She Left Me the Gun: on story-telling and re-telling

Emma Brockes’ exploration of her mother’s life in South Africa, and what made her leave, is also a study in writing the complexity of women’s lives, and the powerful and elusive nature of story-telling.

Heather McRobie
7 November 2013

In building a warm and complex portrait of her mother throughout the course of She Left Me the Gun, writer and journalist Emma Brockes explains at one point that a core belief of her South African-born mother was that it is not what happens to you that matters so much as the story you choose to tell about it afterwards, “if only to yourself”.

The comment speaks to the portrait Brockes builds throughout the book, both emblematic of her mother’s self-reliance and insistence that each person’s fate lies in their hands, and a testament to the task Brockes has set herself – to make sense of her mother’s life, and how it fits into her own past, and present.

In its task of writing both her mother’s life and her own relationship with it, Brockes’ work – which evades neat categorisation as memoir, biography, or social history – builds upon feminist traditions of writing, particularly the strong feminist undercurrent to the kind of life-writing or open biography developed by biographers such as Hermione Lee, which salvage often sidelined female histories and stories whilst self-consciously exploring the nature of narrative and story-telling itself.

She Left Me the Gun, published earlier this year (The Penguin Press), is compelling not only through its cumulative building of a portrait of Brockes’ fascinating mother and the era from which she came, but through the self-awareness in Brockes’ writing of the tropes which her mother’s story may draw upon, and – through the intelligence and originality of her writing style – Brockes’ conscious effort to resist this.  Violence is on the table, and needs to be addressed or -- as it was throughout Brockes’ childhood -- evaded in a way that inevitably stresses its presence. 

The violence is from Brockes’ mother’s childhood, a lost world that emerges palimpsest-like through the immediate narrative of Brockes’ mother’s death and Brockes’ later move to South Africa to research the world her mother suddenly left in her early twenties – it punctuates the early part of the book between hints and sudden revelations, such as the matter of fact account, relayed to Emma by her mother, of how she had her father (Emma's grandfather) arrested after years of abuse to her and her siblings.  

The writer’s intelligent, almost sardonic tone, in recounting her mother’s progressive revelations is peppered with a consistent assertion that this is not the core of her mother, not the whole story, not what she must be reduced to.  Brockes balks at the clammy self-helpy language of victims and survivors, and seems in defiance to have written a kind of anti-misery memoir in which the fullness of her mother’s personality is painted, and repainted, with so many colours and with such texture, that it might diminish the centrality of the twin poles of violence and dislocation in the picture. 

Brockes writes brilliantly about her mother’s phrases, mannerisms, and friendships, particularly after her mother and father move from London to the home counties and her mother’s gay friends come to visit from London, whereupon her mother’s voice “took on an arch tone, as if her life here was a bizarre experiment she would one day abandon.” 

After her mother is diagnosed with a terminal illness, the two of them commit the summer to making all the drinks in a lurid book of cocktails.  Both Brockes and her mother come across as funny more than anything else, and from the tone of her writing it makes perfect sense that Brockes’ other book is about her love of musicals.  When a friend of her mother’s says with earnest but seemingly hammy sincerity that Emma’s mother ‘had a terrible life’ Brockes is astonished to see her mother through such a lens, to be re-told the story of her mother by somebody else.

Structurally, She Left Me the Gun is reminiscent of the 2010 best-selling non-fiction work The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, about both the HeLa cells and the life of Henrietta Lacks and her family, in how it loops back between the writer’s own experience of plunging further into a story, portraits of key players in the story itself, and the findings from the writer’s journey presented as 'straight' non-fiction to the reader – in this case, South African social history as refracted through Brockes’ mother’s sprawling family, and a narrative reading from the archives of the trial of Brockes’ grandfather. 

In the first part of the book, Brockes’ own childhood is the temporal setting for her mother’s slow revelations as well as building a portrait of how her mother stood ‘at an angle’ to English society – as her mother notes how ‘tame’ everything is here, whilst routinely reminding her daughter in Oxford that “people get abducted, don’t they? People get murdered”, it is as though the alcoholism, dust and domestic violence of her mother’s childhood experiences could seep under the suburban door any moment like a slow-building flood.

The second half of the book foregrounds the story of Brockes’ own trip to South Africa after her mother’s death, which are journalistic in the best sense of capturing snap-shots of scenes and figures, whilst also piecing together, as Brockes does, the missing pieces in her mother’s story. 

The descriptions of her time visiting South Africa as an adult are necessarily distorted, fairground-mirror reality, and Brockes knows this: just as children glean snippets of information about their parents, so too Brockes knows she is working with the fragments of narratives that poke through between the conversational mine-fields that re-occur in her encounters with post-apartheid realities.  She parodies the nervous liberal guilt that she and her friends are riddled with.  She writes in recognition that she is fumbling at the reality through the thick gloves of her position – and what is expected of her, observing wryly at one point: “as a liberal foreigner, you are discouraged from going on about crime in South Africa; it’s seen as rather poor form when there is so much else of cultural interest to talk about.” 

