She Left Me the Gun: My Mother's Life Before Me

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9780143125365: She Left Me the Gun: My Mother's Life Before Me

"One of those memoirs that remind you why you liked memoirs in the first place... It has the density of a very good novel... As you do with the best writers, you feel lucky to be in Ms. Brockes’s company." --Dwight Garner, The New York Times

A chilling work of psychological suspense and forensic memoir, She Left Me the Gun is a tale of true transformation: the story of a young woman who reinvented herself so completely that her previous life seemed simply to vanish, and of a daughter who transcends her mother’s fears and reclaims an abandoned past.

“One day I will tell you the story of my life,” promises Emma Brockes’s mother, “and you will be amazed.” Brockes grew up hearing only pieces of her mother’s past—stories of a rustic childhood in South Africa, glimpses of a bohemian youth in London—and yet knew that crucial facts were still in the dark. A mystery to her friends and family, Paula was clearly a strong, self-invented woman; glamorous, no-nonsense, and frequently out of place in their quaint English village. In awe of Paula’s larger-than-life personality, Brockes never asked why her mother emigrated to England or why she never returned to South Africa; never questioned the source of her mother’s strange fears or tremendous strengths.

Looking to unearth the truth after Paula’s death, Brockes begins a dangerous journey into the land—and the life—her mother fled from years before. Brockes soon learns that Paula’s father was a drunk megalomaniac who terrorized Paula and her seven half-siblings for years. After finally mustering the courage to take her father to court, Paula is horrified to see the malevolent man vindicated of all charges. As Brockes discovers, this crushing defeat left Paula with a choice: take her own life, or promise herself never to be intimidated or unhappy again. Ultimately she chooses life and happiness by booking one-way passage to London—but not before shooting her father five times, and failing to kill him. Smuggling the fateful gun through English customs would be Paula’s first triumph in her new life.

She Left Me the Gun carries Brockes to South Africa to meet her seven aunts and uncles, weighing their stories against her mother’s silences. Brockes learns of the violent pathologies and racial propaganda in which her grandfather was inculcated, sees the mine shafts and train yards where he worked as an itinerant mechanic, and finds in buried government archives the court records proving his murder conviction years before he first married. Brockes also learns of the turncoat stepmother who may have perjured herself to save her husband, dooming Paula and her siblings to the machinations of their hated father.

Most of all, She Left Me the Gun reveals how Paula reinvented herself to lead a full, happy life. As she follows her mother’s footsteps back to South Africa, Brockes begins to find the wellsprings of her mother’s strength, the tremendous endurance which allowed Paula to hide secrets from even her closest friends and family. But as the search through cherished letters and buried documents deepens, Brockes realizes with horror that her mother’s great success as a parent was concealing her terrible past—and that unearthing these secrets threatens to undo her mother’s work.

A beguiling and unforgettable journey across generations and continents, She Left Me the Gun chronicles Brockes’s efforts to walk the knife-edge between understanding her mother’s unspeakable traumas and embracing the happiness she chose for her daughter.

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Review:

Q&A with Emma Brockes

Q. What made you decide to go in search of your mother’s life before she had you?

A. When I was growing up, my mother was always dropping hints that something terrible and dramatic had happened in her past. But she had never been terribly specific. When I was 27, she died, and I felt compelled to find out all the things she hadn't been telling me. When a parent dies, your relationship with their history changes; it becomes your own and all the things you were avoiding, it seems imperative, suddenly, to confront. Deciding to write about it was easy; it's an amazing story. Secrets like this were meant to be written about.

Q. What did you find when you went looking into your mother’s past?

A. I knew she had moved to England from South Africa in 1960 and never really been back. So after her death, I flew to Johannesburg for the first time, to meet some of her seven siblings and ask them the questions I hadn't dared ask her. It turned out she and her siblings had been involved in a high profile court case, in which their father was the accused, and in which he had defended himself, cross-examining his own children in the witness box and destroying them one by one. It also turned out that my mother had tried, and failed, to kill him.

So, some fairly lively discoveries.

Q.You explore the ultimate question: how well do we know someone? Do you feel like you know your mother better now than before learning about her childhood trauma?

A. No, strangely. I think I always knew her at mineral level, the stuff I found out was merely an extreme expression of characteristics that were clearly present in my mother while I was growing up. The thing that amazed me most – the one out-of-character detail – was that she managed not to talk about it. My mum was the world's worst keeper of secrets.

