Freeman, “The Latter Days: A Memoir” (reviewed by Doug Christensen)

Review
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Title: The Latter Days: A Memoir
Author: Judith Freeman
Publisher: Pantheon
Genre: Nonfiction
Year Published: 2016
Number of Pages: 321
Binding: Hardback
ISBN:9780307908612
Price: $28.95

Reviewed by Doug Christensen PhD, for the Association for Mormon Letters

Judith Freeman has seamlessly traversed the space between her fiction and nonfiction in her recent work, The Latter Days: A Memoir. There can be no doubt about her success in this genre because she so convincingly pulls the reader into rich folds of personal details that lead to affinity and connection. After knowing the end from the beginning, I was tempted to start the book over again to re-experience or keep experiencing her familiar voice and lyrical cadence, the second time with a more informed perspective about who she is and where she was taking me.

Orthodox, believing Mormons may run into obstacles in her portrayal of the faith, just as her father did after reading her first novel. She notes in the epilogue of this memoir that she assumed he would be angry about her version of family stories in that first novel; instead, she writes, he was upset about the way she “portrayed Mormons. He thought it made the Mormons look bad. Like racists, he said. He thought I had revealed things in my novel I shouldn’t have” (320). People who write about their faith face the challenge of being objective; if the religion stops working for them (or they stop working for it) it can be difficult to sugarcoat one’s doubt and dismissive views. Likewise, a believers’ confidence and certainty about her own religion risks its own confirmation biases.

Along these lines, people who leave their childhood faith and later write about it, too often come across to readers with cosmopolitan hubris that oversimplifies the legitimacy of complex religious commitment. Freeman shows signs of impatience with her upbringing, but in nearly equal measures she frames her faith experience and Mormonism with affection and generosity.

My interpretation of her Mormonism may say more about my own sympathy for people with her kinds of objections than it does about the way everyday active Latter-day Saints will experience her story because there are places where she comes on strong, writing things like: “And then of course there was the religion, which strove to make us all the same in thought as well as in deed” (35). Later she writes about drifting away from the church after her marriage to John Thorne. She explains how they started skiing on Sundays: “Slowly, bit by bit, we’d simply fallen away. We’d stopped wearing our garments. . . I didn’t feel guilty about this. I felt relief. Life had been hard over the last couple of years. I didn’t feel religion made it any easier. It made it harder, in fact. The rules and restrictions. The pressure to conform. The boringness of it . . . I resented the way men ruled over everything in the church . . . I did not have that thing everyone in the church talked about, and that was a testimony . . . instead I had questions, objections and disbelief” (252).

But these lines of protest contrast with other sentences that reveal some measure of spiritual faith. After coming down with a very serious flu as a child, the home teachers in her local ward gave her a blessing of healing. A few months later she recalls: “I sat on my bed one afternoon, alone, with the door closed and the light falling through the window onto my flowered quilt, and felt the powerful nearness of God. He was so near it was as if I could reach up and take His hand, and this is what I did: I simply reached up and held the hand of God, just for one quick moment. And then I let go, and went back to what I was doing” (67).

Going back to what she was doing has double meaning. There is the immediate sense of this young child returning to her moment in her bedroom, but there is also a thread in the book of going back that echoes a kind of going back described in the Old Testament, or by Levi Peterson as back sliding. Freeman describes church encounters repeatedly from a very young age, but as she matures into her teen-age years, like many Mormon youth, she ventures out beyond the borders of church guidelines, flirting with worldly delights, riding her horse on Sunday, smoking cigarettes in the hills above her Ogden home, drinking with her friend Gail after school—raiding Gail’s father’s liquor cabinet, dating an eighteen-year-old boy when she was just fourteen. “I could feel myself growing into a more rebellious girl, one eager for experience” she writes (165). And a little later, “I had chosen the great trilogy of Mormon teenage sin—smoking, drinking, and boys” (188).

