Adrienne Brodeur on a Secret’s Destructive Allure

A shared secret can be an aspect of mutual trust – or a terrible burden. Author Adrienne Brodeur’s debut memoir, Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me, follows her mother’s decision to make her daughter into a confidante and confederate – with lifelong consequences.   The night that, Brodeur’s mother roused her from sleep to confess that her husband’s best friend had kissed her, Adrienne, was only fourteen, and initially thrilled to be taken into her distant and often self-absorbed mother’s confidence. As the kiss quickly turned into a full blown affair, she threw herself into the role of orchestrator, planning meetings, providing alibis, even devising an elaborate letter writing campaign to discredit the housekeeper who discovered the affair. But what began as an opportunity to bask in her mother’s love, soon became a decade-long trap, one that would wreak havoc on Adrienne’s own marriage and drive her into a deep depression. The book, which tracks both the affair and its aftermath, manages a rare balancing act: Brodeur holds the reader’s attention via emotionally charged, suspenseful scenes, while threading through the much subtler, almost philosophical journey towards Adrienne’s self-realization.

Though Wild Game is Brodeur’s first turn as an author, she is no stranger to the literary world. She co-founded (with Francis Ford Coppola) and edited Zoetrope: All-Story and is currently the Executive Director of Aspen Words, which gives out an annual $35k literary prize to the year’s best work of fiction. I spoke with Adrienne, days before her book’s release about how reading about the lives of others helped her better understand herself, the importance of therapy, and her own, very different approach to motherhood. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.– Amy Gall

The Barnes & Noble Review: What made you feel ready to tell this incredibly personal story?

Adrienne Brodeur: I think the biggie, frankly, was having children. I had this idea by my mid-thirties that my earlier life was something I had managed and figured out. But then when you have children, you immediately, in a nanosecond, have an utterly transformed relationship to your past and future. And I just knew, as much as I loved my mother, I didn’t want to mother the way I had been mothered. I had a moment, that I write about in the book, on the day my daughter was born, of seeing my mom at the hospital. I was so excited to introduce her to my daughter and yet, I had this really physical experience that shook me to my core where I stopped being able to breath or speak when I saw her. There was just this crushing weight on me. I don’t think I put it all together then but it was major. I knew something was changing.

BNR: It seemed like that was one of a couple times in the book where you had –

AB: (laughs) The wake-up call I didn’t quite listen too?

BNR: Well, actually speaking of wakeup calls, you talk about how therapy played a big part in helping you develop a sense of self separate from your mother. Can you say more about that?

AB: I don’t even think I could document all of the different times I was in therapy. But I would say one of the bigger things for me was when I realized I didn’t have to keep my mother’s affair and my role in it a secret. And that actually, keeping secrets truly keeps you from being known. It prevents intimacy in this profound way because you’re holding a big part of yourself in. So, it was honestly just releasing that by having conversations with all of these incredible friends of mine and the give-and-take I learned from talking to them because we were equally sharing parts of ourselves instead of just holding one person’s story all the time.

The other thing, which I obviously talked a lot about in the book, was this wonderful step mother of mine who owned a bookstore and introduced me to literature as a way to get out of myself. I think reading and writing compete in how much they are empathetic acts because either way you’re putting your head into other characters’ lives and experiences and in doing so, you’re seeing how they figured it out and what their struggles are. When I started reading seriously, I don’t think I was aware of that but just the cumulative effect of getting out of my own bubble, and seeing how other people excavated themselves was hugely comforting and instructive.

BNR: What are some of the books that still stick with you?

AB: A book that profoundly affected the way I wrote this book, that’s actually a book on how to write personal narratives, is Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story. I think I had just started writing my book when I was reading it and there’s a line in the book which essentially says, “In order for the drama to deepen, you must show the loneliness of the monster, and the cunningness of the victim.” And for me, that was everything. Because I knew what I was most scared of was telling this very black and white story where [my mother] Malabar was all bad and I was just this poor, sweet child.

