EARLY ON in The Latter Days, Judith Freeman writes about her first experience of being punished as a child:

This, I understand, is what it means to be very bad. You will be hurt not just on the outside but on the in-. And the inside hurt is much worse than the outside kind because you can’t do anything about it. It doesn’t go away like a wasp sting does when you put mud on it. It doesn’t grow a scab and stop hurting. It bubbles in your head continuously and you think everyone can see it, this pain, and you know this is the beginning of the thing you will later call shame.

It’s not really a surprise to meet the theme of shame on page 29 of a book about growing up Mormon in a small town in Utah. Nor is it surprising that when Freeman writes about shame, it is in searing sentences that starkly recall the specific physical pains of childhood — that sting, that scab. A novelist, Freeman is the author of several works of fiction that deal with Mormon themes: there is always great pleasure for the reader in her exacting, sensory descriptions.

But this time, in her debut memoir (albeit her second work of nonfiction), Freeman struggles to come to terms with how her own life has been shaped by her Mormon background. Having lived for many decades outside the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and having entirely reconfigured her life outside the strict, insular confines of her upbringing, this is Freeman’s effort to understand why she left and what Mormonism has meant to her. Though she is no longer a believer, she realizes she has been definitively stamped by her unique religious experience. Under reexamination, the religion even takes on a kind of exoticism for her.

As much as anything else, though, this is a book about the difficulty of the undertaking: from the start, the reader has the sensation of peeling back the layers of self and truth alongside the writer, of watching Freeman open up the memory boxes and wonder at the jewels inside. There’s a constant sense of mystery and wonderment in the reading of this book: “Why am I the way I am?” the author asks herself, and her exploration is sometimes plaintive, sometimes simply curious, dissecting her past in what feels like real time.

Mormons have increasingly entered mainstream American culture in recent years — from the Broadway musical (The Book of Mormon), to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential run, to TV shows like Sister Wives and Big Love, there’s growing interest in the different offshoots of this small and very American religion. Growing numbers of Mormon writers, especially female ones, have entered the world of memoir and nonfiction. But Freeman draws a line between her own deeply personal project and a broader sense of purpose. In a recent interview in The Salt Lake Tribune, she said:

I hope that readers in that community will understand 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 […] to discover their own voice and their own path in life.

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The dramatic events of Freeman’s coming of age might have been reason enough for her to leave church and community: a brother whose early death meant his non-Mormon wife and daughter were shunned by the family; another brother who came out as gay and eventually died of complications from AIDS; a son born with a heart condition that meant he was lucky to survive; and the affair she had with his heart surgeon, leading her to divorce the baby’s father, the man she’d married at age 17.

Still, Freeman’s transformation from obedient Utah girl to urbane Los Angeles artist remains somewhat opaque, in that she doesn’t identify a moment when she knew she did not believe in God or did not want her life to be defined by her Mormon identity. Her exploration of the self is more subtle, more honest. It seems that for Freeman, as for many of us, there was no single transformational event that caused her to leave the faith of her upbringing. Rather, hers seems to have been a gradual slide out of belief. By the time she was a teenager she no longer wanted to go to church, even though “to refuse that place was in some way to refuse the world.” Later she explains and expands on that idea, noting “we were a community as much as a religion. A culture unto itself. We were a tribe, bound by clan, blood, and ritual.” That tribe defined Freeman’s growing up: “[E]veryone I know is a Mormon,” she writes. “The first friends I make are all Mormon because I meet them all in church. Church is the center of our life.”

The Mormon identity trickled down to all aspects of her experience. Being the sixth of eight children caused a “leveling sense of sameness.” She and her siblings all had the same itchy green woolen bedding, the same hand-me-downs. In cars, they sat on each other’s laps, or “nestled on the floor near the center hump, or sometimes fit ourselves onto the shelf near the back window.” It was a life, as she says, “enfolded by the collective — the collective family, the collective congregation.”

But the homogeneity of her family life had a different effect on Freeman than might have been expected. In fact, she took an early interest in the non-Mormons in her life. (She jokes that she was the only one of her siblings born in a Catholic hospital and given a Jewish name: “How did they imagine I’d turn out?”) “The heathens begin to interest me,” she writes of her first non-Mormon friend, Brenda Butterfield. She was fascinated by the Butterfields’ cocktail hour and propensity to kiss one another in public; strange behavior to this Mormon girl, who grew up with Family Home Evening once a week, during which, along with the rest, she sang hymns and read special messages about keeping her faith strong — then washed it all down with cookies and Kool-Aid.

