Mormons, Polygamists and sex in an ambulance


Australian artist/model Rose Ashton’s journey to Salt Lake City fuelled her already-substantial fascination with fundamentalist Mormons who practice polygamy:

No matter what I’ve learnt, what I saw or the way I relay these experiences, this article is written with an unyielding respect to and for, not only the Mormon faith, but all humans who believe there is something magical, spiritual and mysterious about this life on Earth.

I’ve always loved learning about religions and faiths and cults and communes. About the people who believe and the lengths they go to validate their love and dedication to their spirituality. I could spend hours every day on this stuff. It’s beyond fascinating, it’s an addiction of mine. Perhaps there is a devout believer in me that I have yet to find? Or perhaps it’s just the wonder of the need for meaning that mankind so inherently has that I’m fascinated by.

I’ve studied so many facets of spiritual practice, but something about the polygamists, the fundamentalists and the Mormons took me on a journey and I got obsessed. For years.

I’ve watched movies, read books, found every documentary. I started a blog, read the Salt Lake Tribune and regional Polygamist news all the way from Australia, every day for over a year. I wrote to some kids who had left the church and asked them if I could interview them. I made a piece for an art show I was doing to one of the more controversial groups practicing polygamy in Texas. I pulled their wool over my eyes and learnt a lot.

So when I found out I was going to Salt Lake City to shoot a campaign I got weak at the knees. And when Something You Said asked for my musings on the excursion I found my footing, and I jumped at the chance.

The border of Utah and Arizona is the home of some of the most fascinating people in my world: the fundamentalist Mormons who practice polygamy. Utah is a Mormon state and Salt Lake City was founded by Pilgrims in the 1800s. Brave men and women who sought a place to practice their beloved religion of Mormon freely and without persecution. The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) is their church. The people who attend the church are called Mormons. No matter the fractions of the church, or the divide that exists between the Mormons and the Mormon Polygamists. I judge neither, but relish in the observation of both.

The Mormon Church was founded by Joseph Smith. A young man who, unsure of his own beliefs, sought the guidance of God. He was the first Prophet of the Church, and is loved and worshipped by Mormons and Mormon Polygamists alike.

The original teachings of Mormon state that polygamy is the way to secure a place in heaven (Kingdom of Glory). The theory being that the more wives and children a man has, the greater his afterlife will be. The practice of polygamy was eventually shunned by The Church of Jesus Christ of LDS and the Government – fragmenting families and friends and causing a great distress to many. The practice of Polygamy went underground, for the most part south near the Utah/Arizona border, and remains frowned upon by ‘mainstream’ Mormons to this day.

I got on the plane to Salt Lake City and my hands started sweating, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face because I knew from that moment that I may be surrounded by Mormons. Think what you will – for me it was like being a kid who has always dreamed of going to Disneyland getting on the train to Anaheim.

I swear I looked intently at everyone on that flight as I made my way to my seat at the back. “Is she one? Is he one? Are they polygamists? Is that girl one of many wives? Is that old man a father to many?” This anxious and somewhat perverted curiosity followed me off the plane and wherever I went.

I fancied myself a bit of an expert – so I told myself I could pick ’em a mile away. Most likely I was wrong, but who cares – I was giddy with the idea of it all. The were three men seated in front of me, in my mind they were Mormon for sure, and I suspected the middle-aged guy sat behind me kissing his super young wife very arousingly were polygamists. It actually weirdly turned me on. For, like, a SECOND, and then I collected my thoughts and remembered that it wasn’t totally cool to sit and stare at couples kissing on planes and have sexy thoughts. The inflight shopping mag saved me in the moment. That mag is a trip in itself. Who buys an ugly, life-size, faux metal nude sculpture lamp for $599.00 on a domestic Delta flight? The tangent of thoughts that magazine brought chilled me out. Thank God.

It’s weird that I had a little freakout on the way to the baggage claim at Salt Lake City airport. I’ve wanted to come to this city for years and I thought that my pilgrimage here would be blanketed by smiles from first sight but the reality of it is heaps different to my bizarre and somewhat childish fascination with the religious foundations of this place.

Flight pathAs we flew over the border I took a picture of the flight path with my iPad. Lame yes I know, my travelling companions had an endless stream of ‘hilarious’ jokes about me and my iPad photos – but fuck em, it takes good pictures man, whatever.