Anyway it's something I worried about before starting the book; that whatever I found out would change my view of my mother and I would pathologise her in some way. As it turned out, I think there is only so much the imagination will let one do with one's parents; who they were to you when you were little, is who at some level they will always be. And so, while I admired my mother for the things I found out - how she stood up to a maniac; how she tried to protect her younger siblings; above all, how she rebuilt herself after it all went wrong - it didn't alter what was to me her basic mum-ness.

When I see her in my mind's eye these days, it's as I always saw her, sitting in the kitchen by the sink, peeling carrots or potatoes, looking out of the window at the garden and turning to smile at me as I come through the door.

Q. You mention in the book how some aspects of your own childhood started to make sense once you learned what’d happened to your mother. Do you think her experience had some psychological or emotional effect on you?

A. Very hard to measure, but I'm sure that it did, given the extent to which my mother's character was moulded by all this. She managed to put a positive spin on problematic impulses; so, when I was a kid, she was convinced I was going to get kidnapped and murdered, but instead of scaring the bejesus out of me, she managed to turn it into a comedy routine that assuaged her fears (a little) and didn't traumatize me. She was so bonkers about my exposure to risk, it has probably made me blasé; it's a great luxury, to have someone else do all your worrying for you.

After my mother's death, when I found out exactly what she'd been withholding, it struck me that she had made a moral, practical and aesthetic choice to be a certain way in relation to her past and I have definitely been influenced by the example she set. It's mainly a good thing; I don't see the point in going on about everything all of the time; although I probably tolerate discomfort longer than I should. (That might just be a British thing.)

Q. Your relatives in South Africa seemed to be at odds with one another, yet all were eager to connect with you. Are you still in touch with your family in South Africa?

A. Yes. I've been back to South Africa once, last year, and I speak to my aunt Fay on the phone occasionally. It's so far away that realistically, we're never going to operate like a regular family. But it feels important to me to maintain contact. Most importantly, a generation on, we don't seem to be hampered by the fraughtness and baggage that dominated my mother's relationships with her siblings.

Q. How has this experience changed you? What has it taught you?

A. It has thrown my own childhood into a more idyllic light. Held up against the worst alternative, all the things you take for granted start to look like incredible good fortune. (Not that it has stopped me complaining. But still). It has also given me a shift in perspective. Here was the mother I had known, living a mild existence in a village in Buckinghamshire, meanwhile somewhere in her system was the memory of all this unbelievable trauma. In light of what I discovered, her achievement seemed remarkable. The one thing she couldn't do was talk about it, which is so often the case with abuse histories. Intellectually, I understood that nothing bad would happen if I wrote all this down and published it, but emotionally, that took a very long time to be the case. So the most profound change has been publishing this book and seeing for myself that the sky didn't fall in.

About the Author:

EMMA BROCKES writes for The Guardian’s Weekend magazine and has contributed to The New York Times, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Elle. She is the winner of two British Press Awards—Young Journalist of the Year and Feature Writer of the Year—and while at Oxford won the Philip Geddes Memorial Prize for Journalism. Her book What Would Barbra Do? How Musicals Saved My Life was serialized on the BBC. She lives in New York.

