The community of Bountiful has nestled uncomfortably a dozen kilometres southeast of picturesque Creston for more than 50 years. For most of that time, it was Jane Blackmore’s home. Her father, who had six wives and 47 children, was one of Bountiful’s founders. Jane became the first wife of the polygamist Mormon community’s longtime leader, Winston Blackmore.
The residents of Creston and neighbouring Cranbrook are accustomed to seeing Bountiful’s residents with their peasant-style clothing and reserved ways. But they hardly know them. Until this summer, when seven women from Bountiful, including Jane Blackmore, filed a complaint with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, the community remained largely and successfully insular. The provincial government is now investigating the women’s complaints.
Allegations of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse — vigorously denied by the community’s leaders — have circulated for years. In 1992, RCMP even recommended charges against community leaders, based on evidence provided by a former resident, but Crown prosecutors chose not to proceed.
Public criticism has been confidently brushed aside by Winston Blackmore, until recently the community’s undisputed bishop and patriarch. Blackmore, who has 26 wives and more than 80 children, was removed from his official position in a power struggle with the American leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints.
The women now challenging the Mormon sect have accused it of trafficking underage girls across the Canada-U.S. border, forcing them to marry adult men, and using provincial school funding to perpetuate their ideology, in which women become housewives and concubines.
For Jane Blackmore, a mother of seven in her mid-forties, life is already very different. She left Bountiful five years ago, bought her own house in Cranbrook, and her midwifery business is thriving. She was the first woman in Bountiful to receive a post-secondary education — she trained as a nurse at Selkirk College — and is now working on her master’s degree in science and nursing. She is also dating for the first time in her life.
Since leaving, she won custody of Brittany, her youngest daughter. Until recently, Blackmore refused to talk about Bountiful in order to protect the children she left behind.
However, at the end of September, she asked the RCMP, Interpol and the FBI to try to find her daughter, 23-year-old Susie JoAnn Johnson, and her daughter’s sons, James, Ryan and Tobias. She worries that Susie, who is married in a polygamist relationship in Salt Lake City, and has been missing since May, is “basically being held hostage.” Jane’s concern is that Warren Jeffs, the prophet of the Salt Lake Ciy polygamist community, has created a closed community there, is allowing his faithful to bear arms, and is promising that his followers “will be lifted up” to heaven.
The following are excerpts from Blackmore’s interview with The Tyee.
Was it acceptable for you to train as a nurse?
I was the first one ever to go and do something like that. I just always told Winston that this is what I would be doing. I applied to nursing, to Selkirk College, when I was 25, and I had four kids at the time. [Laughs]
Was there help for you? Looking after the kids?
My mother in law lived with us. And when I was — I guess I was 24 — my husband Winston took a second wife.
And how did you feel about that?
I knew that it would happen. But this girl that he married, she was 15, and she was more like a child than like a woman. It was an interesting experience. I soon learned that I could not be her mother. I couldn’t ask her for help, you know, it was just something that she had to gradually become accustomed to. It didn’t actually happen until she started having her own children, that she started to do anything.
Did you have any feelings of jealousy? Do we ever get to a place where it wouldn’t bother us?
No. I don’t think so. Because I think that we as people are basically selfish, and more concerned for our needs than for other people’s needs.
It’s hard enough to get one person to satisfy all your own personal needs. I have definitely been in the position of unwittingly sharing my partner with others, and I was pretty angry because I felt there wasn’t enough of him for me in the first place — even without having to share in the, umm, basic areas. [Both laugh]
You have to totally disregard your own needs. I learned to do that. To focus on my kids, and focus on my work, and focus on the needs of others. And I spent time feeling sorry for myself and unloved and uncared for and all the rest of it.
Were your sexual needs ever discussed, and were you allowed to explore that?
I was there for the needs of my husband, and that was about it. I don’t even know how to talk about it.
How did you find the strength to leave?
It was shortly after I started working [as a midwife in the Creston area], and got to know some of the people that I worked with. They became good friends of mine. They certainly never tried to get me to leave, or to do anything different. They just let me know that they were my friends no matter what, and I think that unconditional support and caring that I felt from those women made a big difference in my life, and made me feel like I could be loved for myself. No matter what.
Also [it helped] to know that I could make a living and that I wouldn’t have to rely on anybody’s support. What kept me from leaving sooner were my kids. I had three boys first, and they — especially my oldest boy — were very much their father’s boys.
I know now that it is going to be hard, and it will be hard to manage Brittany in all her feelings, and desires to be back with her friends and people she has known all her life, and to help her reach out and make friends and to explore. I didn’t have the courage that it would have taken to take my six kids. I mean that is overwhelming.
What finally made you say “I have to go”?
Well, I don’t know if I have really admitted this to anyone, but it was a very convenient time to leave. My six younger children were basically grown up, and I knew that if I waited any longer it would have been that much more difficult for Brittany.
I wished so many times that I would have the courage to take my first six kids and do something like this, but I didn’t and that’s a fact. That’s life.
I have never been confident. My mom died when I was five and my dad had a second wife at that time, and she was 19 years old, and was expected to be our mom. There was three of us, and she had two kids of her own already. And she didn’t want three kids handed to her, and to be the mom. She was 19. And so consequently, she wasn’t that loving or caring or supportive.
