Monthly Archives: February 2020

“The Sisters Grimm: A Novel” by Menna Van Pragg— Love, Mystery, Magic and Fantasy

Van Pragg, Menna. “The Sisters Grimm”, Harper Voyager, 2020.

Love, Mystery, Magic and Fantasy

Amos Lassen

When they were children, Goldie, Liyana, Scarlet, and Bea dreamed of a strange otherworld where a nightscape of mists and fog, perpetually falling leaves and ivy are lit by a moon. This is the shadowland of Everwhere where the four girls, half-sisters connected by blood and magic, began to understand their elemental powers together. When they were thirteen, the sisters were ripped from Everywhere and separated. Five years have passed, they search for one another and hope to rediscover their unique and supernatural strengths. Goldie (earth) manipulates plants and gives life. Liyana (water) controls rivers and rain. Scarlet (fire) has electricity at her fingertips. Bea (air) can fly.

In order to realize their full potential, they must return to the land of their childhood dreams but Everwhere can only be accessed through certain gates at 3:33 A.M. on the night of a new moon. As Goldie, Liyana, Scarlet, and Bea deal with the challenges of their earthly lives, they must prepare for a battle that lies ahead. With their eighteenth birthday, they will be subjected to a gladiatorial fight with their father’s soldiers. If they survive, they will face their father who will let them live only if they turn dark.

The sisters have thirty-three days to discover who they truly are and what they can truly do, before they must fight to save themselves and those they love. Goldie, whose perspective is the only one told in first person, is the sole caregiver for Teddy, her ten year old brother. She cleans rooms at a fancy hotel, taking things from its rich guests to help support him. Goldie has experienced significant trauma in her childhood.

Bea was raised in various foster homes while her mother was being treated at St Dymphna’s Psychiatric Hospital. She studies philosophy and feels t alive when she’s flying through the air in a glider. Liyana (Ana) was on track to be an Olympian before an injury changed her plans yet she remains at home in the water. Ana and her mother moved to London from Ghana when she was a child. Ana is an artist. She feels that, ultimately, all is right with the world, “no matter how hopeless it might seem at the time.”

Scarlet lives with her grandmother, Esme, whose health is rapidly declining. Scarlet the café owned by her family. She lost both her mother, Ruby, and her home ten years ago in a fire.

There are wonderful illustrations by Alastair Meikle. This is not the kind of book that I usually read but from the moment I began it, I was pulled in. The descriptions of Everwhere are delightful .  While Goldie and her sisters have forgotten who they are. and that they are powerful as their 18th birthday nears, they have to realize the truth behind their childhood fantasies and fight to survive. Menna van Praag brings many creative and original ideas  together in this story.

”WELCOME TO CHECHNYA”— Unimaginable Peril

”WELCOME TO CHECHNYA”

Unimaginable Peril

Amos Lassen

“Welcome to Chechnya” follows a group of activists who risk unimaginable peril to confront the ongoing anti-LGBTQ pogrom in the repressive and closed Russian republic of Chechnya.

Since 2017, Chechnya’s tyrannical leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, has brought about a depraved operation to “cleanse the blood” of LGBTQ Chechens He oversees a government-directed campaign to detain, torture and execute them. Activists take matters into their own hands. In his new documentary, David France uses a remarkable approach to anonymity to expose this and to tell the story of an extraordinary group of people who confront evil every day of their lives.

We see a small group of activists working to remove LGBTQ citizens out of Russia through a series of safe houses, government partnerships around the world, and lots of risky travel plans. Each of these escapees’ faces has been CGI-modified to look different and that shows how scary and intense this cleansing is for Chechens. We follow a few of these citizens as they are forced to stay inside, keep low profiles, and move quickly when told that the time has come. The documentary never calms down and we, in the audience, are not allowed to relax.

Everyone in the film shows courage and asks us to do the same. We see the imprisonment of mostly young LGBTQ citizens, and the film is horrific and almost unwatchable at times. There are clips of unnecessary violence towards these random citizens throughout the film, and even if we close our eyes, we still hear the brutality.

In some places, the world continues to be awful for those that are different and this documentary make us feel frustrated for not knowing about these stories earlier. At the same time, the film is a call-to-action to listen to others, to be informed, and to contribute to causes that matter. This is a difficult film to watch but its message of intolerance and bravery is so very important.

Director France aligns himself with the men and women trying to free the people who now fear for their lives and asks the truly terrifying question of if we don’t stop it there, how far can this kind of behavior spread? 

