The Mormon Chronicles: A Meditation in Four Parts

By Judith FreemanAugust 26, 2012

    The Mormon Chronicles: A Meditation in Four Parts

    Fig. 1. William Flake here appears in prison garb during his six-month sentence at the Yuma Territorial Prison for illegal cohabitation (polygamy). Photo courtesy of the Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park, Yuma, Arizona and



    The Debt

    MITT ROMNEY OWES ME money. Not a lot of money by his standards, but a fair little chunk of change by mine. It’s an old debt, in fact a family matter, and I’d like to say right here and now that I think it’s high time it was repaid.

    Here is the story of that indebtedness:

    In the 1870s, Mitt Romney’s great-grandfather, Miles P. Romney, and my great-grandfather, William Jordan Flake, were patriarchs of adjoining Mormon communities in the high, cold, hard country of northern Arizona, a region known as Apache County. They had been sent to northern Arizona by the prophet Brigham Young to settle new communities and expand the kingdom of Deseret, which was the name the Mormons liked to use for their fiefdom in the West (it’s the word for honey bees and meant to evoke their ceaseless industry).  

    Both Romney and Flake were descendants of early English converts to the Mormon Church: their fathers had made the great trek westward in the late 1840s and settled in Utah, where Miles Romney became known for his roles in amateur theatricals while Flake was celebrated for his horsemanship and frontier skills. A few years before they were called to become part of Brigham Young’s plan to establish a corridor from Utah to Mexico, both Romney and Flake had been told to take additional wives, much to the chagrin of their original spouses. But because polygamy was considered to be the “Divine Principle,” a commandment revealed by God, and because one did not disobey the Prophet Brigham Young, both Romney and Flake added wives to their households. As it turned out, Flake married, as his second wife, a young family friend, 16-year-old Prudence Kartchner, my great-grandmother.

    Shortly after William Jordan Flake arrived in Arizona, he bought up a very large tract of land from a white settler named Stinson – the first white settler, in fact, in that part of Arizona – and founded a new town, called Snowflake, named after himself and an apostle of the church, Erastus Snow. Miles P. Romney landed in a community not far away called St. Johns, a settlement on the Little Colorado River described by one writer as a “wild amalgamation of gun-toting immigrant farmers, Native Americans, and Mexicans, many of whom despised the Mormons.”

    There were complaints about the newcomers, not only over whether they actually owned title to their land (Flake could prove he did, Romney was less lucky) but also about their scandalous practice of polygamy. A new anti-polygamy law, much tougher than an older one that had rarely been enforced, had been enacted by the U.S. government in 1882 and federal marshals were under orders to make it stick this time. The marshals began rounding up the Arizona polygamists and arresting them. Both Romney and Flake became targets. But Flake, as it turned out, had become a deeply respected man, much more so than Miles Romney. One newspaper editor wrote of Romney, who had a well-known fondness for wine in spite of the Mormon prohibition against drinking, that he considered him “a mass of putrid pus and rotten goose pimples; a skunk, with the face of a baboon, the character of a louse, the breath of a buzzard and the record of a perjurer and common drunkard.” In other words, he didn’t like him.

    Eventually both Romney and my great-grandfather were arrested – Flake on polygamy charges, and Romney on charges of polygamy and some related to false land claims. He beat the polygamy charge by sending two of his three wives into hiding, but not the accusation about having no title to his land, and he was arrested again. Because Romney had no money and my great-grandfather Flake did, Flake posted bail for both of them. The bail was $1,000 each, a considerable sum in the 1880s.

    Now we come to the matter I’d like to bring up with Mitt.

    Miles P. Romney skipped out on his bail, fleeing across the border into Mexico with his three wives, Hannah, Annie, and Catharine, and their children. He landed in Colonia Juarez where he helped establish a new sanctuary for Mormon polygamists. He left my great-grandfather Flake holding the bag. Flake, on the other hand, was eventually sent to the Yuma Territorial Prison where he served out a six-month sentence for polygamy, after which he returned to Snowflake and his two wives and children and continued to lived happily with them, undisturbed by the law, a revered leader of the community. He later became one of the first Arizona state senators, and died at the age of 94, having produced an extraordinary number of progeny.   Romney stayed in Mexico, where Mitt’s father George was born.

