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“All of our Childhoods are Normal to Us”—Adrienne Brodeur on her Powerful Memoir

by on October 30, 2019

When Adrienne Brodeur was fourteen, her mother, Malabar, woke her up from a sound sleep to confide that she had just kissed Ben, the best friend of Adrienne’s stepfather. That small moment would ultimately send shockwaves through the lives of both families, as Malabar and Ben embarked on a secret relationship and enlisted Adrienne’s assistance in hiding it from their spouses. In Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me, Brodeur reflects on her complicated relationship with her mother with unflinching pose and bracing wit. What results is a compassionate examination of knotty family ties and an incisive portrayal of how one woman was able to end her family’s cycle of deception. Critics have universally praised Wild Game. It was listed as an Amazon Best Book of 2019 and The New York Times Book Review called it “so gorgeously written and deeply insightful, and with a line of narrative tension that never slacks, from the first page to the last, that it’s one you’ll likely read in a single, delicious sitting.” Brodeur spoke to Brendan Dowling via telephone on October 23rd, 2019.

Your book starts with Mary Oliver’s poem “The Uses of Sorrow.” Why was that poem such an apt beginning for your memoir?

First and foremost, I love Mary Oliver more than life itself. She’s one of my very favorite poets. I felt like the whole lesson of this book, which can sound very dark, has also in fact been a gift to me for what I’ve learned and how I’ve grown. I think almost anyone who’s had a complicated childhood and had some legacy of secrets or deception, when you finally feel comfortable enough to sit with it, look at it, and shine a light on it, it’s life-altering.

Your mother confided in you about a kiss with her husband’s best friend in 1980. Why do you think your mom enlisted you as her confidante? 

Honestly, this is where it’s guess work and not factual. One of the surprising, unexpected outcomes of having explored this period of my life is that I’ve developed a lot more compassion for my mother. I had to put myself in her shoes and [reflect on] that saying, “it’s really hard to know everyone’s full story and not feel forgiveness and compassion.” She had a tremendously hard life. I think she was very, very lonely in ways that I probably didn’t understand as a young girl. I think this thrilling, exciting moment happened—she had fallen in love and had this kiss—and for whatever reason, I was the person [she told]. I’m sure she had too much to drink, and there I was. I was a people pleaser, I was terribly attached to her, and she had a rapt audience in me.

In reading about her, she seems like such a glamorous, larger-than-life figure. Can you talk about what your mother was like in 1980?

She was all that, and I’m sure some of that is I was fourteen and entirely in her thrall. She was an astonishing cook. She’d studied at the Cordon Bleu, worked in the test kitchen at Time-Life, and written all these cookbooks. She had a food column for the Boston Globe. She was constantly throwing parties and she loved to have fun. She was a great storyteller and a great hostess. To be her child was to watch a lot of action happening.

I love the detail that she always traveled with her pepper grinder.

Can I tell you, I just found that pepper grinder only in the last year? She asked me to look for some stuff in her apartment in in Cambridge and I found this little silver pepper grinder.  Now the leather case is decayed, but it was so wonderful to find it. As you’re writing a memoir, every time you actually verify a memory is very heartening. (laughs)

In the book, you describe a necklace that plays a huge role in Malabar’s life and also your relationship with her. Can you talk about the necklace?

This is part of my mom’s sad history. Her parents were married to each other, divorced, married to each other again, and divorced again. I think she must have been about seven or eight-years-old when her father re-proposed to her mother. I will say as a child of divorce—I don’t know why—but we all secretly wish that our parents would be together again. No matter how unhappy the marriage is, you just want that for your own life as a child. So here she witnesses her father present her mother with this glamorous collar of a necklace, just bedecked with jewels. Over the years, the necklace took on this mythic proportion for her. My mother conflated love and possessions. She was an only child and was lonely. I think the necklace just captured her imagination.

In a strange way—because she was a very educated woman and knew a lot about art and art history and certainly about value—she gave this necklace such power. She would constantly tell me it was unappraisable, which of course we all know nothing’s unappraisable, right? While her father gave it to her mother easily and her mother gave it to her easily, I think my mother wanted to give it to me for her whole life on some level, but almost never could. She would dangle it and take it back and dangle it and take it back.  There was this big moment—and I don’t want to give any spoilers away—but I had always assumed I would wear it on my wedding day, which had been promised to me. Of course, one guess who wore it on my wedding day. (laughs)

When your mother embarked on this relationship with Ben, what role did you play?

