Do you hear a sound like rolling surf in the self-help section labeled “Family”? It’s what a sea change sounds like in its early stages, when one paradigm is fading away and another surging forward.
Drifting away is the idea of the repressive family, out to “fuck you up,” in Philip Larkin’s phrase of 1971.1 Entering on the new tide is a more family-friendly era. By comparison to, say, the climate, politics, or the global economy, the family no longer looks all that messed up. In the wake of feminism and the gay rights movement, it has been reformed, if only partially. Much more flexibly defined these days, the family is no longer perceived as the natural enemy of the individual and the fount of all discontent. Moreover, as welfare states have retrenched, families, of necessity, often provide the only fail-safe upon which a person can rely.
This new enthusiasm in left-liberal circles for the family is apparent in the marriage equality movement’s celebration of the institution of marriage. It’s evident in the blockbuster success of Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree, with its compassionate portraits of parental love and devotion, and in the fact that undergraduates freely opt to talk to their parents multiple times a day. And it provides the terrain onto which the Guardian journalist Emma Brockes shifts the misery memoir in her new book, She Left Me the Gun: My Mother’s Life Before Me.
Where most narratives about dark family secrets are powered by the search for what has been concealed, Brockes announces her discoveries in the book’s first few pages.
When Brockes began her research, autobiographies about familial traumas had already proven a reliable publishing genre. Derided by critics but eagerly consumed by the public, misery memoirs crowded onto best-seller charts in both the United States and in Britain at the turn of the 21st century. Brockes’s book—a memoir about the way in which incest echoed (and didn’t) through her mother’s family—looks at first blush like a more literary entry into the field, along the lines of John Lanchester’s Family Romance: A Love Story (2007). But, from the start, She Left Me the Gun turns away from the genre’s conventions.
Where most narratives about dark family secrets are powered by the search for what has been concealed, Brockes announces her discoveries in the book’s first few pages: her maternal grandfather was not just a murderer, but also a rapist who abused his own daughters. When Emma’s mother, Paula, then in her mid-20s, realized that her father had also begun to molest her half-sisters, she went to the police. After her court case ultimately failed on appeal, Paula first tried to kill her father (with the gun of the book’s title), and then moved from South Africa to England.
Brockes’s concern is less with the horror of what happened, though there is plenty of that, than with its aftermath: how the seven siblings Paula left behind in South Africa fared; how Emma herself both knew and didn’t know what had happened to her mother (refreshingly, she does not let herself off the hook for the questions she failed to ask); and, most importantly, how her mother drew a line between the disastrous first part of her life and the second, going on to live an apparently unexceptional existence as a bookkeeper, housewife, and mother in a placid English town where no one—as Brockes points out—had Life Stories. Brockes recognizes that reexamining the ordinariness that her mother worked so hard to attain is a hazardous enterprise. “My greatest fear, when I started this, was that I would undo all her good work,” Brockes writes in her preface. On the one hand is Brockes’s desire to laud what her mother accomplished in raising a child innocent of the world’s immediate treachery. On the other is her fear that this revelation might compromise what her mother had worked so hard to achieve: “Her aim—to protect me from being poisoned by the poison in her system—depended for its success on its invisibility.” Brockes offsets these hazards by showing that Paula’s secret was not the key to her existence but only part of her life.
Self-invention and authenticity are two signal virtues of our age, usually at odds; Paula reconciles them triumphantly.
And what a tribute Brockes offers her mother! She Left Me the Gun brilliantly conveys what made Paula an unforgettable character: her certainties (“Cremation over burial. Charlotte Brontё over Emily. France over Italy. Spain over France.”), her abiding sense that her own faults were better than most people’s virtues, her toughness bolstered by the consolation that she was surrounded by weaklings. Here is Paula tossing snails into the garden patch of a neighbor lady who had complained about the dogwoods she planted. There she is with one of her signature looks: If You Think That’s Aggressive, Then You Really Haven’t Lived. And when a fellow villager dares to observe that Emma the novice reporter is a strange choice to interview Ariel Sharon? “I’d like to see you do better.” Self-invention and authenticity are two signal virtues of our age, usually at odds; Paula reconciles them triumphantly.
There is both dark and light in this book, but most of it plays out in shades of grey. Brocke unfolds the compromises and incriminations of family life almost tenderly. If she remarks on the love and devotion that existed in the midst of brutality, it is not because she thinks these qualities were enough to recuperate her family’s history but because they mattered for her mother’s siblings in the long run. In an astute piece of analysis, Brockes even manages not to portray Paula’s stepmother—who recants her testimony against her husband—as a villain. Her family’s silences she takes not as pathological but as inevitable. Their secrets, she understands, express their pain as much as they function as instruments of power. As for her own unease with a community of victims: “‘Hard-hearted Hannah’ my mother sometimes called me. Mimics frequently get the style but not the heart of a performance right.”
More than any other current memoirist, Brockes reminds me of J. R. Ackerley, whose posthumously published My Father & Myself (1968) both presaged the modern form of confession and bore the imprint of a Victorian upbringing. Like Ackerley’s memoir, She Left Me the Gun is a shrewd book, and often a hilarious one. For Ackerley as for Brockes, the unknowability of the family precludes either simple indictments or celebrations. Revealing family secrets is not the end, only the beginning.
- Phillip Larkin, “This Be the Verse,” Collected Poems (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001). ↩