After reading Donnalee Frega’s Women of Illusion: A Circus Family’s Story, I considered running away to join the circus. Visions of a nomadic life filled with death-defying acrobatic stunts never fueled my childhood fantasies. But Frega’s book, a hybrid biography/autobiography, compels me to reconsider my career choice. The distinctions that this book draws between its subjects–circus “women of illusion” Betty Huber and her daughter Fritzi–and its author–woman of allusion and former English professor (at Duke and N.C. State University, among others) Donnalee Frega–make me want to quit my teaching job and throw my lot in with Betty, the risk-taking acrobat, and Fritzi, the temperamental visual artist.

Betty and Fritzi possess a hard-won sense of self-determination and refuse to invest in the traditional gender roles that shape the worldview of the academic to whom they entrust their stories. The book provides a fascinating look at the life of circus performers, particularly in the first half. It is equally as compelling, however, as a chronicle of the difficulties women face when they attempt to negotiate differences of class, education, and profession, even after decades of feminist theory and activism encouraging us to confront our differences and form nurturing communities.

The book traces the exploits of 81-year-old Betty Huber and her daughter Fritzi, and includes accounts of Betty’s circus performing parents, brother and husband. The book is Frega’s post-partum, post-university manifesto. Fritzi admonishes the author, who has just been denied tenure, that “comfort zones disintegrate all the time . . . you’ll just have to reinvent yourself.” Eschewing the traditional model that casts biographer and subject as adversaries, Frega feels that writing about her two women friends involves “an uncharted intimacy for which there exists no etiquette, only a shared resolve.” The precise terms of that resolve and intimacy, as interpreted by three very different women, come under scrutiny before the book project is completed.

Frega employs Fritzi’s notion of reinvention as a motif for the circus stories as well as for her own journey as a writer. But the book’s real structure is the frame imposed by Frega’s pervasive interest in family matters. Family relationships suffuse the author’s treatment of the circus world and the book project itself. Frega questions the two women repeatedly about the family dynamics of circus life; Betty’s children begin to call her “Grandma Betty” and Frega calls her “Mom.”

The book’s liveliest and most engaging passages occur in the first half as Betty recounts her past, embellishing for effect. She spent several years in a German convent, began performing with her father at age 16, and was slated to compete in the 1936 Olympics until her fledgling career as a circus worker disqualified her from the games. She toured Cuba and the United States in the 1950s with her husband, Fritz, and their comic highwire act. Even in print, Betty is a consummate entertainer. Her infectious love of storytelling breaks through the editorial control Frega seeks to impose. Frega writes, “I will trust my instincts as a writer and claim control over my own project.” But in the next paragraph, she relinquishes control over subject matter in a subsequent interview: “I breathe a sigh of relief. Today we are evidently going to talk about jobs.”

Frega does assume a measure of control when she explores difference in a way that implicitly positions her subjects at a disadvantage. She compares unfavorably the nine marriages entered into by Betty, Fritzi, and Bobby (Betty’s son) to her own stable 20-year union. She openly disapproves of Betty’s youthful indiscretion in matters of the heart. Ultimately, however, the author fastens upon a shared maternal perspective that informs her interview sessions and relationship with Betty. “We share the same deep maternal need to guard small children from harm,” she writes, while Betty understands that “joy in children unites adults.”

The primacy of parenting sustains the author’s friendship with Betty but is conspicuously absent when the author negotiates her relationship with Betty’s daughter Fritzi. The two women must confront differences in their professional and personal lives. Fritzi is childless by choice and dedicates herself to her art; the maternally identified Frega is committed to the life of her family. As she learns about Fritzi’s circus childhood, Frega emphasizes the distance between them: “Fritzi’s unfamiliar stories collapse the long-cherished myth of my friend’s fundamental similarity to myself.” Frega interprets Fritzi’s focus on art as an emotional deficit rather than a legacy from her parents: “Nothing I can tell Fritzi will convince her that she herself is worth far more, at least to me, than any artistic ‘gift’ that she might possess.” Frega cannot reconcile her conflict with Fritzi by recourse to a familial paradigm–except, perhaps, that of competitive siblings–and their relationship becomes increasingly fraught.

Toward the end of the book, Frega makes explicit the assumptions about women with which she began the project. One passage crystallizes the book’s fatal flaw: the author’s conventional expectations about women and family. “I clutched at the opportunity of a book contract because I thought that the project would turn Fritzi, Betty and me into a nurturing, working ‘family,’” Frega writes, “a new comfort zone of inquiring women to replace the colleagues and students whom I had lost.” Other gendered assumptions remain unexplored when Frega interviews Bobby, Betty’s son and Fritzi’s younger brother. With him, Frega feels “relief” at not having to “tiptoe around this subject’s feelings,” and notices how “casually this subject is treating his storytelling, a marked and somewhat welcome shift from the intense immediacy with which his mother and sister recall past frustrations.”

The author’s inability to detach her investigation of circus life from her commitment to the nuclear family lends an increasingly judgmental tone to the latter half of the book. Frega processes all information as a parent. When Fritzi recounts “difficult teen years, of decisions concerning sexuality and drug abuse,” Frega writes that “she must know that I will be tempted to judge harshly because I have chosen her as my children’s guardian.” When 18-year-old wire-walker Tony Liebel tells Frega that he harbors fears that the audience wants to see him fall, she replies, “Believe me, parents do not want their kids to see you get hurt.” She appears oblivious to the compelling issue of the thorny relationship between thrill-seeking audience and daredevil performer. Her emphasis on parental responsibilities gradually eclipses the stories the circus women and men tell.

Finally, the author rejects Betty and Fritzi’s frequent assertion that the circus world is a culture of its own, a view she finds exclusive and overly romantic. She arrives at a surprising “truth” that undercuts her subjects’ colorful and detailed stories, a generalization that forces the circus world to conform to her beliefs about family. “This circus family is in no way different from farm families across America in their work ethic, and they share with families of corporate executives or military personnel the tendency to band together with others who understand the professional necessity of moving constantly.” In imposing such a restrictive frame on her subjects, the author may have violated the shared resolve that gave rise to the book project. Unfortunately, Frega’s traditional perspective on women as mothers and friends does a disservice to her captivating subjects. EndBlock