Favorite Wife

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Favorite Wife is the sad and insightful story of religious abuse and polygamy in a fundamentalist Mormon sect. Although she grew up in The Church of the Firstborn, Susan began to see some of the problems that polygamy presented when she married one of the leaders of the church.

Favorite Wife by Susan Schmidt
Favorite Wife by Susan Schmidt

When she was fourteen years old, Susan had a dream that she was supposed to marry Verlan. Confused by this dream, she confided in Verlan’s grandmother. Not long after having this dream, Verlan’s brother Ervil told Susan that he believed he was meant to marry her instead. However, in their church they believe only the women receive revelation about who they are meant to marry. Because of his position as one of the leaders in the church, Susan felt vulnerable to Ervil’s “revelation.” It was not until he pushed her to get sealed to him (spiritually married) without telling her parents that she knew something was wrong with his “revelation.” Only days later, after her fifteenth birthday, she married Verlan instead. She became his fifth wife.

Susan soon learned that life as Verlan’s fifth wife was not as rosy as she thought it would be. She found herself lonely and living in poverty. Between his travel and his time with other wives, he was rarely with her. With the cost of keeping up five wives and over twenty children, all of his family lived in poverty. After Verlan’s brother Joel, the prophet of their church, was assassinated, Susan began to search for answers. According to their church, Joel was not supposed to die until the end of time. If this was false, maybe polygamy was as well. In searching the Bible, Susan found that it said unfavorable things about polygamy. She knew she had to leave Verlan. Eventually, she found a way to escape to the United States with her children.

How Control was Exerted over Susan

Throughout the reading of this book, I noticed several ways in which control was exerted over Susan in order to get her to stay in The Church of the Firstborn and in her marriage.

New Information Stifled

Whenever Susan would find a new piece of information, it would be disregarded if it was contrary to what Verlan believed. This was especially true if that belief was polygamy. When Susan confronted her husband with the teaching in the Book of Mormon that calls polygamy a “whoredom,” he called it an old revelation. He told her that the newer revelations of their church’s doctrine overrides what the Book of Mormon teaches.

Susan also found Verlan believed things contrary to what modern science and medicine believed. She found it difficult to convince him to take her or her children to the doctor because of the cost and his lack of belief in modern medicine. He also had outdated (read: false) beliefs about pregnancy that frustrated her. Although she tried to show him new information, he was not convinced.

Her Questions Dismissed

When Susan began to have questions about what she was reading in the Bible and the Book of Mormon, Verlan dismissed them. Several times when she had questions about the inconsistencies between the Bible and the teachings of their church, he dismissed her questions. He would say, “You just don’t understand.”

These words were meant to dismiss and silence her. Yet they only worked to further frustrate her and convince her of the need to get answers.

Her Opinions Belittled

Susan was often accused of being argumentative for having an opinion on things that impacted her life. Verlan would get frustrated by any emotion she showed in discussion and ask her why she was being so difficult. When he spent a large portion of “her night” with another woman, he belittled her feelings about the situation. When he began moving his wives to the jungle, he did not consider that she would not want to go. Verlan frequently used accusatory language about her being difficult as a way to end the conversation and force her to concede.

When he wasn’t accusing her of being difficult, he was laughing at her anger and calling her “cute.” He would tell her that her anger was cute in an attempt the diffuse the situation. Verlan managed to get around resolving the actual issues by doing so. Whether he called her “difficult” or “cute,” he treated her feelings as secondary to his.

Quick Review

Favorite Wife was interesting and heartbreaking. Susan’s strength through an abusive situation is inspiring. I’ll admit that I’ve had a fascination with books about those who survive through living in cult-like situations, and this one has been one of the most interesting. One of the things I liked the most about this book over other memoirs was Susan’s ability to write about her actions and feelings in the moment. While there was not sexual abuse like I’ve read about in other books about polygamous cults, there was still abuse of power. Ervil is the kind of evil that will make your skin crawl. And although at one point Verlan is painted the hero, his more subtle abuses of power will begin to wear on you as well. Most inspiring is Susan’s survival and motivation to give her children a better life than that which the cult provides.