We are taken into the safe houses with the young men and women trying to travel the “Rainbow Railroad” to Canada. We see the detailed process that it takes to rescue these young men and women, whose identities are protected by a new technology that basically gives them a face and voice on film that’s not their own. The film is intercut with horrifying footage of hate crimes against gay people in the region that are impossible to forget— this is a matter of life and death.

When terrorism was growing from Chechnya in the early 2000s, Putin responded by installing a pro-Russia  regime, with Kadyrov  at its head. In return for his loyalty, Putin gave him free rein to run his country how he wanted  and thus began a growing cult of personality. This lack of accountability has allowed and even helped “a brutal anti-gay purge of enforced disappearances, torture, and extra-judicial killings in the corrupt, ultra-conservative, and predominantly Muslim republic.”

Details of the purge, have leaked out even with the regime’s effective silencing methods. France now brings them to wider attention in his film that is filled with suspense, as we are taken into the perilous escape route out of Chechnya \and into hiding with some who flee. We get a taste of the fear that a regime known for carrying out hits far beyond its own borders can engender. The documentary stuns us with what Putin and his “pals” cannot seem to see: that it is people, and their undeserved suffering, have precisely everything to do with these inhuman policies.

We see that David Isteev and Olga Baranova, activists of the Russian LGBT Network, a non-governmental rights organization, help those at risk in their attempts to  escape. They have no prior experience in how to hide people in danger, or how to obtain the necessary paperwork for them, they work to meet such urgent need, taking in around 25 people per month to their secret shelter in Moscow, a city that, despite its own poor human rights record, is safe in comparison to Grozny.  They risk their own lives on missions, and fighting to keep stress at bay. Their work makes them targets of death threats.

Getting to a safe house outside Chechnya is no way the end of their ordeal. By leaving, they arrive at zero, with little chance to speak their own language, resume their professions, or talk to relatives. Their ties to all they have known are severed. They carry the stigma of “a shame so strong it has to be washed away by blood” stays with them through  a lifetime of socialization and violent reinforcement. The trauma of what they go through never leaves them. The dislocation and claustrophobia can be too much to bear. Canada has taken in 44 of the 151 survivors that the Russian LGBT Network has helped out of Chechnya, Trump’s administration has not agreed to take in even one.

“The repression within Chechnya is so brutal, and the hand of Kadyrov’s henchmen so global in its reach, that scarcely any of those persecuted are willing to go public about their experiences in the purge, which it is suspected has even claimed a prominent pop star who disappeared in Grozny in 2017 while on a brief visit from Moscow.

We see grainy mobile footage of homophobic attacks with eyewitness evidence of a fraction of atrocities in a nation that, its leader declares, has no gay people — and insists that if it did, their families would kill them before any state intervention. 

Isteev and Olga Baranova have sacrificied everything they have to save LGBT youths in Chechnya and they are truly inspiring. Their work in this documentary is a wake-up call for the world to do much more.

Welcome To Chechnya starts with Isteev on the phone. He is the crisis response coordinator for the Russian LGBT Network. He always seems to be on the phone. Anya, a lesbian girl in Chechnya, is calling. Her uncle knows that she’s gay and is blackmailing her to have sex with him or he will tell her dad. Knowing that an almost certain death awaits her either way, Anya’s only hope lies with Isteev to get her out of the country.

Isteev’s job is to help bring gays and lesbians facing persecution to safety. He is aided by Baranova, the founding director of the Moscow Community Center for LGBT+ Initiatives, who has set up a safe house in Moscow for these youths to stay before they are taken out of Russia. Through fly-on-the-wall-footage of these tense breakouts as well as face-to-face interviews with Isteev and Baranova, the film informs and inspires..

Grisha (not his real name) is an ethnic Russian who was detained while working in Chechnya. He was deeply surprised by the way he was treated, considering the previous friendliness of the locals towards him. He was allowed out of the region by the authorities because he was not Chechen but he fears for his life, as well as the lives of his family and boyfriend.

France has done an amazing job of laying out the context of the gay purge before we go with him on a journey that involves border crossings, emotional reunions and incredible resilience in the face of evil. All of this takes place against a backdrop of institutional failure that comes from the autonomous region and goes right up to the head of state himself.

In 2017 during a drug raid in Chechnya, authorities found explicitly gay photographs and texts on a man’s phone. This was the beginning. They tortured him until he gave up his friends and this began a purge that has caused hundreds of men and women to be detained, tortured, and given back to their families to die.

