A Box Full of Darkness: Talking with Adrienne Brodeur

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Acquired by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for seven figures following a fourteen-publisher bidding war, Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me might have just the right industry bona fides and credulity-defying premise to become this fall’s breakout title.

Adrienne Brodeur’s memoir begins at age fourteen, when on summer vacation at her family’s beach home on Cape Cod; her elegant mother, food writer Malabar, wakes her up in the middle of the night to whisper a shocking secret: she was just kissed by her husband’s best friend, Ben Souther. From that night on, Brodeur’s life would never be the same, and while she relished her new role as Malabar’s constant companion and co-conspirator—fashioning alibis for the couple, creating excuses for them to be alone, and listening to her mother dish about the affair—this continued reliance on her to keep up the ruse had long-lasting impacts, leading Brodeur into a deep depression as a young adult and a dysfunctional marriage of her own.

In Wild Game, we see how Brodeur comes to terms with the true damage wrought by Malabar’s deep-seated narcissism, while also reckoning with her own complicity in the affair. It’s a process that eventually leads her out of her mother’s long shadow and into her own personal, ethical, and maternal identity.

Before writing Wild Game, Brodeur co-founded the fiction magazine Zoetrope: All-Story along with filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, and worked as a book editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; today, she is the executive director of Aspen Words, a program of the Aspen Institute. Brodeur has also published essays in the New York Times, and served as a judge for the National Book Award, the National Magazine Award, and the New York Public Library’s Young Lion’s fiction award.

Recently, Brodeur spoke with me about her new memoir while moving boxes from her New York City home, where she has lived since the 90s, to her family’s new house in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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The Rumpus: Your memoir is a genuine page-turner. I can see why the film rights got snapped up right away, because it really does read like a soap opera or a movie script. Have other advance readers been saying similar things?

Adrienne Brodeur: What’s funny is that even as you say that, I think of the experience of writing it, and at the time I just felt like I was writing the most singular, quirky book. And then of course, when I started it, I hadn’t sold it and I remember thinking, Why am I doing this? I felt like I needed to write it, but I had no idea that it would resonate in the way that it has or that anyone would say it reads like a soap opera, of course, because it’s my life.

Rumpus: Is this book your first?

Brodeur: No, I wrote a novel a million years ago, but this is the first book I’ve written in fifteen years. And I think it’s the book I always wanted to write. I remember even fifteen years ago thinking, I’d like to write this story; like, this is the story. But in some ways, I’m so glad I didn’t do it then because I think it actually required the distance and the processing and just the time it took to digest everything.

I think also, as happens, everything changed when I had children, and that really was sort of the impetus to go back and dig in again and reckon with the past, because I didn’t want to mother as I’d been mothered. Not that I was really worried about following that exact blueprint, but you know, the bigger issues.

I mostly relied on my own research in writing it, but I checked dates with my various living stepparents. I had my father read much of it; my mother knew I was working on the book and she was actually quite supportive of it, but in the time that I was writing she’s become very, very ill with dementia and so she wasn’t able to substantiate certain facts.

Rumpus: You chose Mary Oliver’s “The Uses of Sorrow,” as your epigraph, which reads, in part, “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.” Did you discover this “gift” of darkness through the writing process? Was it a healing experience for you, or just a very difficult one?

Brodeur: I wouldn’t actually describe it as either. I mean, when people ask me how long it took to write the book, I think, well, there are two answers: one is my entire life and the other is two years. I think it was sort of that entire life of processing that was the healing and the digging and so on. There were moments of sadness writing the book, but it was also just kind of a desire to get it out and tell the story. I also found as I researched my mother that I had a great deal of empathy for her and a great deal of forgiveness, and it was sort of a chance to underline it and move on in some ways.

Rumpus: In a previous interview you said you didn’t want this to be a Mommie Dearest type of story, that you’d rather show the shades of gray in people.

