On Sunday, October 23 at 6pm, join Massy Arts, Massy Books, and horror novelist S.M. Freedman for the launch of her new riveting psychological thriller: Blood Atonement.
In conversation with novelist Amber Cowie, Freedman takes us through a reading that will have readers by the edge of their seat as they follow the story of a protagonist who finds herself as the suspect in a gruesome series of murders.
In anticipation of the launch of Blood Atonement, Romila Barryman interviews S. M. Freedman for Massy Arts Society. The author discusses memory as a theme between her books, her past life as a private investigator and the “knife’s edge” of cultlike fanaticism.
Blood Atonement follows a dissociative and religiously traumatized protagonist, Grace DeRoche, who becomes the suspect in a gruesome series of murders. I’m immensely curious about your relationship is to Mormonism and how it shaped the storyline of the book?
I’m fascinated by the harm caused by all aspects of extremism in our society—religious, patriarchal, political—and how that impacts survivors years or even decades later. How do we break free from the ingrained lessons and damage done in childhood? It seems to me that every religion and political ideology can become damaging when taken to the extreme. I’ve witnessed this even within some factions of my religious community, where those who don’t fit the narrow definition of what’s “acceptable” are ostracized by their own family, and the idea of a parent turning their back on their child breaks my heart. Followers of the Fundamentalist Mormon Church (FLDS) take their beliefs to the knife’s edge of cultlike fanaticism, and I wanted to highlight the damage done to their lost children. I think it translates to many factions of our society, and I hope it serves as a fictionalized example of the real damage done by intolerance and extremism.
There’s an interesting theme that emerges in all your books, which is memory—or rather, the lack or uncertainty of it. There is something particularly terrifying about not being credible witnesses to our own experiences. How did this idea became so prevalent in all your books?
The fluidity and fallacy of memory is something I find both horrifying and fascinating, which is probably why I explore those blurred edges in all my books. Which memories are real? Which are manipulated? Which are outright lies? In Grace’s case, she develops dissociative identity disorder while growing up in a fictionalized sect of the FLDS. As with others who suffer sustained abuse, Grace’s mind fragments as a form of survival, protecting her until she can escape. Once she’s safe, this fragmentation becomes a barrier to living a normal life. Dissociative triggers are everywhere, and she can never predict when an alter personality will take over. When other escapees die under suspicious circumstances and the evidence points in her direction, Grace must determine if one of her alter personalities has become a murderer, or if she’s in danger of becoming the next victim.
As one review put it, Blood Atonement comes with some “hefty trigger warnings.” I’m wondering how your background as a private investigator influences how you write crime and if you pull from some on-duty experiences?
More than anything, the decade I spent as a PI taught me how to properly research someone I was investigating, and how to understand the psychology behind their actions. It was a real study in human behaviour and motivation, and I hope these skills translate into writing deeper and more empathetic characters. While Blood Atonement rightfully comes with some hefty trigger warnings, I wanted to write this story with sensitivity and compassion, rather than sensationalizing trauma. For example, the abuse Grace endures happens “off the page” while she dissociates. My hope is that I’ve honoured the victims and helped to give a voice to those who’ve been silenced.
This books follows dual timeline narratives, how do you hope readers empathize with the character? Especially, as one with “spotty memory.”
To dive into Grace’s psychology, I used flashback chapters where we see what her life was like growing up in a family that, while loving, was brainwashed to believe the fundamentalist Mormon doctrine of keeping sweet, plural marriage, and obeying their prophet and leaders at all costs. I wanted to explore the imperfect humanity that lives in the realm between kindness and cruelty.
How can readers expect to be challenged by reading Blood Atonement?
With the recent popularity of both the Netflix documentary Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey and the Hulu miniseries Under the Banner of Heaven, there’s currently a lot of interest in the FLDS. I hope readers will find the real-life context of Blood Atonement interesting, while enjoying a psychological thriller that’s woven around a classic whodunnit mystery. Really, I just hope readers enjoy the ride.
What can folks expect at your reading?
I’m incredibly grateful to Massy Books and the Massy Arts Society for their support and for this lovely interview, and I’m thrilled to celebrate the launch of Blood Atonement at Massy Arts on October 23rd. All are welcome, so please join me for a fun evening with Erik D’Souza and special guest author Amber Cowie (Last One Alive). There will be refreshments and some lively conversation, a short reading of Blood Atonement, and both Amber and I will be happy to sign books.