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Brando Skyhorse won the 2011 Pen-Hemingway award for his novel “The Madonnas of Echo Park.” It followed the lives of Mexican-Americans in a rough, but rapidly gentrifying Los Angeles neighborhood. In his latest book, Skyhorse returns to Echo Park, this time with the true story of his turbulent upbringing, a childhood surrounded by lies and half-truths. Abandoned by his Mexican father, he was raised by his mother and grandmother, also of Mexican descent, as a “full blooded Indian brave.” A series of five stepfathers floated in and out of his life,each presented as his new dad and each further splintering his notion of family.
- Brando Skyhorse Author of "The Madonnas of Echo Park"
Read A Featured Excerpt
Excerpted from “Take This Man: A Memoir” by Brando Skyhorse. © 2014. Simon & Schuster. All Rights Reserved.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. When Brando Skyhorse was just three years old, his mother drove his father out of the house. She erased all evidence of him, and set out to find her son a replacement. Paul Skyhorse became the first in a string of men who would take on the name Dad. With every new father came another erasure of the past. A void filled with his mother's lies and invented stories. Brando Skyhorse chronicles his fragmented, and at times, incredibly painful childhood in a new memoir. It's titled, "Take This Man."
MS. DIANE REHMHe joins me here in the studio. And throughout the hour, I'll look forward to hearing your questions, comments. Do join us. 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Welcome to you, Brando. It's good to have you here.
MR. BRANDO SKYHORSEDiane, it's a privilege to be here.
REHMI'm so glad to meet you. First, I want to know how you got the first name of Brando.
SKYHORSEWell, I always used to say that my mom was a big fan of "The Godfather." It was the early 70s, after all, and so I guess it was just a very inspirational moment for her. She thought Brando was a very strong and masculine name and she was really interested in American Indian affairs at the time. And I'm sure, as you remember that Marlon Brando was really active in the American Indian movement and such. But apparently, after talking with my biological father, he said also "Pacino" was a frontrunner, so it was either going to be Brando or Pacino Skyhorse.
SKYHORSEI think my mom made the right call in the end.
REHMI think so, too.
SKYHORSEBut that's where the name came from. It was never Brandon. It was always Brando.
REHMWould you read for us right from the start of the book? I want our listeners to understand how complex a life you've lived.
SKYHORSEDiane, I'd be thrilled to share this with your audience. "I was three-years-old when my father abandoned me and my mother in my grandmother's house atop a crooked hill on Porsche Street in a Los Angeles neighborhood called Echo Park. My mother, Maria Theresa, a Mexican who wanted to be an American Indian, transformed me into Brando Skyhorse, a full blooded American Indian brave. I became the son of Paul Skyhorse Johnson, An American Indian activist incarcerated for armed robbery, who my mother met through the mail.
SKYHORSEShe became Running Deer Skyhorse, a full blooded squaw, who traded in her most common of Mexican names for the most stereotypical of Indian ones. My mother was mesmerizing, and could make crazy schemes and lies sound electric and honest. Her deception was so good or so obvious, she fooled each of her five husbands. Our neighbors, her friends, my elementary school Vice-Principal. Even me. I lived most of my childhood without knowing who I really was. All I knew was the power in my own name. Brando Skyhorse? That's beautiful.
SKYHORSEMy biological father, Candido Ulloa, was replaced by a chain of boyfriends and five fathers, one new dad about every three years. Along with Paul, whom I first met while he was in prison, there was Robert, a restless, habitual Elusian Indian thief. Pat, a restaurant chef with a penchant for disappearing. Rudy, a man who answered a singles ad from a homeless shelter. And Frank, a Mexican-American office straight, what Maria called men who worked actual jobs, who wanted a son, but could not marry my mother.
