Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Craig Jones

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Craig Jones

Craig Jones is the author of A Cruel Arithmetic: Inside the Case Against Polygamy (Irwin Law). Craig served as lead constitutional litigator for the Attorney General of British Columbia for six years, including during the landmark case on which A Cruel Arithmetic is based.

Today Craig talks to Open Book about what he learned about polygamy during the case, how he boiled hundreds of pages of legalese into a readable and approachable book and what's up next for him.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, A Cruel Arithmetic.

Craig Jones:

The book is an attempt to discuss the larger issues of polygamy using the 2010-2011 Polygamy Reference trial as a narrative focus. In the process I hope to give some insight into constitutional law in general and constitutional litigation in particular.


How did you find your own feelings about polygamy changing throughout the long court case you describe in your book?


I was surprised that my initial position, which was ambivalence about the practice coupled with sort of a knee-jerk civil libertarian laissez-faire, changed so completely. At first I thought that we needed to separate ‘good polygamy’ from the bad, and focus on the latter. But I became convinced you just couldn’t do that — that even polygamy that wasn’t harmful to its direct participants or the families involved nevertheless had a demonstrably harmful impact on society in a number of ways.


How did you approach this book as a project, considering the huge amount of material on which you could draw? Was it ever overwhelming?


I was lucky by the time the trial was over, I had boiled much of it down to what I thought was most important for the judge to understand, and I also understood which pieces of evidence or which writings had influenced my own thoughts on the subject. I was very fortunate that my employer and client, the Attorney General, supported the idea of the book and so the ordinary barriers of client confidentiality and legal privilege were considerably relaxed and I was free to tell some of the ‘back story’ behind the litigation as well.


You managed to create something extremely readable amidst a lot of highly technical information and legal history. How did you maintain your focus on the reader during your writing process?


That’s very kind of you to say. I do try to write it as though I’m reading it, and of course you go back and reread and edit with the reader in mind. But what amazed me about polygamy while I was doing the trial was that all manner of people wanted to talk to me about the underlying issues — at parties, at my kids’ sporting days, in coffee shops, wherever — and the sophistication of their thoughts on the subject constantly surprised me. This seems to be a very compelling issue for many people, and they have given it some thought. So I never felt the need to ‘dumb down’ the discussion, only to try and ensure that when I go into the details of the case, and I was conscious not to ‘dumb it down’ in any way.


What might you say to people who defend polygamy on theoretical grounds as a personal choice that doesn't harm anyone?


What I say to them is that I completely understand their view, because it used to be exactly how I felt about it. But in the course of doing this work I came to a different view, and the book is my attempt to explain why. I think if people read the book with an open mind, with a truly liberal attitude (in the Russellian sense of free-mindedness), they will have to admit that there are some personal choices that don’t immediately hurt anyone but have such substantial negative social effects that they need to be controlled. We have laws against child pornography, for instance, that apply whether or not there are any children actually harmed in its production. So the book is my effort at showing that polygamy is in that category.


What are some books you would recommend for further reading, for people interested in this subject?


The most interesting reading for me has been in the field of evolutionary psychology, with Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal and Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works at the top of the list. They describe the human inclination toward polygamy as a mating behavior, discuss what happens in polygamous societies, and set out the theory of why polygamy is not only coincidental with harms like social unrest, the sexual targeting of young girls, and oppressive mechanisms of control (particularly of women and girls), but how it actually causes these things. Then you can read accounts of polygamy ‘on the ground’ at Bountiful and elsewhere, like Carolyn Jessop and Laura Palmer’s Escape and Daphne Bramham’s Secret Lives of Saints and see in human terms how it plays out. Bramham, by the way, coined the phrase “polygamy’s cruel arithmetic”, which I stole for my title and also provides the most succinct description of the harms I describe.


What are you working on now?


I’ve just taken a position at Thompson Rivers University teaching law, and I’m very excited about that. I don’t have any plans to write anything major in the immediate future.

Craig Jones QC, BGS, LLB, LLM, holds law degrees from UBC and Harvard Law School. For six years he was the lead constitutional litigator for the Attorney General of British Columbia, where he argued a series of significant cases including the Safe Injection Site appeal, the Polygamy Reference, and challenges to the Braidwood Taser Inquiry. He is now a professor of law at Thompson Rivers University. He is the author of four books and dozens of articles on legal subjects.

For more information about A Cruel Arithmetic please visit the Irwin Law website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.

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