Freedom in Telling the Truth: The Millions Interviews Adrienne Brodeur

November 27, 2019 | 5 books mentioned 8 min read

I was first introduced to Adrienne Brodeur and her memoir, Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me, when I was invited to a breakfast at the offices of her publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, in Midtown Manhattan last spring. The breakfast was catered, tables laid out with a bountiful spread of exotic meats—wild game, naturally—only a few of which I could identify. While we ate, Brodeur regaled us with the story of her childhood, one of sprawling coastal mansions and summers on Cape Cod, cocktail hours and lavish meals of squab and foie gras, and a massive ruby- and diamond-encrusted necklace from India. As I picked at my plate, self-conscious about getting meat stuck in my teeth at a table of industry influencers, I wasn’t sure if Brodeur’s book—which sold for a staggering seven figures—would be for me. In addition to her rather glamorous upbringing, Brodeur has also led an impressive literary life: Before her current position as executive director of the literary nonprofit Aspen Words, she was an editor at HMH and founded Zoetrope: All Story with Francis Ford Coppola. This author’s story, and her world, seemed so far from mine.

But when I started reading Wild Game, I was whisked away to Brodeur’s world, devouring the memoir like an exquisite meal in one feverish sitting. The book centers around an affair between Brodeur’s mother—an elegant, enchanting, and highly narcissistic woman named Malabar, who studied as Le Cordon Bleu and could whip up clams and pâté in the time it took to quaff one of her signature (and very strong) Manhattans—and a close family friend named Ben. It was an affair, and a lie, that lasted decades, a drama in which the young Brodeur played the role of both confidante and coconspirator. She kept the secret like it was her job: she lied to her beloved stepfather and brother; covered for her mother; and often helped orchestrate trysts between the lovers, rewarded by Malabar for her loyalty with a love that was by nature conditional. It was an extravagantly constructed deception, one that led Brodeur to years of depression, self-harm, and shame. But more than the secrets and the scandal, more than some mommy-dearest tell-all of the rich and destructive, what I found in Brodeur’s book was a much more universal story: one about a mother, a daughter, and the trauma we inherit. It’s a beautiful and tenderly wrought book about loss, reclamation, family, and forgiveness; about the secrets we keep to protect the people we love, and how women so often carry the pain and wreckage of their forebears. I spoke to Brodeur about the book, how writing it helped her process the secret she kept for so long, and how becoming a mother helped her decide to finally tell her story. 

The Millions: This book feels like the story—and the secret—you’ve been waiting your whole life to tell. Did it feel that way to you on some level—inevitable? Or was there a catalyst, a specific moment when you knew you had to write it?

Adrienne Brodeur: A bit of both. It’s funny—for a long time, way before I started to think about a serious memoir, I used to play the story for laughs. I tried to turn it into a romantic comedy and even published a piece in Modern Love years ago where I focused on the humorous aspects of this crazy saga. But when I started a family of my own and as my children grew, I realized that I had to dig deeper and reexamine the way I was brought up, and look closely at the mistakes I’d made. Writing this book has been a form of atonement. It has also forced me to take a serious look at the legacy of deception that plagued my family for generations, a cycle that I’m determined to end, with me.

TM: It’s difficult to write about the people we love, especially when there’s pain at the heart of the story. Several of the key players in this story have passed away, but Malabar is still alive, though she now has dementia. Did you feel like such losses were necessary before you could write this book? Did you still struggle with writing about these lives, and if so how did you work your way through it?

AB: I didn’t intentionally wait for people to pass away to write this book, but I will say that it is always a struggle to write vividly and honestly about the people you love. What I didn’t know is that I would develop a reservoir of compassion for every single person in this book, myself included. When you explore people’s lives deeply, it’s hard not to forgive them their flaws, and to acknowledge both the highs and lows that shaped them.

TM: You render Malabar with such empathy. Despite the harm she caused you, you write her as a vivid, complex, and complicated character—larger than life, charming and magnetic, wholly human in her failures and flaws. There were times while reading this that I hated her for her selfishness, for how she treated you, but there were so many moments of tenderness I couldn’t help but feel profound empathy for her too. What was the process like in creating her as a character on the page—with all her darkness and her light?

AB: One of the surprises of writing Wild Game was the empathy I developed for my mother. In examining her life, I begin to understand anew the incredible losses she endured—twice-divorced parents, an alcoholic mother, the discovery of a secret sibling, the tragic death of her first child. Writing Wild Game was a heart-expanding process. It taught me to see my life with more nuance. We all have darkness and light within us. My mother made some terrible choices, but she also suffered greatly, endured many tragedies, and still managed to find moments of joy and tenderness.

TM: It seems like in order to write this book with so much empathy you’ve had to forgive Malabar. Have you forgiven yourself? Do you still carry some of the shame you write about, that you carried for so long, or have you been able to let it go?

AB: It is always easier to forgive others before you can even think about forgiving yourself. I still carry shame, of course, though I’ve worked hard to let some of it go. As a society, we seem to want “closure” on all of the unpleasant parts of our lives, but the past is always with us, and although we can reckon with the events that shaped us—and hopefully move beyond them—I don’t believe they ever disappear completely. I will always be someone who spent her formative years in a world where deception and secrets were the norm, and in doing so, I hurt people I cared deeply about. I make a conscious effort every day not to repeat these patterns.

