How I learned to love polygamy
The Browns of reality TV show fame practice polygamy, which they call "plural marriage," for religious reasons.
December 18th, 2013
09:34 AM ET

How I learned to love polygamy

Opinion by Danielle Elizabeth Tumminio, Special to CNN

(CNN) - When I heard a federal judge struck down part of Utah’s polygamy law last week, I gave a little squeal of delight.

To be clear, I'm an Episcopal priest, not a polygamist.  But I've met the family who brought the suit, and these people changed how I think about plural marriage.

Before I met the Browns - made famous by the reality television show “Sister Wives” - I had the kind of reaction most modern-day Christians would have to their lifestyle: Polygamy hurts women. It offers girls a skewed perspective of who they can be. It happens on cultish compounds. It’s abusive.

Yet when the Browns' show debuted, I began to question some of those assumptions, and when I had the opportunity to meet them a few years ago, I questioned them further.

In getting to know Kody, Meri, Janelle, Christine and Robyn, and their children, I saw that these parents were extremely invested in raising girls and boys who were empowered to get an education, become independent thinkers and have a moral compass.

Indeed, children were so important to them not because they wanted to create more young polygamists - the Browns want their children to choose their own beliefs - but because their children were the people who would join them in heaven, and they wanted to raise a family kind enough, good enough, to achieve that goal.

The result is four parents equally invested in their children, and a gaggle of young people who are neither spoiled nor timid, entitled nor brainwashed.

The result is also four parents who strive to model what being empowered people of faith looks like in contemporary America.

Since meeting the Browns, I have become a supporter of them and their lifestyle, though I certainly can understand why others remain opposed.

So much negative publicity has been generated - and rightly so - by fundamentalist Mormon Warren Jeffs and his followers that it leaves little room in the American imagination to think that polygamy could be something different.

When I talk about the Browns with my friends and colleagues, most are opposed to my position, believing that the women could not possibly be respected, that the children could not possibly receive the attention they deserve.

MORE: Judge strikes down part of Utah polygamy law in 'Sister Wives' case

But it’s crucial to remember that, when done well, polygamy works because the participants have a different goal for marriage than monogamous couples: Most Americans believe that marriage is for the purpose of cultivating intimacy between two people, both sexual and emotional.

But for the Browns that takes a distant second to the goal of cultivating a community that together can reach heaven. It’s a different way of thinking about marriage and family, but it’s not inherently an abusive one.

Ultimately, I support the decision to loosen restrictions on polygamy because families such as the Browns exist who endeavor every day to live kind, healthy lives that are not harmful, not abusive.

I also believe there are theoretical reasons why, as a Christian, it makes sense to support healthy polygamous practices. It’s a natural extension for those Christians who support same-sex marriage on theological grounds. But even for those opposed to same-sex marriage, polygamy is documented in the Bible, thereby giving its existence warrant.

Some might say that supporting polygamy means supporting the abuse of women. But saying that it is OK for Christians to support plural marriage is not the same as saying that they should condone its abusive practices. Indeed, Christians should not, and cannot, do this.

MORE ON CNN: It's time to reconsider polygamy

It does mean, though, that there is room for Christians to support the right of consenting adults to make choices about marriage that align with their religious beliefs in a country that prides itself on religious freedom.

Through their television show, the Browns helped America learn that polygamists are just like the rest of us - they dress like us, go to public school like us, eat at Olive Garden like us - they just have more people committed to one another than the rest of our families do.

Finally, like us, they want to practice their faith. And as long as that practice is in the service of cultivating loving, healthy relationships that strive to honor God and neighbor, I believe it is possible for even nonpolygamous Christians such as myself to support their calling.

Danielle Elizabeth Tumminio is an Episcopal priest and author of  "God and Harry Potter at Yale: Teaching Faith and Fantasy Fiction in an Ivy League Classroom." The views expressed in this column belong to Tumminio. 

