She Left Me the Gun is a memoir about abuse. What’s more, it’s a notably well-received memoir about abuse. Many books of this type are pretty flimsy, as Emma Brockes herself acknowledges. She calls a certain type of book the “Boo Fucking Hoo Memoir”—the kind of memoir that just whines and complains for 200 pages.
Brockes has not written this sort of whiny book, although her subject matter would seem to warrant a whiny tone.
She Left Me the Gun is about Brockes’s mother, Paula. When Paula was very little, her own mother, Sarah, died. She was left to live with her father, a convicted murderer. (Paula apparently had not known about the murder in her husband’s past.)
Paula’s husband victimized his children after Paula’s death. He molested Sarah, and he molested at least one of her siblings. At one point, he held a knife to the throat of one of his children at a dinner party. He could not accept that a certain mark on Sarah’s body was a birthmark, so he would repeatedly, brutally try to scrub it off. Having lost his first wife, he married a confused 17-year-old, Marjorie, who ineffectually warned him not to be alone in a room with one of his children.
Paula grew tired of this appalling behavior. One day, she pulled out a gun and attempted to shoot her father several times. (She was a poor shot.) Also, she put her father on trial; once she had reached adulthood, she had a younger sibling testify to her father’s sexual misconduct. Paula’s father chose to represent himself, which meant that he cross-examined his own (presumably frightened) young children. His claim seemed to be that alcohol had occasionally made him stray from the path of the righteous; perhaps several bottles of alcohol were the culprits that deserved to go to jail.
Paula’s father lost his case, but won on appeal. His wife, Marjorie, became scared and reversed her testimony, and this act was enough to get the monster off the hook.
Bereft, Paula did something miraculous. She pulled herself up off the floor and, in her late 20s, began a new life. She moved herself from South Africa (the unpleasant, misogynistic, apartheid-torn setting for much of this tale) to England. She found a husband and had a child.
Surrounded by scrappy gay male friends, she diverted most questions about her mysterious past. Having found work in a secretarial pool, she made the acquaintance of a steely, older Eastern European émigré named Sima. Sima complimented Paula; she said, “You work as if someone were always watching you.” It’s clear that Sima, with her own closet full of oppressor with a capital ‘O’ skeletons, became a mentor to Paula.
One of the most astonishing facets of this story is that Paula told very little of it to her daughter while she, Paula, was alive. Occasionally, Paula would seem to become possessed and, in a strange voice, she would intimate to young Emma that there were family secrets yet unshared. But Emma tended to back away from these hints.
Today, with her mother dead and buried, Emma recalls a mostly pleasant childhood. Her mother seemed fearless. Sarah would cheerfully tell a neighbor, “Your house is ugly,” if the neighbor said something faintly insulting. Sarah had little tolerance for complaints about England’s weather and wildlife; she would suggest to Emma that South Africa was full of snakes and scorpions eager to feast on human flesh.
Emma has grown up to be a talented journalist and, by all indications, a well-adjusted adult. She has strong friendships. She has carried her career from England to New York City, and has published more than one book.
Among Emma’s few complaints about her childhood: Mom, Sarah, was often paranoid. She, Sarah, would become convinced that a date was going to kill Emma and bury her under the floorboards. Or Sarah would become uncomfortable at the thought of Emma’s having a male roommate. (Emma later learned that intense paranoia is a mark of having survived abuse. It seems if you yourself were abused, you are likely to become one of two types of parents: the parent who inflicts similar abuse on her own children, or the parent who becomes horrified that the world is out to get her sons and daughters.)
After Sarah’s untimely death from cancer, young Emma goes on a quest to unearth the story of Sarah’s early life. Emma travels to South Africa. She interviews Sarah’s surviving siblings, some of whom are estranged from the family. Emma follows hunches; she lingers in semi-abandoned buildings that might—just might—give her a clue to new, obscure facts about Sarah’s life. Emma also encounters swastika-flaunting bikers on the roads of South Africa. It’s implied that Emma is pretty close to fearless, and it’s obvious she has her mother to thank for this trait.
That fearlessness is a good part of what I enjoyed about this book, and what I take with me.
First, it’s a kind of covert self-help manual. Lately, when I’ve been anxious, I’ve tried to channel Sarah. I’ve borrowed from her relentless practicality (practicality that seemed to wane only when her daughter, Emma, was in the presence of a man). At one point, Sarah is described as an enemy of hysteria, and I think that that’s a pretty good thing to be when you’re alive on this planet.
Second, She Left Me the Gun will bolster your understanding of abuse. For example, it’s possible to start your life again. You are not obligated to remain in a toxic, neurotic relationship with the person or persons who have held you down. Sometimes, we forget this fact. Sarah is a shining example of fortitude.
It’s also fascinating to read about the effects of her father’s misdeeds on Sarah’s younger siblings. One sibling, who was not physically abused, actually came to envy her raped sister. This is because abusive people can sometimes trample on the spirits even of the folks they do not touch. The oppressor convinces the oppressed that she is part of the “initiated”; she is somehow special for having been raped, and the other are relegated to backstage.
Third, She Left Me the Gun will tell you some disturbing facts about South Africa. It’s suggested that South Africa’s legacy of racial injustice tainted many, many families—both white and black. Is it not possible to live in a country with such perverse laws—and therefore to come to some perverse conclusions about how power should be wielded within your own family? It’s notable that Sarah did not just leave her town; she left her country when she wanted to begin a new life. (This line of thought has implications for Americans, as well. We, too, live in a country with a painful history of racism, and it’s disconcerting to pause and imagine how this poisoned legacy affects us to this day.)
Regardless, you should know that, after I finished this book, I picked it up and started reading it again. I struggle to think of higher praise.