This powerful, intelligent, and highly moving memoir explores the persistence of trauma as it affects children of survivors. As Helen and her sister, Lara, grew up, they had gathered pieces of their parents’ (and other relatives’) Holocaust experiences. They realized, with varying degrees of trepidation, that much had been hidden from them.
The parents’ large personalities release hints that burst through the masks, signaling that much had been withheld. The secrets involve a sense of shared obligations, daring decisions, invented biographical details, and doses of crippling shame. The daughters lived in a shadow world that had its own life, one that was only slowly and partially revealed. It’s almost as if the mother and father were ashamed of surviving, and parts of their disguised cover stories, once revealed, explain why.
As a writer, Fremont is a fine clinician, pressing to understand and explore her trauma inheritance. Over and over, she shares searing incites and devastating disappointments.
Her life and worth become a strange kind of penance for never truly knowing the sacrifices that the parents had to endure, submerge, and transform. The parents manifest a sorrowful kind of survivors’ guilt that they transformed into a range of valuable accomplishments. Always fearing exposure, they strove to steer the daughters away from experiences and decisions that might risk exposure of the almost buried past. They overstepped the normal borders of familial love, using parental power as a weapon rather than an embrace or commendation. They were monstrous in the way they played favorites. For decades, the sisters were psychologically victimized and manipulated into making each other victims.
Slowly, with elegance, fortitude, and harrowing self-accusations, Fremont reveals the stages of her liberation and her pursuit of self-definition. There are so many intricate strands that make up the evolving Helen Fremont. One is her slow-growing recognition and acceptance of her lesbian identity, another is her love of athletic pursuits and natural surroundings, and yet another is her somewhat wandering pathway to and through professional development and performance. Who was she trying to please all these years? Why would she so often choose paths likely to be anathema to her parents? Can true love exist without mutual sacrifices? The author keeps gnawing at such questions.
Fremont’s book gains energy by freeing itself from being a strict chronology. She chooses to jump back and forth in time in order to orchestrate scenes that have, when juxtaposed, enhanced reverberations. Her poetic prose also has a quality of reverberation.
This is more than one person’s memoir; it is the pursuit of a larger, more fully sharable understanding of intergenerational trauma brimming with illuminations and courage.
Philip K. Jason is professor emeritus of English at the United States Naval Academy. A former editor of Poet Lore, he is the author or editor of twenty books, including Acts and Shadows: The Vietnam War in American Literary Culture and Don’t Wave Goodbye: The Children’s Flight from Nazi Persecution to American Freedom.