- CNN Religion Editor

Filed under: Belief • Bible • Bigamy • Christianity • Ethics • Faith • Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints • gender issues • Opinion • Religious liberty • Sexuality • Women

soundoff (1,215 Responses)
  1. SuZieCoyote

    I find it ironic that a female, calling herself by a male name, "Priest" (because face it, "Priestess" just isn't tolerated), is advocating for a patriarchal religious system that has proven itself, time after time, society after society, to result in the enslavement of young girl children to old men.

    December 18, 2013 at 5:08 pm |
  2. donald

    i love it, all the a$$ a guy could want.

    December 18, 2013 at 4:55 pm |
    • Captain Slapaho@Donald

      All the pain in the @ss a guy could want...

      There, I fixed it for you. You can thank me later.

      December 18, 2013 at 5:02 pm |
  3. The need for a wife

    Oscar Wilde said it best "polygamy is one wife too many, do is momogamy". Why do people have such a need for marriage?

    December 18, 2013 at 4:45 pm |
    • bostontola

      I also don't get the logic that polygamy is a great deal for men.

      If the thinking is, the man can have s.ex with multiple women, isn't his best strategy simply to remain unmarried?

      December 18, 2013 at 4:56 pm |
  4. lisa

    So as a woman I get to have 4 husbands?
    One might actually be able to keep a decent job!
    One might actually be able to satisfy me, another to clean my home and the 4th is just for luck?

    December 18, 2013 at 4:40 pm |
    • bostontola

      Go for it.

      December 18, 2013 at 4:42 pm |
    • thenakedpolitico

      are you really this intent on putting this in a fem-nazi light,are you really this scared,are you really this blind to other people's wants and needs for their lives...how long have men scared you,how long have you been jealous of what others have...must be terrible to go through live like that!!!!!!!!!!!

      December 18, 2013 at 4:50 pm |
    • Alex

      You'd have to have a big house because each husband would demand a man cave stocked with beer.

      December 18, 2013 at 4:53 pm |
    • weRstarstuff

      I`m applying for the # 2 job...My qualification to fill that position is ...I can lick my eyebrows......and anything of yours you`d like me to ...;-)

      December 18, 2013 at 4:56 pm |
    • A

      love it

      December 18, 2013 at 4:56 pm |
    • Madtown

      One might actually be able to satisfy me
      I'm here for you Lisa!

      December 18, 2013 at 4:58 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Why not, Lisa? If you can manage it, that is. Do it.

      December 18, 2013 at 5:30 pm |
  5. Lionly Lamb

    Atheistic arousals flowing amid many theistic accolades have always been a historic normalcy within socialized humanisms ever ebbing and flowing upon mostly humane psychic tidal affluences creating many high-minded social pyramids of hierarchal existentialism... Go Figure...

    December 18, 2013 at 4:36 pm |
    • sam stone

      Smoke a doob, LL, maybe you will make some sense

      December 18, 2013 at 4:38 pm |
      • Captain Slapaho

        I was just going to say that it was a little early in the day to be so completely baked...

        December 18, 2013 at 4:42 pm |
        • Lionly Lamb

          Like I wrote earlier, "It's 4:20 somewhere"...

          December 18, 2013 at 4:55 pm |
      • Lionly Lamb

        Sired Stone...

        Still illegal here in Fla.... Maybe next year though... All I can do is have faith and hope in Florida's voters to do their very best to legalize Cannabis for medicinal usages...

        December 18, 2013 at 4:54 pm |
        • YT

          Yes, because that's what Jesus would do, right?

          December 18, 2013 at 5:05 pm |
        • Lionly Lamb

          Sired YT....

          Medicinal usages of Cannabis seems to me to be the way-to-go when considering manmade synthetic 'drugs' whose side-effects are worse than the disease,,, Cannabis cures many ailments and diseases that synthetically manufactured chemically made 'drugs' only mask... I'm not saying to smoke Cannabis but rather turn it into either a tincture or ointment and orally ingest it...

          December 18, 2013 at 5:30 pm |
      • .

        LL is a psuedo intellect.

        December 18, 2013 at 5:10 pm |
    • truthprevails1

      Travel to Colorado or Washington, then you can smoke to your hearts content...I'm curious to see if your writing style changes when you're high.

      December 18, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
  6. Captain Slapaho

    What kind of a masochist wants to deal with multiple women?