Do you feel a connection to your father?
I certainly did feel connected to my dad. He was a very caring person, and he did his very best to take care of his family. As you can imagine, it wouldn’t have been an easy task.
Are you allowed to follow your heart in terms of romantic love?
Very, very seldom. It’s very much controlled. We have always been, assigned our partners. It’s really the only way it could work. Otherwise you would have all these old guys courting all these young girls –it would be a mess.
In many ways then, your male children are also kind of powerless.
That would be really hard as a mother.
Well, you grow up expecting how it is going to work, and how this is going to happen, and so it is not that surprising when it does happen. Certainly in the interim, it cannot be denied that all young adolescents have certain feelings and imaginings and desires. It happened to me … you know, dreaming and wondering and wishing.
What is the thing that you want most for your children, as far as their personal freedoms?
My oldest son has two wives; my other two married sons have one wife, and when a man is assigned another wife, it is kind of a prestige thing. They have been this wonderful good person, and well favoured by God and the prophet, and so “Here is your reward” kind of a thing. I want my boys to consider how much responsibility that is. I have lived my life watching different men and their families and how they have cared for them — for their wives and children. And I have absolutely no respect for a man who accepts the responsibility of another wife, and have children with her, and don’t care for or support her and the children.
With the all the young women being married off, what happens to the young men?
Well. That’s a very interesting question. Winston was very, very good at marrying many young women.
Young women under the age of 16?
Yes, and then there’s all these boys that are thinking, “Well, the girls are getting kind of short in numbers here. Where am I going to get a wife from?” They must start to act out?
Right now, that is exactly what the boys are doing. They are starting to get out on the streets, and do drugs and parties and find girls, and then, of course, once they start doing that they are considered the “Lost Boys.”
And what happens to Lost Boys?
They just leave and find their way somehow, somewhere. I’ve met many women that have had 15 kids. I know one woman in particular, and eight of those kids were boys, and she does not know where any of those boys are. They have all gone, and haven’t been good boys, according to the rules.
What happens when there are marital problems?
There are many situations where two people are assigned together and are having a difficult time in their marriage. And it is not fun, and it’s not nice, and there is physical abuse and sexual abuse and mental abuse. But for the most part women are not allowed to leave a situation like that. They are told, “You’ve got to change so that it stops happening to you.”
When there is abuse, does anybody step in?
Well, if it is prolonged and it goes on then, yes, it does eventually get addressed.
How is it addressed?
Then the wife is taken from this man, if he has been unworthy, and given to somebody else. And then she is just supposed to be over it, and go on with life.
Did you ever love your husband?
I don’t know. I don’t know if I could say that I have been in love. I don’t know how that feels. There were times when we just lived. I did what I was told. I had the babies and did the dishes and the wash, and cooked for all these boys that nobody knew what to do with…. There were times in my life I was cooking for 25 to 30 people, three meals a day, seven days a week.
How did you manage to only have seven children when most women in Bountiful had more than 10?
I just made that choice. I went in to my doctor, and I said, “I want some birth control.” He said, “Is that accepted? In your community?” I said, “I don’t care if it is or not. That is what I want.”
He was quite happy to write the prescription for me, and I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t discuss it with [my husband] until after I had left Bountiful. And he had come to me and of course wanted to know why was I leaving.
I said to him, “You know, this is not going to change, but I do have some questions that I would like answers for that you have never chosen to answer before.”
I said, “Winston, where in all this does a man take responsibility enough to say, ‘You know, I’ve got 10 wives, that might be all I can manage at this point. I’ve got 50 kids, and that’s quite a few, so maybe I should not take any more wives, or have any more kids.’”
I said, “When I was going to school and I had six kids, I decided that I could not have six more kids, and be their mother, and be the kind of mother to them that I wanted to be, and so I took measures not to have more children. Apart from that I want you to explain to me whether you actually think you can provide for the physical, emotional, and whatever needs of this many wives and children.”
I mean Holy Smokes! I mean right now, he’s got five pregnant wives.
Are men allowed to insist [on sex]?
Yes. And then not even spend the night with you. You know?
Legally, is there anything that bothers you?
I wonder why it has gone on so long…. I believe that anyone should be able to worship who they want as long as it is not hurting anybody else, but that is not the case.
Is there something that you would like to see the government do to protect the rights to the people of Bountiful?
I think that’s the only way a difference will be made. What I would like to see … would be in the education of the children. To have it not be such a closed society, and to have other people be able to go in and give information to the adolescents and children. And to have them have the opportunity to mingle, whether it be [through] sports or whatever, because I can’t see anything happening any other way.
I will be OK. There are lots of positive things in my future. I know that. I am really excited to watch Brittany grow and evolve, and see what happens for her. And I am going to go on a holiday.
Have you ever been on a holiday? Have you ever travelled?
You have been in Creston your whole life?
Well I have been to Arizona. But Brittany and I are going on a cross-Canada train trip. We are going all the way to Halifax.
Any other plans?
Oh yes, I’ve got lots of plans.
Amanda Euringer is a freelance writer based in Vancouver and the Kootenay region.