Joe Darger recently revealed a secret about his family which he knows has the potential to land him in jail: For more than two decades, Darger has hidden from coworkers and neighbors that he is a polygamist.
He lives with his three wives Alina, Vicki and Val and their 24 children in the suburbs outside Salt Lake City. The Dargers are independent fundamentalist Mormons who adhere to the tenet of plural marriage put forth by church founder Joseph Smith in the 19th century. With the publication of their book, "Love Times Three," they have taken the unusual step among polygamists of stepping out of the shadows and proclaiming their beliefs publicly. Polygamy is illegal in the United States and the Dargers know the decision to go public exposes their family to the danger of potential prosecution. They insist, though, that the time has come for those laws to change and for the misconceptions they see about their faith to be corrected.
"For change to be effective people have to be willing to stand for a principle of what's correct, even if that's uncomfortable for society as a whole," Joe Darger said. "We are law abiding citizens in every other way. I'm in a felonious relationship and that's a decision that we made and we have to explain."
The Dargers know that for many, polygamy conjures images of walled compounds, women in frontier style dresses and child brides. This past August, polygamist leader Warren Jeffs was sentenced to life in prison for sexually assaulting two girls, ages 12 and 15, who he counted among his 87 wives. But the Dargers say this view of polygamy doesn't show the whole picture and that they are in many ways a typical, albeit large, modern American family.
This family's story begins 23 years ago, when in an unusual twist even for polygamists, Joe Darger began courting Alina and Vicki at the same time. While all three were in high school, it became clear that both Alina and Vicki had feelings for Joe. When Joe's mother noticed, she suggested to Vicki that the girls join forces and pursue Joe together. Vicki approached Alina with the unique proposition.
"I looked at Vicki and I'm like 'Hey she's my friend and I love her.' We're both open to it and he's a really good guy – let's see if we can make this work," Alina Darger said.
Joe, Alina and Vicki began seeing each other -- going out on dates together with the women alternating who got to sit in the front seat of the car next to Joe. The dual courtship flourished and, with the eventual approval of all 12 parents involved – Joe, Alina and Vicki all came from polygamous families -- Joe got down on one knee took both women's hands and proposed marriage to them at the same time. The double wedding ceremony that followed was another anomaly, even in polygamist circles.
Ten years into their marriage, the possibility of a third woman joining their family arose -- but this wasn't just any woman: It was Vicki's identical twin sister Val. After Val's first marriage to a man 26 years her senior ended in divorce, she went to visit her sister's family. That night Val and Joe shared a moment, locking eyes across the room, that would change all of their lives.
"I saw her soul in a different light than I'd ever seen it. It was just this really strong connection," Joe Darger said.
Polygamy: 'It's Not About the Bedroom'
The experience was so intense that it caught the attention of Alina and Vicki as well. Each woman approached Joe separately suggesting that he consider inviting Val to join their family. Vicki says she never felt awkward about the prospect of sharing her husband with her twin sister. In fact, she considered the love she shared with Joe a blessing and wanted Val to be able to experience it as well. Within four months, the decision was made and Joe and Val were married.
The Dargers admit that having three women married to the same man can occasionally be a recipe for misunderstandings. Whether it's being left at home with the kids while Joe takes one of the wives for a date night or stumbling upon a pair of Joe's underwear in another sister wife's bed -- polygamy can be a veritable minefield of jealousy and hurt feelings.
One of the rules that the Dargers live by to minimize these difficult moments is keeping the intimate details of each of their relationships with Joe private.
"We're very traditional in our marriage in the fact that we have three separate marriages and it's just a boundary of respect," Joe Darger said.
Still, the question for many remains why these women would choose to constantly confront feelings of jealousy when they could instead live in monogamous relationships without the burden of sharing a spouse. The Dargers say that confronting and transcending these negative feelings is what leads to the highest expression of unselfish love - a goal of their faith. Although they understand why so many questions focus on their intimate relationships, they insist that for them polygamy is not about sex, it is about faith and family.
"In the end it's not about the bedroom, it's not about all these outward things people are curious about. It's just about a family trying to raise responsible children," Val Darger said.
With the publication of the Dargers' book, those children are now facing the same exposure and scrutiny that their parents are. Although many of them have already faced bigotry because of their family's beliefs, they say they too welcome the opportunity to show America who they are.
"All the misconceptions are wrong. If you looked at our family and saw just how much love there is in here, it should change your way of thinking," said 16-year-old Liesl Darger.
The Darger teenagers believe that it is ignorance that keeps people from accepting their family's way of life.
"They don't know why we live it. We believe this is the way the lord told us to live," 17-year-old Grayson Darger said.
Most of the Darger children say they do not know if they will choose polygamous marriages for their own lives but that they are open to that possibility. This past summer Laura Darger, the first child in the family to marry, walked down the aisle. For now she is living in a monogamous marriage as her husband's only wife and she admits the possibility of having to one day welcome another woman into their family feels like a challenge.
"It's really hard when you actually fall in love and you love somebody so much to think of sharing them with somebody else," Laura Darger said. But, like her siblings, she remains open to the possibility of polygamy. "God changes people's hearts. You know sometimes there are things you don't think you can do but when God asks you, you do it."