The Escape Artist

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.

Discussion Questions

Ques­tions cour­tesy of Helen Fremont

  1. Helen’s book reveals many fam­i­ly secrets that remained hid­den for decades. Many of these secrets were intend­ed to pro­tect the chil­dren, but end­ed up being detri­men­tal to their well-being. When is it healthy to keep secrets, and when is it impor­tant to reveal them?

  2. As indi­vid­u­als, shouldn’t we have the right to decide whether to tell our secrets, and if so, when, to whom, and how much of our sto­ry to share with others?

  3. When and how should par­ents tell chil­dren about trau­mat­ic events? (e.g., geno­cide, sex­u­al abuse, addic­tion, crimes, assaults, mur­der, prison, etc.) What about rev­e­la­tions about sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion and identity?

  4. Often we don’t want to tell our secrets because they are painful and/​or shame­ful. We don’t want to bur­den the oth­er per­son, and we are afraid of hurt­ing or anger­ing a loved one with the truth. Or we may fear expo­sure to crim­i­nal or civ­il lia­bil­i­ty, by reveal­ing infor­ma­tion about crim­i­nal or ille­gal activity.

  5. Think about secrets that your fam­i­ly mem­bers have shared with you. What was the expe­ri­ence like? Did you feel priv­i­leged, trust­ed, with their secret, or bur­dened by their infor­ma­tion? What were the fam­i­ly dynam­ics that led to your reactions?

  6. Can you recall times when you with­held per­son­al secrets from loved ones? What were your rea­sons for keep­ing the secret? Did you feel this was a good choice? Why or why not?

  7. Have you revealed a secret to loved ones and then regret­ted it? Why or why not?

  8. Sib­ling rival­ry is a well-rec­og­nized dynam­ic in all fam­i­lies. In The Escape Artist, Helen’s rela­tion­ship with her old­er sis­ter is par­tic­u­lar­ly dra­mat­ic, swing­ing from intense love to mur­der­ous rage.

  9. To what extent did the family’s insis­tence on secre­cy increase this sib­ling rival­ry? Do you think there was any­thing that could have been done to man­age the sis­ters’ relationship?

  10. If you think back on your own rela­tion­ships with your sib­lings, do any of the scenes in the Escape Artist remind you of sim­i­lar dynamics?

  11. What can par­ents do to help sib­lings cope with feel­ings of jeal­ousy and rage?

  12. Through­out the book, Helen strug­gles with the ques­tion of whether her sis­ter is men­tal­ly ill, and if so, how can Lara be so high­ly func­tion­al. Helen also strug­gles with ques­tions of her own men­tal sta­bil­i­ty. What do you make of the role that men­tal ill­ness plays in the fam­i­ly dynam­ics in this family?

  13. How do we rec­on­cile such dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ences of the same events by dif­fer­ent fam­i­ly mem­bers? Have you had expe­ri­ences that you remem­ber com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent from oth­ers in your family?

  14. The study of epi­ge­net­ics has proven that trau­ma can lit­er­al­ly be trans­mit­ted from one gen­er­a­tion to the next. In this way, we know that at least to some extent, the trau­ma suf­fered by Helen’s par­ents was like­ly trans­mit­ted through epi­ge­net­ics to Helen and her sis­ter. But in oth­er ways, the par­ents’ repres­sion of their trau­mat­ic mem­o­ries also led to a reen­act­ment of that trau­ma in the next gen­er­a­tion. Do you think there is any way to end or min­i­mize the cycle of inter­gen­er­a­tional trans­mis­sion of trauma?

  15. Do you think that Helen was ever able to escape her fam­i­ly trauma?

  16. Do you think that Helen would have been bet­ter off not writ­ing the book expos­ing her family’s story?