Fear, Fathers and Family by Jon J. Masters

When Jon Masters was 10, his parents, seeking access to the American upper class, cut off their families, became Episcopalians, and made him promise not to tell anyone they had ever been Jews – not any woman he might marry, and not his brother who was in the crib in the next room.  For more than 30 years, he lived parallel lives: in one he was constrained by his parents’ fears of exposure; in the other he acted as if his family’s past did not exist and he could be whoever he wanted to be.

Within the family his father was in charge, threatening to die if the secret was revealed.  In his public life, Jon believed he was immune to the consequences of denial.  He went to top schools, was mentored by high ranking superiors, and as a young naval officer was marked for success among a circle of seasoned Washington policy-makers.

By the time he was 40, it all started to come apart.  He didn’t know who he was.  By then, he was a father and a husband.  He had no confidantes and held his wife at arm’s length for fear of exposing the secret and terrified of the consequences of doing so.

This is the story of what brought him to that point and what he did to protect his children, save his marriage, maintain his career, and nourish his soul. Family took precedence over power and healing the family trauma became his priority. Helping his children become independent, caring, and accomplished in ways of their own choosing was his goal.


Stephen C. Rose

This book is remarkable for some of the reasons that are obvious from reading it. Its theme is the conflict within the author’s family over race and secrecy. Masters is Jewish and his father insisted this be a family secret as he sought to establish a new name and a patrician identity in the upper class society of Manhattan. By acceding to this demand, actually a threat, Masters faced a long series of challenges that ended with his refusal to hide the truth when he was 40.

The other features of the book are, first, a running experiential narrative which culminates in a final chapter which seems to me wise enough to warrant a book in itself. Secondly. and more rare, Masters offers an honest window on a most interesting and varied life from the part of society that Jon Masters has occupied, really, all his life.

I place this book in a small pantheon with two other honest accounts. One is Kate Millet’s “Flying”. The other is Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. The common thread is the willingness of these writers to go deep, unsullied by the many motives that can turn authorship away from letting things get said that must be said.

Masters overcame a great deal while having several careers, including advising persons of note and acting on stage and TV. More unusual are glimpses one gets of love and vulnerability that are not papered over. I was particularly moved by accounts of his children and their communications with him.

The book ends abruptly with an excellent chapter that consists of life lessons and good advice. It is followed by a substantial afterword by the author’s brother. While this is of interest, I feel that I would most like to see the very same book with a final chapter in which the author tells us the rest of the story: the later years of his most interesting life.

All told an enjoyable and stimulating read.

