Deconstructing the Big Top

A clueless writer proves no match for "Babette, the strongest woman alive" and her wild and woolly circus family.

Published August 30, 2001 7:20PM (EDT)

In the center ring, ladies and gentlemen, behold what must be some of the best material a writer could ever hope for: the true story of three generations of women born into the circus. The grandmother, Babette, fled her tyrannical father and her ancient European circus family (Cirkus Brumbach, whose daring escape across the Iron Curtain from Communist Czechoslovakia would become the basis for the 1953 Elia Kazan movie "Man on a Tightrope") for America and marriage to the philandering, tippling Harry -- just as violent as her father but one of the best acrobats of his day. Billed as "the strongest woman alive" and "the marvel of two continents," Babette could lift a 200-pound baby elephant on her shoulders and was a favorite of the legendary 1920s theatrical empresario Billy Rose and the pioneering blues singer Sophie Tucker.

Babette's daughter, Betty, also became an expert tumbler and worked with the famous Christiani family, but she wasn't above picking up the odd job at the 1939 World's Fair doing a stunt called "The Arctic Girl's Tomb of Ice" and trying to eat a banana underwater for a Salvador Dali exhibit. Betty's own daughter, Fritzi, remembers an idyllic childhood of traveling cross-country with her parents and brother in a trailer, but chose to leave the profession to pursue drugs, surfing and, eventually, fine art.

It's a family saga full of long-lost siblings, last-minute betrayals, hidden treasure, terrible feuds, hilarious escapades, heartbreaking accidents, suicide and murder, but those who have survived to tell it -- Betty, Fritzi and a few scattered relatives -- are a volatile and occasionally recalcitrant lot. Stepping into the ring to tame their unruly reminiscences and make their collected memorabilia speak comes Donnalee Frega, armed with nothing but a book contract and a "Ph.D. from Duke University with a speciality in narrative theory." It's not what you'd call an even match.

"That would make a good novel," a friend said when I attempted to summarize the family story Frega tells in "Women of Illusion," but I disagree. The circuses of literary fiction (like its stage magicians) usually come across as forced color, self-conscious invocations of "wonder" and carnivalesque adventure providing the backdrop to cheesy, overdrawn but fundamentally boring story lines. The one factor saving the history of the Hubers from being preposterous is the fact that it's true. Betty's life alone contains the stuff of a half-dozen novels or movies -- her childhood locked away in a dreary convent school in Europe while her parents toured, her efforts to struggle free from the tyrannical father who trained her as an acrobat, the years she spent breaking hearts on the road until she found true love with Fritz Huber, the six-month tour of Cuba that Betty and Fritz (both kids in tow) made during the height of the 1957 revolution, Fritz's agonizing death from cancer a few years later and so on.

Nope, the only way to tell the Hubers' story is straight, but Frega soon found herself tangling with first Betty and then Fritzi over exactly how that story should be told. The idea for the book sprang from Frega's close friendship with both women -- she once thought of Fritzi as a surrogate sister; her children still call Betty "Grandma" -- but her battles with them over interviews, photos, letters and, most of all, how to interpret the past put a strain on those relationships and the book project itself. One of the oldest tricks of the nonfiction writer's trade is, when confronted by a maddening obstacle, to write the obstacle into the story. That's what Frega decided to do with "Women of Illusion," and while it's an honorable strategy that has worked for many a clever scribe, the problem is that Frega isn't very clever -- or for that matter very inventive or charming or funny or, when you get right down to it, interesting -- so the result is a minor disaster.

And yet. If "Women of Illusion" can't by any stretch be called a good book, it's nevertheless a fascinating one. It does wind up reading like a novel, but not what you might expect, a tiresome Fellini-esque paean to the art of illusion and the larger-than-life passions of show people. Instead, "Women of Illusion" recalls those romping postmodern exercises in mockumentary and unreliable narration -- think "Pale Fire," Nabokov's wickedly funny novel in the form of an annotated poem. As the poem progresses, the annotator takes over, his footnotes expanding and spinning out a demented tale of exile, paranoia and crime. You have to read the story through the narrator, detecting what might have really happened through the scrim of his delusions, much as we learn to take everything that Humbert Humbert tells us about Lolita with a sizable grain of salt.

"Women of Illusion" offers just such an experience, only in this case it's a real biographical book about actual people and events that we can only see through the limited perspective of its author. Although Frega's introduction of her own feelings and experiences into the book doesn't really work on the level of simple memoir, to the sufficiently attentive reader these passages offer a host of clues that can be assembled into the intriguing tale of a sheltered and inflexible woman colliding with the raw and often nasty chaos of the human experience.

At first, Frega's tussles with Betty seem frustratingly obscure. She encounters "sealed closets" in Betty's memory and "there is no prying them open; I have to lead her to each door and insist that she produce the key." A dutiful academic steeped in terms like "collapsing natural assumptions" and "interrogating interpretive communities," Frega discovered that possessing a whole toolbox of critical theory not only won't help in the writing of a real book (her previous publication being a volume called "Speaking in Hunger: Gender, Discourse and Consumption in 'Clarissa'"), it often hinders it. "I want to find some sort of common ground with my subject," she explains, "but her associative ramblings undermine my notion of what constitutes even a nonlinear 'story' or 'narrative.'"