    Miles Park Romney

    Fig. 2. Miles Park Romney, here pictured in theatrical costume, was said to be a "colossus of the stage." Photograph courtesy of the Special Collections Department, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah.

    The point is Miles P. Romney never bothered to repay my great-grandfather Flake the thousand dollars he owed him for posting his bail. Since it’s never too late to make a situation right, and since Mitt Romney seems to have sufficient funds now to cover his ancestor’s old debt, I’d like to call upon him to do so. I’ve done some calculation, and $1,000 from the 1880s would today be worth about $25,000, not counting interest (and since I’m not a smart enough to figure up the interest, I’m willing to let that part slide). Because William Jordan Flake has about 15,000 descendants living at the moment, I realize I’ll have to divide up the money should Romney do the right thing and write out that check.

    However, I want to assure Mitt that I’m more than happy to be the disperser of the funds and I guarantee that all the Flakes of the world will get their fair share the moment he does the right thing.


    The Rich Man’s Library

    When I was a girl growing up in Mormon Utah, I worked briefly for a man I’ll call Don Wright. Don Wright was a lot like Mitt Romney: he was rich, and white, and good looking, a devout Mormon with an adoring wife, who lived with his family in a big new house on a hill above town and attended church every Sunday. He and his wife referred to their fellow Mormons as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ as was the custom, both then and now. The Wrights were devout believers in the true gospel of Jesus Christ – i.e. Mormonism – which they understood had been restored to earth in these latter days. They belonged to the same ward (or congregation) as my family and that’s how I came to know them.

    The Wrights, like the Romneys, were a very vibrant and attractive couple, popular and well liked in our ward. When I met them they were in their early forties and they already had 11 children, all under the age of 12. Sister Wright was a remarkably slender woman considering her many pregnancies: she had bright red hair and freckled skin and though she could not in any real sense be considered pretty she still managed to be attractive, in part because she dressed and carried herself well. She had both the money to do so, and the good taste.   She cared for her eleven children herself, with the help of occasional baby-sitters.  When I think of her now I see a quiet, somewhat harried woman surrounded by many babies, submissive and quiet and yet sweet. I never understood exactly how Don Wright made his money. I just knew he made a lot of it. Like Mitt Romney, he was a very rich man.

    I was thirteen when I went to work for the Wrights. Initially I was hired to help with child care over one summer but I was soon given another job, that of helping Don Wright organize his library, in a very large room in the basement of his very large house.

    Because the house was new, the library was being built from scratch to Don Wright’s specifications. It had a walk-in security vault at one end, and several large wooden tables in the center of the room for looking at the books and manuscripts in the collection. The room had just been finished when Wright asked me one day if I’d like the job of helping him organize his library and catalogue his books. All the books were still in cardboard boxes, sitting on the floor of the room that had been lined with new wooden shelves. It was my job over the course of that summer to unpack all the boxes of books and place each book on the shelves according to a system Don Wright had developed, and at the same time make an inventory of the books he owned. I took a deep pleasure in this job, in part because the whole idea of a library was something new to me, as was the notion of being allowed to handle and catalogue such beautiful books. As teenage summer jobs go, it seemed vastly superior to babysitting children.

