This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Judith Freeman's wide-ranging novels, from her 1989 debut, "The Chinchilla Farm," to her 2001 historical novel of polygamy, "Red Water," have explored Mormon families and culture through the lens of invented characters.
Now in her memoir "The Latter Days," published by Pantheon Books earlier this month, Freeman explicates the fictions of her memory, exploring her path growing up in a devout Mormon family in Ogden and leaving behind the religion of her childhood.
The book's detailed exploration of Utah Mormon culture might attract national readers, but just as intriguing is how Freeman's story functions as a cultural memoir of a young woman coming of age in the 1950s.
The Los Angeles writer is also the author of the biography "The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved."
Her new memoir joins a short list of nonfiction by female writers considering Mormon culture from multiple perspectives. Some of the books on that shelf might include Deborah Laake's groundbreaking 2003 memoir, "Secret Ceremonies," and more recent books such as Jane Barnes' intriguing "Falling in Love With Joseph Smith" and Joanna Brooks' heartfelt, embracing "Book of Mormon Girl," both published in 2012.
As a narrator, Freeman's voice is direct and distanced, recounting the encompassing collective of her family and LDS neighbors, while examining the repressed sexuality of a patriarchal culture. She describes her younger self as a wild girl in love with horses, who is surprised by an early encounter with the significance of making art.
Writing in The Chicago Tribune, Julia M. Klein calls the book a "tender, unspectacular coming-of-age memoir," which is a tribute to the writer's steady hand, as the outline of Freeman's life is decidedly dramatic.
"The Latter Days" tells the unlikely story of how a naive, parochial Ogden girl falls into an early marriage and pregnancy, and along the way, finds herself conducting a longtime affair with a worldly married surgeon, her son's doctor. Just as influential is the lifelong affair she begins with literature, which determines her course toward becoming a writer.
Later, she comes to believe her early marriage was partly a way to escape her father's anger, a family secret that was difficult to acknowledge after her cultural training to honor her parents.
Bookending her family's story are the traumatic deaths of two brothers, her eldest brother to cancer after serving in the military, her younger brother to AIDS.
In one of the book's more intriguing chapters, the writer explores a turquoise notebook she kept as a youth when she was attending LDS seminary classes. While Freeman had long considered herself an early rebel, she becomes reacquainted with a young girl who earnestly embraced her faith or who, perhaps, just knew the right answers to her teacher's questions and maintained an entirely different secret life. "Maybe that was the real condition of youth, which was exacerbated by the culture, where the rules were so strict and expectations were so stiff," the writer says in a phone interview from her summer home in rural Idaho.
Excavating her memories by sifting through family photographs and writing the book caused her to want to reconcile with the young girl she used to be, to offer her "a grateful and respectful bow," Freeman says, referring to a famous expression by Joan Didion. ("We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not," Didion writes in the essay "On Keeping a Notebook.")
The novelist says she never intended to write a memoir, but the project was launched when the Los Angeles Review of Books commissioned her to explain what people should know about Mormonism when Mitt Romney was running for president.
Her essay tells the story of a financial agreement in the 1880s between Romney's great-grandfather Miles P. Romney and her great-grandfather William Jordan Flake. Flake paid the bond so both men could avoid being jailed for practicing polygamy. Romney fled to Mexico and never repaid that debt, Freeman writes.
"In trying to write that piece, I eventually found a voice, and a way of writing, not only about him, but about my own background. It was really about growing up in the 1950s at the same time Romney was growing up."
Her editor at Pantheon read Freeman's essay and saw the book in it. "This is the book I've been waiting for you to write," he told her.
The author, who will be in Salt Lake City next week for two book events, talked with The Tribune about listening to her "innate intuition" and what she hopes readers will take away from her book.
How do you describe the tone of your memoir?
The voice is very frank and very open, and I think the tone is very unjudgmental, and yet, it's taking a critical look at certain aspects of my past that I hadn't wanted to before.
How did you come to find the form of the book?
As a novelist, I often think of the term "sweeping forward." We can sweep forward in the future, or we can sweep back, or we can put the brakes on. When I started the memoir, I trust that thing I do with any book. Which is: There is an innate intuition and every book will tell you what it's meant to be if you listen carefully enough.
What did you learn from your research of Mormon history for "Red Water" (a novel about three of the 19 wives of John D. Lee) that you drew upon in "The Latter Days"?
They seem like two such different books, [but the research for that book] helped me more inhabit more fully my own history. There were things I didn't know, that weren't talked about when I was growing up, such as the violence embedded in the early church. I think one needs to know those things, and it helps create a larger picture of who we are and where we came from and how things have changed.
In writing this book, you came to realize your father was more emotionally abusive then you had considered him to be. Was that difficult to acknowledge?
I think the injunction is so strong, to honor your parents, that it is almost taboo to really try and reveal a more complex person. And yet I was willing to look at myself and try to reveal certain things that I hadn't wanted to look at. And I felt like it was very important to examine that relationship with my father and to be more truthful.
What do you hope Utah readers will take away from this book?
I hope that readers in that community will understand that our stories have power far beyond our community, that our experiences aren't so small and isolated, that they can be universal. And that those universal things deal with the necessity for women to stand up against patriarchy and oppression. And the importance for women, particularly, to discover their own voice and their own path in life.
'The Latter Days'
Judith Freeman reads from "The Latter Days: A Memoir" (Pantheon, $28.95)
When • Tuesday, June 28, 7 p.m.
Where • The King's English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City; 801-484-9100; free
Also • Freeman will speak about "Memories of a Mormon Girlhood," in conjunction with a Skype Q&A with Reza Aslan, author of "Zealot: The Life and Dr. Aslan," at the annual Sunstone Conference
Where • Thursday, July 29, 7 p.m.
Where • University of Utah Student Union, Saltair Room
Registration and info • sunstonemagazine.com/2016-salt-lake-symposium-plenaries
Interview • Lindsay Hansen Park interviews Freeman at Feminist Mormon Housewives: http://feministmormonhousewivespodcast.org/episode-145-the-latter-days-with-judith-freeman/
Interview • Writer Joanna Brooks interview Freeman at Religion Dispatches: religiondispatches.org/the-secret-life-of-mormons-as-told-by-prodigal-daughter-novelist-judith-freeman/