I lived most of my childhood without knowing who I really was.
— Brando Skyhorse
“I SPENT a third of my life as an Indian, a third denying I was Mexican, and this current third asking, What kind of Mexican am I? (Don’t put the emphasis on kind. Put it on I.)”
Thus Brando Skyhorse summarizes the chaos of his young life, the adolescence he explores in his new memoir, Take This Man. Among the working titles for the book were Memoirs of a Mexican in Disguise and Things My Fathers Taught Me. How interesting that Skyhorse settled on the deceptively simple and declarative phrase, with its echo of matrimonial bonds and its utter fill-in-the-blank-ness. Skyhorse’s mother — given name Maria Teresa (made-up name Running Deer) — was a manic liar, an astoundingly self-absorbed woman with many invented pasts, who married four times without ever divorcing Candido Ulloa, her first husband and Skyhorse’s biological father. Born in the early 1970s and raised in the eastern Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park (“the most beautiful ghetto in America”), Skyhorse was shuttled between identities, Mexican on both sides of his family but raised to believe that he was the biological son of a Native American chief. He didn’t pry the truth from his mother until he was into his teens.
By that time Skyhorse had already endured several surrogate fathers, each uniquely rendered in the memoir, albeit united by their faithlessness — their programmed need to vanish after a night, a month, or several years. But while Skyhorse deftly and memorably dramatizes these vanishings and the men who enact them, the real action in Take This Man is the author’s radical trafficking among and between definitions: he can’t categorize and understand himself in conventional ways, and so is always on the move, figuratively, between selves. Take This Man asks: What does it mean to be a son? What does it mean to be a mother? A father? A family? A member of a race? Of a tribe? The book is quintessentially American — a reminder that cultural definitions are prone to lies and wish-fulfillment, creating as much disorder as order.
Skyhorse’s mother was enamored of Native American culture for the gravitas it gave her. It was a history far larger than her own small and unhappy one, and full of enough tragedy and injustice that, in her megalomania, she perversely saw herself reflected there. Skyhorse, who is also the author of a novel, The Madonnas of Echo Park,explores the power of her storytelling for clues to his similar preoccupation: “Succumbing to my mother’s mythmaking made me realize that every storyteller needs more than good stories,” he writes. “He needs to understand why he’s telling the stories he tells.” A bit later, he explains, “It took the writing of this book, which I’ve been thinking about for almost twenty years, to understand what made my mother tell such incredible tales.” He continues:
Stories can help you survive. They can transform your life — they can transform you — from where you are into wherever you want to be. My mother turned her cage of a bedroom into a castle. Her prison became a launch pad for escape into a whole new identity. Perhaps that’s why my mother was such a fan of killing herself off in her stories. She’d reveal that her brain tumor had taken one last fatal turn for the worst and, with time so short, revel in the temporary attention I gave her, over and over again. Whenever I hear that someone “dying” of an incurable disease has tricked an always disbelieving public through a fake Facebook profile, I sigh and think, Mom? But I understand.
Indeed, as was true of much of her public presentation, his mother’s brain tumor turned out to be fake. She died obese, of a weak heart, at the age of 50, having spent her final decade working as a phone sex operator from her bed, earning money fooling others, but literally sealed off from the world, and from any real reckoning with the pain she’d visited upon her only son.
The deep melancholy at the heart of Take This Man is illustrated early in the book in poignantly disturbing scenes of the abandonments Skyhorse suffered as a boy. Some of the men in his mother’s life were reckless and only sporadically present; some were more stable, and stuck around a little longer. But it seems that young Skyhorse is forever staring down Portia Street at fading car lights, or waiting outside on his porch for men who never show up after having promised that they would. He spends more time in dive bars than a child should, he witnesses malfeasances in cheap restaurants and at Disneyland (his choice for rare family outings because he loved the “perfect ‘reality’ of spotless sidewalks, razor-sharp grassy lawns, junk food on every corner, and a world where kids seemed to be in charge”), he’s driven around on Los Angeles freeways by tipsy men drinking open bottles of beer, and at home he observes occasional knife-bearing, door-slamming violence.
