The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative

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Freedom in Telling the Truth: The Millions Interviews Adrienne Brodeur

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?

AB: 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.

I’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.

A Year in Reading: Mark O’Connell

Writing these Year in Reading round-ups has become a sort of annual audit of personal failures. Looking back over the ones I’ve done in the past, a theme of temporal exasperation has gradually risen to the surface. The older I get, the less time I have for reading (or, for that matter, anything else). This is exasperating partly because I happen to like reading, all things being equal — I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t — but mostly because reading is a non-negotiable aspect of my job as a writer, and of my life as a human being. My understanding is that if I don’t read enough, some vague but inexorable process of atrophy will begin to take hold. (I’m just figuring this out as I go along here, but is it possible that my anxiety about reading is in fact hopelessly bound up with my anxiety about death? I’ll take a wild leap here and suggest that it is, in much the same way as absolutely everything else is too.)

But it’s not just a matter of reading, of course, it’s a matter of reading the right things; and this leads to a certain deep-seated restlessness when it comes to reading, an abiding suspicion that, no matter what book I’m reading, there’s always some other book I might be better off spending my increasingly limited time with. So when I look back over my year in reading, I find myself surveying a melancholy vista of half-finished books, of books bought but never started, of books read two thirds of the way through before being abandoned — always, of course, with the earnest intention of returning — for some other book, whose presence momentarily exerted a much more urgent pressure on my attention, only to then meet its own similar fate of abandonment. This grievous state of affairs is painful to contemplate for two reasons: It causes me to suspect myself of intellectual shallowness — a symptom, I sometimes think, of an even graver lack of moral seriousness — and it arises, paradoxically, out of an unshakable sense of the existential importance of reading as an activity. Which is to say that my reading habits, chaotic and undisciplined as they are, are guided by an abiding conviction that every book I read has the potential to change my life. (This doesn’t happen very often, nor I suppose would I want it to, but it’s the potential that matters, that keeps me reading — and abandoning.)

Hearteningly, it seems that I did manage to finish some books in 2016. Looking back through my year, and doing a quick cross-check of books purchased versus books read, I’m reminded that I read a large amount of Annie Dillard. I read her newly published retrospective greatest hits collection, The Abundance, and then went back and reread stuff I’d read by her before, like Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and The Writing Life and For the Time Being. I also read, for the first time, Holy the Firm, a work of hallucinatory spiritual brilliance that I don’t claim to necessarily understand — I think maybe only Dillard and the God she’s writing to, and about, fully understand that book — but which I nonetheless found thrilling and disturbing and moving. Without even trying, she came closer than 14 years of religious schooling ever did to converting me to Christianity — at least to her own wild, pantheistic, blasphemous, querulously questioning version of same. The writer she reminds me most of here, ironically, is Friedrich Nietzsche, in that she’s a performing a philosophy of fundamental things in the manner of a wild seer, in a prose of almost dangerous beauty. If ever a writer was capable of changing my life, it’s Dillard. “Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time,” she writes. And in the moment of reading, I believe, and am changed.

I went quite deep this year with Rachel Cusk. I read A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother and Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation — two memoirs, published 11 years apart, that form a kind of diptych on the subject of parenthood and divorce, and are filled with painful, uncompromising wisdom on both. I also read her two recent novels Outline and Transit (the latter of which will be published in the U.S. early next year), both of which take a strange and radical approach to what tends to get called “autofiction.” She’s inverting the equation of the autobiographical novel, in a way — both these novels are composed of a series of encounters with strangers and friends and acquaintances, whose lives she writes about, and thereby somehow creates a kind of vicarious (outline) portrait of herself, or her fictional persona. The whole project is intriguing, and quietly radical, and Cusk is one of the most consistently fascinating of contemporary writers.

Speaking of autobiographical writing, 2016 was also the year I discovered Vivian Gornick. I read her recent book The Odd Woman and the City, a beautiful meditation on being single — and, crucially, female — late in life, and being a writer, and living in Manhattan; and I read her 1987 memoir Fierce Attachments, about growing up on the same seldom-written about island, and walking around it in middle age with her elderly mother. I followed that up with The Situation and the Story, a book of very personal writing about personal writing. Just to give the bare facts of my particular story here, my situation is as follows: I’m now a committed Gornickian, and my life is once more, in at least this small respect, changed.