Without a doubt, Betty sounds like a difficult subject, impatient with Frega's ignorance of circus lingo and equipment, and quick to anger when her interlocutor can't keep the details straight or prompts her to explore unappealing subjects. Yet clearly Betty is also a fine storyteller, particularly when it comes to anecdote. "Women of Illusion" is studded with gems of this particular variety, many of them about Babette's nonproficiency in English and the scrapes it got her into. Believing that she'd been invited to perform for a club of retired clowns, she was baffled when they turned up all dressed alike and showed no inclination to caper. "Dey only just sat dere," said Babette of the group she thought was called the "Ku Klux Klown." "Dey vere none of dem funny at all."

Frega happily records such yarns, but again and again she prods Betty for details that will conform to her own notion of how a life ought to be described. That notion is composed in part of pious academic ideas about the "empowerment" to be had by previously "silenced" women in the public telling of their own experiences and of a kind of soul-numbingly sedate vision of psychological balance and health. "I want Betty to dismantle her formulaic tendency to frame each story around a job found and lost, to reflect on the sexual politics of her difficult life," she writes at one point, and "It is important to me that Betty be able to discuss her relationships openly, that she trust my ability to depict this important side of her being." Frega seems unaware of how domineering and patronizing she can sound, but Betty -- a skillful fortune-teller who had learned how to read a person's every gesture -- surely wasn't. No wonder they clashed.

And no doubt Frega's own often overwhelming feelings of vulnerability prevented her from attaining much perspective. As she explains in the book's first chapter, she had been denied tenure at the university where she taught Southern literature when she first met Betty and Fritzi, and was facing a crisis of vocation. As the book progresses, Frega's lurking anxieties emerge in unpredictable and largely unexamined (at least by Frega) ways. They constellate around two ideas, repeatedly voiced by Betty and Fritzi, that provoke Frega to no end. The first is their assertion that circus people constitute a closed community outsiders can never fully understand and to which outsiders cannot gain full admittance. The second is Fritzi's insistence that artists will often neglect and jeopardize their intimate relationships, even their family relationships, out of a single-minded commitment to their work.

While both of these ideas will strike most readers as obvious, well-established facts, whenever either one gets floated by someone she interviews, Frega becomes aggravated and even frantic. When she meets someone who's an exception to either generalization (in particular, a young circus performer who treats her graciously), she clings to their words like a drowning woman clutching a life preserver. As her friendship with Fritzi begins to crumble, the two women argue heatedly over a choice Fritzi's father made when confronted with his cancer diagnosis; Fritzi insists that he opted for a riskier treatment that wouldn't require the amputation of one of his legs and thereby end his circus career.

Fritzi, even more than Betty, constantly tests Frega's ability to imagine herself into another person's position, and these are tests that Frega invariably fails. In fact, Frega seems unable even to accept that other people might harbor longings and needs fairly different from her own. A lavishly devoted mother, Frega dismisses Fritzi's reasons for choosing to remain childless as "protests" that are "probably, at some level, regretful and self-consolatory." Behind her measured, bland, therapeutic language, the author is something of a despot; anyone who doesn't conform to her concept of a moral, fulfilled life earns either her disapproval or her pity.

Stricken at the thought that Fritzi's beloved father might have cheated his family by trying to save his career, Frega pleads with Betty to tell her it isn't so. When Betty complies, Frega greets the reassurance with tears in her eyes ("In my heart I knew, but I had to hear you say it"). It's a remarkable scene, but only one of several toward the book's end in which Frega and Fritzi duke it out over the nature of artistic vocation. "It wasn't his career," says Fritzi. "It's something else for an artist. It's his life force!" Frega will have none of this. Later, as they survey Fritzi's collection of folk art, Fritzi describes the artisans of a Mexican village who specialize in clay figures and believe "that the clay is infected by the devil's presence and speaks through their hands, causing these objects to be formed." Frega responds to the story by saying, "What better way to dismantle the power of the past than to make fun of it? ... They are saying 'Look Satan, how silly you are. You're not scary; you're just a big goof ... It's empowering."

By the conclusion of "Women of Illusion," it's obvious that Frega is determined to take the devil's clay, wherever she may find it (and among circus folk is a great place to look), and transform it into something harmless, manageable and "empowering." While undoubtedly a good mother and an upstanding, moral citizen, Frega lacks the fire and the visionary sympathy of an artist, so how would she know what trauma someone faces in giving that up? And while artists have gotten away with far too much bad behavior by pleading the imperatives of the muse, the truth is that the vocation does require a certain ruthlessness, especially in the case of writers, and most especially in the case of those who write about real people. "Writers are always selling somebody out," Joan Didion once said; that's why she writes like Joan Didion, instead of coughing up sentences like "Have fun with it, I remind myself. Think of it as a journey."

And yet, alas for Frega, if she lacks the pitiless drive of a fine writer, she also won't embrace the negative capability of a skilled journalist. At great pains to distinguish herself -- a "serious researcher" -- from the riffraff likes of a mere "reporter," Frega can't achieve the protean self-erasure of a good interviewer, that quality of calculated yielding that draws out a source. Instead Frega insists on quarreling about sexual politics and insufficient linearity and must always keep the moral yardstick of her own values within reach for handy measuring.

But if Frega isn't much of writer, she's still an intriguing character. A careful rereading of "Women of Illusion" offers more hints about why she finds Fritzi's ethos so disturbing. Frega's husband -- who, unlike her children, is scarcely mentioned in the book -- turns out to be a sculptor, which may put the author's distress about the familial commitments of artists in a whole new light. Behind Frega's story about telling the story of the Huber family there are, perhaps, intimations of yet another story. The problem is that for all the interplay of its many layers -- and for all the adventurous vitality of the Huber family's circus life -- "Women of Illusion" is still composed of wooden prose coated in a dingy shellac of institutional clichés. There's a novel in here, all right. If only Nabokov were still alive to write it.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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