February 2020

The Escape Artist

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Family is a tricky animal. Even when things seem ordinary and well adjusted, no one outside truly knows what happens behind closed doors. Far more than a set of partnerships and responsibilities knit together by love, there’s often something more going on within a family: a gravitational pull toward one another, blurring the boundaries of each individual and creating a collective entity with overlapping fears, desires and traumas. In The Escape Artist, Helen Fremont unravels the individual threads knotted together in her own family, untangling the agreed-upon tales her family made up—to survive, to retain their image of themselves—from the realities she experienced as a daughter and sister in that family.

This tragic and unsettling (but also humorous and wry) memoir opens with an event that becomes the impetus of Fremont’s attempt to make sense of it all. Weeks after attending her father’s funeral, she receives a letter informing her of her own disinheritance. Legally speaking, she had been killed off like a character written out of a series, listed as having predeceased her father in a codicil to his will.

Expelled from the family narrative—one that included deeply buried secrets, shame over sometimes violent mental illness, her parents’ escape from genocide and the subsequent burial of their own identities—Fremont realizes she can only rely on her own individual narrative. That narrative, composed of Fremont’s memories and research into her family’s fugitive past, diverges wildly from the face her family portrayed to everyone else: the successful, Catholic doctor, beautiful housewife and two driven, intelligent daughters. Concealed within this image, as Fremont reveals, is a Jewish refugee, a traumatized survivor and children wrestling with mental illness and nervous collapse for their entire lives.

One would be hard-pressed to find a family without secrets. Even when the secrets are small, the strain of carrying them, and of maintaining the facade that permits such complicated, lifelong relationships to survive, can be exhausting. No one could accuse the family in The Escape Artist of keeping only small secrets, but in its truth-telling, it serves as a catharsis for anyone who has ever spent time hiding the skeletons of others.

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