Murdering The Mom: A Memoir, by Duff Brenna (Wordcraft of Oregon, LLC., La Grande, Oregon, 2012, 217 pages).
Book Review by Dennis Moore
July 9, 2012 (San Diego’s East County)--Duff Brenna, a long-time East County resident and graduate of San Diego State, where he also taught and garnered several faculty awards, has written a candid and somewhat disturbing memoir of growing up in a dysfunctional family. Murdering The Mom: A Memoir resonates with me, for there are some aspects of this brilliantly written and insightful book that are eerily reminiscent of my mother and how she had to raise 10 of us – basically by herself.
A friend of his mother once told Brenna that men called her “The Black Widow” because none of her many husbands (four at that time) survived her. The friend further noted, “Black widow or not, Janice is riveting.” He opined that she was the most charismatic woman he had ever met. He recalled that they were at a cocktail party talking quietly in a corner, when Janice reached out and squeezed his forearm. Her touch was electric, raising the hairs on his arm and nape of his neck; he was ready to fall on his knees and worship her. Janice had that effect on men, he said.
My mother, Dorothy “Berneice” Johnson, also had that type of effect on man, and had many other similarities to Brenna’s mother. The photo of Brenna’s mother at the age of 18, which is on the cover of his book, is indicative of her beauty.
Brenna is the author of six novels, including The Book of Mamie, which won the AWP Award for Best Novel; The Holy Book of the Beard, named “an underground classic” by The New York Times; Too Cool a New York Times Noteworthy Book; The Altar of the Body, given the Editors Prize Favorite Book of the Year Award, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and also received a San Diego Writers Association Award for Best Novel in 2002. He is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts award, Milwaukee Magazine’s Best Short Story of the Year Award, and a Pushcart Prize Honorable Mention. His work has been translated into six languages. His collection of short stories, Minnesota Memoirs, was published by Serving House Books in February, 2012.
He says of his mother; “The mom was always looking for love. She had numerous lovers who came and went in her life, one night stands, a few days or weeks, maybe months. Some she even married. She was married six times. She wanted a man who made her safe, secure, loved, cherished – adored. She referred to her husbands as ‘“Daddy.”’ Her real daddy abandoned the family when she, little red-haired Janice, was only five. You don’t need to be Freud to understand why she needed to be saying Daddy all her life.”
Murdering The Mom traces Brenna’s childhood and coming of age with his self-absorbed and erratic mother, Janice Miles, and her changing lovers and abusive husbands – and by extension – abusive fathers. Lost, terrified and bullied, Brenna becomes a juvenile delinquent and a bully – simply to survive. Brenna credits his older sister, Carol Marie, with her courage and openness for enabling him to write this memoir, for he alleges that she was continually molested and abused as a little girl by two of their mother’s husbands (George Allison & Nick Pappas), as well as another man that Carol Marie had been sent to stay with. The central theme in this well written and insightful book is sex--and the mis-application of it.
Brenna even told me in a phone interview that Pappas made sexual overtures towards him while he was a young child, in between the many beatings that he had at the hands of this man. In a poignant and revealing statement by the author in this at times disturbing book, he noted that Carol Marie observed when they were both children, crossing themselves, “I’m a magnet for perverts, Duffy, that’s what I am. All the shit has made me mental. The things I do! I can’t explain them. God hates me, I’m so awful. Men have used me all my life, like I don’t have any real me at all, just the body they’re after. I might as well be a doll they can blow up and play with. I just do what they want me to do. I didn’t want it. I didn’t ask for it, but it happened anyway. My soul is dirty, Duffy. I’m filthy inside. Only God can make me clean. If he will. If he won’t kill me and send me to hell.”
Brenna speaks fondly of a first love, Sherrye, who is pictured in his book. In our phone conversation, he and I compared notes on what it is like to have that first love, and to be re-united with her again after so many years. Clearly, she could have made a difference in his life, as indicated in this at times heart-warming book.
In a brief phone interview with the author, I inquired as to why he chose the title Murdering The Mom, especially after I read this particular passage in the book: “You want to murder me? I shook my head, told her I didn’t want to murder her, but if she really wanted to die, she should do it herself. It was her life after all. She cried out as if I had struck her. She yelled. She said, Who the hell are you to tell me to die? God will tell me when … not you!”
Brenna indicated to me that he had toyed with another idea for a title, such as Dancing With The Mom, as he and his mother used to dance together when he was young, but considering their overall relationship Murdering The Mom seemed more appropriate. I guess that says a lot about the book. He said, and the book indicates it, that he seemed to have caused his mother so much grief in life. Again, this is another area where the book resonates with me on a personal level, for I caused grief with my mother also as a child and teenager – at one point being in and out of jail, along with my other brothers. In the case of Brenna, he credits a very sympathetic judge with keeping him from going to prison – or writing this memoir from Death Row, as one author had suggested.
Probably the most profound and revealing passage in the book, and about the author himself, is when he states: “Sex has been an intimate part of my life for as far back as I can remember. My sister my mother myself, the world around us, the walls of our house, the cars we traveled in, the hiding places where we indulged ourselves, all of it oozing memoirs of broken commandments. Thou shall not … Yes we will. I was ten and I know children who were even younger when they first got started. Carol Marie was what five or six? And it never lets up. It’s nature, its natural, it’s no big deal unless you make it a big deal.”
I am not a doctor or a psychiatrist, but it is a big deal, and therein may explain the volatile and often estranged relationship between Brenna and his mother, as well as that of his sister Carol Marie. He does use some pretty graphic and explicit language in his book when it comes to sex, but then again, it is an outgrowth of his turbulent youth.
When Brenna’s mother died, just two days short of her 75th birthday, he made this observation: “This once petite beauty, this magnet to men. Men she brought home, men she drank with, whored with, cast off. Found others. Which of them knew her or wanted her now, so far from the lovely thing she once was?” This does not sound as if he had that much love or admiration for his mother, but more revealing is this statement made when she actually died: “The mom’s death was one of those moments when I was unable to hold back my feelings. The tears rushed out of me as if from a ruptured pipe. Those tears caught me off guard. It was a torrent I couldn’t stop. Looking backwards, I think those were the sobs of a bitter heart, a heart understanding that whatever connection we once had, however badly broken, this instant of the mom’s death would not mend us. Not mend anything. The split was infinite now.”
This cathartic and soul-searching memoir could best be summed up by the author himself, as he states in this hauntingly profound book: “Every memoir is written by an unreliable narrator. It goes with the territory, same as historians writing history, differing versions of it if you know what I mean.”
I want to thank the author for giving me the opportunity to evaluate and re-assess the relationship that I had with my own mother, which was endearing. Other readers will possibly feel the same about this work of Brenna as I do, as I highly recommend it for so many reasons.
Dennis Moore is the book review editor for SDWriteway, an online newsletter for writers in San Diego. He is also the author of a book about Chicago politics; “The City That Works: Power, Politics and Corruption in Chicago.” Mr. Moore can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow him on Twitter at: @DennisMoore8.