Several things happened during Haley Hatch Freeman’s time in the spirit world: she was given the choice to return to earth life, she was shown one of her future children, she was reunited with her dead sister and dead grandmother, she was commanded to learn sign language, and she was commanded to write a book about her experiences as an anorexic teenager. Her memoir, A Future for Tomorrow, is the result of that commandment and is a unique and honest account of Freeman’s experiences with a harrowing mental illness.
Freeman’s story seems like the story of so many other teenage girls. With adolescence budding on her body and boys buzzing around her mind, Freeman–a young LDS teen from Scipio, Utah–finds an avenue of control that will ease her anxiety about all the changes she’s going through and that also brings her a more secure place in the social pecking order: dieting. What begins as some innocent missed meals and some innocent weight loss (she complains her new braces are too tight and she can’t eat) morphs into a much more dangerous illness when Freeman internalizes a few compliments too deeply and begins dieting and exercising to the extreme. Over the course of a year Freeman loses more than half her body weight, is taken out of school, suffers a psychotic break with reality, almost dies, is finally hospitalized and begins the long road to recovery.
But along the way Freeman’s confessional (and fairly conventional) eating disorder tale takes a major detour from the well-trod path of anorexia memoir. When Freeman is at her weakest physically but her parents are still afraid of hospitalizing her, her body is possessed and her spirit is taken to the spirit world to avoid the pain associated with the exorcisms her loved ones on earth are performing. During her time there Freeman learns many things, one of which is the commandment to write a book. The spirit of her dead sister, Heidi, tells her “Part of your purpose on earth is to write a book . . . You need to write a book about your eating disorder and this experience, so you can helps others” (p 153). It is this vision that informs and reforms her narrative from beginning to end, especially by lending purpose and meaning to Freeman’s experiences.
(From the possession onward, Freeman’s story remains a detour from most eating disorders. Despite what one of the hospital technicians says, possession is not common for women with eating disorders. Most eating disordered individuals don’t suffer massive psychotic breakdowns. At one point Freeman displays characteristics of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, but because the doctors believed her case was hopeless they fell just short of formally diagnosing her. Freeman seems to disagree with those doctors, but compared to most eating disordered people, many of Freeman’s experiences are outside the scope of anorexia.)
Because Freeman is out to helps others she spends a lot of narrative time explaining the ins and out of anorexia; how to hide food, how to avoid meals, how to purge through exercise, how tired she is, how easily she bruises, are all explained in great detail. For readers who have never struggled with eating disorders or read other works on anorexia that information is helpful and enlightening. For young readers, especially female LDS teenagers, they will probably be comforted by those facts because they will know they are not alone. Over the course of the book, however, these physical details became tedious–especially near the end of the book when they are supplied in place of the emotional details about the issues fueling Freeman’s illness. For me, as a woman who has struggled with an eating disorder (combination anorexia and bulimia) and seen eating disorders and food and exercise compulsions/addictions plague the lives of my grandmother and sister, I needed more from Freeman. I wanted her to shed light not only on the physical aspects but the emotional and spiritual aspects of her illness and her healing. I needed to see how she understood herself better so that I could maybe understand myself (and my loved ones) better too. Simply put, it left me unsatisfied.
Also because of the visionary purpose of her book, the purpose of teaching others, Freeman makes a few nontraditional (and, for this reader, confusing) choices–the most obvious of which is the choice to tell the first half of her story backwards. Freeman starts the book in the middle of her story, right before she is hospitalized, and then works her way back to a critical moment when she is praised for her braces-induced weight loss. She then skips back to the middle of the story and tells of her possession, vision, and exorcism with her story ending in her release from the hospital and a few remaining epilogue-like chapters about her marriage and children. Freeman explains her chronological choices in the introduction to the book, “The reason behind this is to show the later severity of the disorder, before presenting the small symptoms and my earlier thought process, which in natural order may be overlooked.” She then cautions the reader to “be aware of dates and chapter headings” so as to avoid confusion. Not only was it confusing to read in reverse order, but it had the opposite effect pf what Freeman intended. Where she was hoping to emphasize the severity of the illness it instead made the symptoms peter out and starved the dramatic arc of the book.
All in all, though, Freeman’s book is a good first step. By owning up to the disease and how her family, friends, and teachers fueled it and missed opportunities to help her, Freeman is saying a lot of things other people (especially LDS people) aren’t willing to say. She’s telling a lot of truth, she’s educating a lot people, and because of her likable personality she is getting people that normally wouldn’t talk and think about this illness to do so. (It shouldn’t be surprising that Freeman ended up self-publishing her book through Granite Publishing. I can’t imagine Deseret Book would want to publish a story like this. Although, Cedar Fort has good track record with issues-driven memoirs.) The message of hope and recovery–the fact that Freeman is able to have children is nothing short of miraculous–is an important one to relay to individuals struggling with these issues. Freeman’s quotation of scripture and requests for priesthood blessings outline important spiritual components of mental/emotional wellness. But, because of the editorial weaknesses in the book and the skirting of any in-depth discussion of underlying psychological issues, this book feels a little empty. Reading this book is a bit like being an anorexic at a formal dinner: You do your best to get full by nibbling around the edges, but you’re just not satisfied because you can’t get to the meat of it all.