Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Q&A with writer Donna Britt

Donna Britt
Donna Britt is a former syndicated columnist for The Washington Post, and writer for USA TODAY, and the Detroit Free Press. She is the author of Brothers (and me): A Memoir of Loving and Giving. The book focuses on the often inexplicable need that many women have to give to others, particularly men, and how in Britt's case, that need was heightened by the shock of her brother Darrell's death at the hands of police decades ago in their home town of Gary, Indiana.

Q: In Brothers (and me), you write about the hidden effects of loss. Can you describe that, and how it has affected you since your brother’s death?

A: I think most of us are afraid to deeply examine our losses. When someone we love dies, we talk about our pain but don’t look deeper into its effect on us--no one likes to dive deeper into pain. We try to get past it as quickly as possible. I did that when my brother died; the agony was so profound that I backed away from it, and away from him in my memories—remembering too clearly hurt too much. It took decades to realize how I had processed his death. One way was to feel responsible, even though it wasn’t rational, for his having died, and to act on that feeling.

Q: How long did it take you to gain more of an understanding of your feelings?

A: I don’t know that I fully understand now. The main theme of Brothers (and me) is women and giving. In my case, the loss of my brother informed my own giving to others, especially to the men in my life. The compulsion to give, especially to men, is extremely common among women—so common that I think it’s in our DNA. Many of us know the tendency is there and are confused by and ashamed of it. Different women come by the impulse in different ways. Darrell’s death had everything to do with me giving more; he had been my favorite brother and when I stepped away from my role of cheerleader and supporter and confidante, he was killed by police under suspicious [circumstances]. Although it made no sense, I felt somehow that I should have prevented it.

Q: In the book, you write about someone reminding you that Darrell also had done the same kind of stepping away during those years.

A: We were both young adults in our 20s, finding our way—that’s what you do in your 20s. We probably would have come together again, and been as close as adults. He, too, had stepped away, but I didn’t notice that. Human beings tend to blame themselves.

Q: You write about looking through a box of Darrell’s memorabilia. Could you talk about what your emotions were at that point?

A: I already had the book contract to write Brothers (and me) about women and giving —about the effect of loss on my own giving, and the motivations other women have for offering themselves to others. I knew I had to examine my relationship with my departed brother. But because his dying had been so painful, I’d buried him too deeply in my consciousness to find him. As a protective impulse, I had tucked him safely away. I could only find the obvious, well-worn memories. So I was in a panic. I knew I needed to resurrect more for about him the book, and I couldn’t find it.

One afternoon during this period, I opened a little-used drawer and stumbled upon a plastic bag, the sort that a down comforter comes in. And it was filled with Darrell’s stuff—receipts, note-cards, poems, sketches. He was a comic; there were excerpts from performances, receipts from a pawnbroker—a collection of disparate, and much of it personal, stuff. It was a treasure trove—exactly what I needed. But I immediately zipped it up and put it back into the drawer. And I couldn’t go back to it for two weeks. I couldn’t figure out why I was so frightened, and I realized I was afraid of learning more about Darrell; I didn’t want to dislodge him as a hero. So many black men are painted as villains, and I couldn’t risk finding something that made him less perfect in my eyes. 

There are so many layers to our feelings, our reactions, our behavior. I’m known as an introspective writer who digs deep—yet I had so much unexplored terrain within me. That told me that we are all walking around with so many feelings and motivations that we’re unaware of. I wish everyone could write a memoir. It was very frightening to go so deep, but I’m so happy I did it.

Q: You write that you, like many women, often feel like you’re “shouldering the whole world.” Is it possible to continue to be giving while lessening the sense of responsibility? How did you learn to give to yourself?

A: I have a saying on my desk from Vandana Shiva that says, “You are not Atlas carrying the world on your shoulder. It is good to remember the planet is carrying you.” It’s funny that Atlas was a man—because to my mind, women are the ones who are doing most of the carrying. We shoulder so much because of our desire to make everyone more comfortable and safe, to keep them from harm, to be seen and appreciated. 