SKYHORSEThe only way to keep them straight was to imagine what actors would play them in a movie made from my life. Paul Skyhorse Johnson -- Will Sampson, the American Indian Chief from 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.' Robert -- Esai Morales, a hot Esai Morales. 'La Bamba' Esai Morales. Pat -- 'Roseanne' era John Goodman. Rudy -- present day Robin Williams plus 30 pounds. Frank -- I've known him the longest, so I can't imagine him in caricature. If he were asked, he would say Chris Noth from 'Law and Order,' or Michael Nouri from the movie 'Flashdance,' in that order.
SKYHORSEThese men were never simply my mother's boyfriends or partners. They weren't surrogate dads or stepfathers. I couldn't call them by their first names, nor was I allowed to speak about any past father in the presence of a new one. My mother made it clear that these men, trying to be men, were my fathers, absorbed instantly into our tiny clan of mother, grandmother and me, so we could be, or pose as, a family. Life with each of these fathers followed a similar path. First, I was forced to accept them, then I slowly trusted them. Then, I grew to love them. Then they left.
SKYHORSESome boys don't have any father in their life, my mother would say, bucking me up. You've had five, plenty for one boy."
REHMWhat a story. And that was, indeed, Brando Skyhorse reading from his brand new book, titled "Take This Man." Brando, why do you suppose your mother so longed to be an American Indian?
SKYHORSEThat is a really excellent question. I think my mother grew up with this idea that being just a simple, ordinary Mexican girl from this neighborhood that nobody knew of, Echo Park, California, wasn't simply enough for her. I think in the 60s and early 70s, she was drawn to a lot of radicalism. And it's strange that she wasn't drawn to, you know, brown power or Chicano power, which was also very prominent in east L.A. I think she had this very romantic idea that somehow the idea of the American Indian, the sort of myth of the American Indian, was something that was alluring.
SKYHORSEAnd something that was slightly dangerous. And something that she could be a part of. And I think that she was able to enact this sort of deception, if you will, because she found people who thought similarly to her. I know that she had a number of friends who were in the American Indian movement and the American Indian community in the early 1970s. So, I think it just seemed like a natural progression from there. I don't think she actually set out to deceive anybody. I think it was just sort of a glamorous idea that, oh, you know, I was married to this Mexican husband of mine. He took off.
SKYHORSEWhat am I gonna do now? I'm gonna rebrand myself as an American Indian. I know it sounds crazy describing it to you, but I'm sure, in her mind, it made perfect sense.
REHMAnd did it make sense to you that you were an American Indian?
SKYHORSEOh, absolutely. Because when you're a child, you believe whatever your parents tell you. Even though it was ludicrous, now thinking about this now, we lived in a predominantly Mexican-American and Vietnamese neighborhood. And my grandmother, who lived in the same house as us, she was, you know, a practicing Catholic, got her ashes on Ash Wednesday, spoke fluent Spanish. What seems more ludicrous? That I'm actually, you know, Mexican-American, or that I'm actually the son of a Native American Chief who just happened to live in Echo Park, California?
SKYHORSESo, as a child, you think yeah, well that's absolutely the way it is, because that's what my mom told me.
REHMHow did she actually meet Paul Skyhorse Johnson?
SKYHORSESo, because I don't actually have, you know, the official letter or letters that started it off. My mother put a lot of singles ads, I believe, in like Mother Jones News. Because that was basically how you met people back then. You didn't have the internet, and God knows what my mom would have done on Facebook and everything else. But that's a whole separate discussion. But, she contacted these men, lots of prison singles, and so I assume what happened is that she put an ad out, and it could have been something as simple as like, you know, young Indian woman looking for, you know, strong Indian brave who's in jail for all, you know, political prisoner, et cetera.
SKYHORSEAnd a man named Paul Skyhorse Johnson got in touch with her and they started off a correspondence.
REHMWhat was he in prison for?
SKYHORSEHe was in jail for armed robbery. And that was one of the many things that I discovered in doing some of the research for this book. Because my mom told all these sort of fantastical stories. You know, she told me that oh, he was in jail because he had a shootout with the FBI, he was in jail because he was at Wounded Knee, he was in jail because, you know, he's friends with Leonard Peltier. And all these other prominent members of the American Indian community.
REHMI see. I see.
