A parent’s tragedy will always influence the life of their children—often to an overwhelming degree. Writing fiction from the emotional truth of one’s past can be liberating and also confusing. How do writers use their past without being wedded to events as they happened? How do we write honestly, without spilling family secrets that other’s want kept private?
Ellen Meeropol’s exploration of family loyalty, the aftermath of violence, and the possibilities of redemption in House Arrest fascinated me. How one reconciles the past and lives with tragedy that is not of one’s own making, but that color ones’ daily existence was the nub of my own book, The Murderer’s Daughters, where sisters cling to each other in the aftermath of witnessing their father’s murder their mother, building their lives in the shadow of his imprisonment. In House Arrest, a nurse responsible for the health of a pregnant patient (who is under house arrest for the cult-related death of her toddler daughter) is haunted by the consequences of her parents’ antiwar activism a generation ago. Her pregnant patient grew up troubled by her father’s connections to racially motivated violence.
I was only four when my father tried to kill my mother—an event I could never truly remember, despite being there. Then, after ten years of working with batterers and the women they’d victimized, I wrote a story of sisters who witnessed their father murder their mother and how they then lived as virtual orphans.
When Ellen Meeropol fell in love at 19, she had no idea that her husband-to-be was the son of executed “atomic spies,” but his family story led to her political education and activism. Years later, when she started writing fiction, she had no intention of exploring the Rosenberg case, and she never has, not directly. But her characters led her to the intersection of political activism and family, of injustice and divided loyalties.
Neither home-care nurse Emily Klein, nor her pregnant patient Pippa, are happy about being thrown together in House Arrest, but despite their differences, they make a connection. As anti-cult sentiment in the city grows, the women must make decisions about their conflicting responsibilities to their families and to each other—facing in some sense the same issues as did their parents.
As an activist and a mother, author Ellen Meeropol often worried about what would happen to her daughters if she were arrested, imprisoned or hurt during a demonstration, or if she were targeted by an overzealous security apparatus. Her husband was three-years-old when his parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit espionage. He was six when they were executed. When Ellen started writing House Arrest book, she had no clue where Pippa and Emily’s story would take her, but it’s not surprising that themes of politics and families wormed their way into the narrative. Both her characters are haunted by their parents’ actions – very different actions – and both have been constrained by these legacies.
Meeropol’s characters have empathy for people who’ve done awful things and made terrible mistakes—mistakes that caused death and destruction. A large plot concern, revolving around a religious cult, is handled with great wisdom, managing to avoid the heavy hand of the usual judgment shown around this topic. This, I think, is the genius ofHouse Arrest, the cult is portrayed as a collection of people. Whether exploring an imaginary cult or real ones, we’ll never be able to prevent tragedy borne of zealotry unless we can see into the hearts and minds of those attracted and those repelled by such intense, and sometimes misguided, loyalty.
In researching cults, Ellen Meeropol found a quote that must have guided her work, as she walked the line of finding a realistic moral compass and empathetic burrowing into a character’s heart:
“...if you believe in it, it is a religion or perhaps ‘the’ religion; and if you do not care one way or another about it, it is a sect; but if you fear and hate it, it is a cult.” Leo Pfeffer.