Emma Brockes, an English journalist, was raised an only child in a small village where, she writes in her new book, She Left Me the Gun: My Mother's Life Before Me, people moved in "incremental steps through increasingly boring sets of circumstances." If hers was an overtly British upbringing, it was also charmed, graced by the presence of her energetic, enigmatic South African mother, Paula. Intent on starting a new life, Paula immigrated to England in 1960, leaving behind her parents and seven siblings. Such a move was not uncommon for ambitious South Africans, and before long she found work and started a family. But beyond a handful of set-piece stories, her life in South Africa went untold.
Paula may have intimated to her daughter that she had experienced childhood trauma, but never directly enough to disrupt the sheen of happiness over their lives. Remarkably, Paula only tried to tell her daughter about that past twice, and then only successfully on her deathbed. Her daughter may not have wanted to know. "I actually thought the strongest psychological position was to be quite happy in my life and not to have to go fishing about in the deep past looking for resolution," Brockes says. Yet when Paula passed away, Brockes admits, "It just struck me instantly as really weird that I didn't have the full picture. I couldn't see myself going forward in my life having an incomplete picture of this person, who, while she was alive, stood between her background and me."
Against this backdrop, Brockes sets out in She Left Me the Gun to reconstruct Paula's early life in South Africa, a continent though not fully a culture away. It is a story that grows more powerful as it unfolds. The narrative traces the author’s discovery of her grandfather’s sexual and physical abuse of Paula and her siblings. Brockes travels to South Africa to undertake the sensitive task of interviewing remaining relatives and friends, all essentially strangers. Each character reveals some new insight into Paula's courage or the spirit of her life, and her remarkable story comes into focus cinematically. Even though Paula left South Africa decades earlier, many of her siblings clearly still feel her actions saved their lives.
"I didn't not know,” about her mother’s past, Brockes acknowledges. “I half knew, and I really think nothing ferments like a half-truth. I just thought I had to know everything in order to classify it as less important in the hierarchy of things I think about, because I just found myself wondering." She fastidiously examines court records and visits sites in South Africa relevant to her family history, saturating herself in stories of her mother's youth. In doing so, Brockes sustains a dialogue with her mother's memory, and she localizes abstract ideas of abuse in such a way that she comes to both know and un-know the past. "It minimizes their place in your imagination when you can summon up the not terribly exciting house made of bricks in a field," she says.
This is a critical form of knowing, one that puts ghosts to rest. But this book is also Paula's unwritten memoir, one that brings her to life. The more you learn about her, the more vibrant and complex she becomes. Early on, the author relates a story that her mother struggled with a decision to either kill herself or find a way forward after her father was wrongly exonerated of child abuse in court. In choosing to live, Paula made a conscious decision not to let her past deter her from finding happiness, in part as a mother. She repressed her own history, not out of shame, but to ensure the possibility of a fulfilling life for her own family in England. And that is where Brockes' remarkable tale begins.
Walter Heymann is a freelance writer and screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles.