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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.

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Sometimes when she was delivering these phrases, there was a split second before she hit send when I saw the delay. I could see the mechanisms at work, see the contrivance.

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Q: She sounds tough as nails, but even the toughest people would have a very difficult time surviving her early life. How did she do it?

A: It's the big unanswerable question. How was she not destroyed by this?

I think it was a combination of the fact that she could laugh about things, as she had a very keen sense of humor, and that she had a real talent for friendship. I wouldn't underestimate the healing power of good friends, choosing people who nourish you when you're trying to pull yourself together.

They say when someone's had a difficult childhood like this, they have trouble making relationships and they repeat the patterns of childhood. My mum didn't do that. She gravitated toward people who loved and nourished her, including a circle of gay men in London in the 1960s. You couldn't come up with a better group. All they wanted from her is friendship.

She didn't do it overnight, though. It took her 10 years. She tried every combination of things until she found something that worked. She was absolutely determined to not be defined by things that happened in the first 25 years of her life.

Q: How does the issue of long-ago child abuse still affect your family?

A: There's still a hefty taboo. Before I properly got into it, I felt an inheritance of shame coming down from my mum. Everything in that family has experienced that. Even though they did nothing wrong they feel they're to blame. It's so strong.

Q: You search for your mother's history in South Africa, which becomes a major character in your story itself. What did you think of it?

A: South Africa is shockingly beautiful and incredibly damaged at the same time. People are very proud of it, and it's wild. South Africa doesn't produce mild people. That's why my mum was so frustrated with her passive neighbors in England.

I sort of fell in love with Johannesburg, which is such an incredibly elbows-out, very commercial, very competitive city, unlike Capetown, which is very refined and very British.

Johannesburg feels exciting like New York might have been in the 1920s, all rules are negotiable. It's very charming and glittering and can be deadly, a swaggering city that will start a fight with you if you're not careful.

Q: How has writing the book changed you personally?

A: I didn't have therapeutic intensions, I wrote it because it's a great story and it seemed absurd to have this kind of story and not tell it. I was sniffy about aphorisms like "closure" and "coming to terms with things."

But having done it and publicized it and talked about my family's background, it has absolutely no hold on me. All those shadows have receded. It's changed me, and I feel utterly liberated from anything from this background. I'm done with it.

Q: Are there lessons to be learned?

A: I hope so.

One, that my mum was very conscious about, is the idea that the story you tell yourself is as important as what happened to you. The way you construe it, and explain your inactions to yourself, that's a power that you have. You can be more than the sum total of what happens to you.

Choice is also very important. It's not to say you can become happy overnight. But there is some leeway to make decisions and make choices. It may take a decade, but it's important to decide that you won't be victimized for the rest of your life.


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