TM: So much about this book is about inheritance, about intergenerational trauma. There’s alcoholism, narcissism, abuse both emotional and physical—and its ripple effects. In a scene near the end of the book, when you give birth to your daughter and then see your mother, we can feel the terror, the weight of all the things you’re afraid to pass down. Did writing the book help you reckon with that fear?

AB: Yes, it did. Writing this book not only allowed me to put feelings into words, it helped me understand my past, heal from those old wounds, and face my fears of passing intergenerational traumas along. I’m sure I will make mistakes as a parent, but I’m even more sure that they will not be the mistakes that my mother made with me. My mother believed we were two halves of the same whole, which was both thrilling because I loved her, and incredibly stifling because it prevented me from becoming my own person. We were codependent in the extreme. I love my children more than anything, but there’s nothing I want more than for them to stand on their own two feet, apart from me.

TM: Books about family trauma, especially those by women, often get called cathartic. But as a reader this story really did feel something like catharsis—like a purging or a cleansing. The story was based on a secret, and publishing the book feels like a big final way to break the silence you kept for so long and release it into the world. Did writing this story feel like catharsis? And now that it’s out in the world, how does it feel?

AB: First of all, thank you for saying that. I’m so glad you felt that way as a reader. Writing Wild Game was an intensely cathartic experience. Needless to say, I felt vulnerable writing the book, because I really put it all out there and tried not hold back, even on things I felt ashamed about. I do feel vulnerable now that it is out in the world, but I also know that every reader will bring his or her unique experience and lens to this story, and that, in a way, it is no longer just mine. People’s reaction to the material differs dramatically. The book has elicited sympathy, horror, and everything in between. And that’s okay. I enjoy hearing about other people’s relationships with their own mothers—everyone has a story.

TM: Food plays an important role in this book. Malabar the gourmand, Ben the hunter, the title based on an idea for a cookbook that the two devised as a platform upon which their affair could thrive. Food is not just an important part of your family history, but both the site of trauma and a vehicle of desire. It’s so sensually and viscerally rendered on page, the moaning over meals, popping bites in one another’s mouths, the ringing of necks and the breaking of bones, that it seems to function as a metaphor for the affair and the harm caused by it. Did you always know that food would play such a central role in this story?

AB: One thing you just have to understand is that my mother, for all her flaws, was a truly gifted cook. She was simply magical in the kitchen. You could hand her a bag of squab and a bundle of herbs and she’d whip up a gorgeous, restaurant-worthy meal. If Instagram had been around back then she’d probably be a foodie star. So yes, writing the food scenes was fun for me because it was so sensual and vibrant. Everything about it felt R-rated. Even the language she used: succulent breasts, luscious thighs—you get the drift. When I thought back on the events of my life and started to construct the scenes for the book, I thought in terms of meals. The night my mother and Ben began their affair my mother had made this feast and I can still picture the table like it was yesterday. Every meal described in the book is indelible in my mind. And it was all so delicious.

TM: Literature also plays an important part in this story. Your late stepmother, Margo, who serves a maternal role that your mother couldn’t, gives you stacks of books that help you begin to envision yourself more autonomously in the world. Which books did you read while you were writing yours, and which have been most influential?

covercovercoverAB: I still remember the first stack of books Margo gave me way back when: Jim Harrison’s Dalva, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees, and Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Three such different books, all involving young female protagonists who must sort out complicated problems, which enabled me to imagine ways I might do the same. That is the beauty of books, of course: Every one of them takes you out of the bubble of your own experience and into a whole new world. Thanks to Margo, I’ve been a passionate reader for my adult life, and ended up making a career in the world of literature, too.

coverI’ve devoured memoirs for at least a decade before writing my own. I love Elizabeth Alexander for the poetry of her prose, Mary Karr for the audacity of her voice, Jeanette Walls for the grace and compassion with which she described her deeply flawed parents. The book that influenced me most as I wrote Wild Game was Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, which contained a line that served as my guiding light: “For the drama to deepen, we must see the loneliness of the monster and the cunning of the innocent.” I really hope this comes through.

TM: In the epilogue, you write about your own daughter, who’s about to turn 14—the age you were when the affair began and your life changed course. I’m sure this book is going to resonate with a lot of daughters, especially those who have complicated relationships with their mothers. Did you write this book in part for your children? Who else do you hope will read this book, and what do you hope they might take from it?

AB: I didn’t so much write Wild Game for my children as I wrote it for me so that I could be a better mother to my children. I hope that this book helps anyone with a complicated or secret-filled past know that they can get to the other side. I truly believe that the more we suppress or hide our stories, the more they control us. It’s when we confront them—and own our pasts—that we are able to move beyond them toward a brighter future. There’s such freedom in telling the truth about who we are.

is a writer, editor, and teacher whose debut essay collection, Tomboyland, is forthcoming from Topple Books in August 2020. She teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Brooklyn, New York. www.melissafaliveno.com

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