Favorite Wife, Escape From Polygamy
Susan Ray Schmidt
Russell Y. Anderson
The Lyons Press, 2009
This same book was published in 2006 under the title His Favorite Wife,
Trapped in Polygamy. This edition has some additional details at the
end of the book.
This is written as a true account of the life of Susan Ray who became
the sixth wife of Velan LeBaron, although it reads more like a novel
with her at the center of the action as it describes the challenges of
living polygamy and the leadership conflicts in The Church of the
Firstborn of the Fullness of Times. As some events unfold it seems
improbable that she should happen to be in the middle of the action. She
explains that the presentation of the facts has been adjusted slightly:
"While the events related here are factual, for brevity's sake and for
story flow I've take the liberty of compiling, on rare occasions, two
separate events into one. In a couple of minor instances, I've place
myself as present during an incident when in reality I heard the details
This is an interesting and exciting look into the lives of those that
lived the polygamous lifestyle. They felt it was their religious duty
and would lead to great rewards in heaven. They felt that the roots of
their beliefs came from Joseph Smith and that the Mormon church in Utah
had strayed from the true doctrine. Joel LeBaron was the eldest of the
five brothers and was considered to be the "One Mighty and Strong" that
was suppose to lead the church after his father had passed the keys to
him (before father LeBaron's death).
Susan's brother Jay was reminded that "the young girls in the church
were being raised to be plural wives to the older men." Jay was supposed
to "go out into the world and convert a wife." Susan explains that, "As
a young woman of the church I had the privilege of selecting my husband.
It was my right, as it was the right of all the single girls. Unlike the
men, we women only married once. so naturally we got to choose which of
the men we wanted to be our spiritual head. I had to make sure I chose a
man who was devoted to God and the church, and as the wife of a godly
man, my place in heaven would be secure."
The young girls were not of marriageable age until they were 15, but
some of Susan's friends were already engaged at 14. Susan "planned to
finish school and to have some fun before I settle down to have my
family." Susan had dated Lane who already had one wife and the first
wife, Estela, was very jealous. Susan realized that she couldn't marry
him and comments, "If I was just dating him for the fun of it, I was out
of line. You just didn't date a married man for the fun of it, not in
Colonia LeBaron. In fairness to both Lane and Estela, I needed to break
Susan had a very specific dream that gave her guidance in choosing her
future husband and to avoid Verlan's brother Ervil (represented by a
snake in the dream). Susan was interested in Verlan LeBaron who was the
president of the quorum of twelve apostles. Susan was excited to learn
that Verlan had asked her father for permission to court her. They
started to exchange love letters since he wasn't in Colonia LeBaron very
much of the time. Ervil LeBaron (the Church Patriarch) asked to speak to
Susan and told her that he had a revelation that she should marry him
(and suggested that dreams didn't compare to revelations). She wrote to
Verlan and stopped their correspondence and courtship. She tried to get
used to the idea of marrying Ervil who was also planning to marry her
good friend, Debbie.
Hoping to see Verlan before church conference, Susan instead was
introduced to Irene, his second wife. She finally told Irene what had
been troubling her about Ervil and his desire to marry her. Irene
replied, "I can't believe the gall of that man! In the first place, he
has no business claiming a revelation about you or any woman. You, as a
woman of the church, have the right to expect you own personal
revelation, directly from God about whom you should marry. It's your
life, and it's your choice, and I don't care if Ervil claims to be the
King of Sheba, he had no right to try and manipulate you." She also
advised, "Whoever you marry, make sure you love the guy. If you don't,
you'll never be able to put up with this way of life."
After hearing about what Ervil had done, Verlan knew that he couldn't
leave Susan alone in Colonia LeBaron. He asked her to marry him on
Sunday. That meant that she had to get ready to be married in two days.
In the middle of the wedding reception, all the men of the church
(including Verlan) disappeared because they had another meeting they
needed to attend. The meeting continued well into the night and Susan
comments, "My wedding night was certainly turning out differently than I
had thought it would. . . I had expected to spend it with my husband."
She didn't see her husband that night and was awakened the next morning
as he told her that she needed to get ready to travel. And so started a
married life where she never saw much of her husband. With demands of
the church, his work in Las Vegas, and the other wives -- Verlan just
didn't have enough time or resources to go around.