I got really into Lewis Mumford over the last year or so — a writer I’d never really encountered until I picked up his book Technics and Civilization. Published in 1934, it’s a historical study of the force technology has exerted, since the middle ages, over the development of human life, and an extraordinarily prescient polemic about the threats of ecological catastrophe and mechanized, automated warfare. It’s a fascinating, illuminating book, and Mumford is especially brilliant on how the logic of power proceeds from, as well as moves toward, the mechanization of human life. The era of techno-capitalism, in Mumford’s view, began long before the first modern machines were invented, because the first machines were human bodies. “Before inventors created engines to take the place of men,” he writes,
the leaders of men had drilled and regimented multitudes of human beings: they had discovered how to reduce men to machines. The slaves and peasants who hauled the stones for the pyramids, pulling in rhythm to the crack of the whip, the slaves working in the Roman galley, each man chained to his seat and unable to perform any other motion than the limited mechanical one, the order and march and system of attack of the Macedonian phalanx — these were all machine phenomena. Whatever limits the actions of human beings to their bare mechanical elements belongs to the physiology, if not the mechanics, of the machine age.
An amazing book, both very much of its time, and also completely ahead of it.

The most fascinating character I encountered in any book this year was a person named John Lennon, the protagonist of Kevin Barry’s strange and beautiful novel Beatlebone. Although this person is one of the most exhaustively written about figures of the 20th century, Barry remakes Lennon not so much from the ground up as from the inside out. Beatlebone’s Lennon is a haunted and bewildered person, not far shy of 40 — or of his nearing assassination, which hovers around the book like a malediction — who sets out for his own private island off the west coast of Ireland, in order to take stock of his life and his current creative impasse. It is a sad and funny and captivating book, filled with melancholy wisdom, delivered in Barry’s elegant and profanely poetic prose. As Lennon’s hard-bastard existentialist chauffeur puts it to him: “We have no hope. We haven’t a prayer against any of it. So throw back the shoulders…Keep the eyes straight and sober-looking in the sockets of your head. Look out at the world hard and face the fucker down.” One unexpected consequence of reading the novel was that it caused me to listen — really for the first time in any kind of serious way — to the music of The Beatles. It turns out they’re actually quite good! So now I’m a Beatles fan, a thing it hadn’t previously occurred to me I might become. And here I am: life changed, yet again.

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A Year in Reading: Meaghan O’Connell

The first book I remember reading this year was an advance copy of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, handed to me by my friend Amanda. I had a six-month-old baby, and Amanda and I had both, coincidentally, just moved from New York to Portland. I am sure I’d read things in the first six months of my son’s life, but I don’t remember any of them. I think mostly I tweeted and Googled paranoid things late at night. She pressed this book to me and I read it on a car ride out to the Oregon coast, baby napping in his car seat. At first it made me mad, all the theory getting in the way of what I really wanted, THE LIFE OF MAGGIE. She is one of those people for me, writers who I want to cross all boundaries with, writers from whom I ask too much. She makes me want more than, as a reader, I deserve. She already gives us more than we deserve. It isn’t fair. I read about how she put a laminated copy of her Guggenheim fellowship announcement (given to her by her mother) under her son’s high chair to catch everything he tossed, and my heart soared. I got used to the theory, came to love it. I read the book a few times over. Then I read Bluets again. Then I ordered The Art of Cruelty, and was told we already owned a copy. Actually I put it on the stoop before we left New York. It was a galley, I rationalized. But really, that book makes me mad. It’s hard to get into and it isn’t Bluets — this is how unfair I am to Maggie. I always call her Maggie in my mind. Anyway, in my newly regained readerly flush I paid for this book and it’s still on my nightstand. I haven’t been able to get through the first few pages. I am an apostate, I know it. Still, though, I think of this as the year of Maggie Nelson, for the world and, more specifically, for me. She brought me back into loving reading.

I read Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness soon after, the Graywolf one-two punch of 2015, but it just made me want to reread Manguso’s book The Two Kinds of Decay, which is such a mean thing to say, I know. Anyway I did reread it, in the mornings before settling into writing for a few weeks. Reading someone else’s book during the work day feels like the ultimate indulgence to me. It makes me anxious, but then the words, the voice, the confidence (if it’s the right book) soothe it, too. I’m not sure it serves as anything more than a more virtuous, exciting way to procrastinate. Even still: Grace Paley, Nora Ephron, Manguso, they all put the voice back in my head, helped settle the whirling panic and reform it into something more confident and at ease. I felt like they were the band playing me in.

