Tuesday, 13 August 2013
Inheriting the culture of silence
The only thing worse than interviewing a journalist, is being the journalist at the receiving end of the interview. This is how I open my exchange with Emma Brockes, a British journalist based in New York and author of a memoir dubbed She Left me the Gun: my mother's life before me (Faber & Faber).
The title is a bit of a misnomer as the gun in question was handed into the British authorities by her South African born-mother before she died. As a result Brockes didn't exactly inherit the item, though its existence, which hinted at a violent past haunted her, finally propelling her to Johannesburg to discover its significance in her mother's life before she settled in the UK.
My opening remark is designed to put us both at ease but it is also a way of directing attention to the way in which Brockes exploits and hides behind her identity as a |journalist in her account of piecing the puzzle that was her mother's past. My intention doesn't go unnoticed by Brockes.
"It's weird watching journalists do the things that I do.
"They think they are really discreet and they are not at all," says the forty-something Brit over her breakfast in an intimate restaurant in a swanky Houghton bed and breakfast were she is holed up for her publicity tour.
She Left me her Gun charts Brockes's attempt to uncover the events in her mother's childhood in South Africa, which she had never elaborated on during her life. Brockes only felt compelled to disinter the details shortly after her death. It was a gut reflex to her passing.
"You spend your entire life not wanting to know anything about your parents, and then one day they are gone and it's suddenly your history and it seemed absurd to me. I thought I would lose more of her if I didn't know about everything she had been."
Despite this project being driven to satisfy an emotional need and centred on uncovering the facts about her own family, Brockes embraces a journalistic mode not only in her retelling of her mother's life but the position she adopted from the outset when she began |her research.
It facilitated a level of detachment that helped her navigate the difficult truths she was forced to confront about her family.
"I found that soothing. The logistics were familiar to me, I like sitting in musty libraries. I knew that in order to get it done I needed some sort of professional safety net."
This distance is palpable throughout the book and explains the pronounced absence of the narrator/author.
She is almost an invisible character that recedes in the background, acting simply as a conduit for the information or narrative.
"It's counter-intuitive for me to be the engine of the story. I am not a columnist so I am not used to using myself as material. I think it is an aesthetic as well. I like |compressed books. I am happier being brief and not belabouring the point."
Despite the professional mode she adopted in her research of her mother's life in South Africa, in particular the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, the book isn't a resolved or conclusive product. The gaping silences in her mother's past and the traumatic events in her childhood connected to the titular gun, are never completely revealed. As a result while the book appears designed to shatter silence, it becomes a testimony to it, evoking an ever-present theme that echoes South Africans' response to unspeakable acts of violence from our past and complicity with apartheid.
Not that Brockes book delves into this - in fact she is quite unaware of the pervasive silence that exists between her contemporaries in South Africa and their parents. However, her journey to come to grips with her mother's past, forces her to confront her connection to this country, which she shirks quite early on when she is repulsed by the offer of a South African passport.
In one instance she refers to the country as "that f***ing place", as if it some sort of immovable scar on her own identity.
By writing herself out of her account to some degree, also allows her to avoid ever exploring her white South African heritage and what baggage that might entail, which should have been an inevitable part of this journey. This is unfortunate, certainly for a local audience as it would have added another layer of interest, though unwittingly it feeds into the theme of silence, expanding it past the events it recounts.
Her fear and loathing - during her first trip to Joburg she cowers in her hotel room for fear of being attacked on the streets of Sandton - isn't exactly uncommon for a European visitor first exploring the supposed "dark continent". Her keen self-awareness does allow her to break through prejudice, but it can make for uncomfortable reading.
"Black men in overalls are either sleeping or touting for work. |They look like figures drawn on a laminate sheet, overlaid from a |different reality entirely. They emphatically fail to molest me when I pass," she writes.
"The only press you get is about the crime in Johannesburg. The way my mother spoke about the place too, it sounded as if snakes and scorpions are dropping down your back all the time in this nightmarish place," she says, alluding to the idea that her distaste for South Africa was also instilled by her mother, Pauline, who she notes never expressed pride in her motherland, and more than likely associated it with her troubled upbringing.
"My motherless mother, no family, no history," observes Brockes of Pauline in her book, underscoring the loss and absence incurred when she suppressed her history.
The truth about Pauline's past is buried, locked away in the vaults of her siblings' memory. They too have mostly also chosen to shut them out.
Her aunt Fey for example, who was at the centre of a case of sexual abuse that was brought against her grandfather Jimmy, never relays any information regarding this period or the incident at all.
Those who weren't victims of his abuse, but witnesses - Pauline's brothers - offer some information but it is always filtered through their own conflicted positions |as witnesses or bystanders to |the abuse, which has left two of them quite damaged men. In this way Brockes' account of retrieving this lost history, operates as a testament to the impact of sexual abuse on a family.
