Donna Britt has always been surrounded by men — her father, three brothers, two husbands, three sons, countless friends. She learned to give to them at an early age. But after her beloved brother Darrell’s senseless killing by police 30 years ago, she began giving more, unconsciously seeking to help other men the way she couldn’t help Darrell. Brothers (& Me) navigates Britt’s life through her relationships with men — resulting in a tender, funny and heartbreaking exploration of universal issues of gender and race. It asks: Why, for so long, did Britt — like millions of seemingly self-aware women — rarely put herself first? With attuned storytelling and hard-wrought introspection, Britt finds that even the sharpest woman may need reminding that giving to others requires giving to oneself.
Persephone Magazine: You recently published your first book, Brothers (& Me): A Memoir of Loving and Giving, which examines universal gender issues based on your relationships with the many men in your life — your father, three brothers, two husbands. Though Brothers explores your childhood, marriages and life as a successful Washington Post columnist, its main focus is the hidden effects of the killing of your brother, Darrell, by police over 30 years ago. What led you to explore your brother’s violent death and what his loss meant for you?
DB: It’s embarrassing to admit, but years ago to my college-student eyes, journalism seemed one of the few surefire ways to get paid for writing. I knew that fledgling novelists and book authors often supported themselves through non-writing jobs to pursue their craft; I wanted to write and get paid for doing that. My purpose was and still is fueled by the same thing that inspired Brothers (& Me): my brother’s death. I saw daily journalism as a means to explore and reveal people’s — especially black people’s—inherent worth and humanity, neither of which seemed adequately acknowledged by the men who killed my brother.
PM: Your writing moves in and out from the observational to the intimate. Do you prefer one form over the other? Does one come more naturally to you?
DB: Though I enjoy finding imaginative, engaging ways to write what I’ve observed, I’m more excited by the intimate, personal writing that feels so natural to me. It’s a high-wire act: digging deeply inside myself, examining the interesting or surprising stuff I excavate, and then being brave enough to share it as honestly and as vividly as possible. It’s always a challenge, and often thrilling.
PM: What did you learn about loss and death in the process of writing this book?
DB: I guess I learned that even people who, like me, enjoy self-examination don’t always understand the effect that their losses have had on them. Few of us really want to push deeply into our pain, to explore thoroughly how our traumas have stretched or limited us, the directions in which they’ve taken us. We don’t do it because such work is by its nature painful. I only did it because I was forced to do so; I had a book advance and had to produce a book. But there were days when I couldn’t make myself sit down at my computer and face that excavation. It was too scary. My hope is that the book will encourage readers to face their own losses, to do their own excavations once they’ve read about mine and the liberating information I uncovered.
PM: You also talk intimately about how much you gave to the men in your life and how you think that women give so much to the men in their lives. Why do you think that most women give so much to men? How does that fit into a larger cultural narrative and why are we so quiet about it?
DB: Generally speaking, I think that giving is implanted in women’s DNA . That doesn’t mean that I don’t recognize that there are extremely generous men and stingy women. But in my own experience, it’s women who are more likely to offer their time, efforts, talent, imaginations and spirits to others, especially to the men in their lives. It makes sense to me that a brilliant creator would make one gender, the one that gives birth and has primary responsibility for a newborn’s well-being, more nurturing. Who wants to live in a world without women’s warmth and succor But many women are mortified by their giving because it seems to fly in the face of our independence and hard-won equality with men. So we often hide our generosity, admitting it only to the close friends who share with us their embarrassing tales of giving and giving too much.
PM: What amazing work can we look forward to from you in the future?
DB: I’m still figuring that out. Stay tuned.