What I’ve enjoyed most about having written this book is the recognition that so many women feel this way. But we hate admitting it. As women, our sense of equality with men, our independence, is very hard-won. To admit that we’re still so wired to give, that it’s an impulse we have so much trouble controlling, feels like a betrayal of feminism. But it’s so deep and universal that I see it as sacred, and believe it should be honored.

Q: Can feminism and giving go together?

A: I think so. I expected to be attacked for being so up-front about how reflexive most women’s giving is and it’s never happened. I’ve done dozens of interviews and appearances, and it’s never once come up. I have had a few women say, “I’m not like that,” but they’ll add that they know plenty of women who are. I understand our reluctance to explore this, because many of us already feel taken advantage of. To broadcast this tendency [could exacerbate] the fear that people will take even more advantage.

I’m convinced the thing to do is to embrace our giving, to celebrate it—but to control it. To understand, “Okay, I have this tendency; how can I use it rather than have it use me? Feminism was never about being more like men, but having the freedom to be a woman and not be demeaned for it. The idea that we should all be the same is ridiculous, and it’s not going to happen.

Q: What about giving to yourself?

A: One of the first gifts women should give is the recognition that it’s okay to be a giver, that we don’t have to feel bad about it. Being aware of it, and accepting it, while refusing to let it control you. Awareness is everything—I’m a yoga teacher in addition to being a writer; it’s all about awareness of breath, of your body in space, of movement. We need to be more aware of our behavior. Now, I examine myself when I’m giving, and if part of myself says it’s not the best idea, I can stop myself. These days, I challenge people who are the beneficiaries of my giving to give back. 

With my sons, I challenge them to be more mindful of their asking—I want them to be giving to the women in their lives. I want my sons to be guys who intuit that for the women in their lives, they should give back as much as they take. I also try to treat myself, give unto myself some of what I give unto others. You need to fill up so you don’t become depleted. I’m mindful of that. I love clothes so sometimes, I’ll say, “Hey, I’m going to buy a dress!” and not beat myself up for it.

Q: Have the dynamics changed at all in your interactions with your family and friends since you’ve become more aware about your giving?

A: I have such a close relationship with my sons. Part of the closeness is my being as brutally honest—actually lovingly honest--about who I am, and how I see them. It’s a real sense of knowing and respecting each other.

Writing Brothers (and me) made me more aware when people don’t give back; I’m more likely to say something, to challenge that. To say, this should be honored. A gift should be respected whether it’s in a package with a nice bow, or an act of kindness. There’s the idea that with true giving, you shouldn’t expect something back, but I don’t know that I agree with that. Acknowledgement is important. Who wants to be around someone who only takes, and who doesn’t give back?

Q: What’s been the reaction from male readers?

A: A male book club read it, and they were so appreciative—for them it was one way to peek into women’s minds, to be more aware. If you go to Amazon, there are two glowing reviews from 50-year-old white men. I felt this was a woman’s book, and that it might be especially relevant for black women simply because I am black, but I love that it makes men reflect on their own journeys. That’s what I want a memoir to do—to make every reader dig deeper into his or her psyche. There’s really rich stuff for us to mine.

I feel I am a better person for having written it, but I wasn’t “cured” [of my giving].

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: Not yet—I really do want to maximize this one. I didn’t get a New York Times review, and the Post didn’t do it until the Trayvon Martin [incident]; what happened to my brother is as inexplicable as Trayvon’s death. I love this book and know that it deserves to open more eyes and hearts.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love that readers tell me Brothers (and me) is funny. There’s a tragedy at its heart with Darrell’s unjust killing, and the tender subject of women and giving, but I’m proud of the humor in it, and that I’m able to crack jokes at my own expense. I’m proud of how honest it is, and how that honesty stuns people. At book clubs, people will say, “I can’t believe how open you were.” I was afraid to be as honest as I was. This is a brutal culture in so many ways. I’m so heartened by how lovingly the book has been embraced by readers.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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