More and more, though, Freeman found a way to hang out with non-Mormons, “girls who had an edge to them and none of the practiced niceness of the young women in my ward who’d been groomed by their parents to be obedient and deferential.” She began picking up cigarette butts in the parking lot and smoking them on the way home from school. Her mother, smelling the smoke, worried for her youngest daughter: Why couldn’t she be more like her sister? Why did she keep doing things she knew she shouldn’t? “Why did I? I wondered,” writes Freeman. “It was a question I couldn’t really answer.”

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“What happened to the writer is not what matters,” says author Vivian Gornick, but “the larger sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of imagination is required.” We all feel the desire to be able to know our own lives, to recreate the events in order to put the pieces in order and make a shape. But what if the memories don’t stick?

In The Latter Days, the missing details from the past inspire in Freeman an intense mix of guilt and regret. Many of the chapters begin with a question, and many of those questions are never answered:

When was it that the baby began to struggle for breath? The second night he was home? The third? I no longer remember exactly: the events that occurred that night have become rather faint and blurred, as if I long ago attempted to erase them and can now make out only the pale underdrawing.

It is the same slightly befuddled, wondering voice that greets us much earlier in the narrative, when she asks, “Why did I get married at seventeen?” and continues:

I’ve been asking myself this question lately. It seems to have been such a stupid thing to do […] I have no one to blame but myself. And this knowledge has left me with a little niggling feeling of shame.

Shame again — the word loaded with religious overtones — this time, because she has fulfilled the Mormon stereotype of becoming a teenage bride and mother.

“Lately another question arises,” she continues:

Why did I choose to marry my older sister’s ex-boyfriend, the man she had rejected after promising to wait for him while he went off to the Naval Academy? What was I thinking, marrying someone so much older, let alone someone who had loved my sister before he loved me?

But although Freeman dedicates much of her book to not-knowing, to unanswerable questions, in probing her memory, however imperfect and elusive, she does come to some conclusions about who she is. In a section describing her love for horses as a girl, she presents some of the truths she has learned about herself: “I wasn’t really interested in how babies were made,” she writes. “I was interested in freedom […] I especially liked the view of the world from the back of a horse, the way it gave me a feeling of sublime loft and power.”

She loved riding so much she even saddled up on Sundays with her non-Mormon friends, until her father told her he was getting complaints from bishops and other church members:

I did what he said because I knew I had to. I stopped riding my horse on Sunday. But I also began to question many things and rebel against certain notions of right and wrong. I often felt I didn’t want to be good […] I didn’t want that kind of approval. I wanted something else. I wanted for things to make sense to me, and when it came to religion and rules and dictates they almost never did.

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Midway through The Latter Days, Freeman begins to explore Mormonism with a wider lens. She moves out of her earlier mindset — as the child who knows no better than to accept her own world as the only normal there is — to investigate the religion’s longer reach. This sort of examination comes easily to her, as evidenced in a 2012 essay for LARB. In this section of the book, Freeman’s prose is journalistic, discussing the LDS becoming “a different church in the latter half of the 20th century, less open about its beliefs and practices, more concerned with public image,” in an effort to achieve legitimacy in the United States. It’s when she returns to her preoccupation with her stormy history, her own place within the culture, that the prose becomes more fraught and complex: “When I was fifteen years old,” she says, “I started to feel that you couldn’t believe in something when you’d never had a chance not to believe. I felt there must be another way of looking at the world, of making sense of it.”

In an effort to understand her Mormon self, she goes back to her journal from school, saved by her parents and discovered after their deaths. So important is this object that Freeman dedicates one whole section toward the end of the book — “The Turquoise Notebook” — to it. She remembers receiving it on the first day of her LDS religion class in high school:

On the cover, made of cardboard covered in turquoise cloth, were stamped the words CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST OF LATTER-DAY SAINTS SEMINARY, and below that, etched in gold, the angel Moroni stood atop a golden globe of the world, blowing his golden horn — the same figure that crowns most Mormon temples worldwide.

The notebook was stuffed full of assignments and worksheets from class, graded and handed back.

“For many years after the turquoise notebook was returned to me I avoided looking at it,” she writes. Once again, it’s the issue of the fallibility of memory and the mystery of the self that intrigues her. “It’s one thing,” she writes, “when attempting to recall the past to rely on memory, mysterious as it is in its workings, and quite another to discover hard facts in the form of written evidence.”