Questioned by her mother about her choices, about why she kept doing things she knew she shouldn’t, she writes, “It was a question I couldn’t really answer, and so I never tried. I’d just shrug my shoulders and look away and wait for her to finish so I could go back to whatever I was doing. And increasingly, I knew what I was doing was wrong” (182). Freeman contrasts these images of backsliding with earnest journal entries and written exchanges with her seminary teacher, confessional exchanges where she expresses a desire to forsake her intemperate ways, but she keeps going back.

Mormon genealogy typically concentrates on narratives of belief, faith promoting conversion stories that remember the sacrifices and journeys of believers. Freeman’s memoir is thus in the genre of anti-genealogy, charting her gradual un-conversion, something the church would characterize as apostasy, a word often interpreted as a falling away, but that more accurately means standing apart. Standing apart implies more actively volitional distancing. Her story charts her deliberate rejection of faith, but I never have the sense that her reasons are founded in existential despair. She doesn’t throw her hands up and leave over intellectual disagreements. Her choice is more about lifestyle.

Still this is not just an angsty story of religious insurrection. Freeman also writes a love story with intrigue and scandal. Even more profoundly, she writes a literacy narrative, a story about her relationship to reading and writing. Alongside the drama of her affair with her son’s world-wise, exotic European heart surgeon, not to mention the drama of her son’s fight for his life, Freeman begins to take classes that awaken her consciousness to reading and writing.

This awakening is key to her identity. We know this first and foremost because it has led to a career as a writer, it led to this beautiful memoir, complete with family pictures and compelling pathos. We also know it because she writes about how learning changes her. While her husband earns his PhD in Psychology at Macalester, she participates in the lively student culture with discussions of books, and films, and politics: “I felt my mind being challenged and stimulated. I had come to the place where this could happen” (277). Macalester college represents a season of discovery: “When I discovered at the age of twenty, the books of Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, Henry James, and D.H. Lawrence, those writers Mr. Blakely had introduced me to, I felt I also discovered what I wanted to do with my life. As improbable as it sounds to me now, this was the moment I decided I would become a writer” (291).

These lines and others like them are vintage literacy narrative. Of course, there is another layer of literacy conveyed here; in addition to documenting her own soul-quest, Freeman teaches the reader about the varieties of religious experience, about a life outside the faith, but still affected by it.

For all of the lines in the book about the mono-culture of Mormonism, the author proves with her narrative that there are all kinds of people along a spectrum that count as Mormon. To her point, perhaps the participating ones have, at the very least, a shared vocabulary—as Wittgenstein might say, a distinct way of talking and being in the world that invokes something like a family resemblance. She proves that she is outside this vocabulary a few times when she talks about her visit to the sacred grove where Joseph Smith encounters the angel Moroni. There are accounts of his vision that make it unclear who he sees in the sacred grove, but the most widely circulated ones reveal a conversation with God and Jesus, or at least Jesus (148)[i]. She also suggests that Eliza R. Snow founded the church’s Relief Society, when in fact it was Emma Smith, first wife of Joseph. Snow did serve as the second Relief Society President, and likely had more impact on the success of the relief society than Smith. Freeman also exaggerates the absolute expectation that members will pay tithing on their gross income, and she exaggerates the ban on caffeine.

In her defense, these last two may very well have seemed more absolute during her childhood than they seem now. These few issues in the text cast no shadows. Instead they reinforce Freeman’s separation from the faith. They reinforce the emphasis in her title on her Latter-day experience as a Mormon, leaving off any emphasis or claim as a saint. Judith Freeman’s reflections about her early days are from the perspective of her latter days—a perspective of wisdom and honesty as her last lines prove: “I became the outlier I always knew I was, and I found my place, which was really no place at all—more like a transient camp of memory, a mutable, sheltering landscape, where often nothing seems missing, and the coherence of the past lives on in the bounty of the present” (321).

Freeman’s memoir suggests that like other religions, Mormonism offers a peculiar sense of place and of self, and the way she conveys this reality makes us grateful that some people who leave Mormonism cannot leave it alone.

[i] See also: https://www.lds.org/topics/first-vision-accounts?lang=eng&old=true

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