The young memoirist often gets a bad rap: what kind of perspective does that kid have? How much living has he done? In Justin St. Germain’s case, the thirty-two-year-old has done quite a bit, most of which he’d rather he hadn’t. When he was twenty, his mother was murdered by her fifth husband in the couple’s makeshift trailer, off the grid from Tombstone, Arizona. He spent the next decade trying not to be defined by his mother’s death, before deciding to face his grief head on for his new memoir, Son of a Gun.
In this first book, St. Germain unpacks his old journals, tracks down his mother’s friends and exes, and bones up on the violent history of Tombstone to reconcile her murder and their life together. But at the heart of Son of a Gun is a man’s quest to make his suffering—and his mother’s—count for something. Having also written much about losing my mother, I recently spoke with St. Germain to discuss why we as writers are compelled to make sense of loss when there is very little sense to make.
The Rumpus: You best describe the struggle to create something physical out of something emotionally personal when you’re coerced into a scrapbook-making activity at a support-group meeting:
We’re naturals. It makes sense. We all do this everyday: focus on a series of small and meaningless tasks to pass the time, try to preserve our memories without wallowing in grief, and hope our lives will add up to some kind of tribute. Of course we’re good at scrapbooking. Scraps are all we have.
This scene in the support group is one of the most heart-wrenching, maybe because it’s where you’re most vulnerable. In it, there’s another line that particularly stuck out for me, when you’re reflecting on the phases of grief: “[The group members] don’t discuss the phases after the zombie phase: the denial phase, the rage phase, the writing-a-book-about-it phase.” You’ve just described this deep fear we all have as writers writing about loss—despite all our good literary intentions, is the writing itself just a stage of grief?
Justin St. Germain: It’s funny you mention that line because my editor and I went back and forth about it. This is a really sad book and I didn’t want to be beating the reader over the head with sadness all the time, so that line was intended to poke a little fun at myself. I’ve talked about this a lot with people, and I do think, for me at least, writing was the only coping mechanism I had, especially right afterward. The night I heard my mom died, I started writing about it every night for two weeks. In a lot of ways, those journal entries much, much later became the germ of the book. But writing about it and publishing that writing are two different considerations.
Rumpus: I’ve often had to explain to people that good memoir isn’t simply journaling or straightforward storytelling or an exercise in look-at-me self-indulgence; it’s crafted, there’s an arc, there’s deepening of what you hope are universal feelings and questions. But defenses aside, memoir writing is also a bit cathartic, too, no?
St. Germain: Yeah, it was an enormously cathartic process. I feel I’ve come to some place about my mother’s death that I wasn’t at before I wrote the book, but I also feel like I wanted to craft it into something that would offer the reader something beyond transcribing my experience. I don’t know exactly sure what it is readers take from books, but I take a lot of comfort from other books—I especially did before I wrote mine.
Rumpus: What were you reading? Have you read nearly every single grief/loss memoir like I have?
St. Germain: I kinda just went on a research binge, reading all the books from the memoir canon of the last twenty years, like Mary Karr, Nick Flynn, Dave Eggers. I also love Didion and Tobias Wolfe, of course, but I guess the book that started it for me was A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I know a lot of people have criticisms of it, and in many ways they’re valid, but I had been trying to write fiction at the time—reading a lot of the dumb, white guy short fiction you read when you’re twenty-two, like Hemingway or whatever—and I feel like Eggers did a better job conveying what it was like to be young and having just lost a parent, or both parents, where you feel both that sense of tragedy and that your whole life has been rebooted. There’s the freedom and then the guilt about feeling that freedom. I thought he really nailed it.
But I also started reading the American murder canon—you could say it was a dark reading year. I got kind of obsessed with In Cold Blood and James Ellroy’s memoir about his mother’s murder, My Dark Places. But I noticed in this motif, it’s a lot of outsiders writing about these murders, while the victims never even get mentioned. In Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, the victims get like five pages, and the book is 1,100 pages long. And I think, in some ways, I tried to respond to that.
Rumpus: Do you think that by telling your mother’s story, you’re showing that she didn’t live in vain, or as a victim, or as another “Old West murder mystery”?
St. Germain: I think on some level, I wanted to try to reach people—but I’m not really sure what practical good I was trying to do. I could say, “I wish I was reaching a kid like me, when I was seventeen in a house with all kinds of weird domestic violence,” but you can’t really predict the readership, and I didn’t have a sense of one until recently.
