It is an extraordinary story any journalist worth their salt would want to tell: A 24-year-old woman in 1950s South Africa takes her violent alcoholic father to court after she discovers he was starting to have regular sexual intercourse with her 12-year-old sister, the third of his four daughters he was molesting.
In the dock, he destroys his children one by one and the case against him collapses. The young woman, who was one of the molested sisters, tries to shoot him when he arrives home drunk one night. After that, she flees to England to escape this madness and to literally save her own life.
Except in New York-based Guardian journalist Emma Brockes’s case, the young woman in this real life, horrific tale of incest, murder, violence and abuse is her own mother, Paula. Brockes only finds out about all this after her mother, an English housewife, dies in 1993, after which she travels to South Africa twice to investigate her beloved mom’s traumatic hidden life, the horrors of which she only ever hinted at.
Those horrors come to gruesome life in interviews with her mother’s relatives and in court papers of the incest trial. But the resulting book telling this extraordinary tale, She Left Me The Gun: My Mother’s Life Before Me, is also a celebration of her phenomenal mother’s life with her and a touching account of the love between mother and daughter. Gripping, elegantly written and often funny, the book took Brockes five painful years to write.
What was the toughest, discovering what her mother’s earlier life was like, or writing about it?
“Writing about it, no question!” Brockes told me last week at the Houghton B&B, where she was staying during the South African leg of her tour to promote the book.
“If you’re a journalist, you are very used to absorbing and processing information, totally bypassing your own emotional filters — it is purely mechanical and logistical, it is intellectual. I couldn’t totally remove the emotional aspect when I was doing those interviews with my mother’s relatives, but I could almost do it because I am so used to it.
“I just slipped into my journalistic persona and when I was reading the documents in the archive I was basically doing it through filters. I didn’t look at those notes for two or three years — but then you have to face the music; that was when I finally sat down and said I can’t write this if I’m shut off from myself about it, and that’s what took five years.”
So, despite a surplus of material, with comprehensive notes from both of those trips, official documentation, all the court transcripts and old letters, Brockes found that what “was most difficult sometimes — and I don’t want to be too schmaltzy — was getting access to how I felt at the time”.
She gives a self-deprecating chuckle as she remembers that the worst part was using the word “I”.
“It was hideous! I felt so embarrassed for myself … I had to get therapy, not for any of the crazy stuff, but because I found writing in the first person monstrously counterintuitive, it felt so narcissistic, it went against everything I did in the course of my daily job.
“I felt mortified in writing a memoir and I felt mortified by it [possibly] being categorised as a misery memoir. Yet I knew — as a journalist I had enough discretion to know — it was a great story and that it would be absurd for me to be too squeamish to write it. But it took me a long time to write in the first person and not have a fainting fit. And I went to therapy and the therapist spent a year telling me, ‘you have every right to tell the story’. ”
Keeping it hidden
With her first draft ready, her editor in New York took Brockes out for lunch to a “really nice sushi restaurant”.
“She said me to me, ‘I have to tell you, you have done something extraordinary here’, and I started to preen, and she said, ‘yes, you’ve managed to write a memoir in which you reveal almost nothing of yourself’.” Brockes laughs uproariously. “Then I had another two years of writing!”
I ask if there was a part of her that wanted to keep her mom’s past covered once she knew what it was. “Yes, absolutely! I had to overcome that as well. It was about what would the neighbours say? Am I going to go down in people’s estimation? It is not exactly an illustrious background, is it?”
She pauses and a smile spreads across her face. “Except for the fact that I was so proud of my mom: she was the breakout star. I was driven by pride.”
Perhaps the most touching part of She Left Me The Gun is how Brockes describes her mom’s unlimited love for her daughter. “The year before she died I won an award, and my mother considered her legacy: ‘Some people write novels or paint beautiful paintings,’ she sighed. ‘I created you’,” Brockes writes.
Do you think her being such a special mother had anything to do with her past? “It has to be a huge element of compensation — the thing she valued above all else was good parenting,” she says.
“It was the missing element in her life, to have a loving parent who was supportive and who did the right thing by their children was the absolute ultimate to my mother, and she spent years thinking about it.