    There were few books in the house where I grew up, except for religious books with titles like A Marvelous Work and Wonder and Answers to Gospel Questions, and of course the books that comprise the Mormon trilogy – The Book of Mormon, The Doctrine and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price, which contain the teachings on which the religion is based. None of these books appealed to a child: they had to be force fed, which of course they were on a regular basis, in discussions during family home evenings and weekly Church meetings, of which there were many. There were, however, a couple of books on our shelves that as I grew older I remember reading, including one with the remarkable title of Heart Throbs of the West: A Unique Volume Treating Definite Subjects of Western History, complied by Kate B. Carter and published in 1948 by the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers. These were stories about early Mormon emigrants and the culture of settlement. I remember reading Heart Throbs of the West and thinking it was quite cool because at least there were adventures in it, and animals, and the landscape of the West – stories with titles like “An English Boy in a Strange Land,” or “A Heroine of the West,” “An Indian War Soldier,” and “First Shoes Made in Utah.”

    These were amazing stories – true stories – what Mormons are fond of calling “faith-promoting stories,” which, as it turns out, are the kinds of stories they like best.

    My mother also ordered by mail many volumes of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books which were very popular in the 1950s: These books were kept neatly lined up on a shelf next to the religious books, though I never saw anyone open one. I remember thinking even as a child these books must be strange things, like the condensed milk – often called evaporated milk – that we sometimes had with our Postum for breakfast when we ran out of the real thing. I thought, who would want to read a condensed book if you could have a real one?

    All these books – the religious books and the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books – were kept neatly lined up on three or four shelves in a small built-in bookshelf just inside the front door. On top of the bookshelf was a planter filled with plastic geraniums and tiny white rocks, and since it was my job to dust the geraniums and keep the plastic shiny, I often also dusted the books and memorized their titles as I did so.

    In truth, even if we had had more books on the shelves, there was no time for reading in our household; we were always too busy going to church. Growing up I never saw anyone in my family read a book for pleasure. There were eight kids in our family and I don’t think any one of us ever owned a library card. I know I did not. Nor do I ever remember being taken to a library, or for that matter having an adult read a book to me. Except for the religious books, and the Reader’ s Digest volumes, kept on the shelves below the plastic flowers, I might have been forgiven for thinking there was no literature in the world.

    Thus the great discovery I made over that summer working for Don Wright: here was a real library, a treasury of books. Each one to be unpacked and catalogued by me.  

    It must be said here that Don Wright owned many beautiful books. All hardcovers, editions of Shakespeare and the Harvard Classics, works by Dickens and other English and American novelists, books on the history and settlement of the American West, volumes of maps, and books describing the world’s cultures and religions. Some days Don Wright and I worked alongside each other in the library and he would tell me the story of how he acquired a certain book. Some were quite rare, he said, and he’d name a price he’d paid. As he talked about his books I came to see he was concerned with their value more than their contents.   He rarely discussed why he’d chosen to buy a certain book, only what it had cost.

    Why did Don Wright have so many books? He wasn’t a scholar and seemed to have no great interest in literature. Like Mitt Romney, he lived in a world of money and finance: that was how he’d made his fortune, as I later came to learn. And, like Romney, Don Wright was very good at getting people to invest their money with him. Until suddenly he wasn’t.

    His fall from grace came not the summer that I worked for him, but a year or so later when it was revealed that he had bilked people out of their savings only to lose their money in ill-advised investment schemes. Many local people, including some of rather modest means, had entrusted their money to him and when the news of his scams came out, the feeling against him in our small community ran very high. At the same time we learned he had seduced another man’s wife during a visit to their home as a Ward Teacher while the woman’s husband was away. In no time at all, Don Wright lost his money, along with his reputation. He lost his big house on the hill and his expensive library: he and his sweet, shy wife and 11 children were forced to move away to escape the scandal. I never knew what became of him, or of that extraordinary library of books.

    When I think of him now, and of that summer I worked for him, one of the strongest memories I have of Don Wright is this:

    One day, while working in the library, Don Wright said he had something to show me, something very special that very few people had ever seen. He took me into the walk-in vault at the end of the long room where we stood close together – the handsome and charismatic rich man, and the teenage girl, swiftly becoming a knowing young woman – and with great ceremony he took down a beautiful wooden case from the shelf. The case was locked. He opened it slowly to reveal three objects nestled inside against the velvet lining. The objects were made of gold – two gold chalices, and a larger piece, beautifully formed and decorated. This was a breastplate, he said. Two gold chalices, and a breastplate. These were ancient objects, discovered in an archeological dig in Guatemala, the same objects, he said, that had been described in the Book of Mormon.

