A lapsed Mormon novelist fears her book may bring church pressure

AP, May 22, 2003
By Patty Henetz, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Nineteenth-century polygamy and an 1857 massacre are hypersensitive subjects in Mormon history. Judith Freeman tackled both in her 2002 novel, ‘‘Red Water.”

Now the writer who divides her time between Los Angeles and Idaho fears she may to pay a price that other Mormon writers and artists have faced: pressure from the church.

In July, six months after the novel’s publication, the president of the Los Angeles temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wrote Freeman a letter inviting her to meet with him ”to discuss your feelings about the church and what, if anything, should be done about them.”

A lapsed Mormon who hasn’t been to church for 30 years but never requested to be removed from its membership rolls, Freeman said she found the letter by Michael Fairclough ominous.

”This letter was intended to silence or punish or intimidate me as a writer,” she said.

But in an interview, Fairclough denied his letter was a prelude to church discipline. ”I just wanted to talk to her,” he said. ”I haven’t read the book. I’ve only read about it.”

In ”Red Water,” which won a 2002 Utah Book Award, three wives of the historical figure John D. Lee tell the story of the 1857 massacre in southern Utah of more than 120 Arkansas pioneers bound for California.

Lee, the adopted son of church prophet Brigham Young, was the only man found guilty for the killings. On March 23, 1877, he was taken back to the scene of the crime, where a firing squad sat him on his coffin and shot him to death.

Church leaders at first blamed the massacre on Piute Indians, then on apocalyptic fanatics on the frontier led by Lee. Historians continue to argue about the tragedy to this day, with some saying church prophet Brigham Young incited the mob and allowed Lee to be his scapegoat. Others maintain Young couldn’t have known the settlers would attack the wagon train.

In 1999, crews preparing a new monument to honor the victims inadvertently uncovered the scattered bones of at least 28 adults and children, some of whose skulls bore bullet holes. Some said the conclusion that they’d been shot at close range implicated the Mormons.

But at the dedication of the memorial, church prophet and President Gordon B. Hinckley, while saying the church had a moral responsibility to remember the victims, refused to acknowledge any church complicity. ”Let the book of the past be closed,” he said.

Freeman also wrote about polygamy.

She said that as a child with polygamous ancestors on both sides, she was taught a romantic view of polygamy, that everyone was happy and everyone worked together.

But as she immersed herself in the 19th century diaries, including those of her own ancestors, Freeman concluded that polygamy, which church founder Joseph Smith said was an edict from God, caused plural wives to suffer emotionally and physically from the hunger, harshness and emotional privations of their lives.

The Mormon church outlawed polygamy in 1890. It excommunicates practitioners and denies any affiliation with modern-day polygamous sects that consider themselves the true practitioners of original Mormon doctrine.

Other Mormon artists have run into similar trouble with the church.

Tom Rogers in 1976 wrote the play ”Huebener,” the story of a 17-year-old German Mormon boy who was guillotined for resisting the Nazi party. After its initial run at Brigham Young University, Rogers was told he couldn’t produce ”Huebener” again.

English professor Brian Evenson in 1995 left BYU and eventually the church amid Mormon criticism of the dark themes and parallels to Mormonism in his fiction.

And playwright and film director Neil LaBute was barred from taking sacrament and participating in church priesthood activities for creating despicable characters.

”I really do feel it’s very difficult and, in fact, even impossible to be a genuine writer and maintain that allegiance to Mormonism,” said Evenson, now a professor at Brown University.

But Rogers, who is fully active with the church and currently producing ”Huebener” at a community theater in Bountiful, Utah, said that as a Mormon writer, ”you have to follow your own vision, then take your chances.”

Freeman says she didn’t seek out controversial topics in an attempt to change the church.

”I’m not out to reform the church,” she said. ”I just want to write novels.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday May 22, 2003.
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