It also obviously tackles the silence around these damaging acts. Before her mother buried her father's abuse - it is implied that she too was a victim - tightly away from those who knew her in England, she had fought to break the silence by bringing a case against her father for abusing her sister Fey.
Brockes is able to get her hands on documents pertaining to it, but the information only partially shines light on what occurred and the history of abuse that this family suffered at the hands of a psychotic alcoholic father.
The case against him isn't successful; Jimmy chooses to represent himself and eventually bullies his daughters on the stand - it's any wonder why in a case such as this, this would have been permitted. Powerless against him and defeated, Brockes's mother eventually seeks refuge from her troubled past in London, which presumably offers her the freedom to rewrite her history, her identity, using the vexed political situation in South Africa as a foil for her retreat to greener pastures. Her silence enables this new identity to emerge and thus becomes ingrained, though occasionally she blurts out statements to her daughter that hint at a dark past.
While the sort of Oprah-confessional culture that now dominates seems to dictate that silence is unhealthy and the past can only be transcended by rehashing it - preferably in a public arena - Brockes believes that for her mother it allowed her to survive her past.
Her search and the by-product of it, the book, therefore, presents an interesting dialectic around silence.
"It can be useful and damaging. I live in America and everyone is encouraged to over-share and our generation are taught that the only way to deal with trauma is to talk endlessly about it to anyone who will listen."
Given that Brockes's book could be viewed as product of this confessional culture, she ironically asserts that she embraces more of the "knuckle-down, blitz spirit" that emerged in Britain during World War II and has become part of the "stiff-upper-lip" bravado that is associated with Brits.
It is this spirit that perhaps informs the kind of emotional distance that marks Brockes's book and is embodied in her journalistic camouflage.
The inner conflict in this book is rooted in the friction between her desire to lift the silence around the abuse her mother and siblings suffered, and to maintain it - she is after all a product of a culture of silence, it is what she knows.
Surprisingly, she opines that children should not be privy to their parent's "deepest hurts. I don't think that's your role as a child. Certainly she didn't think that is what my role should have been."
This idea is given expression via her recollection of an encounter with an eminent actress she interviews for the newspaper who observes, while confessing that her mother was sexually abused, that it is not the guilt of that trauma that their progeny inherit, but the silence around it.
Brockes's silence isn't necessarily just an inherited condition but one that is linked to the fact that there isn't the necessary vocabulary to address it, break it.
"The story makes too great a demand on the listener," writes Brockes in She left me the Gun, "I can't stand it, the look of embarrassment and panic on a person's face as they cast around for an appropriate response. Suddenly I understand my mother's glibness, her insane giggle when she said 'I thought I might have to shoot my father'. What is the right tone for that kind of statement?"
Brockes involuntarily becomes complicit in her mother's silence. She maintains it through glaring omissions but also by employing this same glib, sarcastic tone she observed in her mother.
"She did it in such a jazz-hands camp kind of way that I was not damaged by it, but who knows what internal processes were going on."
Given Pauline worked so hard at maintaining the silence around her abusive history, you can't help |but wonder whether Brockes has dishonoured her wishes by writing this book. She is aware that she was breaking a huge taboo.
"I couldn't have done it while she was alive, she wouldn't have sanctioned it. But she always used to say, 'one day you will write about me'. It would be absurd to be someone in my position and not use it (her life story). You also have to understand why she did it; to protect me and herself. And if I am capable of doing it without having a breakdown there is no taboo any more."
Brockes is aware that the glibness that is threaded through her narrative, articulated in seemingly inappropriate moments in the story, may be a weakness, but one she |felt necessary if she was to avoid turning out "a misery memoir that is just all boohoo".
The glibness balances the darker aspects and the brand of voyeurism that authors of "misery memoirs" rely on to keep their readers enthralled, she asserts.
The inaccessibility of historical events also compounds this pervasive silence, preventing Brockes from fully piecing her mother's past and her grandfather's acts of abuse together.
As a result the narrative feels incomplete, that something more significant or shocking is hidden |on the edges, waiting to be discovered. At a certain point Brockes gave up digging.
"Because it is all at one remove there is so much you can disinter. There were overlapping accounts of the same events, so what else are you going to do?
"The cut-off was when I spent half a morning looking for the arresting officer. I could have gone through the entire phone book to find him. I remember hitting a wall and thinking I have critical mass and had done enough not to do any more. It (the research, material) cohered at some point."
The fragmented history may have cohered into a book, a sellable product, but it is haunted by absences and consequently articulates the futility of tracing the past.
This is particularly poignant when Brockes visits the places where Pauline lived and the abuse occurred.
The banality of these places does work at demystifying the history - making it appear more manageable - but this also underscores the emptiness of the act; there is nothing to be gleaned from being there except for the fact that history looms as even more inaccessible.
"Going to a horrid house where your mom tried to shoot her |father is a ritual in itself even if it was empty. But something must have been going on because I did feel better by the end of it." - published July 28, 2013.