www.emmabrockes.com
@emmabrockes

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Book Description Penguin Books, United States, 2014. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. One of those memoirs that remind you why you liked memoirs in the first place. It has the density of a very good novel. As you do with the best writers, you feel lucky to be in Ms. Brockes s company. --Dwight Garner, The New York Times A chilling work of psychological suspense and forensic memoir, She Left Me the Gun is a tale of true transformation: the story of a young woman who reinvented herself so completely that her previous life seemed simply to vanish, and of a daughter who transcends her mother s fears and reclaims an abandoned past. One day I will tell you the story of my life, promises Emma Brockes s mother, and you will be amazed. Brockes grew up hearing only pieces of her mother s past stories of a rustic childhood in South Africa, glimpses of a bohemian youth in London and yet knew that crucial facts were still in the dark. A mystery to her friends and family, Paula was clearly a strong, self-invented woman; glamorous, no-nonsense, and frequently out of place in their quaint English village. In awe of Paula s larger-than-life personality, Brockes never asked why her mother emigrated to England or why she never returned to South Africa; never questioned the source of her mother s strange fears or tremendous strengths. Looking to unearth the truth after Paula s death, Brockes begins a dangerous journey into the land and the life her mother fled from years before. Brockes soon learns that Paula s father was a drunk megalomaniac who terrorized Paula and her seven half-siblings for years. After finally mustering the courage to take her father to court, Paula is horrified to see the malevolent man vindicated of all charges. As Brockes discovers, this crushing defeat left Paula with a choice: take her own life, or promise herself never to be intimidated or unhappy again. Ultimately she chooses life and happiness by booking one-way passage to London but not before shooting her father five times, and failing to kill him. Smuggling the fateful gun through English customs would be Paula s first triumph in her new life. She Left Me the Gun carries Brockes to South Africa to meet her seven aunts and uncles, weighing their stories against her mother s silences. Brockes learns of the violent pathologies and racial propaganda in which her grandfather was inculcated, sees the mine shafts and train yards where he worked as an itinerant mechanic, and finds in buried government archives the court records proving his murder conviction years before he first married. Brockes also learns of the turncoat stepmother who may have perjured herself to save her husband, dooming Paula and her siblings to the machinations of their hated father. Most of all, She Left Me the Gun reveals how Paula reinvented herself to lead a full, happy life. As she follows her mother s footsteps back to South Africa, Brockes begins to find the wellsprings of her mother s strength, the tremendous endurance which allowed Paula to hide secrets from even her closest friends and family. But as the search through cherished letters and buried documents deepens, Brockes realizes with horror that her mother s great success as a parent was concealing her terrible past and that unearthing these secrets threatens to undo her mother s work. A beguiling and unforgettable journey across generations and continents, She Left Me the Gun chronicles Brockes s efforts to walk the knife-edge between understanding her mother s unspeakable traumas and embracing the happiness she chose for her daughter. Bookseller Inventory # AAS9780143125365

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Book Description Penguin Books, United States, 2014. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Reprint. Language: English . This book usually ship within 10-15 business days and we will endeavor to dispatch orders quicker than this where possible. Brand New Book. One of those memoirs that remind you why you liked memoirs in the first place. It has the density of a very good novel. As you do with the best writers, you feel lucky to be in Ms. Brockes s company. --Dwight Garner, The New York Times A chilling work of psychological suspense and forensic memoir, She Left Me the Gun is a tale of true transformation: the story of a young woman who reinvented herself so completely that her previous life seemed simply to vanish, and of a daughter who transcends her mother s fears and reclaims an abandoned past. One day I will tell you the story of my life, promises Emma Brockes s mother, and you will be amazed. Brockes grew up hearing only pieces of her mother s past stories of a rustic childhood in South Africa, glimpses of a bohemian youth in London and yet knew that crucial facts were still in the dark. A mystery to her friends and family, Paula was clearly a strong, self-invented woman; glamorous, no-nonsense, and frequently out of place in their quaint English village. In awe of Paula s larger-than-life personality, Brockes never asked why her mother emigrated to England or why she never returned to South Africa; never questioned the source of her mother s strange fears or tremendous strengths. Looking to unearth the truth after Paula s death, Brockes begins a dangerous journey into the land and the life her mother fled from years before. Brockes soon learns that Paula s father was a drunk megalomaniac who terrorized Paula and her seven half-siblings for years. After finally mustering the courage to take her father to court, Paula is horrified to see the malevolent man vindicated of all charges. As Brockes discovers, this crushing defeat left Paula with a choice: take her own life, or promise herself never to be intimidated or unhappy again. Ultimately she chooses life and happiness by booking one-way passage to London but not before shooting her father five times, and failing to kill him. Smuggling the fateful gun through English customs would be Paula s first triumph in her new life. She Left Me the Gun carries Brockes to South Africa to meet her seven aunts and uncles, weighing their stories against her mother s silences. Brockes learns of the violent pathologies and racial propaganda in which her grandfather was inculcated, sees the mine shafts and train yards where he worked as an itinerant mechanic, and finds in buried government archives the court records proving his murder conviction years before he first married. Brockes also learns of the turncoat stepmother who may have perjured herself to save her husband, dooming Paula and her siblings to the machinations of their hated father. Most of all, She Left Me the Gun reveals how Paula reinvented herself to lead a full, happy life. As she follows her mother s footsteps back to South Africa, Brockes begins to find the wellsprings of her mother s strength, the tremendous endurance which allowed Paula to hide secrets from even her closest friends and family. But as the search through cherished letters and buried documents deepens, Brockes realizes with horror that her mother s great success as a parent was concealing her terrible past and that unearthing these secrets threatens to undo her mother s work. A beguiling and unforgettable journey across generations and continents, She Left Me the Gun chronicles Brockes s efforts to walk the knife-edge between understanding her mother s unspeakable traumas and embracing the happiness she chose for her daughter. Bookseller Inventory # BTE9780143125365

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