After travelling for weeks on a job I was tired. I was excited and humbled at the opportunity to travel to the birthplace of my intrigue, but honestly, all I wanted was to get off the plane and have a drink and a cigarette and take in the wonder of being in a place I have dreamed of investigating.

You know when you get attached to an outcome, and then something gets in the way? Well that for me was my dreamy cocktail hour a man from Missouri named Bob.

Bob didn’t seem to like Utah too much and he was happily just connecting a flight straight home to his pet bulls. I saw the photos.

As we descended on the seemingly endless sprawling lights of Salt Lake he said,” I hope you don’t like to drink – cos it’s darn near impossible to find one down there.” My anxiety rose. Surely not, Bob?

“Oh yeah – if you find a liquor store jump on it cos you probably won’t see one again. In fact, I don’t think they have em. Maybe you’ll get one at the bar but it’s late now and they probably shut up for the night..”

Turns out Bob was bang on. We did find a bar but it wasn’t open for long, and the romance of intrigue wore off when I couldn’t get what I wanted. I realised I am spoiled, so I worked hard to gain my gratitude again.

I remembered that I’m lucky to experience a place so unlike where I am from, and steeped with traditions and values I can’t imagine growing up with. To grow up in Australia without the heavy hand of religious belief punctuating my liberties is both a blessing and a burden. We lack a certain culture, a ceremony that other countries have stapled into their past, present and future. What we lack in ceremony however, grants us the great liberty of choice. I choose to learn about those cultures, and walking with careful footing I dug deep into the experiences of the few people of Salt Lake City I was fortunate enough to meet.

I was there for a week and didn’t see a liquor store. The bars close super fucking early (I like to stay up late) and I had to walk four blocks in the cold to find somewhere I could hold a beer and smoke outside. By the time I got there I was numb. I realise that these are all petty things – but for me as a naive gal travelling with Aussie blokes, it was a bit of a trip.

We all went out to dinner, and learned that you can’t have more than one drink in front of you at any one time. So our tequila game was shot to shit when the waitress said I could only shoot if she held my wine in her hand while I did it and would only give it back when the shot glass was cleared. And it’s enforced. Those Salty waiters didn’t like our Aussie thirst. At all.

My bratty behaviours though are nothing to be proud of – and they truly enforced my gratitude for being raised in a country that isn’t governed by religion. We may be currently governed by a dickhead – but at least he lets us knock back a full strength beer at the end of the day. All of the beer in Utah (save for the occasional regular Corona or the like) is about 3%. Every licensed premises records all of your info on arrival. Like every detail on my passport.

You can’t hail a cab. its illegal. That I learnt first hand.

I found these fun facts on the net…. Birds have the right of way on all highways. No one may have sex in the back of an ambulance if it’s responding to an emergency call. Husbands are responsible for every criminal act committed by his wife while she is in his presence. it’s illegal not to drink milk… and my personal favourite that is in the town of Logan alone.. Women are not legally allowed to swear.

Well fuck me sideways in an ambulance while I drink soy milk in the presence of my husband.

The first person I met in Salt Lake was Charlie. Charlie was raised a Mormon, from strict Mormon parents. His father converted as a young man after growing up and having his life tainted by the brutal consequences of alcohol and violence, he turned to the church and was saved. Of the many negative things the Mormon faith brought to Charlies life, he did tell me that the positive morals have made his parents amazing people, which has made his life better. They have accepted his choices now, years later as he approaches his 30th, but he wasn’t allowed to attend his brother’s wedding because only practicing Mormons are allowed in the doors of the temple. He was pretty bummed about that.

He went to school with Polygamists’ kids who had three Moms and a big old house just outta town. I punched him in the arm with excitement when he told me that. He kinda squinted and told me I was incredible (it wasn’t necessarily a complimentary incredible). Although Charlie was raised in a strict Mormon family, in his early twenties found success in LA and left the church to the shame of his parents. They have accepted his choices now.

