Reviewed by Ruth Bonapace
In Brittany Means intelligent debut, Hell If We Don’t Change Our Ways, (Zibby Books; October 2023) she boldly warns us not to fixate over the details, which she finds vexing, but to trust completely the overarching narrative and the feelings that erupt.
If I ask my mom, for example, how old I was when Grandpa fell asleep while letting me steer the car, she might say I was six. If I ask my uncle Jon, he might say eight. They each have compelling reasons why they believe they are right.
Growing up in the Midwest, Means spent many nights sleeping in cars or crashing at motels where her drug-addicted mother perfected the art of skipping out on the tab and fleeing abusive boyfriends.
Since a life of neglect, homelessness, and sexual abuse was the only one she’d known, Means for years buried what was deeply uncomfortable. Mother and daughter sang songs on the road, huddled under blankets in the back seat, scrounged for fast food. When the money ran out, her mother retreated to her own imperfect family or a new lover.
To me, sleeping in the car was normal. Better, it was comfy and fun. I loved my bed made of clothes inside a trash bag that I sank into slowly . . . . I loved the motels and their swimming pools and trashy daytime TV channels.
In trying to recreate her complicated past, she observes: “I’m left with little islands of memory. My mom singing along to Toni Braxton’s “Unbreak My Heart” with so much emotion that to this day, I can barely listen to it without getting a lump in my throat.”
Means takes great care exploring the question: How can you love a mother who did not, could not, or would not, keep you safe?
“I can’t exorcize my mother’s demons,” she explains, “I can only name them and hope to understand.”
In my years of writing workshops, among the most common questions writers ask are: I can remember what I wore, but I can’t remember what year. Is this exactly what was said? How can I unpack the images that flash across my mind, especially if my siblings remember them differently? Why didn’t I call out for help? Means’ clear-eyed examination of her memories should be recommended reading for students of memoir, alongside classics like Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club.
However, this book may be revealing, even healing, for any reader who wonders how to knit the yarns of their own personal pasts, even if they never aspire to memoir writing. After all, are any of our families uncomplicated?
Means had me right from the introduction:
I’m telling the story the way I need to tell it. I’m also asking you to be here with me. This isn’t a small request, I realize. These experiences live inside me, and now I am casting them into you. Forgive me this human hunger.
As for her writing process, there is no pretension: “I am different every time I sit down to write,” she says.
In her narrative, Means utilizes flashbacks and flash forwards, and often directly addresses the reader, analyzing the nature of memory and emotion but never hiding behind the obfuscating jargon of psychotherapy. For the most part, the book has a powerful forward momentum that makes the reader root for her, hopeful even as she careens into the next heartbreak:
Terror from men who slipped into her bedroom. Fear of finding herself home alone for days without food or clean clothes, her mother inexplicably gone. Confusion over how her Pentecostal grandparents in Indiana could recite loving bedtime stories yet beat her with a switch in accordance with their beliefs. Panic from second-hand cigarette smoke that made her wheeze with asthma. Anguish of a girl on the cusp of her birthday who asks her grandma whether God would forgive a child the unforgivable sin of suicide.
Means does a heroic job of ordering a life of contradictions and summoning forgiveness without denial. When, almost miraculously, she is offered a way out in high school, she finds that even a “normal” suburban family came with strings attached, sometimes terrifyingly so.
Near the end of book, my heart nearly split in two when I read: I love my body for the ways it has tried, succeeded, and failed to take care of me. I love my mother. I love my mother.