    He closed the box and put it back on the shelf.   And then he swore me to secrecy, telling me I must never reveal what I just saw.

    He then touched my face, like a lover might, and said: Now you know that The Book of Mormon is true. You have seen the very objects described in it pages.


    In Our Own Image

    Utah, from the time of its settlement by the Mormons in 1848, has had a reputation for producing some remarkable scammers. Making money has always been a very good thing in Mormon culture. Rich men are respected and inevitably rise through the ranks in both civic and church affairs. How you make your money is not so important as simply making it. Mormon get-rich schemes often involve exploiting some kind of current fad – diet pills, or vitamins, body-building supplements, reducing machines and pep pills, gizmos invented from scratch to make life easier – or, in the case of Mitt Romney, the perfect life-like doll.

    While working at Bain Capital, Romney’s great talent, according to The Real Romney, Michael Kranish and Scott Helman’s recent biography of the candidate, was not in generating ideas for products or ventures in which people could invest but in crunching numbers to see if such an investment could make sense. One of the very few ideas he originated from scratch and backed with his own money was a product he called “Lifelike.”

    Most of his ideas for new deals had flopped when Romney arrived at work one morning in 1996 with what he thought was a great new idea. It had actually come from a friend, another Mormon named Reed Wilcox, also a graduate of Brigham Young University and Harvard Business School. Wilcox worked for a company that had developed the ability to take a photograph of a child and create a doll that looked exactly like that child. Wouldn’t this be a fun thing to do? Romney thought. Wouldn’t this be a sure-fire moneymaker? The two-foot high dolls would sell for $150 – a bit pricey for the average family maybe, but Bain didn’t exactly deal with the average. One can imagine Mitt thinking what it might mean to children to have a doll that looked just like them, one almost their own size – two feet tall! When that child looked at the doll what would he see but his own little likeness. It would suddenly be a world of me-me-me! You could even order more than one doll if you wanted and have a whole roomful of your own little selves, like a scene out of a nursery horror movie.

    Romney authorized a $2.1 million investment from Bain Capitol to get the ball rolling, and then personally loaned an unknown amount of his own money for the venture. The dolls were manufactured in Hong Kong and Colorado. But sales sputtered when the economy began tanking in 2001, and by 2003 there were serious problems with both quality and production. One wonders what exactly the quality problems were – egregious misrepresentations of the little tots? Perhaps dolls that fell apart before their eyes, like their own tiny selves coming apart? Whatever the difficulties, Lifelike wasn’t doing so well. There were hundreds of complaints by consumers who told the Colorado attorney general that they felt bilked: the dolls they ordered had not been received in time for Christmas 2003 as promised. By 2005 Lifelike had filed for bankruptcy. It owed $2 million to its Hong Kong manufacturer and thousands more to advertising agencies and various other creditors.   That same year, a judge approved an auction of the company’s assets, which went for less than half of what was owed, let alone what Bain had invested originally and whatever Romney had put in. Bain lost its money, and so did Romney, and Lifelike became the word no one wanted to ever hear again around the Bain offices. All mention of it was erased from the company’s website. Like other elements of Romney’s life, it was consigned to the dust-heap of that-which-we-don’t-talk-about.  


    “You’re Fired!”

    When my younger brother Jerry first announced to my parents that he wanted to become a writer, my father, who could be a rather stern man but also a funny one, looked at him and said, That’s fine, but I forbid you to write about two subjects – religion and family.

    This time he wasn’t joking.

