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.
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."
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.
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.
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.