Rumpus: And what have you discovered is your readership?
St. Germain: It’s early, but I’ve got some really nice e-mails, and the book seems to resonate with women, which is really important to me. I think maybe that’s because it was an anxiety of mine. It’s a weird position to be in; I was writing about an act of violence against a woman, granted it was my mother, but the only people left to talk to about it were men, and the last half of the book is about a bunch of men trying to recreate a woman who’s gone and can’t speak for herself. I was aware of that, and it was a complicated feeling. It’s the same thing that anyone who writes any kind of memoir deals with—what parts of other people’s stories can you tell? I just told myself, If you don’t write this, no one is going to know her story at all. She isn’t around to tell it and nobody else is going to.
In the second half of the book, there’s an epigraph from James Ellroy: ”Dead people belong to the live people who claim them most obsessively.” And that’s why, when I was in the process of writing the memoir, I didn’t want it to be just my memory I was relying on.
Rumpus: And yet how important was it for you not to let other people’s memories, or versions of your mom, cloud the story you want to tell? This should still be your story of your mother, right?
St. Germain: Yes, I definitely wanted to privilege my version of events, because that’s the version I believe. But I also wanted to cross-reference it with other versions—from the memories of other people who knew her to the historical record. I think it’s important to trust your story and allow yourself to tell it, but I also think, especially with the ongoing conversation about truth in memoir, it’s important to acknowledge that there are other versions out there, and that memory isn’t always accurate—that it is your story, not the story.
Rumpus: At the same time, I feel this weird thing happens: once you write a story down, that’s how it gets logged in your memory. So when I’m casually retelling a story to a friend from some period of my life I’ve written about, I almost do so verbatim in the way that I’ve written it. It becomes confusing, like these experiences don’t feel like they’ve happened to me anymore. It’s like I’m now more the narrator of my life and less the character. Do you relate?
St. Germain: Yeah, it’s funny, isn’t it? A lot of my memories have been replaced by, like what you said, a scene I wrote about that memory. I’m glad I wrote the book, but sometimes that’s a dubious feeling. There’s an anxiety that I’ve kind of lost whatever the original memory was. But like I said, memory can be inaccurate anyway.
Rumpus: You also touched upon liking that women relate to the book and that you were worried about a bunch of men telling her story, which brings up another idea you address that’s very topical: victim-blaming women. The “she made the wrong choices, therefore she asked for it” type of mentality that many had about your mother, who was a victim of domestic violence. Had you given much thought to that line of thinking before contemplating your mother’s life to write this book? This mentality was obviously part of the culture within which you were raised, no?
St. Germain: I had grown up in that culture, but I didn’t understand it all until she died. Then I’m looking around and hearing these things like the Tombstone marshal saying she was a “black widow”—it was basically one hundred variations of the same thing; it was her fault for blank: for dating him, for being married more than once—and it infuriated me at the time. Honestly, learning that was one of the worst parts of the experience, and it was a really quick realization. Once you see violence or violence against women, you see it everywhere.
I think my mother’s death opened my eyes to other stories of violence, especially, but not exclusively, man-on-woman violence. Whereas before I largely ignored or overlooked how common it is, once I was looking for it, it seemed like every news story was about domestic violence, so many aspects of our mass culture contained and sometimes glorified it, and so many people I’ve known or met since have experienced it. I thought my mother’s death was unusual at the time, but in fact one of the most disturbing things about domestic violence is that it’s so ordinary.
And yet I didn’t really know how to approach that in the book. It was something I wanted to talk about and write about. One of the real takeaways of growing up around a lot of domestic violence is the fear of becoming that and the knowledge that if you just go by statistics—I’m a white man from a working-class background who was around a lot of domestic violence—I fit the profile exactly. I was both the narrator and a member of the demographic that’s perpetrating all this. It was a constant tension I was aware of. I could say how it affected me, but I don’t really know how it affected her.
Rumpus: There are parts of the book where you acknowledge that rage sits inside of you, at some level. Were you shy about exploring that any further in the book?
St. Germain: Like most of the decisions about what to put in or leave out, it came down to how relevant it was to the core story of the book: my mother’s murder. I do recognize rage inside myself, and even though I know some of why it exists and, at least these days, understand much better how to deal with it, it still disturbs me. But insofar as my own rage shows up in the book, I think it’s mostly in the voice. A friend once said memoir is an act of love and rage. I think that’s true. Some of my favorite books embrace the latter, and I tried to as well.
