What happens when a mother’s love is conditional?
Adrienne Brodeur understands the burden and need for maternal affection more than most. She was 14 years old when her mother, Malabar, woke her up one humid July night in 1980, to declare that her husband’s best friend, Ben, had kissed her. The kiss led to a passionate romance that lasted for over a decade — with young Brodeur acting as her mother’s secret keeper and facilitator of the affair.
“‘He kissed me, Rennie,'” Brodeur recalls Malabar saying that fateful night in her debut memoir, Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me. “Joy had fallen from the night sky and landed in my mother’s voice.”
While a vivid portrait of the affair, Wild Game also recounts the collateral damage of that life-altering kiss. For years, Brodeur lied to friends and family in order to help cover up the lovers’ clandestine meetings.
“I wanted my mother happy. I wanted to be close to her. This all created a perfect storm, so when she did exceed this normal maternal boundary, it actually was met with enthusiasm and excitement,” the 53-year-old former book editor tells PEOPLE. “I felt thrilled to have a starring role in her drama.”
But eventually Brodeur’s excitement shifted to anxiety.
“It’s the natural progression of keeping secrets. By keeping a secret, in addition to holding a burden that’s not your own, it prevents you from being authentic or having truly intimate relationships with your friends, with your boyfriends, with anyone,” Brodeur says. “I really suffered from a lack of intimacy with people other than my mother. It was sort of unnatural.”
Malabar’s reliance on Brodeur as friend and confidante ultimately caused long-lasting damage, but it’s the very lack of boundaries that makes the mother-daughter relationship in Wild Game so enthralling. Malabar, a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef and food writer, seduced in the kitchen, even as she chased after romance with her daughter’s help. (She loved her older husband, Charles, but their relationship changed after he suffered a stroke.)
“Armed with sharp knives, fragrant spices, and fire, my mother could create feasts whose aromas alone would entice ships full of men on to the rocks, where she would delight in watching them plunge into the abyss,” writes Brodeur, recalling decadent meals at their summer home in Cape Cod, where Malabar entertained her family and family friends, Ben and his wife Lily. (Brodeur changed all of the names in Wild Game, except for her parents and herself.)
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The author, who felt abandoned after her parents’ divorce, only wanted her mother to be content. But the price was steep. After keeping her mother’s secret for years, Brodeur suffered from long-term depression and guilt that she’s still working through to this day.
She’s also had to reforge a connection with her mother, whom she loves deeply, despite their fraught history. Now a widow in her 80s, Malabar resides in her beloved Cape Cod. She suffers from severe dementia, but enjoys when her daughter reads passages of the memoir to her. (See below for an excerpt from the audiobook.)
For Brodeur, writing Wild Game has helped her forgive her mother and herself.
“Something that I didn’t know about forgiveness is that it actually feels like a very powerful act,” the mother of two says. “We think of it as this thing that we bequeath from on high to someone else — ‘I will put aside my feelings and forgive you.’ But in fact, forgiving is less about covering over someone’s transgressions, your own included. It’s more about underlining them and moving out and away from them.”
Continue reading for more from Brodeur’s candid interview about Wild Game.
What do you hope readers will learn about mother-daughter relationships? About inheritance?
For anyone who has asked themselves that question — “Am I destined to become my mother?” — the answer is you do have the power to change. In my family, there was this legacy of secret keeping and deception that I was determined to put an end to, especially after I became a parent myself. A lot of times, we put blinders on and march forward and think we’ve got the past firmly in the past. But, of course, the past is always with us. I think you have to sit with it and face it and really get comfortable with it in order to move on.
How did you balance sharing Malabar’s story and your own perspective on the affair?
My biggest fear going in was I did not want this to be any kind of Mommie Dearest, black and white story with villain and victim. There was this line of Vivian Gornick’s that I taped to my computer and it was my guiding light for writing this book. The line was, “For the drama to deepen, we must see the loneliness of the monster and the cunning of the innocent.” Whenever you research someone’s life or write about it, you develop a well of compassion you didn’t know you had. The more of someone’s story you know, the more it’s possible to forgive just about anyone.
Did Malabar think it was worth it to pursue a relationship with Ben in the end?
It’s hard for me to speculate because on some very profound level, my mother is a half-glass-empty person. She had great tragedy in her life, in her early life in particular. She lost a child. She had a very unhappy childhood with her parents, who [divorced each other twice]. Her father had a secret family and her mother had other affairs. It was all really terrible. But if you zoom out to her later years, she had two healthy children, three grandchildren.
What has your healing process been like? How did writing help you?
I saw my situation in new lights all along the way. We all have such a desire for closure. Honestly, I think the conversations I’ve had over the years about my mother — whether in therapy or with friends or through literature — will probably continue until the end of my life. Writing this book has truly helped me heal, and that was a big part of it. Because that from which you do not heal, you risk transmission. I did not want to pass this on.
Wild Game is on sale now.
This interview has been edited and condensed.