Brodeur: Absolutely, because we all are shades of gray. I feel like I wrote it with a lot of love, and I love my mother, I really do. I mean, clearly, she made mistakes, but yes, I was interested in studying and examining myself closely and my role in helping keep up the affair, too. Because sure, you can describe me as the victim in the beginning, but at some point, I really took the whole thing on, and I question myself mostly about that.

There’s this Vivian Gornick line from The Situation and the Story that just moved me so much when I was writing it. She said, to do a memoir well—and she was talking possibly about her own mother-memoir—you have to show the loneliness of the monster and the cunning of the victim. That line was my guiding light. Those words just kept showing up, you know—I thought, Well, my mother wasn’t a terrible person, why did she do this? Before I ever knew her, before I was ever born, my mother had such a complicated and very sad and difficult life: a single, alcoholic mother; never seeing her father, who was in India; discovering a whole half-family; losing her first child—I could go on and on. And not that that makes everything okay, it just sort of helps me understand the context.

Rumpus: Food and alcohol in the book serve in varying capacities as catalysts for the affair and as numbing agents for its attendant guilt. Notably, writing a wild game cookbook was the ruse Malabar and Ben used to be able to see each other more often. Was this sort of outsized role of food and drink on your mind while writing?

Brodeur: Food and alcohol were such a part of my existence as a child. You only have one childhood and it’s the only one you know, so it just seems like it is the norm; you assume it’s how everyone is. So I remember going to other people’s homes and realizing that people don’t actually moan over their dinners or whatever we would do. We were a very food-centric family.

To this day, my family jokes that I like the perfect bite. If I find the perfect bite, I have to give each of them a bit because I want to share it with them; I want them to know how great it is. But yes, to that part of the universe that can forget to eat or skip a meal, more power to you, I don’t understand it. I’m lucky in as much as I really enjoy cooking, I love putting food on the table that my family will enjoy eating. But we are in no way the drinkers like my mother and everyone back then. I think of that as a generational thing. My parents and everyone I know from that generation in publishing would describe these three-martini lunches, and I’d just be like, good god, I couldn’t have one of them. Most of the hangovers I’ve ever had in my life were with my mother. I literally don’t know how they were able to do it, except that they did it with such regularity. Obviously, it was numbing but I think it had a very different effect on them than if you or I had two martinis tonight—I’d be recovering for days.

Rumpus: Naturally then, many of the book’s scenes are based around meals, and some of these are excruciatingly awkward, with the shadow of the affair tainting every conversation. At the time, how did you survive those moments? How do you deal with high levels of awkward today?

Brodeur: Wow, that’s such a good question. I mean, how do you survive a moment like that? I don’t know what the other option is, you just sort of go on. I don’t feel like I’m in situations like that anymore, thank goodness. I feel like one of the deep reactions to my childhood has been to really treasure honesty and straightforwardness and confront any issues that seem complicated or shady or anything like that. I really don’t like to be in non-transparent situations, especially with my own family, meaning my husband and my two children. We have such an incredibly open and direct relationship. So it’s not something I deal with anymore.

I will say there’s a section at the end of the book where I write about when my husband’s father died—he has this enormous, very close-knit family—and we all race to his mother’s home. At some point, this locked box is discovered in the basement, and everyone is so excited to open it, and all I’m thinking is, “Mother of god, get this box away from my sweet mother-in-law!” So I grab my husband and I’m like, “What are you thinking? Do not open this box in front of children and impressionable teenagers!” And I could slowly see him registering the alarm; in my life, locked boxes, you’re going to discover a foot fetish or an illegitimate child or something, right? But it’s not going to be just okay.

So they finally pry this box open as I practically leap over the table, and it’s love letters his wife sent him when they were teenagers. And it was one of the most telling moments because I am years away from the duplicity that had happened in my childhood, and yet that option never occurred to me. And I was willing to go to the mat with my husband about this! I feel like I still struggle with that. He essentially approaches everything from a point of complete trust and acceptance that what people say is what they mean, and I simply don’t. I try to but it’s very hard for me.