    December 18, 2013 at 4:36 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      A guy who can just duck out of that house/bedroom and go to the one next door where it's more amenable?

      December 18, 2013 at 5:27 pm |
  7. David B.

    On one hand Polygamy makes sense because it is difficult for humans to be monogamous. On the other hand, it is difficult to deal with one Woman's issues, let alone three or four of them.

    December 18, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
    • bostontola

      Imagine missing multiple birthdays or anniversaries a year, yikes!

      December 18, 2013 at 4:34 pm |
      • not quite

        modern monogamous females are hypersensitive to slights because they can be and they are encouraged to be of that disposition, not because they are real wrongs.

        Do these pants make me look fat?

        That is the real evil. Its a dissatisfaction with the self combined with a trap to instigate resolution. Multiplying that helpless hypoagency across multiple women would be disastrous. You might think the doofus in that situation is the man, but there literally is no correct answer to that question posed by that kind of asker. When those kinds of wives interact with each other it becomes quite clear who is causing the problems, and how much deserved benefit of the doubt is being afforded to various parties.

        A woman who would ask that question, but entertain a sisterwife on different criteria, is a bigot. A woman who would ask that question, but entertain a close (nonromantic) friend on a different criteria is a bigot.

        The treatment of men by modern women is an utter disgrace.

        December 18, 2013 at 6:55 pm |
        • SuZieCoyote

          Ya want cheese with that whine?

          December 19, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
  8. Strand

    On one hand Polygamy makes sense because it is difficult for humans to be monogamous. On the other hand, it is difficult to deal with one Woman's issues, let alone three or four of them.

    December 18, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
  9. s~

    It's beginning to happen.

    December 18, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
  10. Robert

    Once we begin to enter into polygamy, we begin to violate God's Holy Law. Note the following scriptural passages from the Holy Bible: "For this cause shall a man leave his mother and father, and shall cleave unto his wife. And they twain shall become one flesh." (Mt. 19:5, KJV). The meaning is clear as day. It does not state that we should marry three, four, or five women or men. The word twain means two, or both of. It is clear: One man, one woman. That is the law of God. Nothing else is allowed. Like it or no, thats it.

    December 18, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
    • bostontola

      Your God.

      December 18, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
    • David B.

      So I guess you missed the part o the Bible when they had multiple wives?

      December 18, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
    • Holiday Nuts -let's just try to keep them on the playground..

      Maybe for the latter latter latter latter latter latter-day Abrahamic type God-fearing right-wing evangelical delusional types. But I doubt you can even speak for all of them.

      December 18, 2013 at 4:34 pm |
    • sam stone

      What makes you think that you have authority to speak for god?

      Because you can quote a book written, edited and translated by man?

      December 18, 2013 at 4:37 pm |
    • Madtown

      The word twain means two, or both of
      Thank you. You do realize, though, that humans beings wrote what you refer to here, and not God?

      December 18, 2013 at 4:45 pm |
    • Aaron

      Nothing else is allowed. Unless God commands. The 10 commandments are pretty adamant about not killing. But God has commanded his people to take life at times and for specific reasons. The Old Testament is rife with instances of God sanctioned Polygamy, but again it was specifically commanded for a time and purpose. The Lord's law truly is one man and one woman, but when needed, God will command differently. David had many wives but only erred in taking Bathsheba, since she was married to another whose death he caused so that he could have her and hide his sin. All other wives he had were given to him by the Lord through the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 12:8)

      December 18, 2013 at 4:52 pm |
      • Haven

        And yet over and over in the bible, your god condones killing. It's okay to kill a woman who isn't a virgin on her wedding night (Deuteronomy 22:20-21) or someone who curses their mother or father ( Leviticus 20:9) and of course, those awful people who work on Sundays must die. " Yes, keep the Sabbath day, for it is holy. Anyone who desecrates it must die; anyone who works on that day will be cut off from the community. Work six days only, but the seventh day must be a day of total rest. I repeat: Because the LORD considers it a holy day, anyone who works on the Sabbath must be put to death.' (Exodus 31:12-15) The list goes on and on, there are HUNDREDS of commands to kill...golly, it's almost like one big ol' book of contradictions.

