Donna Britt
Photo: Roy Cox
Q: Much of Brothers (and Me) deals with the death of your brother Darrell. Can you talk about your writing process as a form of therapy?

DB: I'm a demonstrably self-aware person—I wrote an extremely personal column for The Washington Post for 16 years—so I knew that my brother's unexplained death at the hands of the police deeply affected me. But if I hadn't written a memoir, I would never have known how profound that effect was. We think of ourselves as "recovering" or "getting over" our traumas when, in fact, we may bury them, covering them up in a hidden place inside where they simmer, silent and unobtrusive, as we move on with our lives. But they're still there, pressing on our subconscious, whispering their oft-limiting messages. Still hurting us.

Writing my book forced me to shine a light into dark corners I'd avoided examining, and to uncover truths I might never have excavated. People love talking about their pasts in shallow, "listen to what happened to me" ways. But few want to probe ancient wounds deeply enough to transcend or truly learn from them. We fear it will hurt too much. My memoir forced me to examine stuff I hadn't been brave enough to explore. I'm grateful for having done the work, though it was at times excruciating.

Q: Why do you think women feel this powerful need to give?

DB: I have lots of theories about women's near-reflexive giving—a trait many of us are loathe to admit, despite the abundant evidence of it. One theory is that a brilliant Creator committed to human survival would necessarily make one gender acutely sensitive to the needs of others, especially of children. I also consider how, in prehistoric societies, men often were hunters whose families' survival depended on their ability to rivet their attention on a few vital things: protecting their villages and tracking prey whose flesh provided food and whose pelts kept people warm. Women's attention was more divided: among caring for children, gathering plants for food, preparing meals, keeping tabs on kids and elderly relatives, watching out for poisonous plants and so on. I think looking out for others is in our DNA.

Q: In particular, as a black woman, how does your ethnicity affect your need to give?

DB: Though women of every color may be born givers, that inborn tendency may be exacerbated by a woman's circumstances. Delving deeper into my brother's death helped me understand something that had puzzled me: why black women are so quick to fiercely defend black men—O.J. Simpson, Clarence Thomas, Marion Barry, Michael Jackson—whose actions may to many seem indefensible. Black women's experience with endangerment and loss—particularly in regards to our sons, mates, fathers and brothers—heightens our giving. In the not-so-distant past, we watched helplessly as our men were dragged from their homes, never to return. More recently, we've lost them to poverty, violence, prison, drugs or lack of opportunities. Losing our loved ones, fearing for them, coaxes many of us to protect, support and provide all we can to the men in our lives. Darrell's death was so inexplicable and irrational that my unconscious response was irrational as well: to decide, without realizing it, that the men I loved would never again lack my support or attention. In a subconscious effort to ward off another such tragedy, I gave and gave and gave.

Q: What have your relationships with men—your husband, sons or friends—taught you about yourself?

DB: Every woman learns who she is through her interactions with others. Who would we be without the parents, siblings and friends who influenced, bolstered, demeaned and/or validated us? Except for my mom, my earliest connections were to males—my three brothers, my father, lots of male friends. I ended up with an undeniable soft spot for guys and often felt more comfortable talking to, joking with, hanging out with guys than with girls and women. Being close to lots of very different men taught me that guys' machismo is often more bluster than genuine (which doesn't make it any less annoying!). But I always liked guys enough to forgive them their posing—which taught me that I'm basically a very forgiving person. Ironically, my being around so many men eventually taught me to appreciate women—their openness, their forbearance, their toughness and flexibility, their ability to do so damn much for so many. And to appreciate these qualities in myself.

Q: When did you learn to put yourself first? Is that something you're still striving to achieve?

DB: Quite honestly, I'm still striving to strengthen my me-first reflex. When it comes to giving too much, I may always be a work in progress.

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