But Take This Man is written by an adult, not a child (Skyhorse is now in his 40s), and as I read I was expecting the narrative to move toward some kind of reconciliation with his father surrogates, his mother, or himself. To Skyhorse’s credit, however, the memoir does not resolve with a bell-clear epiphany or straight-line redemption. He candidly examines his own ambivalence about becoming a father, and his fear of drinking. Eventually, he is reunited with his biological father, and learns, to his delight, that he has three half-sisters; but this new family suffers understandably awkward moments and unspoken resentments, and Skyhorse remains all too aware of his mother’s toxic voice in his head.
“I wish I had a better memory,” he admits in the book’s dedication. And I’ll admit to my own curiosity about the rigors of Skyhorse’s truth-telling. As an impressionable child and young adult, he was exposed to vast dissembling from an extraordinarily committed fabulist; does he consciously maneuver between myths and candor when telling his own story? Anyone writing about family must discern between legend and fidelity. Skyhorse makes little mention of this tension in the book, but I find it difficult to believe that, having been raised in its powerful aura, he wasn’t tempted to mythologize. Perhaps, in rebellion, he strives toward self-interrogation and pure and unembellished recollection. But, of course, there is no such thing. Take This Man is earnest and searching, genuinely interested in exploring the complex arrangement that we call family. But it would be even stronger, I feel, had Skyhorse invited the reader to witness more of his writerly as well as childhood struggles.
Near the end he does consider the sleight of hand required by the genre, wherein “a day of your life can be a long chapter; a month a single line of prose; a year can be a text break or an entire blank space.” He adds: “Time doesn’t work that way. It forces us to give each moment we embrace the same amount of room as the moments we want to forget.” Memoir’s blend of intimacy and distance creates a paradox. When a writer uses himself and his life as subject matter, he doesn’t move between close-up and wide shots as much as live simultaneously within both gestures, mining personal details while making sense of how they might fit into a larger pattern. When a memoirist’s subject is his family, this contradiction can be especially difficult to maintain, as he’s required to define himself in unique relation to others (as, say, a son of this woman) and as a silhouetted member of a storytelling tradition that’s as old as humankind.
But Skyhorse manages to keep his balance. Writing about Candido, his father, he admits:
I’m grateful he stays in touch and have no right to expect more, because he is giving me everything he has left. I am disappointed because I am thirty-five years late, and there is nothing more for us to offer each other. On the days I am cruel, I tell myself my father has failed me twice. On the days I am honest, I tell myself that had he stayed, we could have failed each other every day.
This is not only exquisite prose, but also a mature acknowledgment of the complex nature of memory, longing, love, and disappointment, a discovery reflected in an earlier scene between Skyhorse and Frank Zamora, a man with whom Skyhorse’s mother had an ongoing and tempestuous affair. Frank, gregarious and large-hearted, is the exceptional man in this memoir, the one who more or less sticks around, usually on the periphery, but present enough over the decades that Skyhorse comes to guardedly, resignedly see him as the father figure that Candido cannot embody. Though Frank never married Maria Teresa — he eventually left her for somebody else — she wrote him into her will. Skyhorse recalls this conversation with Frank:
“In my mother’s will,” I said, “she wrote in pen, ‘Frank, you should have married me.’”
“Huh,” he said. “I’ve thought about that a lot. I’m really happy with Stephanie. Things are great. It would never have worked out with your mother and me. But you know something? She was probably right,” he said, and started to cry.
In this powerful moment, Skyhorse recognizes, and captures, the complexity and ambivalence at the heart of family relationships, that odd but overwhelming pull between loyalty and betrayal, hatred and love, that hums throughout this powerful and moving memoir of shifting selves.
Joe Bonomo appears online at No Such Thing As Was (www.nosuchthingaswas.com) and @BonomoJoe.