Vladimir Putin is not directly responsible for what is happening in Chechnya but the Kremlin’s lack of condemnation, coupled with refusing to open an official investigation, gives Kadyrov the freedom to continue his campaign of terror. Kadyrov is a useful pawn in Chechnya, maintaining stability in a region that has gone to war with Russia twice in the past thirty years. Now with reports of institutionally-sanctioned homophobic violence spreading throughout the Russian south, there is a great fear that it could pop up in other regions of Russia, with the Kremlin doing nothing to help.

David France sees the issue as a global one. As refugees wait for visas, they bounce off the walls. In one particularly distressing scene, one slits his wrists out of frustration. While LGBT organizations worldwide are ready to help work on this issue together, it requires government intervention through international condemnation, funding and humanitarian visa allocation.

Welcome to Chechnya is grim, especially footage intercepted by activists showing brutal beatdowns and rapes. Nonetheless, even with the difficulties these people face, France captures the intimacy and beauty of gay love by showing Grisha and his boyfriend, Bogdan playing by the beach and caressing each other in the bath. It’s a beautiful, loving and tender reminder of the fight is all about.

France’s film has is “a true masterwork of LGBT empathy, working both as a devastating portrait of hate as well as a rallying call to arms” and one of the best and most important documentaries of the year.

“FRIENDSHIP OF MEN”— Intimate Relationships

“FRIENDSHIP OF MEN”

Intimate Relationships

Amos Lassen

Rosa von Praunheim’s “Friendship of Men” makes all kinds of assumptions about which works and correspondence from Goethe and his contemporaries.

 The film is a mix of documentation, historical digression and cheerful and silly re-enactments. Based on the study “Warm Brothers – Queer Theory and the Age of Goethe” by US Germanist Robert Tobin, Praunheim allows all kinds of scientific expertise to be heard. The 18th century was a time in which men fell verbally around their neck without explicitly attaching erotic importance to it.

Rosa von Praunheim and his co-author Valentina Schütz look at a range of people that may be a little too broad to deal more closely with individual relationships: by Duke August von Sachsen-Gotha-Altenburg, who liked to show himself in women’s clothes, via Heinrich von Kleist to Alexander von Humboldt, who also went to distant countries to be able to live out his homosexuality without sanction. The lesbian love between Adele Schopenhauer, the philosopher’s sister, and Sibylle Mertens, who maintained a “Rhenish salon,” is mentioned. It remains to be seen whether Heinrich Heine’s public disparagement of the poet August von Platen as a pederast, who “flirted with his buttocks”, actually gave the go-ahead for the criminalization and pathologizing of homosexuality that began in the mid-19th century.

Praunheim’s has a workshop character. Hearty game scenes in Weimar Park on the Ilm in front of amused throngs of schoolchildren and passers-by are loosely cut together with the scientific excursions. All contributors introduce themselves to the audience before speaking as experts or actors. This may seem foolish at times, but it reminds us of times when TV documentaries were not yet musical spectacles.

The German filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim wears a white wig from Goethe’s time in his new documentary. He takes the audience back to the era of Weimar classicism with game scenes and gives imaginative expression to the way that educated men from art and aristocratic circles used to interact. Goethe and Schiller were emotionally very involved and conducted a warm exchange of letters. But can it be concluded that the two poets have a homoerotic tendency, even practice? The director interviewed various scientists and authors. The speculative film turns out to be entertaining and informative. Because he makes the audience aware that in Goethe’s time it was quite common for men to cultivate intimate friendships.

In the 18th century, people from better circles maintained penpals and Goethe wrote diligently, for example to his friend Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi. Some of these correspondences read like love letters, but the researchers interviewed distinguish between expressions of emotion that were socially accepted and physical love. If Goethe and his friends insured themselves with affection, it was probably not meant sexually. The kisses that they sent to each other symbolized a closer feeling. Nevertheless, it is quite appealing to read passages from Goethe’s work and private letters from a homoerotic point of view and let the thoughts wander, as Rosa von Praunheim and his actors do here.

Some of the experts interviewed consider it possible that Goethe had sexual contact with men during his trip to Italy. Exciting is also the excursus to Johann Winckelmann, the founder of classical archeology, who decisively shaped Goethe’s love of classical music. He not only praised the beauty of Greek male statues, but was also known to be gay. However, the amusing film derives its special charm mainly from the fact that it shows how much more passionately heterosexual men insured their friendship than today.