“She didn’t have me until she was 42, and she left South Africa when she was 28. She waited for a reason, she wanted to make sure she was mature, solid, and able to be a good source of stability and gravity in her kid’s life.”
Do you still think of her every day? “I do! I do! I do effortlessly, I think of her all the time in a million different ways. Yeah, I think of her all the time — not in a maudlin way — naturally, I’ll hear her voice.”
Brockes slows down, emphasising the words: “I’ll hear her in me when I’m reacting to something. Sometimes I’ll be consciously ‘doing her’…” She chuckles. “Then other times it will be, ‘Ooh God, I’m turning into my mother’.”
She laughs. “I feel closest to her when saying the things she used to say, like ‘enough now, enough now’ — I do it myself, I have all those impatient mannerisms of hers …” Then, softly, almost to herself, Brockes says: “I think she’d be quite pleased.”
She continues: “If I have a moment of wimpishness as my mom would have it, I can channel her … it is funny all those maternal aphorisms that when you’re a kid are so tedious and seem to be so nakedly transparent in a motivational intention, like ‘you can only do your best’, and now that I’m an adult, I self-soothe … I go through the Mirrodex of my mother’s uplifting things she used to say to me, and it does work.”
In addition to the fine writing and storytelling, it is the humour that saves She Left Me The Gun from misery memoir hell.
‘I think it comes automatically to me; it would be unthinking for me not to do that. Also, I saw the humour, there were so many situations where it seemed the only way to approach these characters was through humour — it seems to me to be the ultimate redemption of them and the story, that they are able to be in the midst of it and be very bleakly humorous about it.
“So when my mother’s brother Tony tells me about all these terrible, terrible things, some of which I communicate to his sister; all very difficult with all of these memories, and his sister just leaving a very long silence at the end of this conversation with me and saying to me: ‘Tony has a suit?’ This was her takeaway from the whole thing,” Brockes says, chuckling.
Humour runs in the family. “A sense of humour was completely vital to my mom and to me, especially to her because she had things to overcome.
“She was so clever in the way she used humour to iron out her neuroses. She had neurotic impulses towards me — she was convinced someone was going to run away with me in the middle of the night.
“She managed to convert this into a comic routine so that I didn’t get traumatised, so this business of don’t get kidnapped, don’t get raped, don’t get murdered, all the sting was taken out of it — those were the things she said when I left the house.
“It was kind of genius, and a kernel of that is that she completely expected those things to happen … because she saw it, she knew these kind of things could happen. To her it wasn’t all jokey. To me it was my mom is so eccentric with these funny things she says.”
Her dad, who is still alive, was her mother’s rock.
“My dad was the correction to all of that nonsense in her background because he is the mildest, nicest, most stable person you can think of — very English, totally English.
“So when they fought, it was because he was too English … because passive aggression wasn’t her favourite thing.” Brockes laughs. “And my dad isn’t a great one for coming at things directly, whereas my mom was just like a bull in a china shop.”
A bad egg
The book is teeming with violence — she writes about an unpublished memoir of her grandfather’s cousin telling of this very impoverished mining community north of Johannesburg where children were exposed to violence and alcoholism from an early age, so it was completely normalised. And there were no consequences with the law.
“If you get a bad egg like my grandfather, those impulses can only be encouraged when the whole society around you is psychopathic and [so too is] the government to some extent … it feels like a very South African story of that era.”
Brockes says she hates confrontation, so it is with reluctance that I tell her about the one gripe I have with an otherwise great book.
She writes about her aunt’s neighbourhood in the south of Johannesburg, the name of which she “can’t even pronounce because, like a lot of things in Afrikaans, when pronounced correctly it sounds as if you are suppressing a powerful urge to vomit”.
She looks concerned as she explains: “The name of that suburb is Suideroord. The more diplomatic way to say it would’ve been someone crept up behind me and gave me the Heimlich manoeuvre … it is the ‘oord’ part of the word.
“I obviously inherited my mother’s prejudice against Afrikaner culture — she obviously associated it with her dad, even though he had this very vain idea that he thought of himself as Dutch.
“Having said that,” she continues, “since I came here and I’ve met such evangelists for Afrikaans literature and poetry, with its arid beauty, I have to admit that was a cheap shot!”