KateMumsnet (MNHQ) Fri 14-Feb-14 14:49:11

Guest Post: Emma Brockes: uncovering the 'truth' about one's parents is a painful part of growing up

Emma Brockes' memoir She Left Me The Gun focuses on her mother, who fled South Africa in 1960 to escape a dreadful family secret: her father - violent and brutal - had been sexually abusing her and her younger sisters for years.

Emma grew up in the Home Counties with only the vaguest sense of her family history, protected from the truth by her glamorous, strong-willed and fiercely loving mother. But when her mother dies, Emma felt compelled to uncover the past, and came to understand her mother's astonishing strength - both in coming to terms with her own history, and in keeping it hidden from her daughter.

In this guest post, Emma reflects on why parents must sometimes keep secrets - and why, for their children, uncovering those secrets can be a painful but important step towards adulthood.

Emma Brockes

Author, She Left Me The Gun

Posted on: Fri 14-Feb-14 14:49:12

(18 comments )

Lead photo

Emma Brockes and her mother

All parents have secrets from their children, the most audacious of which is that they were actually alive before having them. My mother turned out to have more secrets than most, and they were Secrets with a capital S, almost comically lurid against the backdrop of our lives in a village in Buckinghamshire. But even if she'd had an uneventful existence prior to my birth, it would have been no less implausible to me.

The funny thing is that she couldn't keep a secret to save her life. As a child, I knew lots of things I wasn't supposed to, like which of my dad's colleagues were rumoured to be having affairs. I knew what my twelve plus results were before being officially told by the school. When I was mentioned, somewhat surprisingly, in the will of an old friend of the family, my mother was sworn to secrecy and managed to hold out from me for about a week.

We talked about everything, except for the things we didn't talk about, and while this was largely my mother's decision, it also rested on a profound lack of interest emanating from me. This was partly because I sensed there was something disagreeable there, but mainly because it seemed so remote. Her life before me was a rumour I didn't believe in.

When a parent dies, your relationship with their history changes; it becomes your history and you have a choice either to take it on or let it follow them into oblivion... it suddenly becomes clear: that our experiences of personhood are no different to theirs.


All of this changed when she died. As I wrote in the book, the day after her death, I had the sensation of a van pulling up outside my house and of men unloading luggage onto the pavement.

"Oi," I said. "Hang on a minute, none of that's mine."
"Sorry, love," said the man. “Someone has to have it."
"OK," I said. (It was quite an elaborate fantasy). "Bring it in."

When a parent dies, your relationship with their history changes; it becomes your history, and you have a choice either to take it on or let it follow them into oblivion. But even without the impetus of a death, most of us reach a stage - probably on passing the age our parents were when they had us – when it suddenly becomes clear: that our experiences of personhood are no different to theirs. It's not the possibility of their deaths that strikes us in this moment, but of our own. Not to be morbid, but oh God: it is all so fleeting and so fragile.

Anyway, for all the emphasis put on transparency and confronting things these days, there is something to be said for keeping the space around your kids free enough of baggage to preserve their necessary delusion: that you, their parent, are immutable. Figuring out that you're not is for later, much later, perhaps the last stage of becoming an adult.

My mother couldn't keep a secret to save her life, but saving my life was another matter. And so she did.

By Emma Brockes

Twitter: @emmabrockes

Oblomov Fri 14-Feb-14 17:37:29

I don't understand what you are trying to say.
It's all cryptic. And you've said nothing.

I think we need some background info to understand what you're trying to say.

ScabbyHorse Fri 14-Feb-14 18:00:40

The last but one paragraph really resonates with me:

Anyway, for all the emphasis put on transparency and confronting things these days, there is something to be said for keeping the space around your kids free enough of baggage to preserve their necessary delusion: that you, their parent, are immutable. Figuring out that you're not is for later, much later, perhaps the last stage of becoming an adult.

probably because my own mother didn't manage to do this at all...

LoveBeingCantThinkOfAName Fri 14-Feb-14 18:58:59

Hmm guess what's left unsaid is to sell the book.

tethersend Fri 14-Feb-14 19:16:27

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

HazeltheMcWitch Fri 14-Feb-14 19:18:45
KateMumsnet (MNHQ) Fri 14-Feb-14 19:28:13

Hello everyone

We were keen not to give away too many spoilers - we worried it might diminish the experience of those who go on to read the book. But clearly in our eagerness we've been a bit too cryptic; apols - we've updated the intro now, and we hope it makes the guest post a bit clearer.

NumptyNameChange Fri 14-Feb-14 20:18:51

does read like an advert.

i'm not sure i want to be told how to parent either. come on mum's suck it all up, pretend to be immutable, hide everything and keep it in for the sake of the children hmm

is the author a parent btw?

PoisonousCentipede Sat 15-Feb-14 07:42:17

My father died recently and your post really struck a chord with me. He also had a difficult childhood that he kept very private and secret - his history will 'follow him into oblivion' now, which is I think what he would have wanted.

You have a lovely writing style - congratulations on the success of your book.

LilyJoAndMe Sat 15-Feb-14 12:10:16

So what's wrong about writing about one's own book !
It sounds a really interesting book too ( and no I don't work for the writer ! )
And I agree with the last poster - Emma has a lovely style too .

Also, to be a daughter, writing such a hard story about ones own mother - well done !

And, what's more I hope it sells well - that way Emma's talents and her mum's bravery will have some form of just reward. Seems more than fair to me ! smile

NumptyNameChange Sat 15-Feb-14 13:23:48

the story her mother actively kept private and didn't want to share.

tbh i hope my son would respect my wishes better and not use my trauma as a career maker

nkf Sun 16-Feb-14 09:05:39

I think often one writes other people's stories because other people seem more interesting than oneself.

having read the guardian article linked above my thoughts on this writer have gone downhill. I thought the blog was thought provoking; another book about child abuse is not appealing to me. I appreciate that people want to tell the story but we've been there and done that with this haven't we?

LisasCat Sun 16-Feb-14 20:39:03

I've read the book, really loved it, and disagree with the above poster who implies Emma was wrong to publicise her mother's secret. She kept it secret as a defence mechanism; once she was dead the only things being protected were the reputations of dead people. Emma had a right to know that side of her family and what she discovered shed a lot of light on who her mother became.

Sillylass79 Sun 16-Feb-14 21:09:23

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

that's what I mean about telling the story. of course people want to talk about what has happened to them or their family; my query is whether more published accounts are interesting to the general public.

your story sounds hard and I don't mean to offend thanks

FourHorseShoesoftheApocalypse Tue 18-Feb-14 13:11:00

Poocatcher the more people talk openly about child abuse the more able we are to help victims understand there is no blame or shame for them, the abused should not have to feel that they need to keep quiet about their abuse because the general public finds it unpalatable or uninteresting.
Whilst there is still child abuse it should be talked about openly, through all forms of media, we should never get to the point where we say it's been done before, sweeping under the carpet puts more children at risk. I am both glad and deeply sad when I hear another story about child sexual abuse - glad because the story is being kept in the public consciousness.

I say this as a victim of childhood sexual abuse who feels very strongly that I need to be able to speak about it, if I have to keep quiet it feels like I'm being told I should be ashamed of what happened.

I say it also as a mother who wants to bring up children in a world where we give abuse no hiding places.

NumptyNameChange Tue 18-Feb-14 13:27:04

no, but the abused should every right to keep quiet if they wish to, not to have their stories outed by others when they deliberately chose not to do so themselves in their lifetimes.

there is something of respect here. it is up to an individual how to deal with their abuse. the lady in question here made her choice only to have it undermined by her daughter later.

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