“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.

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