Charlie introduced me to a close friend of his, Andy. We sat down to talk about their experiences. Andy was raised a Mormon in a little town about four hours south of Salt Lake, a place named St George. I was familiar with the name from my polygamy studies, it lays in closer proximity to the border towns where polygamy is practiced more freely, further away from the LDS and where the authorities turn blind eyes to the illegal practice that is possible in SL. Andy was not raised in a polygamist family, but he told me a story that not only shocked me, but that Charlie couldn’t believe.

salt lake city“So, when I was, like, 12 years old I went to this like Mormon thing where all the youth get together, they congregate in the Gym. The Gym was set up so it looked like a carnival, you got, whatever, like ten tickets. You did your thing, you gave em your ticket, threw the fuckin’ basketball through the hoop, like whatever. So one by one they would take each person out but judging by how many tickets you had, by how much fun you had they’d take you out. They’d take you out and you’d go to the fuckin priest… whats his name? The Bishop. You’d go to the Bishop, and you’d sit at this long table and he’d say “How many tickets do you have left?” and how many tickets you had would indicate where you went in the ‘three heavens,’”(According to LDS scripture – The Book of Mormon – ‘heaven’ consists of three ‘kingdoms of glory’ called the Celestial kingdom, the Terrestrial, and the Telestial kingdom. “If you had no tickets like I did they put you in this fuckin dark, pitch black dark room, and they’d turn the heat up. It was like 100 degrees (approximately 37 degrees celsius) in this place and it was like a fuckin closet dude. There were kids just stuck up against each other, until every kid was done with the tickets and you figured out which heaven you went to. That was the lesson. Dont have too much fun. I did this when I was twelve-years-old. scarred my fucking life. That’s why I hate the Mormons, cos it freaks the shit out of me.”

Charlie interjects here “What?! That is SO FUCKED UP. I’ve never heard of anything like that! Oh I’m supposed to love Jesus after that story? Um..NO.”

I asked Charlie to tell me some of the positives that he’s taken from being raised a Mormon. “Well, it makes my parents happy, and it makes my younger siblings happy – but in the context of Mormon beliefs it’s probably done more harm than good.”

“Salt Lake is a beautiful city because of the Mormons,” said Andy. Charlie interrupts, “cos they have so much fucking money. Hey if you have money you can do anything.”

Unexpectedly, I was lucky to meet people who were raised here not as Mormons. Funnily, I didn’t even think about that – about being a ‘heathen’ here. Turns out they were a select few – especially in their youth.

Jason is a teenage bellboy at the hotel I was staying at. While musing on stories I asked him if he was from here, and if he was Mormon. he smiled and said “This city is weird, it’s home though. I’m not Mormon and you’re an outcast if you’re like me growing up. In Elementary School theres only about 20 per cent of us, then in high school it grows to about 50 per cent. People grow up and they see it and they decide they don’t believe in it anymore.” The bartender in the hotel reflected this view. She said she hated living here and was doing her best to get out.

There were a couple of friends that I spent time with and they were raised in the church. When I asked Wayne if he as a Mormon he said yes. “Not by choice anymore, but it’s too fucking hard to leave. I have a friend who has been trying to get out for years and has given up – they make it so hard that its just not worth the time. So I’m still registered and so is he.”

I asked about the financial contributions that followers are expected to pay. “Oh yeah I paid my first tithings as a child. I had a meeting with the head dude and after we talked about a few different things he said, “Okay now son, for your tithings.”

Mormons pay 10 per cent of their income to the Church. At the end of the year they have a tithing settlement with the leader of your area. They check. They enforce it. If you’ve skipped out on your ten per cent then you’re expected to ‘square up’.

There were many absorbing fragments of information that I was privy to during that afternoon. The ‘death baptisms’ were one I keep mulling over. I’m not sure if ‘death baptisms’ are the official term for the practice, but it’s the name that was described to me. The Mormons believe that they can baptise people who passed away before the church was founded. Or people who they believe they have a duty to save. I was told that there was a time when the Salt Lake Church controversially performed death baptism of Jews who had died in the holocaust. The church was reprimanded for this action and subsequently deny that it ever took place. Now that is an astonishing revelation.

I took a tour of Temple Square and its surrounding buildings with Charlie. The whole city is defined by its proximity to the Temple. The streets are named as such (Temple North/Temple South/100 Temple West) It makes getting around the perfectly gridded city pretty easy, and getting lost relatively hard. Charlie walked me up the street in the cold morning sun with our lattes in hand. I sensed a nervousness about him as we saw the Square up ahead. He didn’t say much but happily obliged as I jumped over the perfect flower bed to get a close look at the magnificent bronze statue of Joseph Smith in the forecourt. “Careful not to step on the flowers or you may get us kicked out,” he said with a smile. I wasn’t sure if he was actually joking. I suspect there was certainly an element of truth in his sarcastic warning. He held back a minute before we crossed through the gates.