Obviously, my mother made big mistakes and had some dubious maternal instincts, but, we were both involved in this. I mean it’s very forgivable why I initially got involved in my mother’s affair and the secret keeping. I was fourteen and you’re very enthralled with your parents at that age and they have a lot of power over you and you want love and attention and I got it. And. not in hindsight, but, in real time it was a very thrilling time in my life. But, there were moments later where I should have leaned out, and I leaned in. And so that’s sort of the cunning of the victim, like what was I getting out of this and why didn’t I stop as I got older and became an adult? And the loneliness of the monster is the empathy you start to feel when you actually explore who Malabar was beyond our relationship. Realizing that my mother had lost her first child. And she’d had such a lonely childhood herself as, essentially, the only child of a single mother who was an alcoholic. I developed a compassion for why she might have inappropriately needed my friendship so badly.

BNR: Before you had written the book, were you aware of her childhood or her past?

AB: I was aware but certainly went much more deeply into it for the book. When I told her I was writing this, she was supportive and she gave me access to this huge scrapbook of hers. She was a real chronicler of her life, so it had everything from telegrams that her father sent her from India, to things she was doing and interested in, to pictures. We all take in quite a bit about our parents but I don’t think we think of them as having thirty or forty years of life before we enter the picture. And somehow, when you have your own children you realize, in the best way, how little you existed to them before you became a parent. It’s something I thought about a lot. How different would the book have been experienced, for instance, if I started it from any other place than the night when she chose to make me complicit in her affair. If I had started the book with my brother dying in her arms or her second husband having all these debilitating strokes or her sad childhood, you might really be rooting for her. I don’t think what she did involving me was the right thing to do at all, but some part of me thinks, wow, she was going to go for love no matter what the consequences. Cause some people in her position as the other woman would have just given up. It says something about her, that she was a very strong person, a survivor.

BNR:  The book is so much about you finding your sense of self separate from your mother and even in the act of making narrative choices about where the story starts you’re saying: this is ultimately my story — which in some ways must be liberating.

AB: It is, and it’s also that you accept that your past is always with you. It’s prologue; it’s part of you. You can move beyond it but never totally away from it. Not long ago, when my father in law died and a box of his was found, my husband’s family – and this was such a good moment for me to understand —  only saw it as an optimistic, “what did dad leave behind”, glorious moment. And the only thought I had was, “This is a disaster.” Because the only thing you would find in a box in my family would be an affair, an illegitimate child, a shameful fetish. And it was a very stark reminder that even though you’ve come so far there’s no way I could find a locked box today and shift my paradigm and think, “Oh, how exciting!”

BNR: There is a great scene at the end of the book with your daughter that shows how you really seem to have given her the love and protection and freedom to be independent that your mother couldn’t give you. Has writing the book changed your approach to motherhood?

AB: My daughter actually turned fourteen in August and it’s been incredible to see what a fourteen year old looks like as opposed to remembering how I think I felt at fourteen. Because of course at fourteen we all think we’re the smartest person on the planet. I think I was at my most knowing from fourteen to seventeen and every year since I’ve realized how much less I know and in about five years I’ll know absolutely nothing! But, I see my daughter and she’s very poised and composed and on the exterior looks like a fantastic young woman and most of the time she is, and she is also a little girl. And I have very strong boundaries with her, of course, but I have moments – and luckily I’m happily married so I don’t have the kind of moments my mother did – of wanting her to know more or understand me more and you just have to be like, no, no, no. It has really made me rethink everything.

So much of the writing of this book is about healing, because if you don’t heal, you are going to transmit this legacy of stuff that’s in the family. My mother’s father had a secret family, her mother had a secret affair, I mean, this legacy of secrets goes way back and that is the thing I wanted to explore and separate myself from and most importantly, not pass along.

BNR: Is your daughter going to read the book?

AB: She knows the story already, but this summer I woke up and I walked out of my bedroom and there she was all snuggled up on the sofa reading the galley. I clicked a little picture of her reading. And, then she just put the book down and, as far as I know, hasn’t picked it up again. But, again, I thought, “She is fourteen.” I am so delighted that she’s not as involved with my inner life as I was with my mother’s. It actually feels a little like a triumph.