Story of resilience and love

2013-06-19 00:00

THE story of Paula Brockes’s life could easily have been a misery memoir. But her daughter Emma, whose book She Left Me the Gun: My Mother’s Life Before Me, is reviewed on this page, was determined to avoid that kind of tag.

“It would offend me as a writer to produce one of those — it’s not a highly respected genre. And one of my mother’s main philosophies was that you can always get by if you can laugh at yourself,” she says when I ask her whether the humour in the book, and there is plenty, is for light relief in a heartbreaking story, or is part of the way she is, and her mother was. “It’s both,” she says.

Emma Brockes’s mother overcame a horrible, abused childhood in South Africa to give her daughter a happy one in England.

Paula’s old life ended when she reported her own father to the police for incest. The court case failed, and she left South Africa to reinvent herself.

She never talked about her past to her husband or her daughter, and part of the book details Emma’s researches into that past, after her mother’s death, meeting relatives she had never known, and finding out things most of us would prefer not to know about our families.

Emma freely admits it is very unusual for someone whose childhood was a litany of abuse of both her and her half-siblings by a violent father (he also had a conviction for murdering an elderly man in the Ladysmith area in the thirties) to create such a complete firebreak between her past and her later life.

Does she wish, now she knows the story, that she could have talked to her mother about it?

“No. I wouldn’t want her to have to revisit those memories. She had constructed a persona to survive it all, and it brought her happiness. She and I were such good friends, that in one way, I’m sure she would have liked to talk to me about it, but she understood it wouldn’t have been in my interest then. She didn’t even tell my father, only the outline.”

We are all who we believe we are, and if that belief proves false, it can be shattering. But when I ask Brockes if what she has discovered has shaken her foundations, she says no. “Because my mum had such a firm centre of gravity, I didn’t feel shaken. Nothing really contradicted the way I saw her. She had been a heroine to me, and it reinforced that.”

“I did worry that I would lose her to myself by writing about her, but I haven’t. What I know of her is not her facing down her own dad in court — it’s her peeling potatoes in the kitchen at home. She decided on her character for herself, and that is who she is to me.”

She reckons her mother would have approved of the book. “She would have liked it in that people have responded to it in the way they have; she would have liked the way she comes out of it; she would even have liked the hammy title. She would have said: ‘what a lot of fuss!’, but I think she

would have seen it as a book-

end to her life. She had been so brave in an era when people didn’t talk about things like incest­.”

A major issue Brockes had to deal with when writing the book was how her newly discovered South African relatives were going to react: they still live here, many are now elderly, and incest and rape are still stigmatised.

“I had to think hard — and it did slow down the process. I felt maybe it wasn’t my story to tell. It’s going to be harder for them to move on than it is for me.”

She talks about how last year she came out to South Africa and took Fay, her mother’s half-sister, to the Oyster Box in Umhlanga for four days, and read her the whole manuscript.

“I wanted to mediate it for her, not leave her alone with it. At the end, she was laughing and said, that for the first time in her life, she felt it didn’t matter anymore.”

She also read the chapter that concerns him to Tony, one of her mother’s half-brothers. “I was worried about him. When I got to the part where he saw his father rape his sister, I mumbled it out. There were these two siblings, 72 and 68 years old, sitting on the sofa, just looking at each other. He said he felt guilty for having done nothing. Fay said to him: ‘You were just a child — what could you do?’” And now Brockes has written a book that is a homage to the person who did do something, and then moved beyond it.

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