 

Conclusion: The filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim delves into amusing speculations about the sexual orientation of Goethe, Schiller and some of her contemporaries. He immersed himself in the atmosphere of the Weimar classic with game scenes when men wrote glowing letters of friendship. The scientists he interviewed consider homoerotic tendencies to be possible with Goethe, but also point out that the expression of emotional love that was common at the time was usually not meant sexually. Speculations develop their special charm in coloring an era with other, sometimes surprisingly liberal, social customs.

“DARKROOM” (“Drops of Death”)— A Gay Serial Killer

“DARKROOM” (“Drops of Death”)

A Gay Serial Killer

Amos Lassen

Lars is a male nurse from Saarbrucken who to Berlin with his lover, Roland, musician with a lilting voice. Together they renovate an apartment where they hope they will finally live together. Roland is totally happy but what he doesn’t know, however, is that while Lars is secretly checking out Berlin’s nightlife, he is experimenting with a deadly poison and has an obsession that will lead to a terrible outcome for the couple.

Rose Von Praunheim who is Germany’s most famous gay activist directed the film, a thriller loosely adapted  on one of the most notorious gay serial killers whose story played out in the German media for several months when it broke a few years ago.

Von Praunheim tells his story by moving back and forth in time. The film begins several years before the murders when Lars (Bozider Kocevski) is a bartender in small town gay bar and living at home with his wealthy grandmother.  When he first sees Roland (Heiner Bomnard) one night in the Bar, he falls madly in love with him. When Roland  tells him he is going to Berlin to pursue his career as a performer, Lars says he’ll join him.

They buy an apartment together  with money that Lars stole  from his grandmother who he  helped have an early death (after she told him that she was cutting him out of her will). 

For the next six years the two men lived comfortably in an open relationship which Lars had reluctantly agreed too even though he was not really in favor of. After becoming a nurse, Lars gave that up and is training as a teacher.

While cruising for sex one day, Lars discovered liquid ecstasy for the first time  and it gave him a sexual high. However, when taken in excess or mixed with alcohol, it could be deadly. Knowing this, he changed from just a regular into a determined killer of the men that innocently came his way. During a short period of time, Lars killed three men. Two other men escaped him and it was their evidence that caused Lars to be  sentenced to life in prison.

We never know Lars’ motive and we cannot help but wonder wo this very quiet and plain man would commit the deeds that he did. He tried, at his trial, to say that the deaths were a mistake but the judge declared that greed was evident and that Lars wanted to feel the total power over others and relish it.

Praunheim was well aware of the sensitivity of the topic. The three screenwriters did thorough research yet there are changes and interpretations of reality. Praunheim manages to surprise even after 50 years of career. Here he searches for discursive deconstruction in a clinical setting. He immerses the audience in the inner confusion of the protagonists – but without interpreting them in his place.

The acts on which the film was based were committed within three weeks of spring 2012. Just over a year later, the then 38-year-old was sentenced to life imprisonment by the district court for murder. In the spring of 2014, he committed suicide in custody.

“88 Names” by Matt Ruff— Fluid Identities

Ruff, Matt. “88 Names: A Novel”, Harper, 2020.

Fluid Identities

Amos Lassen

Matt Ruff’s “88 Names” is part cyberthriller, part twisted romantic comedy that takes us to a world where identity is fluid and nothing can be taken at face value.

John Chu, a “sherpa” (a paid guide to online role-playing games like the popular Call to Wizardry) who, along with his crew, provides others top-flight characters equipped with the best weapons and armor, and take you dragon-slaying in the Realms of Asgarth, hunting rogue starships in the Alpha Sector, or battling hordes of undead in the zombie apocalypse.

Chu has a new client, the pseudonymous Mr. Jones, who claims to be a “wealthy, famous person” with powerful enemies, has offered a ridiculous amount of money for a comprehensive tour of the world of virtual-reality gaming. Chu sees this as a dream assignment, but as the tour gets underway, he begins to suspect that Mr. Jones is really North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, whose interest in VR gaming has more to do with power than entertainment. Chu also has to worry about “Ms. Pang,” who may or may not be an agent of the People’s Republic of China, and his angry ex-girlfriend, Darla Jean Covington, who has her own plans for revenge.

Beginning as a whirlwind online adventure, things spill over into the real world and Chu must use every trick and resource at his disposal to stay one step ahead. In reality things cannot be reset.