        December 18, 2013 at 5:15 pm |
      • Charlieo

        Are you then of the belief that our nation's laws are required to founded in Biblical law as practiced by your particular Christian beliefs? Are other religions (eg Judaism) then required to be subservient under secular law? Should other religious beliefs not be afforded equal respect and weight in our nation's secular laws? As an easy example, should everyone be required to take Sunday as a day of rest and should Jews therefore not hold to the Jewish Sabbath?

        December 18, 2013 at 6:23 pm |
    • thenakedpolitico

      you people that try to quote the bible for your own fun crack me up,most of the bible clearly states that having more then 1 wife is a responsibilty of every man.with gay marriage and getting married for the fun of it,if these people want to have more then 1 wife it's really none of your buisness..

      December 18, 2013 at 4:55 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG

      what about Leviticus 19:27
      Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.

      are you true to the word of your god?

      December 18, 2013 at 5:09 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG

      what about Leviticus 19:19
      Keep my decrees. Do not mate different kinds of animals. Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed. Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.

      are you obeying every word of your god?

      December 18, 2013 at 5:10 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG

      Robert, have you ever done one iota of work on a sunday?

      December 18, 2013 at 5:11 pm |
  11. s~

    What a great deal for men.

    December 18, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
    • bostontola


      December 18, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
      • s~

        If you have to ask, you don't know men.

        December 18, 2013 at 4:38 pm |
        • bostontola

          I know plenty of women, that's why I question the statement.

          December 18, 2013 at 4:41 pm |
    • sam stone

      until their cycles start to synchronize

      December 18, 2013 at 4:39 pm |
  12. Dyslexic doG

    "But for the Browns that takes a distant second to the goal of cultivating a community that together can reach heaven"

    if you asked the Browns about this magical land in the sky where they will all be together for all eternity, I wonder if they could describe it for us? what will they all do there? how will they pass the time? will they all be the age at which they died or will they be any age they want? is it endless happiness and laughter? will they get to eat and drink or is that pleasure not available? too many questions for this atheist.

    Help me out Christians ... if you're so sure of heaven, what's it like there? How do you know?

    December 18, 2013 at 4:19 pm |
    • bostontola

      The Mormons have it pretty well mapped out. You should check it out, it's a hoot.

      December 18, 2013 at 4:25 pm |
    • Matt

      Gotta find it amusing when closed minded morons like you judge others. You have no idea what's out there or where we go when we die. The fact that you think you have any remote clue is laughable. Does heaven exist? I have no idea but I'm not stupid enough to close my mind to the many possibilities that could exist that we know nothing about.

      December 18, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
      • bostontola

        I think it is an overstatement to say atheists have no idea. The science say that our entire consciousness is in the connections within our neurons. When they are disrupted we lose part of our thinking capability. We can even have our personalities change dramatically after strokes or accidents. When those synapses stop functioning, we lose who we are. With Alzheimer's patients they lose who they are slowly and we can painfully see it happening. That doesn't prove there is nothing after death, but there is a lot of evidence to support that. Well beyond saying we have no idea.

        December 18, 2013 at 4:40 pm |
      • Dyslexic doG

        thanks mutt, apart from the insult which is very unlike your jesus and how he commanded you to act, I take your answer as "Does heaven exist? I have no idea"

        December 18, 2013 at 4:53 pm |
    • Brother Maynard

      "will they all be the age at which they died or will they be any age they want?"
      I asked this question once and the answer I got was that you are 18 when you are in heaven
      All I could think of was " Great ... when I was 18 I was actually kinda scrawny, I had pretty bad acne, I was goofy, pretty uneducated and introverted. Girls didn't like me. My social skill were pretty weak. "
      Not really the way one want's to spend eternity

      December 18, 2013 at 4:34 pm |
    • SuZieCoyote

      Everything a man could want.

      December 18, 2013 at 5:01 pm |
    • not quite

      Your question of 'polygamist' heaven is meaningless to the discussion.

      believing in fairy-tales is not uniquely polygamist.