    As it turned out, my brother didn’t become the writer in the family: I did. Jerry became a bus driver in San Francisco, a reader of James Joyce and one of the smartest men I’ve ever known, who came out (if only to himself) as a gay man on the eve of his departure for a Mormon mission at the age of 18. I can’t do it, he said to my father that night, meaning that even though he’d gotten his “mission call” from the bishop, and had accepted it, and was supposed to leave for the Missionary Training School the next day, there was no way he could actually go through with it. My parents took back the two missionary suits they’d bought for him, and the white shirts and black ties, and then told him he was from now on banished from the house (though the banishment would in time be rescinded). In a way that was the good news: he got to begin his real life, as an openly gay man, with a blazingly sharp mind, and an appetite for all the fine things in life his good taste would lead him to, including a deep love of literature.

    I could say that my own interest in books and literature began that summer I worked for Don Wright, except that I never actually read any of his books, I just handled them, and sadly literature can’t be absorbed by osmosis.

    Later, however, I did become a reader. I was 19 when I discovered the works of Thomas Hardy, and Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, and D.H. Lawrence, and I thought: who knew?

    And then I thought: this is what I want to do. I want to become a writer of stories.

    I was glad my father hadn’t said to me what he said to my brother Jerry and directly forbidden me to write about family or religion because it became clear to me very early on that this might very well be a part of what I’d want to write about if I wished to become a novelist.

    When I announced to my family that I wanted to become a writer, I might as well have said, I think I’ll start raising white rhinos for all they believed in the possibility of such a thing. This was in the late 1970s. I was living in L.A. at the time, writing every day, working on the stories that would form my first collection. When my parents called and ask what I was doing, I’d say, Oh, you know, just writing, working on some stories. And I could tell from their muted reaction that they were looking at each other, standing there in the kitchen at the other end of the line in far-away Utah, and thinking, right, white rhinos.

    In time I published my first book, a collection of short stories, and then a year later I published a novel. Many of the stories, as well as that first novel, were a lot about – what else? – family and religion. Now my parents understood very well what I was up to, and they were rather upset, to understate the matter. Now it was me who was alienated from the familial realm, and that banishment would prove much harder to rescind.

    Many years and several novels later, I found myself in a small bookstore in Port Townsend, Washington where I came across a book called The Mountain Meadows Massacre by Juanita Brooks. Published in 1950, it told the story – more fully than it had ever been told – of a terrible massacre, plotted and committed by Mormons with the help of a group of Paiute Indians in 1857. An entire wagon train of emigrants from Arkansas, making their way through the territory of Utah en route to the gold fields of California, was slaughtered in a high mountain meadow in an area of Southern Utah known as Mountain Meadows, a place where emigrant trains often stopped to let their animals graze. Of the 120 people murdered that day (ironically, September 11th), some 80 were women and children. These emigrants had done nothing to deserve their fate, except to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and to have come from a state – Arkansas – where a high-ranking and much-beloved Mormon elder named Parley P. Pratt, who was serving a mission there, had recently been killed by a jealous husband for stealing his wife. For many years the Mormons lied about their role in the massacre, claiming the Indians did it. And then Juanita Brooks, a tough little Mormon woman and self-taught historian wrote her book that told the truth. This, needless to say, was not a faith-promoting story. This was a story about the dirty little violent secret buried in the heart of Mormon history, buried so deeply that growing up I’d barely heard about it. But when I read Juanita Brooks’ account, I knew I wanted to write a novel about it.

    The book I wrote, Red Water, focused not on the massacre itself but on an early Mormon settler and polygamist named John D. Lee, or, more precisely, it focused on three of his 19 wives, the youngest of whom was 13. I came at the story slant-wise, through the women. Lee was the only Mormon ever brought to trial and convicted for the crimes committed at Mountain Meadows, even though there were probably 75 to100 Mormon men and boys who took part in the killing that day. Nearly 20 years after the massacre occurred, Lee was taken back to the meadow and executed by firing squad while sitting on his coffin. There are those to this day who think he became the “goat,” sacrificed by his church and his adopted father, Brigham Young, in an attempt to put the scandal behind them.    

