How do we break free from the ingrained lessons and damage done in childhood? This is a question I love to explore in my writing. I’m also 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. It seems to me that every religion and political ideology can become damaging when taken to the extreme. I’ve witnessed this even within parts of my own religious community, where those who don’t fit the narrow definition of what’s “acceptable” are ostracized even by their own family.
In Blood Atonement, Grace DeRoche spends the first eighteen years of her life trapped in a fictionalized sect of the Fundamentalist Mormon Church (think Netflix’s Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey and Hulu’s Under the Banner of Heaven). Followers of the FLDS take their beliefs to the knife’s edge of cultlike fanaticism, and I wanted to highlight the damage done to their lost children. Grace is trained to keep sweet, obey her priesthood head, and be a faithful servant to their prophet and sadistic bishop. To protect her mind against the systemic abuse she endures, Grace’s psyche shatters into dissociative fragments known as alter personalities.
I must admit, I worried about writing this book. I wasn’t sure I had the chops to tackle such heavy topics, and I didn’t want to sensationalize trauma or the psychological aftermath. With that in mind, I decided to keep the abuse Grace endures “off the page” while she dissociates. I used flashback chapters to show what her life was like growing up in a family that was brainwashed by the FLDS doctrine, so I could explore the imperfect humanity that lives in the realm between kindness and cruelty. In the present chapters, I focused on Grace’s struggle to overcome her dissociative identity disorder, which is now a hindrance to living a normal life. When she learns that other escapees are dying under suspicious circumstances and the evidence points in her direction, she doesn’t know if one of her alter personalities is a murderer or if she’s in danger of becoming the next victim.
Ultimately, I wanted to show Grace’s heroic struggle to becoming whole while being stalked by the horrors of her past, and I hope this serves as a fictionalized example of the real damage done by intolerance and extremism.
S.M. Freedman is the author of The Faithful, Impact Winter, and The Day She Died. She studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and worked as a private investigator on the not-so-mean streets of Vancouver, where she lives. Learn more here.