      If you think banning ppl's rights based on their beliefs is legit then it applies to a much larger group.

      There is no rational basis to discriminate on this criteria in a secular society. The fact religious polyamorous ppl face prosecution, while irreligiously promiscuity carries no legal repercussion is the HEIGHT OF HYPOCRISY.

      hugh heffner versus kody brown. brown should go to jail, and heffner should be left in peace? that is a convoluted morality based on religious discrimination.

      December 18, 2013 at 8:06 pm |
  13. RB

    Does Pascal’s Wager have any use?
    I think it can be useful, if you limit the scope and consider it only to the point of having a reason to seek God. You obviously can’t pretend to believe in God, but if the thought that there could be a God leads you to seek, I think it is a valid reason.

    December 18, 2013 at 4:17 pm |
    • sam stone

      if fear of punishment gives you a reason to "seek god", have you not already defined god?

      December 18, 2013 at 4:24 pm |
      • RB

        Not really, it just says, there is a heaven to gain and a hell to shun. If that is a starting point for seeking, what could be the harm?

        December 18, 2013 at 5:57 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      If I am threatened with imaginary eternal punishment any God that might save me from it is most likely imaginary too. Why would I be inspired to seek anything?

      December 18, 2013 at 4:24 pm |
      • RB

        Hey Tom,

        Minus the imaginary part, if there is a God and he purports to offer you a key to heaven or hell, would you be compelled to seek?

        December 18, 2013 at 6:02 pm |
        • Tom, Tom, the Other One

          If I knew that God exists I would most likely feel compelled to seek God notwithstanding the heaven or hell bit.

          December 18, 2013 at 10:32 pm |
        • Saraswati

          Same here. I think almost everyone, if they had good evidence of such a god, would take all the actions needed to get to heaven.

          December 18, 2013 at 10:38 pm |
    • lunchbreaker

      Pascal's wager only works if there were only one God to choose from.

      December 18, 2013 at 4:27 pm |
      • RB

        Correct lunch, if you limit it to God or no God it seems useful.

        December 18, 2013 at 6:25 pm |
        • Saraswati

          If you want to assume 1+1=3 then a broken calculator is useful.

          December 18, 2013 at 10:39 pm |
    • bostontola


      Does Pascal's Wager have a use? Yes, it has hoodwinked many into conforming.

      Is it valid? No, you can't know which God you're supposed to follow.

      December 18, 2013 at 4:29 pm |
      • RB

        Yes of course you have to limit it to one God.

        December 18, 2013 at 6:27 pm |
      • not quite

        Are you literally handicapped?

        Inclusion of multiple deities doesnt effect the validity of pascal's wager.

        if you can't handle multiple versions of the same equation you would have had a hard time even passing K-12 public education.

        December 18, 2013 at 7:02 pm |
        • RB

          I must be. What else invalidates it?

          December 18, 2013 at 7:40 pm |
    • nepawoods

      I don't think what you're saying has anything to do with Pascal's Wager though. Pascal's Wager fails from the fallacy of false dichotomy. It posits two possibilities, one that there is no God, and the other that there is a God with very particular characteristics (he rewards those who live by the Bible and believe, and punishes those who don't). There's no logical reason to conclude those are the only possibilities, but the "wager" assumes that as a premise to its logic.

      December 18, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
      • veritas


        December 18, 2013 at 5:55 pm |
      • RB

        Yes nepawoods, limited as you stated it is useful.

        December 18, 2013 at 6:29 pm |
  14. Mary

    Does anyone "get" that the reason Mary had so much trouble getting her house was because she is actually married to Cody? The guy who has 17 children ?
    The other women bought these homes on their own. Mary is stuck with Cody the Daddy to 17 kids..~!

    December 18, 2013 at 4:14 pm |
  15. Destiny Lunsford

    IIt ok what is is do

    December 18, 2013 at 4:10 pm |
    • bostontola

      flat won't climb.

      December 18, 2013 at 4:14 pm |
  16. Idiot

    Seriously? Please show me an example of a happy well adjusted family where there is one WIFE and plural marriages to multiple husbands that all find this acceptable and normal. Funny how that doesn't exist. My calendar doesn't have the space to include when my "husband" will be visiting me on a particular night. He's on my calendar every night, as it should be.

    December 18, 2013 at 4:07 pm |
    • Firsto

      Perhaps then you should FORCE everyone to do and say and wear and behave exactly as YOU dictate they should. FORCE them to live the one right way.

      December 18, 2013 at 4:14 pm |
      • s~

        that arguement gave many gays and lesbian the right to marry.

        December 18, 2013 at 4:39 pm |
    • chris


      December 18, 2013 at 4:17 pm |
      • chris

        ...that was in reply to "idiot". If polygamy is fine why are there no MMMMF familys? Anyone??

        December 18, 2013 at 4:19 pm |
        • doobzz

          There are a few. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyandry

          The answer to your question is biological. A man can impregnate many women at any time, but a woman can only bear a child every 9 months or so. For a religion or society that has a "breed as much as you can" imperative, polygyny accomplishes this better than polyandry.

          December 18, 2013 at 4:27 pm |
    • thenakedpolitico

      that your fem-nazi ideas contradict reality don't bother you is amazing,men have had more then 1 wife sinse the start of time,for many logical reasons,women however have no logical reason to have more then 1 husband..but you also approve of gay marriage,socialist government.and a black santa claus and jesus...reality is a terrible thing to waste...please stop!!!!!!!

      December 18, 2013 at 5:01 pm |
      • Mopery

        Thorazine...it might help you.

        December 18, 2013 at 5:28 pm |
  17. Mary

    So as a woman is fine with this author to watch women cry and struggle every day while this wimpy guy bounces around like a teenager with raging hormones…
    Ok to create so many children he can't support them all.
    Ok that welfare has stepped in and helped many of these families support their children..
    Wow.. If a woman wants a lot of friends, she sure doesn't have to share a man to have them..~! 🙁

    December 18, 2013 at 4:03 pm |
    • bostontola

      Don't enter into a polygamous relationship, problem solved.

      December 18, 2013 at 4:05 pm |
      • Mary

        You are either a man or a dumb woman..
        Case closed..

        December 18, 2013 at 4:15 pm |
        • bostontola

          I see, you should get to choose how everyone else lives and what their prioritized values should be. Maybe you are God.

          December 18, 2013 at 4:24 pm |
        • jed clampett

          Mary is Joseph's wife, concubine of God, and mother of Jesus.

          December 18, 2013 at 5:39 pm |
    • A

      well stated...you are so much smarter than the woman who wrote this ridiculous essay!!!!!

      December 18, 2013 at 4:59 pm |
  18. Sheeple

    One family out of how many thousands where it's not a TV show but a nightmare for underage kids forced into "marriages", women being discarded after the "husband" tires of them, women and children on welfare because the "family" can't feed one set, much less multiple sets, of wives and kids?

    December 18, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
    • SuZieCoyote

      At last. Some wisdom.

      December 18, 2013 at 5:03 pm |
    • bibletruth

      And how many "regular" families on welfare??????????????????? What a lame argument-the welfare part that is.

      December 22, 2013 at 8:04 pm |
  19. bostontola

    Yet another group that shapes their entire life in this world around what they imagine will happen in another world after they die. The depth of the delusion is extraordinary.

    It's interesting that the Episcopal priest can empathize as she is under a different but similar enough delusion, and in fact appears to give credence to a different view of the afterlife.


    December 18, 2013 at 3:58 pm |
    • Shaweet

      What makes me laugh is that she firms her opinion on a stupid scripted "reality" show.

      December 18, 2013 at 4:07 pm |
      • bostontola

        She's open minded enough to accept a lifestyle outlawed in her church, but too closed minded to consider that the gods and belief systems are man made, even though the Mormon system must be man made in her view.

        December 18, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
      • Guest234

        and meeting them...

        December 18, 2013 at 5:22 pm |
      • Knows How To Read

        She MET them...She didn't sit at home watch their show and make a choice. She CLEARLY states she spent time with them.

        December 18, 2013 at 5:42 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.