House Lights, Leah Hager Cohen, WW Norton
In the opening pages of Leah Hager Cohen’s House Lights, Beatrice Fisher-Hart recalls a moment during her workday as a ‘historical interpreter’ at a restored Underground Railroad station. During a routine tour, a little boy asks Beatrice personal questions about herself, rather than about the character she is representing. “It threw me,” she recalls,
having him break the fourth wall, as they would have said in my acting class, having him crack everyone’s willing suspension of disbelief. It was as if someone had switched on the house lights in the middle of a dramatic performance, suddenly illuminating the larger reality in which the play was being staged.
While the metaphor that immediately presents itself in the passage is, of course, the analogy drawn between a theatrical performance and Real Life, House Lights’ strength as a novel lies in its ability to transcend this somewhat bland metaphorical framework and reach instead towards a surprisingly textured and subtle reflection on relationships, culpability, and one’s ability to forgive. Beatrice’s coming of age is intertwined inexorably not in her ability to take on a role and play her part. Rather, it becomes her central goal to be like the little boy in the above anecdote—to shatter the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ that defines her family life and history. To be, above all things, ‘an actor’—a force of action, an instigator. “My dream is to act, I had written,” she reflects mid-way through the novel, “and I believed I meant acting as in theater,”
The words sound different to me now, as I look back on who I was then, fast approaching my twentieth birthday…playing the same role I had performed all my life, and all the while so critically unable to act.
House Lights pivots around Beatrice’s discovery that her father, a noted psychologist and professor, has a history of sexually harassing his clients and students. Although information about his conduct has been carefully slanted and, more often than not, withheld from Beatrice (who meanwhile constructed an image of her father as a “beautifully, effortlessly moral” man), when one of his dissertation supervisees furnishes tape-recorded proof of his behavior, she is forced to reckon with not only her image of her parents, but also of herself. “I felt sullied by what I was learning about my father, about my mother’s complicity, and, worst of all, what felt like my own complicity, too,” she explains,
Not because I’d known; I hadn’t. Simply because I had loved him, and us, had believed in and been buttressed by my ready belief, the story of us Fisher-Harts being nobler and smarter and finer than average.
What Cohen emphasizes throughout the course of the novel is that complicity—in the form of either “ready belief” or a lack of action—is an offense on par with the transgressions that her characters spend the novel struggling to understand and overcome. House Lights reads as a repeating cycle of action met with inaction: a character is wronged by someone close to them, but then exacerbates and complicates the situation by refusing to face the problem head on, by even ignoring it all together.
Beatrice’s mother Sarah enacts this cycle most fully throughout House Lights. As a child, Sarah was practically abandoned by her mother, the “legendary actress” Margaret Fourcey, who sent her to live with relatives while Margaret pursued her career, remarried, and had another child. As an adult, Sarah cuts off almost all contact with her mother, stifling any possibility of resolution with her, even when Margaret attempts to reconcile. Beatrice herself replicates this cycle with her father, leaving home shortly after she finds out about the accusations made against him, and refusing to accept his apology when he finally does offer it.
Having made a concerted effort to do away with artifice and a mythologized sense of her family’s superiority, Beatrice cannot set these recognitions aside. Her point-of-view seems to constrict at the very moment that it expands, allowing her to see her parents for the flawed people that they are, but not able to forgive them their fallibility. But forgiveness, House Lights asserts, is not a matter of ignoring wrongs or pretending that time can ever truly eradicate certain emotional wounds. Rather, within the novel, forgiveness becomes the ability to be empathetic with those who have inflicted the most harm to you: “…This much is clear,” Beatrice says of her father, “it isn’t and never will be all right with me, the choices he’s made as a father. Which is different from hating him. Which does not preclude compassion.”