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The Escape Artist: what happened when a memoirist revealed her family’s hidden past


The Escape Artist

Helen Fremont

Gallery Books, hardback, 352 pages, €27.50


A family divided: Fremont published her first memoir more than 20 years ago

A family divided: Fremont published her first memoir more than 20 years ago

The Escape Artist by Helen Fremont

The Escape Artist by Helen Fremont


A family divided: Fremont published her first memoir more than 20 years ago

In 1999, Helen Fremont published a bestselling, critically acclaimed memoir called After Long Silence. The book described how she and her sister, Lara, gradually learned that their parents had been dishonest with them about their backgrounds. The girls had been raised Catholic, but their parents were in fact Jewish - and Holocaust survivors.

Fremont's parents, Batya and Kovik, were Polish Jews who met before the war. Kovik survived six years in the Soviet Gulag. Batya scrambled in vain to save her parents, then escaped to Italy disguised as an Italian soldier. There, her older sister had married a Catholic count who was eventually able to have Batya (who changed her name to Maria) released from a concentration camp on the border. Meanwhile, Kovik escaped from jail in Siberia and crossed Europe on foot to find his true love. They were married 10 years from the day they met.

Fremont's parents' story is a stirring and amazing one, and she tells it beautifully, setting it in the context of her childhood and her experience of discovery. On the last page, she writes: "In spite of all that has transpired, or perhaps because of it, our devotion to each other seems to have deepened."

Sadly, this hopefulness turns out to have been misguided. An afterword goes on to describe a party held a few months after the book's publication, gathering the many Jewish relatives who had since turned up. Her parents and sister were absent. "They do not approve of my book," Fremont explains.

This was quite an understatement, as Fremont's new memoir, The Escape Artist reveals. Following the publication of After Long Silence, Fremont didn't hear from her mother or sister again for three years. And then they called only because Fremont's father had died. Though Fremont was asked to attend the funeral, and there was a moment when it seemed her mother had forgiven her, when she received her father's will she got a shock. Attached at the back was a recent codicil proclaiming her "predeceased," disowning her and stripping her of all inheritance, including her father's journals, which he'd always said he was writing and saving for her. Twelve years later, when her mother died, Fremont realised she had signed an identical codicil.

Even though After Long Silence came out seven years after the girls had first confronted their parents with their findings and even though Fremont consulted with her family, agreeing to blur locations and change names, "the book's unexpected success proved catastrophic for my mother". And though Fremont had filled the book "with admiration and love" for her mother, it had nonetheless "ripped open her façade". Fremont confesses that she "understood the sense of betrayal. But I hadn't grasped the degree of her distress, or what was at stake for her".

When Fremont sent a card and package that Mother's Day, they were returned unopened. She marvelled at the carefully written return label and the money spent for priority postage. "My mother must've been so angry she was unrecognisable even to herself."

This is what all budding memoirists fear. Mark Doty experienced it first hand, when his father returned the manuscript to his book Firebird unopened. And yet, like Doty and Fremont, many of us proceed nonetheless. As Fremont says over and over in The Escape Artist, the connection between exposure and death in her family was well known to her. "My mother always insisted on secrecy, as if we would all die from the truth." Secrets, she writes, "were the lifeblood of our family".

In publishing her memoir, Fremont admits, she was "throwing down the gauntlet, standing up on my hind legs and saying I can't remain silent any longer. The secrets are crippling me. Choose me over the secrets." Thus she "accepts estrangement from my mother as punishment," and declares herself "no longer an appendage of my parents, no longer an apparatchik of the family enterprise".

"An 'escape artist,' my mother always called me. 'You're always trying to get away!'"

Having owned that title, and the bitter outcome created by her first round of revelations, Fremont is now coming clean about an area she avoided in part one - the terribly fraught relationship she has had since early childhood with Lara. "Sisters are a set-up," Fremont says. "Shot from the same cannon, you're sent on a blind date for the rest of your lives."

This particular date was a hell ride, with physical violence, eating disorders, mental illness, emotional brutality and short periods of closeness followed by long periods of alienation. Lara's psychological problems were a secret guarded by her parents as closely as their own Holocaust history. They are no longer alive, but Lara is. So what is Fremont up to now? Why risk alienating the last family member she has left?

If there's a spoiler here it's how the sisters' relationship has turned out, so, as we used to say in our book reviews at school: Read the book. In openly confronting the consequences of telling family stories - twice, after bad results the first time! - Fremont takes the reader along with her on the risky moonshot that is family memoir. With this eloquent guide, it is a difficult tour worth taking.

© Washington Post

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