A CONVERSATION WITH EMMA BROCKES:
Sara Wheeler wrote in The Observer:
Emma Brockes’s memoir is a daughter’s voyage of discovery and hymn to her mother’s childhood hell. Here we have a memoir, detective story, and love letter revolving around a violent alcoholic and paedophile — the author’s grandfather. Jimmy’s crimes and their repercussions were so horrendous that at times one physically recoils from the page. It is a measure of Emma Brockes’s artfulness and sensitivity that she has fashioned her material into an enjoyable narrative.
Perhaps “enjoyable” is not quite the right word for the experience of reading She Left Me The Gun: My Mother’s Life Before Me. It is, however, a clear, unemotional, and riveting narrative — a testament to the courage of Brockes’s mother, and the skill and determination of her daughter.
“Your relationships with your parents change when they die. It suddenly becomes your history. You have to decide to ignore it or absorb it.” Your words. What dictated your choice?
EMMA BROCKES: Okay, well, it didn’t feel like a choice so much as an imperative. There were several things that made me want to investigate my mother’s history, one of which, looking back I realize, was a desire to circumscribe my loss. The idea of everything my mum had been disappearing with her into oblivion without me knowing about it somehow made the loss seem greater. Once you can stake out the boundaries of something, you can begin to start processing and coming to terms with it. But the unknown is infinite. So, that was a practical decision to do with grief (although, I couldn’t have articulated it like this at the time. I was acting on instinct). The other thing is that I was in an untenable position of knowing a few things about my mum’s past but not all of it, and, in my experience, nothing torments like a half-truth.
I knew a few details from her childhood. My mother loved to tell stories, and there were some dazzling set pieces I begged her to tell me again and again . . . She told me about her auntie Johanna, cracking eggs into a bowl one day and releasing with the final egg a mass of tiny black snakes into the yellow mixture. A cobra had laid its egg in the henhouse.
You’ve indicated that even as a child you knew your mother was somehow “different”. In what ways was she different and did other people notice this as well?
Well, she was culturally different, in that she took pride in not being English and was actively hostile to, as she saw it, stereotypically English behaviors: avoiding confrontation, not saying what you meant, snobbery, bad taste in food, et cetera. et cetera.
And yes, other people noticed it. So, at the memorial service after her death, an elderly lady from the village came up to me and said, with some bafflement but rather admiringly, “She was a different sort of a person, wasn’t she?” or words to that effect. But she was always very charming; there was a performance element to her excesses, and she got a kick out of acting them out. Beyond that, I don’t think I considered her to be substantially different to anyone else’s parents. I was no more, or less, mortified by her than any of my friends were by their mothers. It was only as I got older — after coming home from college — that I started to view her idiosyncrasies in a different light, and as related, possibly, to some dark forgotten period of her early life.
My mother told me she had been to a therapist once, when she first arrived in London, It hadn’t worked out and she didn’t try again, which she probably should have. That winter, I go to see one, too. I tell her I’m a journalist, gearing up to fly to South Africa to meet my mother’s family for the first time and to bring up potentially painful subjects that they may or may not have talked about before. I am interested in her advice not as therapist to patient but as professional to professional; I don’t want to give anyone a breakdown.
She opens her mouth to respond, but before she can get a word out, and to our great mutual surprise¸ I burst into tears, angrily retract them, drag my arm across my face, and through great hacking sobs suck a large plug of snot back up my nose. She nudges a box of tissues in my direction.
Were you ever truly frightened of what you might find during your investigation of your mother’s family and her relationship with her father? Did you ever think of not going?
I was very worried about what I might found out, and my dad was worried, too. “Be careful how much of this you want to know,” he said, when I was still at the planning stage, and it was wise caution. But it never seemed an option to me simply not to go. By that stage, I was pretty sure that knowing the basic landscape of what had happened but having nothing concrete to go on was far worse than going and finding out the truth. Partly, I think, because there is something to be gained merely by doing something; I wanted to be active, not passive, in the face of all this. And also because I knew that even if what I found out was appalling (which it was), I would at least be able to circumscribe the past once I knew the details. I would be able to stake out the boundaries. It would cease to be infinite.
So you went to South Africa twice and learned the worst. Your maternal grandfather was a convicted murderer and “enthusiastic child molester” who terrorized your mother and her seven half-siblings for years. He was tried and acquitted of incest. Near the end of your book there is a picture of your mother taken with her father on the day she left South Africa. He has his arm around her waist and her right arm reaches across and holds his fingertips. What do you imagine she must have been thinking at that moment?
Ha — unanswerable. I wouldn’t have the presumption to guess. It’s a truly mystifying photo, not least because what the hell is he doing there in the first place? And he has clearly put on a suit for the occasion. A truly unreadable moment.
This book is written in such a compelling, yet calm and almost unemotional fashion. Was that the journalist in you somehow attempting to protect the tangentially victimized daughter/granddaughter part of you?
The unemotional surface is just my preference as a writer; I think if the material is highly dramatic and in places actively lurid, as it is in this case, then you have to counteract it by adjusting the temperature of the prose. In order for it to have any impact at all, it has to be quite cool, I think. Otherwise there’s a danger of it coming across as overblown and cartoony; or exploitative, or simply made up. I don’t write with any therapeutic intention, but when I was doing the research, the journalist in me was a persona I was able to hide behind. Then, it was very useful. But on the page, all I cared about was delivering the story in the most effective way possible.
My mother first tried to tell me about her life when I was about ten years old. I was sitting at the table doing homework or a drawing; she was standing at the grill, cooking sausages. Every now and then the fat from the meat would catch and a flame would leap out.
She had been threatening some kind of revelation for years. “One day I will tell you the story of my life, she said, and you will be amazed.”
I looked at her in amazement. The story of her life was she was born, she had me, ten years passed, end of story.
“Tell me now,” I’d said.
“I’ll tell you when you’re older.”
Why did you wait so long to get answers to the questions that were always there, simmering at the top of the pot?
So, while my mother was alive, I just didn’t want to have that conversation. It wasn’t my business; it was her life, not mine. I understood, subliminally, that she had made a decision not to incorporate whatever-it-was into the person she was while I was growing up, and I was fine with that. I didn’t want to tamper with the version of her I had in my head, which was of someone invincible, heroic, undamaged, unflinching — and also, in some ways, just-my-mum. All of which she was, up to a point, but I think trying to have a game-changing conversation with her about her background risked undoing some of that, and she knew it. She couldn’t talk about it, and so she didn’t talk about it. What was so fascinating to me, after doing the research, was discovering that it didn’t alter my view of her at all. I think there’s only so much one’s imagination will let one do with one’s parents. Who they were to us when we were children is who, at some level, they will always be. Even after finding out all this stuff about my mum, I still think of her in precisely the same way I always did, which is sitting in the kitchen, peeling potatoes, looking up, and smiling at me as I come through the door. That is my default image of her. And I’m grateful for that.