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She Left Me the Gun: My Mother's Life Before Me Hardcover – May 16, 2013

3.7 out of 5 stars 135 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Q&A with Emma Brockes

Q. What made you decide to go in search of your mother’s life before she had you?

A. When I was growing up, my mother was always dropping hints that something terrible and dramatic had happened in her past. But she had never been terribly specific. When I was 27, she died, and I felt compelled to find out all the things she hadn't been telling me. When a parent dies, your relationship with their history changes; it becomes your own and all the things you were avoiding, it seems imperative, suddenly, to confront. Deciding to write about it was easy; it's an amazing story. Secrets like this were meant to be written about.

Q. What did you find when you went looking into your mother’s past?

A. I knew she had moved to England from South Africa in 1960 and never really been back. So after her death, I flew to Johannesburg for the first time, to meet some of her seven siblings and ask them the questions I hadn't dared ask her. It turned out she and her siblings had been involved in a high profile court case, in which their father was the accused, and in which he had defended himself, cross-examining his own children in the witness box and destroying them one by one. It also turned out that my mother had tried, and failed, to kill him.

So, some fairly lively discoveries.

Q.You explore the ultimate question: how well do we know someone? Do you feel like you know your mother better now than before learning about her childhood trauma?

A. No, strangely. I think I always knew her at mineral level, the stuff I found out was merely an extreme expression of characteristics that were clearly present in my mother while I was growing up. The thing that amazed me most – the one out-of-character detail – was that she managed not to talk about it. My mum was the world's worst keeper of secrets.

Anyway it's something I worried about before starting the book; that whatever I found out would change my view of my mother and I would pathologise her in some way. As it turned out, I think there is only so much the imagination will let one do with one's parents; who they were to you when you were little, is who at some level they will always be. And so, while I admired my mother for the things I found out - how she stood up to a maniac; how she tried to protect her younger siblings; above all, how she rebuilt herself after it all went wrong - it didn't alter what was to me her basic mum-ness.

When I see her in my mind's eye these days, it's as I always saw her, sitting in the kitchen by the sink, peeling carrots or potatoes, looking out of the window at the garden and turning to smile at me as I come through the door.

Q. You mention in the book how some aspects of your own childhood started to make sense once you learned what’d happened to your mother. Do you think her experience had some psychological or emotional effect on you?

A. Very hard to measure, but I'm sure that it did, given the extent to which my mother's character was moulded by all this. She managed to put a positive spin on problematic impulses; so, when I was a kid, she was convinced I was going to get kidnapped and murdered, but instead of scaring the bejesus out of me, she managed to turn it into a comedy routine that assuaged her fears (a little) and didn't traumatize me. She was so bonkers about my exposure to risk, it has probably made me blasé; it's a great luxury, to have someone else do all your worrying for you.

After my mother's death, when I found out exactly what she'd been withholding, it struck me that she had made a moral, practical and aesthetic choice to be a certain way in relation to her past and I have definitely been influenced by the example she set. It's mainly a good thing; I don't see the point in going on about everything all of the time; although I probably tolerate discomfort longer than I should. (That might just be a British thing.)

Q. Your relatives in South Africa seemed to be at odds with one another, yet all were eager to connect with you. Are you still in touch with your family in South Africa?

A. Yes. I've been back to South Africa once, last year, and I speak to my aunt Fay on the phone occasionally. It's so far away that realistically, we're never going to operate like a regular family. But it feels important to me to maintain contact. Most importantly, a generation on, we don't seem to be hampered by the fraughtness and baggage that dominated my mother's relationships with her siblings.

Q. How has this experience changed you? What has it taught you?

A. It has thrown my own childhood into a more idyllic light. Held up against the worst alternative, all the things you take for granted start to look like incredible good fortune. (Not that it has stopped me complaining. But still). It has also given me a shift in perspective. Here was the mother I had known, living a mild existence in a village in Buckinghamshire, meanwhile somewhere in her system was the memory of all this unbelievable trauma. In light of what I discovered, her achievement seemed remarkable. The one thing she couldn't do was talk about it, which is so often the case with abuse histories. Intellectually, I understood that nothing bad would happen if I wrote all this down and published it, but emotionally, that took a very long time to be the case. So the most profound change has been publishing this book and seeing for myself that the sky didn't fall in.