I did not think that this book would hold my interest since I am not a gamer but I was completely wrong. I was pulled in from the beginning. Writer Ruff has created a large cast of diverse characters through which he brings historical facts alongside of pop culture. Everything here is historically accurate and possible. Ruff gives us a look at what he thinks the next generation will be like and it is frightening.

Ruff is excellent at writing marginalized folks of all kinds including women, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ folks— they always feel like complete people who are neither just details of marginalization. 

“WHILE YOU LIVE, SHINE”— Making Music

“WHILE YOU LIVE, SHINE”

Making Music

Amos Lassen

Grammy Award-winning producer and musicologist Chris King is legendary. He is the most obsessive collector of old 78 records living today and knows how,  using modern technology, to unlock their secrets and remaster them for a 21st century audience. For many years, King has lived in a world of nostalgia, listening to music from a distant past. But when in Istanbul in 2009, he picked up a few old LPs and heard music unlike anything he had ever heard before.  He describes it as a “dissonant instrumental played with an uncontrolled abandon” and he learned that it hailed from Epirus, a remote region straddling northwestern Greece and southern Albania. This discovery of  raw folk music, he believes, connects us with our most ancient ancestors that would transform his life. 

Paul Duane’s “While You Live, Shine” takes us on a voyage of deep discovery into the oldest music in the Western world. The title of the film comes from the Song of Seikilos, the world’s oldest recorded piece of music. 

The transcendental tune is carved into a stone pillar discovered in Turkey and remains alive in Epirus, where Greeks come every summer to play, dance and sing. Chris King traveled there to immerse himself in its ancient culture, attending festivals and dances and speaking with musicians and shepherds.  Gradually, he uncovered the roots of this unique musical tradition, and answered the question: why do we make music?

The documentary is an introduction to some of the most hypnotic and beautiful music you’ve never heard, an immersive trip into an isolated and half-forgotten land, and a portrait of a man who has found his spiritual home on the other side of the world.  The story of Chris King and his research over folk Greek music of Epirus has at a universal meaning and importance that comes from treating music as a heritage element. The music reflects the past and maintaining all the aspects of it, is a duty and responsibility. BY doing so, we can preserve our ethnic identity and aspire people who can scratch through the true listening the surface of a whole culture.

“TROOP ZERO”— Singing in Space

“TROOP ZERO”

Singing in Space

Amos Lassen

Christmas Flint (McKenna Grace) is the daughter of attorney Ramsey Flint (Jim Gaffigan) and she has big dreams but she has to settle for just being a small town girl living in Wiggly, Georgia.  She eavesdrops on a Birdie Scout troop after climbing up in a tree upon being bullied and learns that the annual Birdie Scout Jamboree talent contest winners will be featured in a record being sent to outer space.  The opportunity to have her voice go to outer space becomes a goal for the pre-teen. 

To reach this  goal, Christmas has to find people to join the Scouts with her as Miss Massey (Allison Janney),  won’t let her join otherwise.  Miss Massey, the leader of Troop Five isn’t looking to recruit Christmas so Christmas decides to form her own troop. She recruits her best friend, Joseph (Charles Shotwell) who isn’t exactly the type to come off as gender non-conforming.  They find a few others to join including Hell-No (Milan Ray), Smash (Johanna Colón), and Ann-Claire (Bella Higginbotham).  After finding friends, Christmas asks Miss Rayleen (Viola Davis), to serve as their troop mother knowing that no matter what they do, Miss Massey will always come back with some sort of retort to knock them down.

Troop Zero makes their way to the Birdie Scout Jamboree complete with a song-and-dance performance to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” 

What we see is a tale of bonding and adventure, as the members of the group try to acquire the badges they need to take part in the jamboree contest. The plot is simple and filled with humor and the actors and delightful with their positive energy.

“To Be a Gay Male” by Will Young— Ga Shame

Young, Will. “To Be a Gay Man”, Ebury Pr , 2020.

Gay Shame

Amos Lassen

Will Young, Million-selling pop star and co-host of his influential podcast calls for an end to gay shame. He writes about the impact it had on his own life, how he learned to deal with it and how he can now say that he is gay and happy.

Young’s story began long before his first audition. He looks back at the world where being called gay was the ultimate insult. As a result, he hid his sexuality. Here he shares the long-lasting impact repressing his true self has had on him. His story demonstrates that internalized shame in childhood increases the risk of developing low self-worth, and even self-disgust and leads to destructive behaviors as an adult. Will writes of the darkest extremes he has been to, shares his vulnerabilities and regrets as he writes of his own navigation through it and then shows that others might have felt alone in the same experience. He breaks taboos and offers practical advice on overcoming the difficult issues that face the LGBTQ+ community.

