“I Had to Confront My Past Head On”

October 1, 2019  • Institute Staff

Aspen Words Executive Director Adrienne Brodeur’s new memoir, Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me, wrestles with Brodeur’s complex familial relationships. The story begins with Brodeur’s mother waking her in the middle of the night to tell her of an illicit kiss. For Brodeur, it was the start of a youngadulthood in which she would play co-conspirator and enabler for her mother’s years-long affair with her husband’s best friend. Brodeur spoke with Institute Executive Vice President Eric L. Motley—himself the author of a memoir that details his childhood, Madison Park: A Place of Hope—about Brodeur’s new book and about writing her truth.

ELM: You have been living with this truth for a very long time. How did you come to find the courage to tell this story?

AB: It has been a long time. I was only 14 years old the night my mother woke me up to tell me that she’d been kissed by my stepfather’s best friend. Even at the time, I understood that it was a defining moment for me. Nothing in my life was ever the same. I went to bed as my mother’s daughter, and I woke up as her best friend and confidante. To a large degree, I’ve been writing about that moment and how it affected me ever since. As a teenager, I kept journals. As a young adult, I mostly tackled the subject comedically—in light-hearted personal essays and thinly veiled fiction. I played the story for laughs, in an effort to mask the shame and anger I felt. But when my husband and I started a family of our own, I realized I had to confront my past head on, through memoir and in my own voice.

ELM: How did your own relationship with your daughter inform how you reflected on your relationship with your mother? How have you safeguarded your relationship with your daughter from the destructive impulses of your relationship with your mother?

AB: When Wild Game is published in October, my daughter will be same the age I was when my mother tapped me to be coconspirator in her affair—a role that dominated my life for over a decade. Now that I have a teenager of my own, it is harder than ever for me to imagine what would possess a mother to derail what should have been her daughter’s natural transition toward independence. All I want is for my daughter to develop her own sense of self, her own passions and pursuits. And although I adore her, she is not my best friend—she is my child. My role is to love her unconditionally and give her room to grow and thrive. Same goes for my son, who is 10. I wrote this memoir out of a desire to understand the impulses surrounding my mother’s actions all those years ago. I’m less interested in exposing her demons than in getting to know them. I love my mother very much, but I do not wish to repeat the mistakes of the past, nor to parent as I was parented.

ELM: The two of us, in telling our stories, have had to confront the dialectical and complex relationships with our mothers. How did you go about emotionally and psychologically unpacking the stuff that you locked away for so long in the attic of your heart and mind?

AB: One of the best ways to unpack hard stuff is to read, read, and read some more. Literature is like therapy. Through reading—fiction, memoir, poetry—we expand our capacity for empathy and learn to value the complexity of the human condition. Early on in the writing of Wild Game, I stumbled on a line from Vivian Gornick’s brilliant book, The Situation and the Story, that became a guiding light for me: “We must see the loneliness of the monster and the cunning of the innocent.” I took that to mean that I could neither mythologize myself nor demonize my mother if I wanted to write a good book and do my story justice. Above all, I wanted to tell the truth as I experienced it. To do so, I had to examine my own role in this drama, my own complicity. For better or for worse, I’ve always had a great deal of compassion for my mother, a feeling that deepened considerably during the writing of this book. She had such a lonely childhood, which was followed by an unhappy first marriage and the loss of her firstborn son. I think much of her life was spent trying to avoid confronting the pain and grief caused by those experiences. Exploring her past and bringing her to life on the page was revelatory for me. Writing this book helped me to better appreciate the many wonderful things about her and to forgive her for the bad choices she made. I’m learning to forgive myself as well.

ELM: What has been your mother’s response to the book? And equally important, what has been your response to her?

AB: My mother has always been supportive of me professionally, especially when it comes to writing. About four years ago, when I told her I planned to write the story as memoir, she encouraged me. Since that time, she has succumbed to vascular dementia and gone through dramatic cognitive changes. I speak to her every day and give her news of the book, and although she is excited for me, she is no longer capable of following longform narrative, even when it is about her own life. That said, I have read much of the book aloud to her and she smiles. She especially loves to remember the wonderful meals we shared together—she was an incredible cook. I think she likes being reminded of a time in her life when she was a powerful woman who got what she wanted.

ELM: In your career, you launched a literary magazine with Francis Ford Coppola, served as an acquiring editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and now are the executive director of Aspen Words. How did your literary background influence your writing?

AB: There is simply no better writing education than to be an attentive and astonished reader, and my literary career has required me to read voraciously. In books, I’ve found endless inspiration, not to mention a labyrinth of influence. At Aspen Words, I have been fortunate to watch writers come through our programs at every stage of their careers: as students, working artists, teachers, speakers, and prize winners. Their willingness to show up and be seen through their words not only inspired me but gave me the courage to write Wild Game.