From Booklist

Most regular tourists want “to look at places where great historical events occurred and drive to areas of natural beauty and feel uplifted by things that are bigger than we are.” But for British journalist Brockes, her journey to South Africa after her mother’s death is to uncover bitter family secrets and to find out what drove her mother to emigrate from Johannesburg to London. There is a lot Brockes does not know, “groping for a language to talk about the things we’d never talked about.” Does she want to know? With a mixture of sorrow and wry wit, she mocks those who find excitement in the scenic and the political as she uses her journalistic skills to access the national archives and discovers horrifying family abuse in her grandfather’s 1950s court case. But just as heartbreaking are the revelations of the tenderness in her struggling white working-class family. The close-up personal story will hold readers who want to understand the history tourists neither seek nor find. --Hazel Rochman
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press; First Edition edition (May 16, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594204594
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594204593
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (135 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,127,282 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Susan Blumberg-Kason VINE VOICE on April 29, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I read this story in less than two days. The writing is beautiful, the pace of the story is quick, and descriptions of South Africa are alluring. I knew it would be about a family tragedy, and after reading it I can't imagine what could be worse. The author's mother left South Africa at a young age to start over in England. She marries, has a child, and lives a quaint life in the English countryside. No one could possibly know the secrets that she hides, not even her husband and daughter. After her mother passes away, the author travels to South Africa to find out why her mother left and never returned. This book is not for the faint hearted, but it's a human story and one that is often locked away in shame and disgust. I give Emma Brockes huge credit for sharing her mother's story and for maybe helping others who might be facing devastation.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Journalists and talented writers are not like most of us: they can write about their lives and their families and make it interesting reading. Emma Brockes is a Journalist and a talented writer and "She Left me the Gun" is an engaging book.

Emma Brockes' mother died of cancer at an earlier age than most people expect to die in our modern world. The dead live on in our hearts. Writing "She Left me the Gun" was a way for Emma to keep her mother in her heart and to bring her life into focus. All stories that we tell are also about ourselves, so the book was also a way for Emma to bring herself into focus.

Emma's mother, Paula, had Emma later in life. Emma comments that several of her Mother's friends thought that Emma would be a spoiled brat, because of how much her mother focused on Emma. As it turned out, Emma didn't turn out to be a brat. She may have been a core of her Mother's life, but her Mother was tough and was determined to raise a tough daughter.

One reason that many people do a poor job of writing about themselves or their families is that they do not structure the story like a three act play: with a start middle and end. Emma Brockes has this talent and has rendered the story in elegant english.

Emma's Mother, Paula, grew up in South Africa and emigrated to England when she was 22. She was fleeing a father that she had charged with the rape of her sisters. Her father was brought to trial, but was not convicted.

A strange thing about alcoholic pedophiles, which is what Emma's Grandfather was, is that they all seem to follow the same secret script that only monsters are issued. The story of Emma's Grandfather, Jimmy, is a tragically familiar one that plays out repeatedly through the eons of humanity.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Okay, the first thing you need to remember about this heart-stoppingly marvelous book is that it's a memoir.

This is important, because it READS like some kind of wonderfully intense novel.

Paula, Emma Brockes' mother, (who, by the way, DIDN'T leave her the gun) is one of the great literary characters of the past decade.

The fact that she is... was... no, IS, a real person who walked and talked with other real people. The fact that some... all too many... of them, might well have been "real", but had a tenuous grasp on "peoplehood" is irrelevant.

This is a story FILLED with all that is ugly and reprehensible in what we are sometimes ashamed to call the human race.

And yet.

It is one of the most uplifting books I have read.

Because, ultimately, it is about the two most important things there are.

No matter how it is expressed; no matter what curves, twists, turns, may obscure it; when it is there... and it is profoundly real, as it is here; NOTHING is more moving than the human spirit and a mother's love.

I love this book!
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I really feel like I was suckered with the book. Reading the blurb and a couple of reviews I was psyched. Described as "a chilling work of psychological suspense and forensic memoir" this book promised great things, but sadly it just didn't deliver.

When her mother dies, Emma Brockes is left not only with an aching sadness, but also a lot of questions about her mother's early life. Born in South Africa, her mother endured a childhood trauma that took her through the courts and eventually inspired her to leave Africa altogether and flee to London. She never returned. Over the years her mother hinted at what it was that she left behind, but she never got around to telling the story and Brockes never really asked. In the wake of her mother's death, Brockes decides to travel to South Africa to discover the truth for herself.

Given the pretext and the reviews I expected a book that would have me on the edge of my seat waiting to see what she uncovered. Instead, her mother's secret is revealed within days of her arriving in South Africa. (To be honest if she'd really wanted to know she could have just asked her father as there is a fairly strong suggestion that he knew all along.) And even when the secret is revealed it hardly comes as a surprise. There were enough signposts along the way to give you a pretty fair idea of what had happened.

The bulk of the story is not therefore a 'forensic memoir' but rather an exploration of how a family deals with a crisis and what the ramifications are for the individuals, their children and their own relationships. To summarise a couple of hundred pages - this is a sad book.

I really had the feeling that the marketing department at the publishing house wanted to make this into something that it isn't.
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