Adrienne Brodeur Talks About Keeping Her Mother’s Secrets
In a new memoir, a daughter orchestrates her mother’s dramatic affair.
Posted Oct 15, 2019
Adrienne Brodeur’s long-anticipated book, Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me, works effortlessly to earn my highest compliment for a memoir: It reads like a novel.
The story immediately drew me in into the magnetic and complicated world of New York socialite Malabar and her 14-year-old daughter. Adrienne became her mother’s confidante and ally in orchestrating a dramatic long-term affair with her husband’s closest friend.
This is a moving, masterful story about the secrets we keep and the pain we endure for love—of a mother, in Adrienne’s case, of a man in Malabar’s case. Ultimately, it’s an inspiring story of how one woman breaks a legacy of deceit and mistrust, learning to be a mother to her children, her own mom, and herself. Here’s more from Adrienne:
Jennifer Haupt: Why this book now?
Adrienne Brodeur: The substance of this book has been percolating for most of my life, and processing takes a long time. With memoir, it’s less about the events themselves and more about what you make of those events—the consciousness you bring to them. Becoming a mother made all of the events of my past resurface. Even though I had done a lot of work on myself, I was terrified of repeating some of the destructive behaviors I grew up with. Part of my family’s past for generations was that we carried a lot of secrets. I was worried about inadvertently harming my children if I didn’t fully address what had happened to me.
When my kids were small, I was so busy I didn’t really have time to write but I was always thinking about how to tell this story. I tried a short story, I wrote an essay for the New York Times about part of my story. And then, three years ago stepping out of my job as an editor allowed me to have more time for myself. My daughter is now fourteen, the same age I was when my mother woke me up and solicited my help in covering up her affair with my stepfather’s best friend.
JH: So did you write this book for your children?
AB: During the first year, I really didn’t know why I was getting up at 4:30 to write this story. I had a great job, wonderful children, and a lovely husband. But suddenly I was obsessed with this, even though it was taking time away from other things. At some point, I realized I wasn’t doing it for anyone else. I was doing it for myself.
JH: Was there a point when you had a sense of knowing your story has a good ending that offered a kind of permission to write your memoir?
AB: As a parent, you never stop worrying about your children, but the epilogue of my book talks about a time when my daughter came into my office to ask me about a homework assignment: name a time when no one was there for you and you had to figure things out for yourself. She looked at me so blankly. She couldn’t think of anything. And then she asked what I would have written about at her age—my hands over the keyboard at the time. I thought, what would I have written about at her age? My parents had been divorced by then, my father remarried and re-divorced. So much had happened in my life. The fact that I hadn’t inadvertently spilled some of that baggage onto her was such a relief to me. I’m making my own mistakes, but I definitely put my kids’ needs first and I could see that she was okay. That did give me a kind of relief and permission.
JH: In reading your book, I was impressed by how loving you were to both your mother and your younger self. It was quite touching.
AB: I’m delighted you see the love for my mother because I do love her. We’re all better than our worst moments, right? It’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s true.
My heart was expanded through this writing process. One of the unexpected outcomes was that the need to forgive my mother—or myself for that matter—took a back seat to the need to understand her. In researching and trying to understand her past, I developed a well of empathy for what she went through. Her life looks very glamorous from the outside, but by the time she was in high school her parents had been married and divorced twice—from each other—and she found out her father had another secret family. By the time I was born, my mother was unhappy in her marriage and had lost a baby. She had gone through a great deal.
JH: It sounds like you developed deep compassion for Malabar. Did you need to work on developing compassion for yourself?
AB: I remember when my children were little we’d talk about things like who they loved, and they’d always include themselves in the mix. The first time they did this, I was stunned. It would never have occurred to me at seven or eight that loving myself was as important as loving my mom or grandmother or anyone else in the world. It’s such a marked difference in how I thought—or didn’t—about loving myself as a child.
JH: Let’s talk more about writing memoir vs. fiction since your first book, Man Camp, was a novel. Did you need to sharpen different skills for memoir?
AB: One comment frequently made about Wild Game is that it reads like a novel. I think that’s just how I write. Before I sat down to write this book, I knew the scenes I wanted to write: my mother waking me up, when her lover’s wife found out about the affair and we all sat down to dinner together. There were ten or fifteen scenes that were the scaffolding and then I thought about how I would get from one to the next.
Of course, with memoir, you can’t make things up but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a lot of creative freedom. You do. People forget that writing memoir is also crafting a story. My memoir is a mother-daughter story, so tons of my life is left out to stay focused on this one profound and complicated relationship in my life.
JH: You’ve been an editor of memoir and fiction. Has that helped you as a writer?
AB: I’ve been so lucky to have a career in the literary world. It’s been my passion to discover new voices and to help people along. Being an editor has been nothing but a positive force in my life for a variety of reasons, especially that I get to see writers actually improve—a lot! Many people have this notion that writing is a talent you’re either born with or you’re not. I’ve learned that’s just not true. I don’t have an MFA or any formal writing training, but I’ve read countless manuscripts over the years—good and bad—and it’s been a huge education.
JH: Did writing this story help you to mother your mom in her later years, to develop a certain generosity toward her?
AB: My mother is a different person now. She’s been incredibly demanding for much of my life and she’s full of gratitude these days. She always tells me she loves me, always thanks me for helping her and being around. She’s a changed person.
I think we all reside in the gray zone. She certainly had her strengths and, like me, when she was young she didn’t have someone to serve as her compass and give her the direction she needed to harness her strengths and weaknesses. Writing this story definitely helped to clarify all of this.
JH: One thing that struck me as you wrapped up the book was tying in your love of reading. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with books growing up?
AB: Reading really did save my life. I was not one of these kids who was under the covers with a flashlight. I read of course, but I didn’t discover the power of story until my father married a woman who owned an independent bookstore. I got to know her in my twenties and she would press the most marvelous novels—and poetry and memoir—into my hands. I just devoured them.
I was really struggling at that time in my life. Struggling with depression, with my past, with how I had gotten there and what I could do to make my life better. Reading is an automatic empathy-making machine because you’re putting your head into characters and situations that you wouldn’t normally have access to. I learned so much from how characters solved their problems and conducted themselves. I really mean it when I say that reading is a huge part of helping me to understand my past.
JH: What’s the one true thing you learned while writing Wild Game?
AB: I feel like what I learned from writing this book is I was able to make peace and move toward a brighter future. Ultimately, sharing our stories about ourselves is about sharing our humanity.
A lot of people ask about closure, but I don’t draw those lines drawn in the sand. Has writing this book settled something in me? Yes, for sure. Does that mean these events with my mother aren’t still part of my life and are in the rearview mirror? Absolutely not. I’ll be having conversations with my mother until I die, long after she’s gone. I don’t think there are tidy beginnings and ends, it’s all a process.
Adrienne Brodeur has spent the past two decades of her professional life in the literary world— discovering voices, cultivating talent, and working to amplify underrepresented writers. Her memoir, Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover and Me, was published by HMH books in October 2019. The film rights were bought by Chernin Entertainment.
Adrienne’s publishing career began with founding the fiction magazine, Zoetrope: All-Story, with filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, where she served as editor in chief from 1996-2002. In 2005, she became an editor at Harcourt (later, HMH Books), where she acquired and edited literary fiction and memoir. Adrienne left publishing in 2013 to become Creative Director — and later Executive Director — of Aspen Words, a literary arts nonprofit and program of the Aspen Institute. Adrienne splits her time between Cambridge and Cape Cod, where she lives with her husband and children.