The Escape Artist

  • Review
By – June 26, 2020

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.

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