Breakaway Amish

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Ever since I was a preteen and visited Ohio for the first time, I have had a fascination with the Amish community. Breakaway Amish details the horrifying story of the Bergholz Amish community that took on cult-like characteristics under the leadership of their bishop, Sam Mullet.

Breakaway Amish by Johnny Mast with Shawn Smucker
Breakaway Amish by Johnny Mast with Shawn Smucker

Johnny Mast tells the story of growing up and leaving the Bergholz community, which is best known for cutting the beards and hair of Amish men outside of their community as an act of revenge. For an Amish man, the beard is grown out to show that he is married (and he can only be married once he is baptized into the Amish church). His beard and his hair are very important to him, and this act is absolutely a violation. Sam Mullet and his followers committed these acts against those who had wronged them, however small the perceived infraction.

The beard cuttings were not the whole story, though. Although he tells the story of the beard cuttings and his choosing to testify against Sam Mullet, his own grandfather, Johnny details the story that led up to these criminal acts. Sam Mullet began abusing his power by asking those under his leadership to write down all of their sins. He accused many people of not writing all of them down, including his own wife, who he cast out of his house. He forced many men to live in the chicken coop while he took their wives into his own home. Around this time, he told them to put away their Bibles and to stop having church, since the words of the Bible were only being twisted anyway. He even got one of the wives of another man pregnant. He abused his power, and his power increased. Sam Mullet demanded and gained absolute control over those in his care. Other Amish communities took note of this abuse of power and cut off ties with the Bergholz community.

Without glossing over the facts, Johnny Mast gives hope about life after Bergholz.

Johnny Mast does not sugar coat the horror of discovering his grandfather, the bishop, a man he trusted in bed with the wife of another man. He does not gloss over the fear of being thrown in jail along with the others who were more willing to participate in his grandfather’s crimes. He does not tone down his words of frustration toward those he loves who refuse to see how much they have fallen under the control of someone who does not care for their well-being.

Despite this, though, he paints a hopeful picture of the future. After leaving the Bergholz community and the Amish, he meets a young woman named Clara who had left another Amish community. They have a daughter named Esther. Despite reaching out to his parents on a few occasions and not hearing from them, he knows that he has a bright future ahead of him. He works hard to make ends meet, but at least he is free from the hold that Sam Mullet had on him and everyone else in Bergholz.

“I think that people who go through a Bergholz-type situation each respond differently. My cousin, for example: after we left, he found a church he liked within two or three months. He goes every Sunday. He really likes it. So I guess these things affect people in different ways.”

Johnny Mast

As someone training to be a chaplain, it is hard to me to think about people like this who have been so hurt by religion that they do not want to be around it. However, those wounds need time to heal (and to some extent, they may never heal).  As he even wrote in the quote above, some may find their healing in religion and some my find it in having a break from religion.

As a teenager, I had a relative who was addicted to drugs, causing religious delusions. While I was determined to live out my calling to go into vocational ministry, I cannot say that abuse of religious imagery did not leave its marks on me. Certain religious words, though I know their good, still bring back bad memories for me. My siblings are at different places in their relationships with religion and with God, from disdain to some amount of openness.

Although what we went through was in no way equal to the cult-like reality that those in Bergholz lived out, abuse of religion and religious images can leave its marks for years. When those with religious power abuse it, whether they are a family member or a bishop, that trust is difficult to earn back. My hope is that those like Johnny and so many others who have been victims of religious abuse can come to find that God is not like the one who manipulated them with some form of so-called “Christianity.”

Quick Review:

Breakaway Amish was a very interesting book. I tend to drift toward true crime books more than other memoirs, and this one delivered in quality more than many of them do. Johnny Mast was both a victim and a perpetrator in the crimes that happened at Bergholz, so his insights into what happened in that cult-like community are unique and fascinating. And although my interest in true crime books seems at odds with my desire for a happy ending, this book was able to deliver a happy ending as well.