Escape from Polygamy
Favorite Wife author Susan Schmidt shares her real life Big Love with Betty
Just one week after turning 15, Susan Schmidt married Verlan LeBaron, leader of a polygamist Mormon cult in a Mexican outpost. At the time, Verlan was 38 years old, had five wives and 25 children.
Susan’s saga is a real life Big Love – complete with sister wives (Verlan eventually collected 10), intimacy schedules and warring sibling church leaders.
In Favorite Wife: Escape from Polygamy, she recounts the gripping tale of her horrific child-bride marriage, her struggles with sister-wife jealousy, notorious death threats by warring church leaders and finally – her daring escape from polygamy.
Although Susan escaped from her polygamist marriage years ago, polygamy remains in the headlines both because of the popularity of Big Love and the recent controversy at the Yearning For Zion Polygamist Ranch in Texas, which was the subject of a recent Oprah show. Susan, who’s now 55 and lives in Idaho, discussed her memoir and incredible journey with Betty’s Carrie Seim.
Carrie Seim: Why did you decide to write this book? Was it painful for you?
Susan Schmidt: When I started writing, I didn’t start thinking it was going to be a book. I was freshly out of Mexico and very confused about what I was doing with my life. I couldn’t sleep at night, so I’d get up and jot my thoughts and feelings down. I thought ‘Wow, this is an amazing story.’
As time went on, I felt more and more compelled. I couldn’t let go of the desire to write it. I just had to write it.
I’d sit there all night and write and cry and sometimes laugh. I’m sure it was very therapeutic for me.
CS: Do you watch Big Love? How does the show compare to your real polygamous life?
SS: I have watched quite a bit of Big Love. When I first started watching it, I hated it. It wasn’t at all what like polygamy was like for me. My life was completely different than these suburban women.
We [Susan and her sister wives] were constantly fighting. We didn’t get along like they showed on Big Love at all. We were constantly fighting. Tensions ran high; emotions ran high.
Sharing of the husbands was not what they portray. I think it’s an inborn need for every woman to be her husband’s soul mate. And when you see other women trying to fulfill that role, it’s just not something you can stand by and watch happen without having these constant feelings of jealousy.
CS: You were barely 15 years old when you were married. Yet you say you weren’t forced into marriage, that you were even excited about it. Can you help us understand that?
SS: When you’re raised that way and everyone around you is living it and telling you it’s God’s will, then it becomes as right as rain. As right as monogamy is to our society in the United States. It was a mindset. It was something that I accepted, so of course, I believed it was right.
CS: The first night you slept with your husband, you were so naïve that you had to ask if you should wear a bra to bed. That must have been very difficult experience for someone so young.
SS: It was. My mom never discussed sex or anything to do with any of it at all. The only people I could ask were my little girlfriends, and they didn’t know anything either. I was just as naive and as scared as I could be.
CS: Can you describe your relationship with your sister wives?
SS: There was this constant internal battle of “I’m wicked, I’m terrible, I should love her more.”
But then you realize the other wives don’t have it any better than you do. There are times that you actually do become friends. Up until the husband comes home. Then, when he’s home, things are on a different footing.
For example, Verlan liked Western shirts and several wives could sew – and sew very well. So if one of them sewed him a really nice Western shirt with pearl buttons, then the other one would want to make him a better one.
We were constantly trying to be the favorite. Oh, there were just constant feelings of jealousy and resentment. It was a nightmare.
CS: Speaking of favorites, can you talk about the title of your book, Favorite Wife?
SS: I was basically accused of being Verlan’s favorite wife. And in a lot of ways, I think that I was. He probably babied me more than he did the other women. And a lot of it was probably because I was youngest.
I felt in some ways he loved me more than the other ones, and he let it show. He wrote me beautiful poetry that he didn’t write to the other wives. So they kind of resented me, which I can totally understand.
It was also a constant battle with the wives, in any of the polygamy marriages, to want to be the favorite.
CS: What was the turning point that made you decide to leave Verlan and polygamy?
SS: The turning point for me was when I found out Verlan was planning to marry his last [10th] wife, who was his brother Joel’s widow. I could not put up with it. I couldn’t deal with it again. And mostly, I didn’t want my kids raised that way. Especially my little girls, I knew I had to get them out of there.
It was just matter of finding the right time and finding the courage to go.
I didn’t know where I was going to go, except to the United States. I was scared because I’d been taught that the people in the world were evil. I didn’t have anyone expecting me. I didn’t know if I could go to my brother’s house to live or if he’d send me back. But I knew I had to try.
CS: You convinced your polygamist father to let you and your children ride with him to Utah to visit your brother, telling him it would just be a vacation. Can you describe your escape?
SS: I was absolutely petrified. I remember packing the kids up in my dad’s truck. We could only pack a few things – not that we had very many things – because we were just supposed to be going away for a few days. I remember at the United States border I was absolutely shaking and trying to hide it from my dad.
At my oldest brother’s house, I took my brother back in a back bedroom. I just fell apart and said ‘I don’t want to go back, I don’t want to go back.’ He wrapped his arms around me – thank God – and told me he’d do anything he could to help me. It was absolutely an answer to prayer.
My dad was furious. He felt like I’d pulled the wool over his eyes and that I’d betrayed him. He felt terrible.
CS: How did Verlan react to you leaving him?
SS: He cried and begged me and pleaded with me and promised me the moon. And then he started threatening to take my kids away from me. But by then, I had talked to my brother and I knew I had rights. I threatened him with the law and at that point he backed away.
He came around frequently, every two or three months, still trying to convince me to come back to him. He never gave up, never gave up, until I was married.
[Susan eventually remarried a man named Dennis, who became “Dad” to all of her children. They were married for 29 years until his sudden death of a heart attack last July].
CS: When you look back at your younger self, do you ever feel anger that no one protected you from being a child-bride married into polygamy?
SS: I do. But more than that, I feel bad for the people still trapped in it. There are so many. My little nieces and nephews that are being married into this; it breaks my heart. I want so badly to reach out to them. And that’s another reason I wrote my book.
I wanted so badly to share with other people that were raised that way, that there is a better way. That monogamy is wonderful and secure and the right way. That they don’t have to live this way, that it’s not God’s will at all, that they were misled, that they were lied to, basically.
I feel so blessed, so fortunate because I found my way out. My kids are wonderfully normal human beings who have a wonderful life today.
CS: You say in the epilogue that you are thankful for your experiences in Mexico. Are you really thankful after going through all that pain?
SS: I am, strange as it may sound. I’ve learned so much, I’ve grown so much, I feel like I’m a better person today I feel like I’m a lot more grateful for my blessings than I would have been otherwise.
I don’t take life for granted; I don’t take my blessings for granted. I have a purpose in life today.