Brando Skyhorse's memoir Take This Man is a book about how a broken family learns to become whole. It is a true account of surviving through the stories we tell ourselves and others, told with humor and a matter-of-factness that at times is comforting (and at others is distressing). But Skyhorse keeps us from looking away; he adroitly walks us through his life with his compulsively lying mother and tough-as-nails grandmother. In Take This Man, we are given a rare, raw vantage of a compelling life.
Skyhorse's debut novel, The Madonnas of Echo Park, was released almost 4 years ago and garnered critical acclaim. He received a PEN/Hemingway Award in 2011 and attention from the likes of O, the Oprah Magazine, which selected it as one of the "10 Terrific Reads of 2010." But even before publishing that novel, Skyhorse had been ruminating about and working on his memoir. "What I didn't realize was that it was going to take me almost 15 to 16 years to basically bring it to completion because there were so many aspects to the story that I didn't know of," Skyhorse says.
Skyhorse is Mexican-American and grew up in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, but grew up thinking he was Native American and the descendant of an incarcerated Paul Skyhorse Johnson. His mother, Maria Teresa, was not satisfied with her Mexican-American heritage and in turn adopted a new one for herself and her son. Skyhorse writes that "she became Running Deer Skyhorse, a full blooded "squaw" who traded in her most common of Mexican names for the most stereotypical of Indian ones." This begins Skyhorse's saga, a project he originally started as a buffer and a reason to discover how his family came to be. "How does somebody end up marrying five different guys? How does somebody masquerade as one ethnicity when they're actually another ethnicity?" he asks.
In a way, his late mother prepared him to write this memoir without reservation or apprehension by giving him the name Brando Skyhorse. Skyhorse says that the uniqueness of his name has always invited questions, which ultimately led to him telling a version of his life story. "I feel like I've gotten used to telling people the story of my name for so long over so many periods of years and years it felt natural to...'Well, why not put it in a book,' " he explains.
In a memoir about a man who still has reservations about calling himself a writer, you nonetheless would expect to find mentions of life-altering literary milestones. "I don't feel like I read a lot of the sort of books kids read: The Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, you know, those sort of gateway books...the first book that I really remember buying was A Few Minutes With Andy Rooney," Skyhorse says. Besides his mother (who wrote), very few, if any, authors appear in Skyhorse's memoir with the exception of one: Charles Bukowski. Bukowski wrote and lived in a geography that is very near and dear to Skyhorse's formative years and the close relationship he developed with his grandmother, places Skyhorse describes as the "real LA." "Those memories of that kind of LA, that dirty gritty LA Bukowski loved, you know there's a part of me, while it was terrifying to be a part of...I loved that part of LA too because it reminds me of my grandmother," says Skyhorse.
"You know it's complicated, but writing this book is the hardest thing I've ever had to do as a ‘writer,’ " he tells me. In a genre that requires some sense of accurate and factual recreation, this can prove difficult to accomplish when one of your major sources was so reliably unreliable. "Knowing my mother, she would have lied to me, straight up, would have absolutely lied about every little thing I asked her,” he acknowledges. “To me, that's what makes the book most fascinating: How do you write about somebody who's a liar?" Skyhorse says. "How do you write about somebody who is basically a storyteller?
"In many ways I feel like my mom and grandmother are just as much alive now as they ever were and if they are alive somewhere, I know that they would be both very pleased about this book coming out and very pissed off about it," he says. "It makes me happy that they would be both celebrating this and ripping the hell out of it on Amazon....There would be one five star review from my mom at four p.m. and one one star at six, but it's a good feeling," says Skyhorse.
Evan Rodriguez is a freelance writer living in Texas. You can follow him on Twitter.