When she and her brood go on vacation, says Valerie, "People say, 'Look at all those kids. It must be a school trip.'" And why not? There they are: 21 kids and their dad, plus his three wives. As modern polygamists, the family knows there's an advantage to keeping their unusual domestic arrangement under wraps. "You try to be discreet," says Valerie, who lives in Salt Lake City and who asked that her last name not be published to avoid negative publicity that could hurt her husband's business. But another part of her would like to proclaim to the world that they see themselves as pretty much normal. "In ways I feel, 'Let's just tell!'" says Valerie, 38. "If people ask, we don't try to hide it."

There are an estimated 40,000 polygamists living in the United States, almost all of them with former ties to the Mormon church, which outlawed polygamy more than 100 years ago. Unlike those in the secretive FLDS sect under fire in Texas, many modern polygamists—who say they follow the practice for religious reasons—have blended into ordinary suburban communities in such places as Utah and Arizona, where their neighbors don't always welcome them with open arms but generally turn a blind eye. (Though illegal in every state, polygamy is rarely prosecuted unless connected to other crimes, such as child abuse.) Indeed, many polygamists are as disturbed as anyone at the allegations against the FLDS, which has been accused of sanctioning forced marriages involving underage girls. Three weeks after the early April raid that scooped up 416 children at the compound, authorities in Texas have started DNA testing on the kids to try and sort out which children belong to which parents.

In the aftermath of the Eldorado raid, Valerie and fellow polygamy supporter Mary Batchelor traveled to Eldorado, Texas, bearing 420 letters of encouragement from children in polygamous families to children in the sect. Raised in a polygamous family, Valerie married her husband, who declined to be interviewed, at the age of 18. He has two other wives, one of whom is Valerie's sister, and the brood—the kids range in age from 6 months to 17 years—lives in a sprawling house with a large backyard that includes a volleyball pit. Each wife has her own master bedroom and nearby rooms for her children, with the husband rotating among the three. "It's not like there's no jealousy, but the things I've been jealous about have nothing to do with sex," says Valerie. "It's more emotional—like if I thought he took her out three times and took me out once."

Likewise, Joe, a 38-year-old Utah businessman with 3 wives and 18 children, scoffs at the notion that men get into plural marriages for the sex. "It would be much easier for me just to have a mistress," says Joe, who says he thought the HBO series Big Love, while a bit "racy," did a "good job" of depicting the polygamous experience. Another polygamous dad, a 60-year-old man in Utah with 4 wives and 28 kids, says he relies on scads of calendars to keep track of all the kids' activities and birthdays. Why would a man want to have 28 kids? "By living a righteous life, we can go on into eternity as one big family," he explains. "Big families are always a blessing."

The financial challenges, though, can be daunting. Food comes in bulk from warehouse stores—Joe says his weekly food bill is about $500—and the clothes are secondhand, either from rummage sales or eBay. "I have no idea how I do it," says the 60-year-old polygamous dad. "I had to buy three vans last year."

Batchelor, 39, says that incompatibility sometimes leads to the breakup of plural marriages. "There's no rule book on how to live in polygamy," says Batchelor, who feels a sense of loss over the departure of her husband's other wife. "She was my best friend," says Batchelor, breaking down in tears. "We shared everything."

  • Contributors:
  • Darla Atlas/San Angelo,
  • Jeff Truesdell/San Angelo,
  • Vickie Bane/Denver,
  • Johnny Dodd/Los Angeles.