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'The Latter Days': Memoir keeps readers at arms' length

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By Laura Farmer, correspondent

Memory is a funny thing, as Judith Freeman discovers in her memoir, “The Latter Days.” “What sort or reality, I wondered, had I been creating? What sort of fiction did I live inside?”

This is a question that surrounds her after she explores her Mormon childhood: growing up in Utah in the 1950s. “The Latter Days” goes deep into the details of her childhood, growing up in a family of eight, those days where she felt not individual or exceptional, but “enfolded by the collective — the collective family, the collective congregation, the collective stories we told, and the collective teachings we received in all the meetings we were required to attend.”

For those readers outside the Mormon tradition, The Latter Days offers some marvelous insights into the faith, as Freeman blends church history and doctrine into her childhood stories, giving readers a stronger sense of both the draw of this faith for Freeman and her family, and the difficultly she faces when she moves away and begins meeting colleagues and friends who are not Mormon — or who are not religious at all.

The trick with “The Latter Days,” though, comes from Freeman’s own assertion that memory can become fiction. The first 200 pages of the memoir are a decidedly whitewashed account of Freeman’s upbringing — which she later acknowledges at the book’s end. It’s a disappointing turn: Why did she insist on keeping readers at arms’ length?

There also is the matter of the subject of the memoir itself. From the description and opening chapter, the memoir promises to be primarily about Freeman’s adulthood: her marriage at 17 to her sister’s ex-boyfriend; her affair with her son’s heart surgeon. These trials, however, don’t begin until readers are well over 200 pages into the book, and are so quickly expounded these chapters read more like a recounting of events instead of a thoughtful, honest memoir.

Freeman certainly has a fascinating life story. But she’s not ready to tell it — and confront it — just yet.

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