mention inter-sect murders and power struggles, but only in passing, because she was consumed with much more immediate pressures to feed and clothe her 13 children. Later in her marriage, when her husband courted a new teenaged wife (a girl of only 14 years who was friends with Irene's oldest daughter), Irene questioned him outright about the girl's suitability for marriage, but finally conceded to her husband's desires and blessed the marriage.

Irene Spencer has written a first-rate family history for her legacy of children and grandchildren (most of whom chose not to live in the Principle). This is a powerful glimpse inside a life that is alien to most Americans.

review by
Jessica Lux-Baumann

18 April 2009

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