In this sense, her visit to South Africa to further understand her mother and the world she came from replicates the earlier, England-located, part of the book in which half-formed stories of alcoholic familial abuse and violence slowly acquire more firm contours in Brockes’, and the reader’s, eyes.  Stories get half-told, re-told, and then re-written through Brockes’ writing up of what she has been told through her own emotional responses to it. 

And this seems to be the core of the book more than the revelations about her mother’s early life, as vividly as that South African life is eventually conjured.  It is a fundamental question – when do you reveal what about yourself, and to whom?  Her mother obviously strains under the weight of this throughout Emma’s childhood, to the point that when there really is a ‘deathbed revelation’ Brockes is so prepared – and so resistant to tropes of victimhood – that she jokingly names it openly as the hackneyed ‘deathbed revelation scene’. 

It is a central human dilemma, and a central dilemma to feminist life-writing.  At what moment do you put the story of who you are, and what made you, on the table?  It is played out not just in the revelation by her mother but in Brockes’ decision to write and publish the book – for someone like Emma Brockes, who received acclaim and recognition early in her career, when does one interrupt the trajectory of success unfolding so well before you, to make the aside: here is my heritage, in its brutality just beneath the surface and knotted familial complexity, with its unpalatable truths and its untidied-up threads?  At what point do you foreground your personal narrative; when should you re-formulate it; when will it help you more to conceal it?

These are feminist concerns amongst other things not least because – speaking statistically if nothing else – violence by men against women is a core aspect of human personal knowledge, so likely to be part of a woman's experience that it could almost (almost, and problematically) be seen as a universal theme of female-ness.  It is hard to imagine the life of a woman untouched by violence and its corollary, fear -- it would be a world where everyone felt safe walking home alone at night -- and safe in their homes. 

How should writers deal with the statistically obvious fact of the prevalence of violence against women in writing women’s lives in their fullness and particularities? 

As Brockes squirms at ‘misery memoirs’ and the reduction of human experience to trauma, how do we address the fact that personal narrative can be used to both empower and undermine those who tell their stories?  And how does the insistence against clichés of victimhood and tropes of ‘silenced women of history’ sit with the feminist aim of showing how the thread of patriarchy and its worming metastases of violence and dislocation are stitched into the minutiae of all of our lives?

The particularities of She Left Me the Gun are illuminating in how Brockes chooses to interplay the personal thread of her mother’s violent childhood and decision to come to England with the large-canvas narratives of apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa.  Her writing is too thoughtful to join obvious dots or use one as a mirror for the other: the violence in Brockes’ mother’s home as both microcosm and product of the structural violence of apartheid, and the tension of Brockes' mother occupying positions, on the broad-canvas of social history, of both oppressor and oppressed.  The study is too subtle and too specific to be diagrammatic.

Nonetheless, in the portraits she builds of her mother’s family and the unforgiving behavioural codes in public and in private, the group portrait does feel like evidence for the claim that systems of brutality dehumanise all those who operate in them.  Like the ‘pillar of society’ who beats up his wife behind closed doors, the lesson is learned sooner or later that you can’t keep the door shut on violence in one aspect of your life forever.  It seeps through the walls of public and private, worms its way through generations, all the way to Emma’s village-green and Girl Guides childhood in the home counties her mother finds so tame.

In exposing, at the familial level, the domestic nuts and bolts of wider structural violence, She Left Me The Gun is inevitably reminiscent of Coetzee’s Disgrace and its central parent-daughter pairing. But while Coetzee’s work is heavy with the symbolism of power and (national) identity in transition, in She Left Me the Gun formal politics ebbs and flows almost conversationally amidst the unfolding of the foregrounded personal lives. The judge who sentences Emma’s grandfather later becomes famous for sending a young Mandela to Robben Island; later as Brockes plans her visit to her mother’s country of birth she shudders at the thought that she can apply for South African citizenship, of what that would mean so soon after apartheid.   

But the ‘excuse’ Brockes’ mother gives for leaving South Africa in her early twenties is ‘politics’ – and that is how the writer presents it: a cover or a handy line for acquaintances – ‘I left the country because of the political situation’, a well-used phrase which conceals the fundamentally personal nature of these migrations. Another convenient re-telling of the story for the sake of the audience.

In the book’s Acknowledgements, Brockes thanks Nora Ephron, a writer who focused on the subtleties and daily dramas of women’s lives, for helping Brockes to come up with the title of She Left Me the Gun.  It’s a powerful title, alluding to both inheritance and violence – and the interrelated nature of the two – but above all the title is a complete story itself: a gun has been left, to me, by her.  It is also an unsentimental title, which seems fitting both to Brockes’ mother and to the writer’s aim to present women’s lives in all their richness and intricacy, to find new ways to tell their stories.

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