Polygamists can’t resist TV’s allure

SALT LAKE CITY — The newest Utah polygamous family featured in a reality TV show says sharing their story with a wide audience has been liberating.

Brady Williams and his five wives were a bit apprehensive ahead of the airing of a pilot episode in September, but they said this week an interview with The Associated Press that it felt liberating to be open about who they are and what they believe.

“It really is like coming out of the closet,” said Brady Williams, 43. “It’s very liberating. You don’t worry if somebody thinks you’re a polygamous anymore because everyone knows.”

His wives feel the same way, including his second, Robyn Williams, 40, who said: “I feel more free to just be who I am and not be so afraid.”

The first of nine episodes of the show, “My Five Wives,” aired for the first time Sunday on TLC. It chronicles the life of Brady Williams, his five wives and their 24 children who live in a small rural community outside of Salt Lake City dominated by a branch of the fundamentalist Mormon church.

The family once belonged to the group, known as the Apostolic United Brethren, but withdrew during the mid-2000s after re-evaluating their core beliefs. Now, they practice polygamy not because they think they must to get to heaven, and avoid hell, but because they prefer the lifestyle.

Their show begins airing in a social and political climate that has softened significantly toward plural families in recent years.

A federal judge in Utah struck down key parts of the state’s polygamy laws in December, marking a victory for the Williams and hundreds of other polygamous families in the state. The ruling decriminalizes polygamy, making only bigamy — holding marriage licenses with multiple partners —illegal.

The family that brought that lawsuit against the state of Utah, Kody Brown and his four wives from TLC’s “Sister Wives,” is credited with helping create greater acceptance for plural families. Their show, which debuted in 2010 with footage of the family at their house in northern Utah, was ground-breaking in demonstrating to viewers across the country that not all polygamists are child predators like Warren Jeffs, the imprisoned leader of a polygamous sect on the Utah-Arizona border.

TLC is banking on viewers being fascinated by the unique dynamics of a plural family: regular family sit-down meetings among the adults where Brady Williams follows an agenda written on a notepad; side-by-side multi-plexes where they live; and nightly family dinners where the children line up like kids in a school cafeteria to get their food.

Then there’s the always-intriguing dynamic among the wives who share a husband. In the first episode, Brady Williams suggests the women work out their issues directly with one another rather than always coming to him, only to see it lead to hurt feelings and shouting.

Among the topics discussed by the family during the season is a possible move out of Utah, maybe even to Washington state.

The Browns of “Sister Wives” fled Utah for Las Vegas after their show aired under the threat of prosecution from a county official. The Williams aren’t terribly worried about that happening to them, as long as the recent court ruling stands. But they say they don’t feel welcomed in the tight-knit community where almost everyone but them belongs to the church.

“There haven’t been any overt acts of disapproval,” Brady Williams said. But he added: “We want to be able to feel comfortable in our own skin.”

Aaron Bronson, a principal at the school in the community and member of the Apostolic United Brethren, said he doesn’t begrudge the Williams family for doing the show. He said the production crews have been respectful, and he’s heard no complaints from the Williams family’s neighbors.

“If they want to go public with what they believe, it’s their choice,” Bronson said. “It’s not something I would choose to do with my family. It’s a rocky road.”

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