In my previous posts I have given examples of psychopathic individuals who have been convicted for violent crimes. But only a very small percentage of psychopaths commit such crimes. Many, in fact, seem to be highly functioning individuals who lead normal and even moral lives. How do we recognize red flags in those individuals? Strangely enough, this question occurred to me as I was watching TLC’s controversial new show, “Sister Wives” (which airs on Sundays at 10 p.m.). Kody Brown is a polygamist who lives in a three-family house with his three wives–Meri, Janelle and Christine–and their 13 children (plus one more on the way). As if that weren’t enough for one man to handle, Kody’s in the process of courting a fourth woman, Robyn, who has three children of her own.
Kody’s motto is “Love should be multiplied, not divided.” Of course, nobody seems to mention the obvious asymmetry of the multiplication process. None of the wives are adding partners, or even allowed to date other men. Such double standards are implicitly justified in terms of the tradition of polygamy, as practiced by the fundamentalist Mormon sect Kody and his family participate in, which is a break-off group from the Church of Latter Day Saints. Please note that the mainstream Mormon church has not been promoting polygamy since the 1890′s. Moreover, polygamy is illegal in the United States. In fact, the local police of Lehi, Utah, announced after the show’s debut that they will investigate the Brown family for felony bigamy. So a lot of the controversy stirred up by the show revolves around the fact that “Sister Wives” reveals so openly–and so positively–the practice of an illegal act. There has even been some discussion about pulling the show off the air.
To my mind, however, the legal issue of polygamy is not the most interesting aspect of the show. I doubt that the practices of a small sect in Utah will have a significant impact upon how the rest of us see marriage. Nor do I believe that the show highlights the benefits of cultural relativism, as its defenders tend to frame it. “Sister Wives”, according to them, shows that there are many different ways to envision and live a “normal” family life. If I don’t see this as a “normal” family it’s not because it depicts polygamy, but because Kody resembles, in my eyes, more of a cult figure than a husband and father.
His life is conveniently structured such that he doesn’t have to do much (at least not that we can see). Two of his wives, Meri and Janelle, work hard to earn a living. Janelle in particular works long hours, while Christine, the third wife, stays at home to take care of all of the kids and do most of the cooking and cleaning. Kody himself comes across as extremely charming: almost too charming. He’s most enthusiastic when he shows off his wives and kids the way other people show off their new cars. I don’t know if this is a blindspot of the show or a sign of his real personality, but he’s hardly ever shown working, communicating with his wives, or actually spending time with his children. Kody kisses each of his wives goodbye in the morning and tucks his kids in bed at night. These are nice family rituals, but none of his actions or interactions, at least as depicted by “Sister Wives”, reflect any real care-taking behavior.
The wives, on the other hand, come across as remarkably articulate, competent and caring women who seem to know what they want and why. They explain during interviews that they were brought up in similar (polygamous) environments and point out the benefits of a division of labor among the fellow wives, where each focuses on her strengths. For example, Janelle works outside the home long hours, while Christine describes herself as the “domestic one” preferring to work at home. Unlike Kody, who puts a superficially positive spin on his accumulation of partners, the wives themselves are more open about their misgivings and emotional conflicts. They seem most uncomfortable with the introduction of the fourth woman–Robyn–into their family.
Robyn shakes up the apparent equilibrium of this polygamous household: because Kody seems to pay more attention to her; because he seems to treat her differently (he kissed her before marriage); because the other wives’ children aren’t yet used to her (they were born after Kody already had thee wives, whom they came to know as their mothers) and perhaps also because she’s younger. From a viewer’s perspective, there also seems to be something different about Robyn herself. She describes Kody in idealized terms and gets emotional to the point of tears quite often, suggesting perhaps not just the honeymoon phase of their relationship but also a needy side to her personality.
Kody basks in Robyn’s–and everyone else’s–attention. But when the other wives express their misgivings, he doesn’t appear all that sympathetic. “I get that,” he responds dismissively when his first wife, Meri, tells him she feels jealous and hurt as a result of his recent courtship of Robyn. When she asks him how he’d react if the shoe was on the other foot and she took other lovers or husbands, he becomes angry and defensive. He tells her that he cannot even conceive of such “vulgarity” without becoming very upset and refuses to acknowledge the injustice of their arrangement. Instead, he puts Meri on the defensive by asking her to consider her own contradictory attitude: her enthusiasm for polygamy in principle versus her real-life jealousy. Ultimately, he tells her she chose this lifestyle. It’s an argument that disarms her, along with his mesmerization techniques: looking intensely into her eyes; making declarations of the depth of his commitment and love, etc. (see my blog entry on how psychopaths manipulate and deceive).
Empathy is obviously not Kody’s forte. Adulation and agreement with him are rewarded with radiant smiles. But observe closely Kody’s reactions when any of the four women express their hurt feelings or voice any negative opinions. You’ll notice that his usual sunny, happy-go-lucky expression becomes instantly replaced by a focused, almost predatory, stare. If “Sister Wives” is supposed to reveal the hidden benefits of polygamy, I think the show does just the opposite. “Love should be multiplied, not divided,” Kody Brown states, but divide his love among so many individuals who care about and need him is precisely what he does.
Claudia Moscovici, psychopathyawareness
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