Judith Freeman is best known as a fiction writer who frequently weaves Mormon themes into her stories. Her novel The Chinchilla Farm (1989) won an award from the Association of Mormon Letters, and Red Water (2002) centers on the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
Her latest book is a memoir about growing up female and Mormon in Ogden, Utah. An opening essay provides a focal point: at the end of the1960’s, 22-year-old Freeman had abandoned both her husband and a married lover and took her seriously ill child to move back in with her parents. She was working at the church-owned ZCMI department store when she shoplifted a fancy cooking pot branded with the name of a celebrity TV chef.
The theft was impelled by a poignantly narrow aspiration to someday become the sort of person who would own such a pot. For Freeman the burning question is why she got married at age 17. “It seems to have been such a stupid thing to do,” she writes, “and I was not a stupid girl.”
Freeman calls her upbringing as one of eight children “impersonal” since the kids were often treated as a herd. She realizes that her parents must have felt overwhelmed—her father expressed deep regrets over lost opportunities and suffered from dark moods and bursts of anger while her mother remained stoic in public and cried behind closed doors.
Even so, in some ways Freeman’s childhood seems idyllic. She could walk into the Wasatch Mountain foothills from her backyard. She had her own horse and was an avid skier. Even the monolithic Mormon culture seemed comfortingly egalitarian:
Growing up everyone I know is Mormon. The first friends I make are all Mormon because I meet them all in church. Church is the center of our life… .We are all Mormons, everyone in my family, everyone I know, everyone at school, all the politicians, and the schoolteachers and the people who own the businesses where we shop.
As Freeman digs into her past she finds that her memory doesn’t quite line up with the evidence, and there is evidence. Although she says she was raised in a house without books, thanks to the Mormon obsession with family history it was not a house without writers. Her grandmother kept a diary and her parents both wrote memoirs. They also saved snapshots, letters, and some of her old schoolwork.
Among her parents’ keepsakes Freeman discovers an old notebook from her high-school seminary class, a religious training class in Utah for young Mormons held daily during “release time” from school. Inside the notebook are embarrassingly earnest responses to such questions as, “List some methods Satan has used on you this past week,” or “Analyze the members of your peer groups and come to an honest appraisal of whether they are seeking the PRAISE OF GOD or the PRAISE OF MEN.”
She realizes that at age 16 the seminary teacher was urging girls not to consider their bodies as something under their own control but rather as “God’s property” that would be despoiled by sexual activity or drinking alcohol. Forget about free will or personal choice, also proclaimed as God-given. Even in heaven, a Mormon woman was doctrinally destined to be only a helpmate. Having thought that her teenage self was rebellious and fiercely independent, Freeman finds that in reality she was struggling to conform to ideals of chastity and self-sacrifice defined by Mormon teachings:
Chafing against the religion and all its strictures yet feeling the need to often pretend otherwise, I was developing a schism within me. Was this part of the reason I could not recognize the girl I discovered in the turquoise notebook? Because she wasn’t really one girl but two?
Freeman’s story of self-discovery and falling away from the Mormon Church will resonate strongly with many readers, particularly since in some ways not all that much has changed. In April 2016 the The Salt Lake Tribune broke a story about victims of sexual assault at LDS church-run Brigham Young University who are routinely expelled for Honor Code violations due to a blame-the-victim mentality. Mormon women interviewed for the news story told of being overwhelmed by guilt and shame and said that they lacked a vocabulary to even talk about what had happened to them. Freeman would recognize the problem. Nonetheless, her memoir is not stridently anti-Mormon and in parts she recounts spiritual experiences connected to her childhood faith and pride in her family history.
At the end of the book there is another telling episode when Freeman’s father reacts with anger to fictionalized autobiographical content in her first novel. “It makes Mormons look bad,” he says and twists the knife declaring, “This book you’ve written, it isn’t even very good. There’s nothing there. It’s boring.”
Freeman is anything but a boring writer, and her mother later tells her that her father’s feelings were hurt because the novel made the family look poor and he believed he had been a good provider. But even in this statement, perhaps meant to reassure, there’s the Mormon Church again, forcing people into rigid gender roles that pinch painfully when they don’t quite fit.
Judith Freeman is the author of four novels—Red Water, The Chinchilla Farm, Set for Life, and A Desert of Pure Feeling—and of Family Attractions, a collection of stories, and The Long Embrace, a biography of Raymond Chandler. She lives in California and Idaho.
The Latter Days: A Memoir
Amy Brunvand is an award-winning poet and an associate librarian at the Marriott Library at the University of Utah.