Rumpus: I actually think your narrative tone was quite even, reliable. Another one of the things you do well is not completely villainize your stepdad, the man who killed your mother. He’s not a particularly likeable character, obviously, but he’s not downright evil. How hard was that to accomplish, to complicate him? Was that straight in your mind before you wrote the book?
St. Germain: No. I had a more complex relationship with him than anyone else in my family did because I knew him better. I spent six months, nine months living with him, and I knew Ray and liked him, genuinely. When my mother’s body was found, there were a couple of days where the rest of my family was like, “Maybe it wasn’t him.” For me, that doubt was a little longer. I had a somewhat more complex idea about him before I started writing the book and then I saw the police report and I read his suicide note and it became more complex. He did it, but he found himself in a really desperate situation and he made a terrible decision he wasn’t equipped to deal with, because the only way he knew how to respond to conflict was with anger and violence. On one hand, I wanted to humanize him; on the other, obviously, I didn’t want to excuse what he did. I see it as much more complex act as him being evil or a monster. But because of the violent books I read, I wanted to make sure I made him somewhat complex without making it about him.
Rumpus: In a strange way, was he almost an easier character to render than your mother because she’s the one you really lost, the one who meant something to you? Does death make you more mysterious somehow?
St. Germain: Yeah, I think it does. I think if you have any sensitivity at all about how you’re representing people, you’re gonna feel this real anxiety about representing dead people who can’t speak for themselves, or not only that, but the minute you start to compare a lot of things you believed to be facts or fundamental characteristics with other people’s memories, it all comes into question because people will remember a totally different person—especially because we’re talking about a mother. I don’t have any children, but I’ve come to understand as an adult much more deeply how mothers perform a certain version of themselves for their kids. You don’t know things about your parents. They keep them from you.
Rumpus: I know I’ve thought that if I could better understand who my mother was—she also died about a decade ago—I’d better understand our relationship, and thus somehow come to accept that she’s gone. Do you believe that to be true for you as well?
St. Germain: I know denial is this kind of a classic stage, but for me it went on for a long time. It got kind of unhealthy. I denied it to a point where it got hard to remember her. I had all our pictures in boxes and I avoided them in every possible way that you can. But then, when I was writing the book, I got immersed in all this stuff, and at night I would remember things all of a sudden. I was remembering her in a way that I hadn’t in years.
Rumpus: There is also this recurring idea of flight in the book—you wanting to leave Wendy’s before meeting up with her second husband, you wanting to bail on the support meeting. Was having a bigger project in mind, something physical to make, what kept you pursuing the story, or even your own healing?
St. Germain: Definitely. There were a lot of moments of “What the hell am I doing?” There were weeks in between where I wasn’t writing in real time. In the beginning of the process, the idea that I had this book to write kept me going in these encounters. Then it became something I had to finish, and the book was somehow kind of secondary to that. I guess at some point, there was a critical mass. I got wrapped up in the experience and there was a feeling of, I’m just going to keep throwing myself in these situations until I find something.
Rumpus: Did you feel like you had? Do you feel some sense of relief?
St. Germain: I went back to San Francisco [after spending a summer researching his mother’s murder and past in Arizona] and I was overwhelmed with hours of mp3 notes, physical notes, data. What the hell am I going to do with this? How am I going to turn this into a book? Over the next year-and-a-half, it came together, and I went chapter by chapter, once I figured out what the chapters were.
Rumpus: If there is such a thing as a writing-a-book-about-it grief phase, what’s the next phase? Are you there yet?
St. Germain: I recently heard the memoir writer Domenica Ruta talking about how her book [With or Without You] was a kind of exorcism. For me, I’m always suspicious of my own motivations: I want to give the reader something, even if it’s just entertainment; one of the things I wanted to do was make that book move. And I guess at the same time, I can’t deny it really did help me find a place for my grief. I feel like before the book, my mother having been murdered and growing up where I did and how I did, even if I wouldn’t admit it, kind of defined me. And I do feel like now I’ve sort of found a place for that, which I didn’t expect and is very, very welcome.
Featured image of Justin St. Germain © by William B. Bledsoe. Other images courtesy of Justin St. Germain.