There’s something else about the notebook, too. When she did flip through the pages, she admits, “I always felt a kind of astonishment. Who was the girl who had owned this notebook? Who filled in these worksheets, learned a scripture each week, made collages from pictures cut from magazines, extolling chastity and abstinence from sin?” Deciding to read all the way through, Freeman experiences “a kind of dull dread […] the old why-did-I ever? feeling.” Reckoning with our younger selves inspires embarrassed perplexity for many of us. But the turquoise notebook horrifies Freeman by making her come to terms with herself as deferential and wanting to believe.

It also forces her to recognize how unhappy she was as a child. She describes leafing through the largest section of pages, dedicated to “dating”: “I came across an assignment titled ‘Draw Your Personality Profile,’ where we were asked to answer questions about ourselves by checking boxes.” She discovers that in response to the question “Are you depressed frequently?” she’d marked “always” — and this astounds her: “When I looked at my answer, I grew quiet. I am always depressed, answered the sixteen-year-old me: it is the only thing I always am.” Again, she finds herself with questions: “What could the word ‘depressed’ have meant to me at that time? […] I don’t remember my friends talking about such things.” A bit further down she tells us, “Only later, much later, as an adult, did I read about the studies that showed Mormon women have one of the highest rates of depression in the country.”

Then, finally, come memories of locking herself in a bathroom and threatening to slit her wrists: “Chafing against the religion and all its strictures, yet feeling the need to often pretend otherwise, I was developing a schism within me,” she writes. She starts to see how it is that she could have made the decision that has continued to perplex her throughout: to marry her sister’s ex-boyfriend at age 17. For most of her life, Freeman realizes, she was divided between the righteous, obedient girl she’d been taught to be, and a freer, truer version of herself. In the end she chose to rebel — and escape — in the only way she knew how.

And yet, this isn’t the full truth either.

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In “Home,” the book’s last section, Freeman drives across Utah to have breakfast in a diner with John Thorn, her first husband and the father of her son. It’s been 50 years since they took their marriage vows in a Mormon temple in Salt Lake City. “There were facts I wanted to check,” she says plainly of the meeting. She reports the details of the journey — how, though her present husband and their dog have accompanied her, she leaves them at the hotel when she goes to meet John. It’s a somewhat jarring switch of tone — echoing the distanced style she uses when she writes about Mormon history, but more noticeable here, because she is describing her life.

Amplifying this tonal shift, the substance of their conversation turns out to be revelatory. John reminds Freeman how physically abusive her father was to her and her siblings; that he threatened to shoot John, not once but twice; and that he forced them to marry instead of waiting until she was at least 19, as they’d wanted to do.

“Your father insisted on it, even though my parents wanted us to wait,” he tells her. “And we wanted to wait?” she asks him again. “Yes, we wanted to wait, too,” he says. “That was the plan.”

“I knew he was right,” Freeman writes. “I knew that he wasn’t making this up, that my father had done this, had served me up on the marriage altar prematurely, and at that moment I also clearly understood it was because he wouldn’t have minded simply being rid of me.”

It turns out that the question Freeman has been asking herself again and again has a simpler answer than she’d suspected. She went to the altar not because she was wild or rebellious or even because she was emotionally troubled, but rather because her father was angry and punitive and determined to control her.

“Why had I buried it?” she asks herself as she recognizes this to be fact. “Why had I denied his cruelty?” She concludes that she had been taught to revere her parents, realizing that her fear of her father persisted through adulthood; she would “grovel, year after year, in letter after letter, and visit after visit,” she writes, “hoping for whatever crumb of acceptance or affection he might throw my way.” As she makes her way back across the state, husband and dog in tow, Freeman is absorbing her new understanding about herself as a young woman: “What sort of reality, I wondered, had I been creating? What sort of fiction did I live inside?”

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Though Freeman lives and writes in Los Angeles for most of the year, home for her is a small farm in southern Idaho. Her love for the land is physical and intense, and in this final section of the book she vividly describes it: “We’re almost home now. The sun has finally come out and you can see where the storm has passed over the mountains in a narrow swath, leaving a skiff of snow like a coating of powdered sugar.”

Before reaching the farm, she lies back in the passenger seat to look up at the sky as her husband drives. “Layer after layer of dense white clouds, one layer behind the other, clouds stacked and staggered into infinity and lending the sky an astonishing feeling of depth,” she writes. “Satellites and God up there, I think. And not just God but Mrs. God. Whether or not they exist, we’re slaves to the gods.

But in a way, Freeman tells us, the sky and the mountains wipe the past clean. Her whole history and memory and self is etched into this landscape, and somehow, driving into it — and writing about driving into it — seems to free her from the prison of the past.

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Miranda Kennedy is the author of the book Sideways on a Scooter: Life and Love in India. She is writing a book about religious belief in the United States.