“I haven’t been here since I was a kid, this is weird. I grew up coming here every Sunday, this place was so part of my childhood – it’s so strange to come back here now with you.” I offered him an out if he wasn’t feeling comfortable. His admission provoked a kind of sympathy in me I’ve not felt before. I felt guilty for parading around with my lighthearted wonder. For this man, this place defined him. It moulded him and taught him a way of life he went on to renounce. I cannot imagine how it felt to cross that threshold again.

So we walked in. Lattes in hand. That I knew was a bit disrespectful, Mormons don’t drink coffee, or alcohol. Stimulants are not part of their practice. “But they drink a shit ton of Diet Coke, so go figure,” I was told.

The first thing we saw as we walked through the beautiful gates was a bunch of women and men of all ages raking the leaves. Helping and contributing and giving their time. The grounds are pristine, the buildings and structures are cool gentle hues of grey and white – the rest of the city carries the same palette of steely whites. There are quite a few buildings in the square – none more impressive as the Temple itself. I was struck by the importance of generosity that I so inherent to the faith. Giving is essential. To the church, to fellow Mormons, and to those who are less fortunate than themselves. At what cost I will never fully know, but the ceremony of generosity I could never fault.

IMG_0889During the couple of hours we were there we looked around the visitors centres and an incredible performance in the tabernacle. I have never seen anything like that place. A building designed for perfect acoustics to showcase the HUGE organ and the choir who perform a few times every week. The elderly leader who welcomed us to the show explained the original design of the tabernacle, and the organist went on to demonstrate its awe – by dropping a pin. I was seated at the back, there was no microphone in sight – and I heard it drop with distinction. The architecture and design is beyond impressive. It’s profound.

Charlie got nervous when we entered the tabernacle. There were sister missionaries (young women on hand to talk to visitors and spread the messages of Mormon), “Oh no, I hope they don’t talk to us. What do I say? I’m just going to pretend I’m practicing – it’ll be too hard otherwise.” I didn’t have an answer or words of advice for his conflict. I knew then that I knew nothing at all.

When we were approached by an older couple outside the Temple, as we gazed up in awe at its beauty, we obliged their obvious curiosity in us. “It’s incredible, isn’t it?” they said almost in unison to us, standing decisively close. “Oh yes it’s amazing,” we replied. “And just how did they get it so high, don’t you wonder, isn’t it clever – no scaffolding in those days so just look at it again – isn’t it marvellous?” Charlie backed away. “It’s magnificent” I said with a smile as I followed him out. “They know we aren’t Mormon, and they’re selling us the grandeur of the Tempe to get us to think that they’re great,” he whispered. “Really?” I wasn’t so sure. “Yes Rose. For real.”

I sensed that it was time for us both to get out of there. I had grown tired from absorbing so much information, and I knew Charlie was putting on a very brave face for me, but that he felt uneasy and cautious and not quite himself. Perhaps he felt guilty. Perhaps he felt fear. Without walking a mile in his shoes I will never really know what kind of courage it took him to return to that place – but I didn’t want to put him through it anymore.

IMG_0888On our way out we walked past young couples in white celebrating their wedding, and their families in all beige and gold who looked on. Same same, but different. Gold dresses, white shoes, beige chinos and white shirts. White dresses and gold shoes, cream chinos and beige shirts. Almost as though there was a scripture on appropriate attire. Charlie must have noticed me staring at their fashions. “I bet you didn’t know they have their own Mormon underwear, huh?” Actually, weirdly, I did.

The palate of silver and gold sparkled in the midday sun. The glass and stone gleamed. But the grandeur of the place and its people is almost betrayed by the knowledge of the fear it instills. The pilgrims made a beautiful city for their churchgoers. They braved the extreme heat and the extreme cold, they sacrificed their lives to build a place that is worshipped by millions of Mormons all over the world. They were born and they built it until they died, and they cycle kept going until it was done. For that I commend them , and I understand the pride that must evoke.

We walked out in silence and went straight to a bar for a $5 combo of a gigantic mid-strength beer and shot of whiskey.

There is a huge gun store across the road. For all the things you can’t get or cannot do or should not say in this city, you can easily buy a rifle. I know that is a norm in America – but it certainly isn’t in my home.

The irony baffles me, the consequence of all these rules – the contradicting lack thereof has added none but huge fuel to the fire of my intrigue and even more gratuity to the values of my parents who, despite being raised Catholic, let me choose what I believed, and never ever judged me when I did. Even when it was weird.

Thank you too all those people who made this story possible. I salute you for taking the time to indulge me and share the stories that are yours.

rose ashton


Words and pictures by Rose Ashton.