When a certain ferocity was needed, I listened to Sylvia Plath read her own work on Spotify. Afterward, I started reading parts of her journal. Her mundane anxiety about publishing her work, applying to residencies, and walking to the mailbox looking for checks is what made me put it down. Not today, Sylvia. Not today. Same goes for Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. And Paula Bomer’s Baby & Other Stories. I recommend these in a certain state of mind, when you can handle them. It’s important to know when you can’t. This is a skill I’ve yet to master.

If it was the year of Maggie Nelson, for me, it was also the year of Heidi Julavits. She’s “Heidi J” to me and my writer-reader friends, because we refer to her constantly. Her book The Folded Clock came out in earlyish spring and this book and iced coffee were about all I saw on Instagram, and all I cared to see. At first I thought it was the Leanne Shapton cover, but it goes deeper. It’s a book that seems effortless, which means it was brilliantly engineered. The kind of book that makes you happy to have to wait somewhere, because you have it in your totebag; happy to go to bed early so you can sit up reading it. I saw Heidi J read one night at Powell’s and my friend and I left immediately to get a drink. She was so funny, so charming, so effortlessly beautiful (like her writing!), we sat in the car sighing. “Her kids are older right?” Right. She makes me excited to be a decade older, to be more settled into life, to work my ass off and to know myself. This, and the hidden work of the book, is its power.

On the occasion of Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City being published, and a friend texting me photos of random pages of Gornick’s backlist, I said, Fine, and ordered a bunch of her books from Powell’s. I’d read her best book, Fierce Attachments on a road trip a few years ago; I was 30 weeks pregnant and the bookstore owner confessed she was pregnant, too. When she sighed and proclaimed her love for the book as she rung up my purchase, I knew it was brought to me by fate. We became friends and I sent her a box full of baby clothes. I read the rest of Gornick’s books this year like they were the key to something, though none of them touches Fierce Attachments. The End of The Novel of Love felt a lot like a brilliant incisive woman writing on Tumblr, full of the sort of projection and assumption and familiarity that is absent from more traditional criticism. In other words, I loved it. The Situation and the Story was that kind of clarifying reading experience where the clarity might be a delusion but at least you have the confidence, the reassurance, of clarity. Months later I couldn’t tell you what I took from The Situation and The Story aside from that mental cheering and gratitude for a book coming into your life at the exact right time you think you need it (for me, I was finishing a nonfiction book proposal). The Odd Woman And The City itself seemed sharp and funny and a little sad. Did it ever really cohere? Transcend? I’m not sure, but I am grateful to have spent time inside her head.

After that, propelled forward by fate, the final Neapolitan novel from Elena Ferrante was coming out, so I finally GAVE IN and bought the first two books, My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name. My initial reaction was something like, “What is this shit, enough with these dolls!” But then I got sucked into what was one of the most satisfying reading experiences of my life. I finished these books in the course of a few days, stopping only to drive to the bookstore one late afternoon, cursing myself for not buying all of them at once. When I finished all four I was bereft. I was mad at Ferrante. I thought she screwed up the ending. Really, I was mad it was over.

I didn’t read anything for awhile, or nothing memorable. How do you follow Ferrante? After a few weeks of false starts and Googling furiously to try and figure out Ferrante’s secret identity, I found my cure: Barbara Comyns. I knew of her from an Emily Books pick: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, brilliantly reissued by The Dorothy Project, and still unread by me. I have learned in my time as a reader that the writers Emily Books publishes will always be the ones people come to be obsessed with, even if it takes, regrettably, a few years. Elena Ferrante! Eve Babitz! Ellen Willis. Eileen Myles. Those are just the people whose names start with E, for fuck’s sake. Renata Adler! Nell Zink! I could go on. Resistance is foolish.

All this to say Barbara Comyns’s Our Spoons Came From Woolworths got me out of my own head and onto the couch for three hours, reading this in one setting after my son went to bed. Her voice is sui generis and I goddamn love her. She reminded me of a thing that Emily Gould — who along with Ruth Curry started Emily Books, and who also not coincidentally wrote the introduction to the edition of the book I was reading — told me once when I was having a crisis of confidence. Okay, a crisis of jealousy. She said something like, with regard to writing, it’s useless to be jealous because, “No one can ever be better than you are at being you.” No one else can be better than Comyns is at being Comyns, that is no one can write like Comyns, so I ordered her book The Vet’s Daughter and inhaled that one, too. I need more.

As the year comes to an end, this is all I want, to read books that aren’t the key to anything except themselves. Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare made me sad and anxious. I am waiting for David Copperfield to come in the mail.

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