In this harrowing and brave essay at LitHub, Brandon Taylor examines his relationship with his his abusive mother, a woman who suffered her own trauma and begat that trauma within her family. He considers the fiction in the space between truth, memoir, and reality, and how when love turns to fear, emotional and physical violence is often the result.
What is love if you get it secondhand? Is it a fact or merely a detail?
I am more comfortable in fiction than in nonfiction. In fiction, you get to decide what is real and not real, what is true and not true, which details are facts and which are mere detail. In fiction, I am the discerning eye, the single source of truth. But when I tried to write about my mother, all my stories were flat. I couldn’t move her into fictional language, it seemed. Indeed, my journals about the days she died are full of details about the weather and the feeling that a chasm had opened up in me. I was trying in those early days to pin something down, to assemble a body of details that might give me some hint or clue of how to go on. I also felt that I had no right to feel that way, so sad about her, after all the hateful things I’d thought about her or been subjected to by her hands.
The thing that kept me from writing about her, about grief, in fiction was that I lacked genuine, human feeling for my mother. Or, no, that’s not true exactly. What I lacked was empathy for her. I was so interested in my own feelings about her that I couldn’t leave room for her feelings or for what she wanted out of life. I couldn’t leave a space for her to be a person. I think, ultimately, other people aren’t real to us until they’re suffering or gone. That’s when the imagination begins to work, trying to sort things out, trying to get them right, to understand them. I couldn’t write fiction because I hadn’t yet mastered my own feelings. I couldn’t write fiction because I had not yet come to understand her or what her life had meant to her. I was solipsistic and righteous in my anger, my fear, my sadness. I missed all of the eerie symmetries between us—her trauma, my trauma, her rape, my rape, her anger, my anger. It’s not that I came to love her really. But I did learn to extend to her the same grace that my friends extended to me. That’s one of the beautiful things about writing, the way we learn about others and what that tells us about ourselves.