Rumpus: Becoming a mother helped you realize the gravity of your own mother’s betrayal with making you her co-conspirator as a child. Did you also write this book for the benefit of your own children?

Brodeur: Well, I had this moment, and it’s in the book, when I literally came out from giving birth to my daughter when I got out of the OR and I was taken upstairs—I was at Mass General at the time— and the elevator doors open and there’s my mom, and all of a sudden I felt… the nurses explained it to me as a panic attack, I’m sure there’s a very sound medical reason and it was a panic attack. But I just had all these drugs in me, and I felt this crushing sensation of not being able to breathe and this pressure. This is being overwrought, but I felt all this inherited trauma and these generations and generations of doing this wrong, and suddenly I had this little baby in my arms, and I was so overwhelmed in that moment.

Cut to a decade later and writing this book, I think the impetus has really been about mothering differently, but on some level, it was also to save myself, to forgive myself, to sort of understand these patterns in my family. I had to really take a long, hard look at my life, at my past, at my family’s history, and turn from it. I accept what’s wonderful about all of them, but I don’t want to pass this along like a baton to the next generation; I just want it to stop here.

Rumpus: You reckon with feelings of guilt over your complicity in helping Malabar to perpetuate her affair, and that kind of severe disenchantment with yourself has been, in its own way, very traumatic. Do you feel as though you’re still going through the process of trying to see yourself as a good person again?

Brodeur: I think there’s a huge desire for us to say, “and I have passed this,” like there’s some line in the sand that you cross and you cross the finish line, but of course there are no finish lines. We’re living humans and we’re always working on ourselves. And so in that way, yes. Do I think I’m there? No. Do I think I’ll ever be there? No. But I sort of see this as one’s life’s work, becoming a better person, becoming a kinder person, taking care of the next generation. I mean, I think it’s hopefully what we’re all trying to do, and to understand ourselves better.

I do also find literature and reading people’s stories, especially stories that are really different from my own but that I can relate to, to be helpful in that. It’s always a good way to empathize with what we’re all going through.

Rumpus: In writing your own story, what books did you choose to reference from the canon of American memoir?

Brodeur: I read all the classics, obviously. The Glass Castle and Wild and This Boy’s Life, from A to Z, nothing that would surprise anyone. I also loved some of Alison Bechdel’s work and Joan Didion. I’m still just in deep mourning for my friend George Hodgman; he wrote Bettyville, which is this incredible memoir about his mother. There are literally too many to list, but I’ve read tons of them and was inspired in different ways by all of them. I loved Happiness by Heather Harpham, The Suicide Index by Joan Wickersham—having been in publishing not that long ago, I feel like I have ARCs to almost everything—Nadia Spiegelman’s book, I’m Supposed to Protect You from All ThisHold Still by Sally Mann. There are so many beautiful books.

I think the thing that I learned from reading so many is that it’s less the life or the events that happened than the consciousness about those events, and I think that is a really interesting defining line among the memoirs that I read. In the beginning when I was writing the book I went to Hedgebrook, and there was this amazing group of women there. Three of them were writing mother-memoirs—the stuff that these women had been through! I remember just going back to my little cabin and thinking, “Oh my god, my mom made me lie, is that really so bad?” And I felt sort of guilty for not having a traumatic enough childhood; I mean, certainly mothers have done worse things than mine did, by miles. But I think it’s really the consciousness about what’s happened to you and how you are able to process it and express it that moves a memoir to the next level.

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Photograph of Adrienne Brodeur by Julia Cumes. Additional photographs provided courtesy of Adrienne Brodeur.


Liz Button is the senior writer/researcher for the American Booksellers Association, where she has interviewed authors such as Michael Chabon, Ottessa Moshfegh, Colson Whitehead, and Tara Westover. Prior to that, she worked as a bookseller, and wrote for several newspapers in Westchester County, New York, reporting on local government, schools, and business. More from this author →