Emma Brockes talks about 'She Left Me the Gun,' the difficult story of her mother's past
Anything but a 'misery memoir,' the remarkable and moving, 'She Left Me the Gun' by Emma Brockes explores the power of resilience and humor.
Wretched family violence, deep betrayal, and epic dysfunction are the hallmarks of many "misery memoirs," as British journalist Emma Brockes likes to call them. They're part of her personal story too as the daughter of a woman who endured all of the above.Skip to next paragraph
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But Brockes took a different path when she started working on a memoir of her family.
Yes, she'd investigate the horrors that her mother endured. But she'd also track down relatives who are, to put it mildly, a couple scones short of a tea party. And she'd explore her late mother's incredible resilience and stunning personality.
The result is the amazingly perceptive new book "She Left Me the Gun: My Mother's Life Before Me," which is "not one of those boo [naughty word] hoo memoirs," as one critic puts it. Absolutely not. "She Left Me the Gun" is a high-speed literary train that pulls readers through a landscape of joy and pathos.
I asked Brookes, who's based in New York City, to describe her amazing mother, her motivations for dipping into a terrible past, and the lessons of this remarkable story.
Q: Like Michael Hainey, another author I interviewed recently, you made a decision to investigate your family's past knowing that you could find devastating details and potentially hurt people. What led you to make that choice after your mother's death?
A: It was completely selfish decision made in the midst of grief when you think you're free to do anything.
I wasn't thinking that clearly. But I knew that this was necessary to me. In order for me to let her go, I needed to be able to circumscribe my loss. I couldn't do that unless I knew everything about her.
I knew it was a dreadfully unfair thing to bother these people with stuff they might never have talked about. But I decided I was going to do it. I told myself once I got there, if there was resistance, I wouldn't override people's right to run me away. That was my get-out.
Q: How did unraveling the story affect you personally?
A: When I had the bones of the story outlined, I did worry about whether I'd produce a child who grows up to be a maniac. But the rebuttal to that is that my mother was even closer to the source of monstrosity, and she was the most amazing person I ever knew.
She came out of that as such a wonderful person, and so did all the others. I found in all of them a sense of core decency. They're all damaged to varying degrees, but I didn't see psychopathy in any of these people.
Q: Your relatives seem, well, self-dramatizing, to say the very least. Would you agree with that description?
A: That would be one way of putting it. They have a theatrical air, and they're all strenuously eccentric. But they're all very charming, and very smart and able to tell a story.
Q: Your mother in particular seemed to treat her life as a performance, one that's delightful at times and utterly aggravating at others. What do you make of that?
A: I think it's a personality thing and also a coping mechanism as well. If you can make yourself the heroine of your own story, you're winning somewhat. Her own self image rested on this idea of herself as a woman of action and a protector of her siblings, rather than a victim pure and simple.
You could sort of see the persona at work sometimes. It's not like it was fake, but nonetheless there were flourishes which had clearly been worked over. She had me rolling my eyes at the age of 9 years old. Of course, she was a great eye roller too, I probably picked that up from her.
Q: What was her philosophy about life?
A: It wasn't permissible to ever express self-doubt. You couldn't beat yourself up and you had to believe in yourself. She had a whole book of aphorisms that she'd throw at me if I said even something even mildly self critical. She would say, "Of course you can do it, you're my child."