    Not long after my novel, Red Water, came out, I received a letter from the Stake President of the Mormon Church in Los Angeles. It was dated July 15, 2002 and addressed to me at both my residence in L.A. and my place in the country in Idaho. It read:

    Dear Ms. Freeman:

    It has come to my attention that you reside, at least some of the time, in the Wilshire Ward of the Los Angeles Stake of the Church. I am generally aware of your reputation as a gifted writer. I am also aware of public reports that you have long since become disaffected with, and estranged from, the Church. I would be grateful for an opportunity to meet with you in person to discuss your feelings concerning the Church and what, if anything, should be done about them. I invite you to call me at my office number to see if there is a convenient time when one of my counselors and I could meet with you.

    Michael J. Fairclough
    Stake President

    The moment I read this letter, I knew what it represented. I was being called to an ex-communication hearing, not because I’d become “disaffected with” or “estranged from” the church, but because I’d written about a taboo subject, The Mountain Meadows Massacre.

    I didn’t mention the letter to many people, but when I told my best friend, she said, What did you feel like when you read it?

    I told her it gave me a stomach ache.

    More precisely, I said it make me sick.

    Even more exactly, I said it brought up old feelings of fear and shame that I had felt so often as a child when I was told I had done something wrong and was about to be punished for it.

    It was the idea that these Church officials wanted to examine my religious views – discuss my feelings – in order to see what should be done about them that got to me: not what could be done about them, but what should, leaving no question as to who the deciders would be.

    I told my friend that, after I’d gotten over the fear and loathing and had a day or two to consider the situation, I’d managed to calm down. I thought, What the hell, go ahead and fire me, who cares? I begin to fantasize about all the religions in the world that might be dying to pick me up. I might even advertise: generally gifted writer, looking for new spiritual home.

    There are some things people can take away from you and some things they cannot, and what the Church officials in Los Angeles – those immaculately groomed, well-dressed men I felt I knew from my youth – couldn’t take away was the connection to my own history, the reverence for my ancestors, and the respect I have for the many good people who call themselves Mormons. President Fairclough, with his all-too perfect name, was free to be as punitive as he wished and strip me of my membership if it made him feel more righteous. I came to see that unless I let him, he couldn’t actually hurt me.

    I never called President Fairclough “at my convenience.” I never set up that meeting, though later I sort of wished I had.  The little bad self in me wished I’d shown up with a tiny tape recorder concealed inside my pocket in order to record what exactly goes on during a modern-day religious inquisition because, let’s face it, just how often do you get to do that?

    Whether I was ever actually ex-communicated I don’t know, but I don’t think I was. I don’t think so because last summer, when I put in a change of address form in my local post office and requested that my mail here in the country be switched from being delivered at a P.O. box in town to rural delivery, I got an official letter from the Church saying, Are you the Judith Freeman who used to live at such and such an address and now lives at blah blah blah . . . ? We’re just trying to update our records.

    This letter came three weeks after I’d put in the change of address. What I want to know is, how does the Church track people so quickly? And why is it they are able to gain such easy access to my information?

    The other thing I’d like to know is, how many letters like this did Mitt Romney send out when he was Stake President in the Boston area in the 1980s and holding the same office as President Fairclough? The highest office, in other words, of all the regional offices in the Church, the equivalent of a Catholic archbishop?   Did Romney like excommunicating people from the church as much as he enjoyed firing those in the secular world who didn’t meet his standards?

    I like firing people! he exclaimed during the primary.

    Somehow I didn’t have any trouble believing it. He’d had the training.


    Recommended Reads:

    LARB Contributor

    Judith Freeman is the author of a collection of stories and several novels, including The Chinchilla Farm (W.W. Norton) and Red Water (Pantheon Books). Her most recent book is the nonfiction work The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved (Pantheon, 2007). Her new novel, Macarthur Park (Pantheon Books), is coming out in October. She can be contacted at


    LARB Staff Recommendations

    Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

    LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!