The Trauma of Pretending: On Adam P. Frankel’s “The Survivors”

November 24, 2019   •   By Elaine Margolin

The Survivors

Adam P. Frankel

ADAM P. FRANKEL, a chief speechwriter for Barack Obama whom the president always called upon when he required just the right amount of poetic melancholy, spent most of his life pretending. Pretending that he was in full control of himself and the chaos that surrounded him. Pretending that he was a happily married man (with two beautiful children) who was gracefully navigating the intricacies and intimacies of family life. Above all, pretending that he could handle the traumas that had always beset his needy mother and her fragile, traumatized family. But nothing could have been further from the truth. Frankel, a seemingly successful graduate of Princeton and the London School of Economics, was dying inside, beset by nightmares and panic attacks that were growing more frequent and intense. His colleagues at the White House, Ben Rhodes and Jon Favreau, noticed that Frankel was off his game on certain days but attributed this to the pressures that came with working for the president. They had no idea about the extent of his suffering, which had begun long ago.

Frankel grew up the only son of a mentally unstable mother, whose parents were Holocaust survivors who encouraged him, from a ridiculously early age, to be his mother’s protector. She had tried to commit suicide shortly before marrying his father, and soon afterward their marriage imploded, leaving five-year-old Frankel alone with this wobbly woman for most of the week. He remembers coming home from school terrified, not knowing which mother he would encounter: the one locked in her room moaning, or the one who would pounce on him and begin talking non-stop for hours, until succumbing to despair once again. It was far too much for the little boy, and he began to develop coping mechanisms to disguise his discomfort. In reality, though, he was fighting for his life, tormented by his mother’s volatility and constant machinations. Frankel’s gripping autobiography, The Survivors: A Story of War, Inheritance, and Healing, chronicles his journey toward a plateau of sanity and serenity — a journey that is clearly still in progress.

One of the few people he would turn to during his early years was his beloved father, with whom he would spend idyllic Wednesdays and Saturdays laughing, talking, and sharing stories while strolling the streets of Manhattan. His father was a wonderful listener, and Frankel basked in the glory of his undivided attention. The two were a natural fit: their affection for each other was effortless. Frankel’s paternal grandfather had been a speechwriter for Robert F. Kennedy, George McGovern, and Adlai Stevenson, and his father and grandfather were thrilled when they heard that Frankel was interested in the same profession, arranging prestigious summer internships for him. There was also the precious two-week vacation to Bermuda the three of them took annually, which were the only times Frankel recalls the knots in his stomach beginning to loosen. Most importantly, these respites from his mother’s madness allowed Frankel to glimpse what life could feel like when not bogged down by overwhelming familial obligations.

But there was another, perhaps more compelling, voice that resonated in Frankel’s young mind — that of his beloved grandfather, Abraham Perecman, who (along with his paternal great-grandfather) had survived Dachau by convincing the Nazis they could repair their timepieces. It was an act of daring that probably saved both their lives. Adam worshipped his maternal grandfather with the same intensity and boundless love he had for his father. He would spend hours with his Zayde playing and talking — and trying to get him to talk about Dachau and the war against the Nazis. But his grandfather usually deflected these precocious inquiries, telling him that all that mattered now was the family and his future — assertions that made Frankel uncomfortable because he sensed the unspoken obligations that accompanied them.

His grandfather came from Michalishek, a town in Lithuania 40 miles southeast of Vilna, which one of his cousins, the Yiddish poet Menke Katz, described as a “magical, mystical place, populated by Talmudists and cabalists, steeped in legend and lore.” Frankel can still vividly recall the tiny watch-repairing shop his grandfather opened in New Haven, Connecticut, with the lopsided sign that swung back and forth above the door. He remembers how infatuated he was with the display cases, stuffed with earrings, bracelets, broaches, and pocket watches. But the sharpest image of all is that of his grandfather hunched over his work bench, lost in private thoughts and memories he would never share with anyone. His cousin explained to Frankel that his grandfather saw watch repairing as a kind of sacred act that could transport him elsewhere and anywhere. Frankel recalls his cousin telling him that his grandfather viewed broken watches as “unwell. When they are fast, it is because they are in a hurry. When they are slow, it is because they are forgetful. And if a watch that had stopped ticking came alive in his hands, he would claim to have resurrected the dead.”

But when Frankel tried to talk openly about the troubles he was having with his mother, his grandfather would chastise him for broaching the subject, telling him in the severest of tones that it was his duty to protect her and help her and that it always would be. To do otherwise was simply unacceptable; this is what Jews did — the good ones, at least. They sheltered their own, especially the ones who were weak or mentally unstable. He begged Frankel not to abandon his mother and to forgive her for her transgressions, regardless of their severity. When Frankel balked and tried to explain that he was withering away inside, his relationship with his wife and children suffering, his pleas were met with cold silence.

Throughout the book, Frankel meets with several experts in the field of trauma studies, who explain how the phenomenon is passed from one generation to the next. He integrates this professional wisdom into his narrative, but the assertions at times seem rather stilted and banal. They certainly don’t address in any meaningful fashion the real work Frankel has to do on his own — or with a competent therapist — to free himself from the demons chasing him. When he seeks advice from his many uncles and aunts about how to handle his increasingly erratic and manipulative mother, he is met with condemnation, even though they themselves do very little to assist him in managing her many crises.

But something breaks wide open in his early 20s, when his mother suddenly tells him that the man he thinks is his biological father is not. Rather, it is another man, someone his mother is still friendly with and whom Frankel has always found to be a narcissistic boor. Frankel makes a half-hearted attempt to get to know this man during an awkward lunch that only leaves him feeling more distressed. He worries that this news will disrupt his relationship with his father; when he finds out this is not the case, he is greatly relieved. But his fury at his mother’s deception simmers to a boil.

Frankel wants us to know that he is making steady progress toward healing, crediting the audacious act of writing this memoir as part of the reason why. But we sense otherwise. Frankel has been pretending to be other than he truly is for so long that it comes naturally to him, and his proclamations of improvement seem forced. It is not that he is trying to be deceitful, but abandoning pretense in favor of authenticity is a new skill for him, and he has trouble relinquishing his old habits of trickery.

In many ways, Frankel seems like a man still haunted by two distinct voices competing for dominance in his mind, both of which he reveres. There is the voice of his loving father, who encourages him to carve out a personal space for himself that isn’t dominated by familial obligations, despite the consequences. And there is another, more evocative voice — that of his now deceased grandfather, who seems to be reminding him, from beyond the grave, that he should watch over his sick mother, despite the suffering involved. Frankel is troubled by these whispered decrees, with their accompanying guilt and shame. He clearly sees merit in both arguments, which is why figuring out what kind of man he should be remains an elusive task. His bewilderment is evident on every page of this captivating work.


Elaine Margolin is a book critic whose work was appeared in many venues, including Washington Post, Jerusalem Post, Denver Post, and San Francisco Chronicle, as well as many literary journals.