Twenty years married, Irene and Hector Spencer still are in love living happily. (Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)
'A secret life'
Author living with daughter in Woodbridge tells tale of what it was like to be wife in polygamous lifestyle
By Jennifer Gokhman News-Sentinel Staff Writer
When Irene Spencer was a young girl, she dreamed she would marry a man who loved her. A man she would have all to herself. She knew she wanted to escape the polygamist lifestyle, even before she became the second of 10 wives in a plural marriage. But she didn't want to go to hell.
Irene, 70, of Anchorage, Alaska, who is staying with her oldest daughter in Woodbridge, did leave the lifestyle. And she did marry a man she has to herself.
Irene wrote a book called "Shattered Dreams: My Life as a Polygamist's Wife," which will be released by Center Street Publishing in August. She had too many stories to fill one book and plans to write others.
She now sits in the dining room with her oldest daughter Donna Goldberg, and her granddaughter, Brandy Goldberg. They have all been working on the book. To prepare for speaking engagements after the book is released, Irene gave her third presentation in Lodi a month ago. She talked about her life in poverty in Utah and in Mexico, being part of a family where it was so hard to get individual attention and the journey that led her out of that lifestyle.
Irene was born into a polygamist's family in Salt Lake City in 1937. She was one of 31 children. Her father had four wives.
"I was lost in the shuffle. I never had my needs met," she said during the presentation.
Her family and their neighbors were fundamentalist Mormons. The polygamist lifestyle was all she knew until she went to kindergarten, and other students called her and her siblings "poligs." She went to kindergarten with two of her siblings, each of them born a month apart. This confounded their teacher, who thought they were triplets at first. Throughout school, she was persecuted for being in a polygamist family. After ninth grade, she was pulled out of school.
"They wanted to keep us in ignorance. It was a way to control you," she said.
She wasn't supposed to tell anyone about her father being a polygamist, although she told her kindergarten teacher.
"I grew up in a secret life," she said.
It's been a long road, working on the book. Irene started writing it 16 years ago. After she finished, she gave it to Donna for history's sake.
"I wept through the whole thing and laughed and cried," Donna said. She also thought the book could go far, and they began trying to get it published.
Irene didn't want to marry a polygamist, but she had no choice. Her mother disapproved of marrying outside the lifestyle. And she would be shunned by her family if she left. Besides, those who were polygamists would become gods and goddesses in heaven and would get to stay with their family for eternity and have their own world. The first man, Adam, was God. The women's saviors were their husbands.
"Polygamy would save you," she said. "I've seen women bury their husbands, and before the night was over, they were married again," she said. This was because the women were "too dumb" to know how to live without a man.
Irene married her sister's husband, Verlan LeBaron, at age 16. She became the second wife, just as her mother and grandmother before her. She had 13 children and adopted another.
Irene saw the unhappiness in the faces of the women, though they tried to hide it. They had to put on a facade so that their children would want to continue with this lifestyle. They were working toward their eternal goal. The suffering was worthwhile because of it. Irene's husband continued to marry more women.
Donna and Irene got plenty of rejections for the book before finding an agent. One day, one of Irene's granddaughters got on a plane and ended up sitting next to Thomas Winters, who was the agent for Joyce Meyers and other big Christian writers, many of whom were New York Times bestsellers. A couple weeks later, Donna called the agent. And things started coming together.
Brandy, who was in Southern California studying to be an actress, came home to support her mother after her father died. She became her grandmother's executive assistant, typing up everything.
"She doesn't know nouns, verbs, adverbs, quotations and italics," Brandy said. "She's a genius. No one helped her. That's the funny thing."
With only a ninth-grade education, Irene was able to write. She wrote from the heart, and it flowed.
"Everyone who's read it has been so positive," Donna said.
Irene's family lived in poverty in Colonia LeBaron, Mexico, 185 miles south of El Paso, Texas. They lived in a compound, and their homes had dirt floors. The women took turns being with their husband.
Irene attended four of her husband's weddings. She had to put a smile on her face, take the woman's hand and give it to her husband. She had to "court" women for her husband. If she did everything she could, she might gain more favor in her husband's eyes. All the women worked hard to be the favorite wife.
"If she failed, she would be damned," she said.
Irene said the men married women between the ages of 13 and 15. It was easier to control them that way. Women had no say in anything. They had no education. They were there to breed. Women were encouraged to have a child every year.
"Women in the society were devalued. The number one requirement was to be obedient and not to betray the brethren," she said.
"I saw abuse in the name of religion. It was none of your business whether your husband was right or wrong."
Women didn't think they had a right to speak up. They didn't want to get kicked out.
She saw women have nervous breakdowns. Many of her female relatives committed suicide. Women could leave, but only with the clothes on their backs. No money, no education. And no children. They did not want to leave without their children.
She knew she wanted to leave.
"I was in mental chains. I lost my identity. I didn't know who I was," she said.
When Donna looks back, she sees her mother as an amazing woman who never stopped keeping a sense of humor.
"It was painful to see all that was required of my mother," she said, adding that it hurt to see her father marry younger women, including her best friend, who was 15 at the time.
Donna was the first of Irene's children to leave. She left when she was 18 to visit a Christian friend in Los Angeles who taught English in Mexico. That friend convinced her and her older sister (from another mother) to apply for a job at her workplace. They worked and went to church, and Donna soon married Marshall Goldberg.
Donna has helped encourage Irene to write her story and keep going with the book, no matter what.
"It's been years of passion, persistence and praying," she said.
"If she hadn't had passion, it wouldn't have happened," Irene added.
She has had a review in Publishers Weekly, and a feature film could be in the works.
After Irene turned 40, her husband began courting his 10th wife, and she couldn't stand it anymore. One of her sons had gotten her a car. Her children gave her $125, and she left in her mid-40s, even though she had never driven on the freeway before. Her husband died in 1981 in a car accident.
She later visited her son in Alaska, who had become a born-again Christian. He invited her to church. She was wary because she was taught that all Christian churches were evil. But while there, one of the songs touched her.
"I cried out, 'God, whoever you are, I want to know you,'" she said.
She felt the pain of all the years and the other nine wives come off her shoulders. She began to feel joy, something she had never seen or felt.
Later, she began longing for a husband, one who would consider her his favorite wife. She thought of all the men she knew, and one day, she dreamed about Hector Spencer. He had lived in a town near hers when she lived in Mexico, and he was a Mormon. He joined her church, but soon left.
Eventually, Irene heard that Spencer's daughter won Miss Pre-Teen Utah. So she called to congratulate him. They met, and soon after, they were married. They have been married for 20 years.
Irene has been part of the Toastmasters for the past year, learning about public speaking.
"I want people to know what the cult can do and how people can suffer," she said. "I want to inspire and empower women caught in any cult or relationship. If I could change my life, they could do anything."
She has been living with her daughter in Woodbridge for almost a year while she worked on her book.
She now has 119 grandchildren (and counting) and 39 great-grandchildren (also going up). Ten of her 13 children left the polygamist community and those who are living are scattered throughout the country and in Mexico.
"It's not a family tree; it's a family forest," she said.
Yet she still finds time to talk to each of her children every day, and she travels around the country, as well as to Mexico, to visit them.