On return to UNLV, TLC stars clash with former practitioners
The Browns are like any average American family. If every family consisted of four wives and 17 children, that is.
The Browns are polygamists living in Las Vegas, trying to paint a modern picture of plural marriage. In an attempt to denounce the negative stereotypes of polygamy, from sexual abuse to forced marriage, the Browns have put their every move on camera.
The stars of TLC’s Sister Wives, a reality television show centered around the Brown family, joined UNLV April 25 for a panel discussion. A crowd gathered in Marjorie Barrick Museum, curious to draw the curtain back from the life of the polygamous.
“The great thing about [polygamy] is that it was our choice,” said patriarch Kody Brown. He held his position during the panel in the center of his four wives — Meri, Janelle, Christine and Robyn. Each time he spoke they looked at him in admiration.
The women were dressed in contemporary attire — high heels, black skirts and slacks and brightly colored tops. Their hair was blown out, their faces made-up and no bonnet in sight.
A member of the crowd stood up and asked if the women were looking to Kody Brown for permission before they spoke.
Meri Brown heatedly grabbed the microphone and said she looks at her husband because she loves him and when she wants to speak she will. The audience applauded.
Christine Brown’s aunt, Kollene Star, Kristen Decker and Willie Steed sat opposite the Kody Brown family, all three from polygamous backgrounds which they had abandoned.
“I didn’t want to share my husband,” Decker said.
Raised in a polygamous family herself, she felt she had to stay in her own marriage because of her religion.
“I was told that if I didn’t support my husband in plural marriage, then I wouldn’t be able to see my children in heaven,” Decker said. “It killed me when my husband left for his honeymoon with his new wife … I was thinking suicidal [thoughts] when I heard about the details of their honeymoon.”
Meri Brown, Kody Brown’s first wife, faced Decker and assured her that they wouldn’t be doing this if they didn’t believe in it.
Kollene Star was raised in a polygamous community. She was emotionally abused as a child and claimed her mother was always unhappy. After enduring this pain for years, Star’s mother finally took the children and left. Star says she’ll never go back.
Star choked back tears as she remembered her days in high school.
“I was scared of anyone that wasn’t white,” she said.
She said she met an Indian girl in high school and was scared to touch her in case she got brown on her.
“No one ever treated me as nice as she did, not even in my home,” Star said, tears and mascara dripping down her face.
Willie Steed is the son of Warren Jeffs, former president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints who was convicted of two felony counts of child sexual assault in 2011. Steed broke away from polygamy because he felt like he wasn’t growing in life.
“I’m still learning how to love someone,” Steed said.
Steed silenced the room with his memory of his mother and sisters.
“They were my reason for living,” Steed said.
He knew he had to leave from under Warren Jeffs’ lifestyle. Steed believes polygamy is wrong and is designed only to fulfill the selfish needs of the patriarch.
The Browns understand the abuse and problems that too often occur in polygamous families, but they make sure their family remains faithful and functional.
“Some families achieve a relative satisfactory family arrangement, others have simmering conflictual issues that have yet to be resolved, and still others are in a state of extreme dysfunctionality,” moderator William Jankowiak said.
Jankowiak has studied polygamous families for over 25 years and finds a wide range in the overall quality of family life. Contributing to the Brown’s success is higher education of the patriarch and matriarchs, a comfortable household wealth and a fortunate blending of personalities, particularly between the sister wives.
They chose this lifestyle and openly display it, unlike most polygamous families. Often wives are forced into plural marriage and children born into the practice. They live shrouded by the fear of being found out. But the Browns live the practice proudly.
Living in Las Vegas allows the Browns to be open about their uncommon lifestyle. Sin City is notorious for its population of interesting characters and has a philosophy of “anything goes.” Originally from Utah, they relocated because of prejudice. Meri Brown lost her job when they came out as polygamists, Kody Brown received threats from coworkers, and the family underwent an investigation for bigamy.
Today, polygamy is not unheard of in society, but its morality is often questioned. The Browns chose to show their successful story to the world, but they know they don’t represent the entire community.
Kody Brown said it has been a growing experience for him. He has learned to be selfless and patient — with multiple wives comes jealousy, conflict and self-doubt and the Browns are not immune to this. Janelle Brown admitted she’s experienced jealousy. But Kody Brown reassures her when she’s insecure, telling her he loves her and that he’s not going anywhere.
With 17 children and four wives, communication, said Janelle Brown, is the key to their success and happiness. Big and small decisions are made in family meetings — from deciding who will take the kids to practice to what marital paths their children will take when ready. The second wife hopes her children pick whatever suits them the best.
“Our children are free to make any decision they want when it comes to marriage,” Janelle Brown said. “Whether they want to be heterosexual, homosexual, monogamist or polygamist.”