You only have one set of parents and you only know one childhood, so this—what I’m sure sounds completely crazy—experience seemed normal to me. All of our childhoods are normal to us. This affair was carried out in plain view; these were couple friends. My role was kind of as a teenage chaperone. I was able to suggest things. After every meal I suggested that we go for a walk—a constitutional, was what my mother called it. The two spouses would never join because they were both in ill health. We would go skipping out the door, often singing, walk up this country road, and then my mother and her lover would slip off into a guest house that my mother often rented in the summers. I would wait for them while they were visiting. Of course, you can see from the other’s perspective how innocent it looked. I was there, which in hindsight makes me feel very guilty and ashamed, but there you have it.

During this time, what was your relationship like with Ben and his wife Lily?

They were my parents’ friends, so I didn’t really know them that well. Ben learned very early on that I knew about the affair and didn’t seem to have any concern that I knew about it. I became very close to him. I was part of this very adult conspiracy. I’m horrified by it now, but at the time it was actually great fun. It was certainly more interesting than anything that was going on in my fourteen-year-old life. I enjoyed Lily and I liked her, but I didn’t know her in the same way at all. I was also seeing things through my mother’s lens, which was not always a flattering picture of her lover’s wife, of course.

Early in the book, you write “in our family being right trumped being truthful.” Can you talk about what you meant by that?

This goes across the board in my family. If someone insisted the sky was pink, there was not a lot of give, there was not a lot of, “Well, really it looks more like this.” It was very important to win or be right, and that just somehow trumped the truth. Both my parents were very skilled arguers and both had tempers. You just didn’t question it. I think as a result, when my brother and I were growing up, we tried to hold firm to whatever we said: “No I wasn’t at such-and-such a place.” You were just going to stick to it somehow.

It seems like that would be very difficult in a family where everyone’s so intelligent.

It took a long time to—I don’t know the right way of putting it, but to develop a moral compass. I think it’s one of the key things that one does as a parent. I’ve certainly learned this as a parent myself, and yet I don’t think anyone ever sat down with my mother and talked to her about her gifts and her weaknesses and how to manage them in life. Certainly no one ever talked to me about it. It was watching by example, and so as a result you had to do a lot for yourself. It takes a long time to unlearn stuff that just seemed like the norm in your family.

This whole legacy of deception and secrecy didn’t just start with my mother’s generation. Her father, she discovered, had a secret other family, and her mother had a similar affair. It seemed like in this way, this was just going on and on. Part of that was why it became so urgent for me to write the book once I even started thinking about having children. You realize, “This is part of my past—the past is always going to be there, it’s prologue—but I need it to stop. I don’t want it to continue to the next generation.”

At one point, as an adult, your stepmother tells you, “You can read your way into a whole new narrative of yourself.” What were the books for you that helped you write this new narrative?

Honestly, I became a serious reader because of my stepmother. I hadn’t been one of those kids who had a flashlight under the blanket, which is a little odd given that I was the daughter of a New Yorker writer and my mother was a food and travel writer. I read, obviously. I was educated and I had gone to good schools, but I hadn’t fallen in love with reading in that way. I can remember meeting her and her starting to press these books into my hands—whether it was Zora Neale Hurston, Barbara Kingsolver, or Jim Harrison—and just discovering the way in which you can get lost in stories. Reading is such a deeply empathetic task, because you’re putting yourself in a character’s shoes.

The books that specifically moved me and helped me shape and think about my own memoir were largely memoir. I love Elizabeth Alexander for the poetry of her prose. I love Mary Karr for the authenticity of her voice. There was a line in Vivian Gornick’s book The Situation and the Story that probably helped me more than anything else. It’s a book essentially on how to write personal narrative. At one point, she’s talking about Mommie Dearest and why it doesn’t work. In addition to the usual “don’t settle scores in your memoir,” she has this line, “In order for the drama to deepen, you must show the loneliness of the monster, and the cunning of the innocent. I remember reading it and thinking, “That’s what I need to do here.” I know everyone can sympathize with me when I was fourteen. I was the child and this thing sort of befell me; the part that I was really interested in was why for so many years, even as I was trying to separate, I kept leaning in rather than leaning out? I think that’s the more interesting part of reclaiming my life in some ways.

Finally, what role have libraries played in your life?

I love libraries. What’s funny is I’ve always been more of a library person on the Cape than anywhere else. On the Cape, my local library is Snows Library in Orleans. It’s where I took my children to read, and it’s where I read as a child. I remember how proud I was when I got my first little library card and I would take out my Nancy Drews. It’s just one of the few democratic, wonderfully public places that is open and available to everyone. I can’t say enough great things.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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