“Lot Six: A Memoir” by David Adjmi— To Be a Person

Adjmi, David. “Lot Six: A Memoir”, Harper,  2020.
To Be a Person
Amos Lassen
In “Lost Six: A Memoir”, playwright David Adjmi explores how human beings create themselves, and how artists make their lives into art. 
 Adjmi was born in Brooklyn in the 1970’s into a Syrian Jewish family that once had it all. He soon felt displaced and trapped in an insular religious community that excluded him and drove him into suicidal depression. Through adolescence, David tried to hide and suppress his homosexual feelings and fit in, but when pushed to the breaking point, he decided to cut off his family, erase his past, and leave everything he knew behind. But, who should he be? He moved between identities he stole from fashion magazines, philosophy books, sitcoms and foreign films and from practically everyone he met. He began to create an entirely new adult self.
Adjmi’s story is one  of an outsider striving to reshape himself. Adjmi’s memoir is portrait of the artist in a life and death crisis of identity. “Lot Six” tells his search for belonging, identity, and what it takes to be an artist in America.
The memoir is both heartbreaking and hilarious; the story of what it means to make things up, including oneself. It is a story of lack and lies, humiliations and reinventions and a look at how should a person be?” Reading David Adjmi iexplains aspects of ourselves that many of us have never faced.  It is not easy to build an identity and even more difficult to write about doing so with wit and candor. In doing so, Adjmi has written a love letter to art and those of us who need it to survive. There is something here for everyone and after you have dried the tears and calmed the laughs, you will realize that reading about Adjmi is also reading about oneself.

“The Escape Artist” by Helen Fremont— A Family Memoir

Fremont, Helen. “The Escape Artist”,  Gallery Books, 2020.

A Family Memoir

Amos Lassen

In “The Escape Artist”, Helen Fremont has candidly written about her family that has been held together through secrets. Her parents were Holocaust survivors and deeply affected by their memories. Helen and her older sister try to keep their lives separate and compartmentalized and they both try to protect themselves from what they see as the dangers of the modern world.

Fremont goes deeply into the family dynamic that brought about a devotion to secret keeping. She learns that she has been disinherited in her mother’s will. This is the catalyst to write about growing up in such an intemperate household, with parents who were survivors of Nazi-occupied Poland and pretended to be Catholics but were really Jews. She shares tales of family therapy sessions and writes about disordered eating, her sister Lara’s frequently unhinged meltdowns, and her own romantic misadventures as she tries to understand her sexual identity. It seems that he family is devoted to hiding the truth yet Fremont learns the truth is the one thing that can set you free.

Reading “The Escape Artist”, the reader is forced out of his/her own comfort zone and into those of another.  Fremont explores intimate betrayal, the legacy of secrets and the high cost of truth-telling. The force of history is fell throughout the family life. This is a
“shattering account of growing up in a family that has survived genocide and refuse to acknowledge it.”

Fremont looks at intergenerational denial and secret-keeping and how these affected her family. In the process, she discovers the extreme cost and virtue of revelation.
I was pulled in on the first page and read the book in one sitting. Fremont’s story is wild, a story of deception, mental illness, and resilience in the face of everything.

Fremont explores how a big secret might have influenced her sister’s dramatic (and manipulative) behaviors during their formative years, and later. Lara could seemingly turn her impulsive, destructive, unstable behaviors on and off at will. Helen describes this as Lara’s “tendency to flip” and  the family that was often held hostage by Lara’s moods. Helen would sometimes go for years without hearing from her parents and her sister, and eventually became caught up in a power struggle where people choose a side. Both Helen and Lara became professionals — Helen a lawyer, and Lara, a psychiatrist who eventually became head of the psychology department of a university.

Fremont wrote about growing up in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. She worked on a New England farm, went to Wellesley, hiked and did all this other stuff, while also struggling with her sexuality and depression. Even as an adult, her sister loomed over her life, and she could feel the burdensome guilt her parents placed on her.

Fremont thinks the lying and secrecy of her family made it unable to cope with any problems. Helen and her sister had a yin-yang relationship. They often went months and even years without speaking, but there were also long periods where they were best friends. Helen had similar relationships with her parents.  This is an unsettling yet gripping book that shows how even the most well-meaning parents can destroy their children’s lives simply by desiring more from them than what may be possible for them to give.