[TIME MAGAZINE ARTICLE]
NOVEMBER 15, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 20
To get to the home that April Divilbiss has shared with the two
men she calls her husbands, you drive south on Interstate 55
from Memphis, Tenn., and cross the border into Mississippi. Then
you double back along a little road that winds into a forlorn
section of Memphis again. It's not just two states but several
states of mind you end up traversing. That's because the family
album under the TV in April's apartment contains snapshots not
of a happy couple but of a devoted threesome. And baby makes
and Shane Divilbiss, who work as a stay-at-home mom and a
computer technician, are legally married, but until recently
Chris Littrell, a male nurse, lived with them too. No, the two
guys don't go for each other; the triad tried a menage a trois
once but stopped because Chris thought it was icky. Instead,
they lived as man and wife and man, with April taking turns.
Together they were raising April's toddler (from a previous
relationship), earning a living and wondering how Shane could
learn to manage his jealousy when he heard Chris having sex with
their wife. Despite the obvious difficulties, until about a year
ago, they had formed an odd but functional family.
now these three Southerners, all in their 20s, find themselves
litigants in a legal mess and, consequently, martyrs of sorts
for a fledgling movement. A year ago, a judge removed April's
daughter Alana from the Divilbiss-Littrell home. The judge was
acting on a petition from Alana's paternal grandmother arguing
that the threesome's relationship revealed such
"depravity" that it could "endanger the morals or
health" of the little girl, a sunshiney four-year-old who
prizes her Barbies. The grandmother took action after seeing the
three discuss their lifestyle on an MTV program, ‘Sex in
the '90s: It's a Group Thing’.
Americans than you might think are practicing what is commonly
known as polygamy but what adherents prefer to call "polyamory":
loving more than one person simultaneously and--this is
crucial--openly. No one has taken a survey on polyamory, but as
with many fringe movements, it has grown on the Web. "Ten
years ago, there were maybe three support groups for polies,"
says Brett Hill, who helps run a magazine (circ. 10,000), a
website (1,000 hits a month) and two annual conferences for an
organization called Loving More. Today there are perhaps 250
polyamory support groups, mostly on the Internet but some that
meet for potluck suppers. Sure, most of them are in such
expected precincts as Boston and Los Angeles, but there are also
outposts like KanPoly, where polyamorous residents of Kansas can
meet others like themselves and even download a "poly pride
poly community is rallying around April, Chris and Shane, whose
case may provide the tale of injustice every movement needs. The
case could well be the first of its kind; it's surely the first
to debate explicitly the worthiness of polies as parents. The
roots of the movement, however, reach back to the communes of
the mid-1800s and their flower-children descendants a century
later. The poly family is usually smaller than a commune and
more committed than a swingers' group--though polyamorists
insist on the prerogative of each family to set its own rules
about fidelity, as long as everyone is honest. Polies tend to be
an exceedingly earnest bunch, and many describe what they
practice as "responsible nonmonogamy." During a recent
Loving More conference, an organizer pointedly noted that
"Loving More does not mean 'f______ more.'"
what is it that polyamorists want? Until the Divilbiss case,
they had few political goals, and even now their mission is
mostly social. Basically, they want to convince us that the
politics of the heart doesn't have to be governed by a one-party
system. "If you are married, but you meet someone in the
office you fall in love with, what do you do?" asks Hill.
Most of us have to give up someone. "But that's so painful.
People destroy themselves, destroy their families over that. All
I'm saying is, we have choices."
Chris and Shane found out the hard way. Chris served as Shane's
best man at Shane and April's 1996 wedding. But Chris and April
quickly bonded, and by January 1997, April knew she was in
love--again. It was tough to keep her feelings bottled up, and
she didn't want to cheat, so she told Shane that she and Chris
were in love. It was Valentine's Day.
thought Shane would shoot him. Instead, they went to a Waffle
House for a long talk. Eventually, they returned to April and
announced that they wanted to try a live-in threesome. April
says philosophically that she and Shane "just knew that if
we didn't try this, we would have lost one of our best friends
just because of modern stereotypes and jealousy and social
conditioning." The arrangement was difficult but
manageable. But the judge handling the grandmother's petition
said one of the men had to move out before he would consider
returning Alana. The case has dragged on for months. Divilbiss's
lawyer Asa Hoke (whose fees are being paid with Loving More's
help) hopes to persuade the court to change its mind since Chris
has now moved. Hoke has also appealed the decision on
constitutional grounds, arguing that parents should be able to
raise their kids without undue interference.
see such experiences as painful but transcendental, and not
surprisingly, there's a fair amount of New Age flimflam
associated with the movement. But many adherents like Loving
More leader Ryam Nearing prefer to dwell on science.
"People are biologically poly," she asserts, noting
that polyamory occurs even in societies that punish it by death.
Polyamorists love the work of Helen Fisher, a Rutgers University
anthropologist and author of Anatomy of Love. Fisher has written
that only 16% of cultures on record actually prescribe monogamy;
in most, polygamy is sought after by men as a sign of power.
Fisher also completed a study of divorce in 62 societies, which
revealed that people have a remarkable tendency to split up
after just four years. The implication that polyamorists take
from Fisher's work is that we aren't built for monogamy.
has a more complex view. She says we have conflicting
evolutionary impulses: lust (to ensure progeny), attraction (to
conserve mating energy for good catches) and attachment (to
allow us to stay with someone at least long enough to raise a
child through infancy--about four years). "So these
polyamory people are fascinating," Fisher says. "They
are trying to be realistic." Still, if "polyamory is
extremely mature," she adds, "it is also extremely
naive." Jealousy will never fade permanently, she says.
Indeed, just about every polyamory website, meeting and
publication is obsessed with curing jealousy. It is the
polyamorists' worst enemy.
of which means, necessarily, that practicing polyamory should be
reason enough to lose custody of your child. In the Divilbiss
case, four sets of independent, court-appointed experts
concluded that Alana should be returned to her mother. They have
also recommended counseling for everyone involved.
social worker from New York State probably would be willing to
provide it. She and her husband have been in another type of
polyamorous relationship--what could also be called an
"open marriage"--for 28 years. They have never lived
with their other lovers, but they each have long-term
relationships outside their marriage, which they say has
remained healthy. Many friends still don't understand--"to
them it's just adultery with chocolate sprinkles," says the
51-year-old husband. "But it's more." The couple have
a son Matthew who's 21 and in college. Matthew thinks that what
has happened to April, Chris and Shane is awful. "My
experience with having 'extra' parents was quite positive,"
he wrote in a recent e-mail. As a teenager, he had begun to
suspect that his mother was having an affair. "To then find
out that she was but that it was an approved activity was
entirely a relief... It only seemed natural."
has had some problems because of his upbringing, however.
"Having this kind of heritage makes my life a great deal
more confusing" with respect to his own relationships, he
wrote. "For most people, the relationship options are
fairly constrained. For me, there are all these options that
seem perfectly valid. Choosing between them is a task and a