“Jon Masters’ memoir is quite a story. It is written in spare prose. I couldn’t put it down. The author, born in 1937 and brought up in golden Manhattan by overbearing, deeply committed parents, is sworn to secrecy at age tan concerning his Jewishness. He is even confirmed in the Episcopal Church. He is duly enrolled in Power schools an set upon a course for high achievement. By dint of his grit, his smarts and an amazing capacity for friendship, he nails every milestone on the way to success. But them the golden cords begin to unravel. Career, marriage and the lie he has been living are upended. But his determination, reframed goals and, I suspect, some skilled therapy, enable Jon to become that rara avis: a happy man who has richly lived the examined life. One of the most intriguing aspects of this excellent book is the insight it offers into a significant strand of American social history: the achievement by countless Jewish families who embraced and enriched the snobbish WASP educational establishment by becoming a force in building the modern United States. Future historians take notice of this compelling primary source.” – Henry V.
“Despite the hurt inflicted by the shackles of a family secret, Jon struggles to find some compensating merit for his parent’s insular conduct and ultimately rejects the deception that he was so meticulously trained to defend. The steely, refrigerated heart his father cultivated in Jon becomes a dagger for self-inflicted wounds. Through inspiration (Divine or otherwise), Jon is compelled to architect a morally-relevant world mortared together with love and a self-understanding based on independence of thought – and ultimately shield his own family from the conflagration. The raw material for Jon’s personal reconstruction comes from his academic exposure to the humanities and, more importantly, from the nourishing light of his wife’s unconditional love. While the book’s context is the anti-Semitic environment in New York City after Word War II, this aspect is merely the starting point for Jon to escalate to a much broader examination of the nature of some of man’s most intractable deficiencies. Despite the subject matter, the book is not just another inveighing glimpse into discrimination and hypocrisy. Rather it is an artistic examination of the dehumanizing effect of fear and hate – the precursor to so much of man’s most depraved moments. The book fractures reality in such a way that the reader is able to peer into a dark place and find a path to a worldview based on connectedness and truth. Jon Masters’ memoir reminds us that the trappings of success are no insulation from the darkness imposed by family dysfunction.” – S. Chase
“This is a wonderful book — affecting, insightful, instructive. It is a narrative about parents and children over three generations, which, while founded on a deception, is ultimately a testament to the curative power of love within a family. Jon Masters’ personal experience provides lessons for all of us who have struggled to make sense of our heritage and sought to provide our children with a different — and hopefully better — path in life. At the same time, Fear, Fathers and Family is a fascinating memoir of Jon’s quite extraordinary life.” – A. Butzel
“Jon Masters’ ‘Fear, Fathers and Family’ is a captivating journey on multiple levels – parents keeping a life-altering secret in a world of crippling anti-Semitism, Jon’s singular personal progress in the Pentagon, legal and corporate professions, building a family and finally distilling what’s really important. I highly recommend ‘Fear, Fathers and Family’ to anyone interested in an insider’s personal history of 20th century America by a highly moral self-made ‘insider’.” – Anthony Grass, President e-Market Intelligence.
“Born to privilege, Jon Masters traces his journey of self-actualization, not from rags to riches but from the person he thought he should be to the person he truly is. I once heard someone remark “I used to be different…now I’m the same.” Clearly, Jon knows what this means.” – R. Chalmers
“One day while working as an editor for a business trade association, I got an article called “For Whom the Bell Tolls” about shareholder activism by a man named Jon Masters. What a clever title, I thought, appreciating the allusion to Ernest Hemingway’s famed novel cleverly juxtaposed with a dry technical subject. Little did I know that at that very same time the author would be wrestling with the issues of life and career he describes so compellingly in these memoires. Of all literary genres, the memoir may be the most important, because it is a first-hand account of the process we call living. Of all genres, it is the easiest to write (because it is about oneself) yet the hardest to write well (for that same reason): there is always the risk that what matters to the author may not matter to others, especially in an extremely personal and often inexpressibly complex realm of family dynamics. Jon Masters ran that risk and came out a winner. Masters’ autobiography is an American tour de force that weaves together several story lines using lucid language born of sincerity. On the family side, we meet a variety of vivid individuals, from the warm and caring yet insecure tyrant who was his father, to the sometimes brutally honest intellectual beauty who would became his tender and steadfast wife. On the career side we read of the author’s experience in the military, politics, law, theatre, and consulting, with many interesting (and sometimes historically significant) twists and turns that should interest anyone in the work world. But the most compelling story line is the author’s own journey to move from the outer shell of success he had built as “Jon Masters” by keeping his Jewish identity hidden out of the fears of (and for) his father, to an inner soul capable of confronting and ultimately embracing his past and building a truly happy life based on enduring values of truth and love. The book’s unique mix of humor and drama could only come from someone who had lived a double life and survived as an integrated, honest person alive to tell the tale. There is no boasting or posing here, despite the author’s self-description as “brash” and “cocky.” This is a real Mensch talking, you can tell. Structured for suspense (we don’t learn the Secret until well into the narrative) the book is a true page turner. I began reading the book late in Labor Day weekend and could not put down until I finished it at 3 AM on back-to-work Tuesday. At the same time, there’s plenty of visual detail, emotional depth, and (sometimes dark) humor in the vignettes. The following two passages (quoted verbatim but without paragraph breaks) may give a good feel for the author’s appealing style. A memory of his mother:
How I looked was important to my mother. In dressing me, she was not only oblivious to the realities of how children play, she was also oblivious to what was going on in the world. In 1940 or 1941, when Austrians and Germans were terrorizing Jews, she proudly dressed me in a green and grey Tyrolean outfit. My mother had a great eye for color and design, and she boasted ‘I never paid retail.’ … Did she love me? I never knew. One experience in particular still puzzles me. One night when I was about 7 or 8, my mother came to my room to say goodnight before leaving with my father for an evening of dinner and dancing. She looked terrific. “You look so pretty in that purple hat,” I told her. She never wore that hat again. What is it that makes that memory so vivid? I knew how important appearances and good clothes were to my mother. I wanted her to know I admired her. I wanted to bond with her. It didn’t happen. Was it my fault or hers? I tried to hug her but I had to settle for a good night kiss – one that would not disturb her makeup. Maybe she took offense that I had not complimented her on other occasions. A memory of his father: One sunny Sunday I planned to play ball with some friends in Central Park. I had a science exam the next day and, as I was leaving the apartment, my father asked me, “Do you know the material?” “Yes,” I said. “Let’s see,” he responded, taking my yellow science textbook into the den. Sitting in this chair with his back to the window and the gleaming son so I could not see his face, he started asking me questions. My answers were not good enough. Goodbye ballgame as my father starting going over the material with me. The next day my father asked how I did on the exam. I said proudly, “I got a 99, the best mark in the class.” My father’s reaction: “What happened to the other point?” And he wasn’t kidding. As far as he was concerned, I had not done my job. Could I ever satisfy him?”
As these passages show, the book is no hit-and-run adventure: yes, he reports on foibles (“Don’t put blinders on” is one of several distinct life lessons he offers at the end of the book) but at the same time he praises strengths: his parents were doing the best they could. He credits his father for teaching him to “Persevere,” another life lesson summarized at the end. His father made him keep skiing one day despite an accident. “I had torn all the ligaments in my right knee…Was I angry at him? Upset at what he had caused? I simply accepted him as he was. My father didn’t listen. He had all the answers. It certainly was not the way I wanted to deal with my kids. On the other hand, I learned to get up and keep going – a valuable lesson for life.” Those who have read Ernest Hemingway will see the resemblance. The “Bell” article proved prophetic. It urged directors to become more responsive to owners in the new century. I am so glad to see that the author, still rightly thriving as a governance consultant, he has turned his talents as a writer to the most important subject of all – life.” A. Lajoux
“In Fear, Fathers, and Family Jon Masters tells a compelling story that is part memoir and (in its description of anti-Semitism) part social history. He was raised in the 1940’s and ’50’s by socially ambitious parents who determined to hide the fact that they were Jewish and to cut themselves and their children off from their extended Jewish family and all of Jewish society. At the same time, Jon’s father demanded that he excel in all activities and win all the possible prizes so that the doors of high society and high status professions would be open to him. With remarkable openness and honesty, Jon describes how, as a youth and a young man, he went along with the family secret, was driven by the need to fulfill his father’s demand to always be the best, and was challenged in important relationships because of his need to hide the truth of who he really was. The book tells the story of the author’s increasing self-awareness, his efforts to overcome his father’s destructive influence, and the importance of his love for his wife and children in his finding the strength to do so.
In light of his many professional and personal accomplishments and his varied interests, it appears that in many respects the author has fulfilled his father’s ambitions for him, while resisting and overcoming the parental injunctions that were damaging to him. This book should be fascinating for anyone who has struggled to overcome the destructive aspects of a parent’s influence while still owning and exemplifying those parental beliefs and values that are life enhancing.” –  J. Congress
“An inspiring story that exposes the trials of a young man in his journey of truth, love, and family.” – M. Moore
“A very thorough and thoughtful insight into family dynamics and family secrecy!” – K. Masters