For the first part of their honeymoon trip they had traveled with
friends and so she was relieved to finally have her husband alone when
they got on the train for Tijuana. But she was shocked to hear this from
Verlan, "Susan, sweetheart, we are going to have to be a bit discreet.
you see, these people traveling with us won't understand if they see us
like this all cuddled together. They'll figure you're too young to be my
wife, so you must be my girlfriend. See what I mean? We wouldn't want to
give the wrong impression, would we? We're suppose to be an example to
the world. We better let them think you're my daughter. Don't you agree?"
She had received $10 as a wedding present from her parents to buy some
shoes. But when they went to the shoe store, Verlan picked out shoes
which she didn't like, and strongly encouraged her to try them on. Once
it was determined that the shoes did fit, Verlan bought the shoes and
kept the change. She held her tongue, but she was furious. She comments,
"My pride, my understanding of male chivalry, and mostly, my romantic
ideas of love--were being shattered."
As you read this book you are drawn into the feelings and turmoil that
comes from living in polygamy. Even though Susan was sometimes
identified as the Favorite Wife, she always knew that she had no legal
claim to Verlan and in fact he had no legal claim to their children either.
This story draws you into the pain and suffering that is compounded when
you share a husband with other wives all trying to get by without hardly
any resources and your husband usually gone. After watching Verlan leave
to spend time alone with one wife, Susan chided herself for being
selfish. "I was being silly! He wasn't just mine and I'd have to get
used to it, just as Charlotte had to get used to all the other
wives--just as she was getting used to me. Plural marriage wasn't easy,
but that's the way the Lord planned it. He had given us the opportunity
to overcome our petty, childish jealousies, an opportunity that other
people in the world didn't have. We would grow in selflessness and love
for our fellow man--or woman, as the case was here. We would be
conquerors. We would get the prize, the Celestial kingdom." I believe
that Susan could have built on that concept if she had a husband nearby
and some basic comforts of life.
Even though she had to suffer, at least one of Verlan's wives had it
worse. She had to live in a tent with her children for a couple of cold
months while they were building her a house in Los Molinos. The wives
never had indoor plumbing and many comforts that we take for granted.
When Susan asked one of Joel's wives how she could stand to live in such
poverty, she replied, "How can you call the wealth of two precious
children and a wonderful husband, poverty? It won't always be like this.
Sometimes we have to sacrifice material possessions for things of
greater value. We have to earn our blessing, Suze, and I'm grateful for
the chance to earn mine. you need to look beyond what the eye can see
and concentrate on your heavenly throne."
The book outlines how she lived in Ensenada and then Los Molinos on the
Baja Pennisula, then Colonia LeBaron, Nicaragua and finally how she
escaped to be with her cousins in Utah. She describes living in very
poor conditions although Verlan would eventually build her a house only
to be uprooted and moved again to poor, impoverished conditions. She
describes a time when it was her turn to have Verlan stay with her for
the night. She fixes a nice meal and he doesn't arrive until after
Susan started to lose faith in her life and marriage. Beverly, another
wife. said to her, "If you haven't already figured it out, I may as well
warn you. As Verlan's wife, you have no say whatever in what he does or
who he marries. You just have to hang on and like it or lump it." Susan
blurted out, "We women have feelings and needs, too--just like men do.
But we give up our rights once we become a wife to one of the brethren.
How is it fair that a man gets to have so much freedom, and yet a woman
of the church has no rights at all? Does God love His sons so much more
than His daughters? Is that it?" She later says, "Why can't I be like
Lucy and Irene, just accept things and be happy? What's wrong with me?"
Interestingly, Irene has written a couple books about her experience.
The first was Shattered Dreams: My Life as a Polygamist's Wife.
Susan left Verlan in November of 1976, and he died in a suspicious auto
accident in 1981. "Of his ten wives, only six remained with him until
his death." Susan remarried and lived with her husband for 29 years
until he died of a heart attack in Idaho in 2008. She had 5 children
with Verlan and 7 children total.
It becomes clear throughout the book that this life puts a great deal of
stress on their marriage and the love that they feel. Although at times
Susan expresses great faith in the growth opportunity of plural
marriage, you begin to wonder if anyone can stand up under these
pressures. You might wonder if they could have been successful if the
families had stayed together and had an income source or church
obligations that didn't require the husband to be far away. Would it
have been possible to live plural marriage under better circumstances?
We may never know. Regardless, this book gives us a good glimpse into
the lives of these families who have tried to live a very difficult
principle of marriage and family.