In 1978, when she was eighteen years old and living, with the rest of the country, through an economic crisis whose depths would be unmatched until our current one, Dolly Freed published a paean to self-sufficiency. Possum Living: How to live well without a job and with almost no money was a how-to manual in narrative form, based on the lifestyle Freed and her father had cultivated while living in happy frugality in rural Pennsylvania. It advised readers on such budget-aiding practices as clothes-mending, vegetable-pickling, and discount home-purchasing (through, in particular, foreclosed-upon houses). It provided recipes for simple, homegrown meals. It encouraged people, basically, to take their economic situations into their own hands.
It was, in other words, the right book at the right time. And it won Freed a Fifteen Minutes that lasted longer than most. After Possum Living’s release, Freed-centered stories appeared in The New York Times, Seventeen magazine, and other national outlets, and Freed herself appeared on The Merv Griffin Show. An award-winning short documentary was produced about her daily life.
And then: Freed disappeared from public view. She hadn’t dropped out of society altogether—or died, as some Possum fans speculated—but rather did something perhaps more surprising: she went mainstream. She got married. She moved to Texas. She got a job—as an aerospace engineer, no less. At NASA, no less.
“We aren’t living this way for ideological reasons, as people sometimes suppose,” Freed had written, about herself and her father, in Possum Living. “We aren’t a couple of Thoreaus mooning about on Walden Pond here…. We live this way for a very simple reason: It’s easier to learn to do without some of the things that money can buy than to earn the money to buy them.”
Its relevance (perhaps) renewed, Possum Living will be officially re-released, in a revised edition, tomorrow. And Freed, having found a balance, it seems, between the rugged Possum life and the typical American commercialism, is now breaking her thirty-plus year reclusiveness. (To an extent, that is: “Dolly Freed” is a pseudonym.) The best evidence of her return to public life being “Finding Dolly Freed,” a rich and strikingly intimate portrait of Freed’s life and philosophy of living.
The piece, as a specimen of long-form narrative, is 6,000 words’ worth of the kind of deep reporting and lush prose that generally characterize Magazine Writing at Its Best—a compelling story that balances detailed idiosyncrasy with broad implication. But while Freed may be able to eschew what she calls “the money economy,” working journalists, generally speaking, are not. Freed’s story took time—and, yes, money—to report and produce. Which is why, on that story’s homepage, you’ll find a slight deviation from the standard Magazine Writing at Its Best layout: a sidebar, hued in urgent tones of black and red, its words aimed directly at the reader.
“Finding Dolly Freed” is a piece of independent journalism that cost more than $2,000 to produce.
To help the writer recoup her expenses and perhaps bank a small paycheck, please click here and pay whatever amount you’d like. Think of it as Radiohead journalism. Thank you in advance!
SUPPORT THE JOURNALIST
Click on the box—anywhere on the box—and you’ll be led to a PayPal page. “Feel free to support the cost of this story,” it says. “Details: see ‘About Story’ on author’s website. Thanks!”
The author, in this case, is Paige Williams, a longtime, and decorated, magazine writer. “I’m self-publishing this story,” she writes, “because it had no other home. I wanted it to live in the world, not die in my notebook.” So she reported Freed’s story, independently…got it produced, independently…and now hopes to recoup the expenses of that work, opposite-of-independently: through reader donations. (Thus, “Radiohead Journalism”: named for the pay-what-you-think-our-album’s-worth experiment the rock group undertook a few years ago.)
The story itself, and the SUPPORT THE JOURNALIST button situated next to it, is, in its way, Williams’s own nod toward Possumian self-sufficiency—and away from the increasingly dire straits of the money economy that is the magazine industry. “It was just, you know, ‘I can do it.’”
Williams learned of Freed this past April, from her former literary agent, who happened to be involved with Possum Living’s re-release. (“Nothing lifts me more than a good story, nothing in the world,” Williams says, and “I just knew there was a good story there. Or: I thought there would be.”) The in-person reporting of the piece—which required a trip to Houston, which required in turn plane tickets, car rental, and lodging—took only a few days, Williams says…though “my intention, once I found a home for [the story], was to go back. I couldn’t wait—I was so excited to go back.”