SKYHORSEAnd of course, when you hear that, it's like, and the guy's name is Paul Skyhorse, well that totally sounds plausible. It's like, what else would a guy named Paul Skyhorse be doing except like running from the law, and like fighting the FBI? And of course, you know, when I met him for the first time, I believe I was around five-years-old.
SKYHORSEIn prison. Yeah. This was in Illinois, where he was incarcerated. I thought, well, there's this giant of a man. He's got this long hair. He looks like the stereotypical American Indian brave. And I thought, well, this is clearly who my father is. And it was all kind of, you know, you're a child. It's like, you're drawn to it, you're excited by it, and then as I got older, I started to poke holes, very small, tiny holes in mother's stories. And then by the time I was around 12 or 13, I realized that what she was telling me wasn't adding up.
REHMWhat about your grandmother and the role she played, standing on the sidelines, watching your mother engage with these different men?
SKYHORSEMy grandmother was a natural born storyteller, so I think she was drawn to my mother's sort of wild digressions. My grandmother grew up in Los Angeles in the 20s and 30s, and one of her favorite works of art was Luis Valdez's Zoot Suit, because she was basically a pachuka. She grew up, you know, she was -- she wore the zoot suit, the nice dresses, the whole thing. She even told me she was in a gang. She had the tattoo to prove it. And so, I think there was a part of her that like appreciated that lawless, like, wild lifestyle.
SKYHORSEAnd I think when she saw that my mom was sort of fashioning these stories, she thought like, oh good. You know, she has some interest. She's going out meeting people. That's great. That's fantastic. I think later when it turned darker, and these stories basically started fueling some of the more negative aspects of my mother's personality, that it became more complicated. But I think, initially, my grandmother was, you know, cheering her on from the sidelines. Because she likes telling stories as much as my mom did.
REHMHow long were your mother and Paul Skyhorse Johnson in communication by mail before she actually met him?
SKYHORSESo, he was in jail until 1978, and when he got out, he didn't come out to Los Angeles. He went somewhere else. It seemed like a weird sort of sidestep, if you will, but we found out later that he had actually married somebody else, and was having this sort of relationship with my mom and this other woman at the same time.
MS. NICOLE GAOUETTEBrando Skyhorse. The book is titled "Take This Man," a memoir. Short break here. I'll look forward to hearing your questions, comments. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. If you've just joined us, Brando Skyhorse, a prize-winning writer, has now written a memoir. It's titled "Take This Man." In it he talks a great deal about his mother, his grandmother, his five fathers. The storytelling capacity of his mother absolutely incredible, but she loved it. She loved you. You have clearly inherited her gift for storytelling.
SKYHORSEThat's very kind of you to say. I hope I have. I feel that I'm an adequate storyteller but my mother was really an exceptional storyteller. We were talking during the break about, like, you know, how, like, there is the pressure of, you know, sons or daughters of, like, people who were professional athletes back in the day. And I feel like my mom was sort of like the Mickey Mantle of storytelling. It's like, well, Mickey Mantle's son, you know, what I mean? Like, I'm nowhere near at the level that she was at.
SKYHORSEBut I do have an appreciation for narrative. And the difference is that I feel narrative helped me organize what was basically a theatrically disorganized life. So for me narrative was essentially a survival tool. I think with my mother it was more of an attempt to be seen in a neighborhood where basically a lot of people are invisible.
REHMWhat about at school? Did people accept you as an American Indian?
SKYHORSEI mean, elementary school and junior high school, yeah, because I feel like kids had that sort of like that block where basically it's like, oh you're an American Indian. Sure whatever, you know. Like, do you have cool toys to go home and play with?
SKYHORSESo I was more popular because I had transformers then because, like, I was the local Indian kid on the block. But right around the time -- you know, around high school when kids become more cynical and more jaded, there was always that sort of like lingering doubt that like, oh you're an Indian. Yeah, okay.
SKYHORSEThere was actually this incident where, you know, my first girlfriend in high school was Vietnamese. And I figured like, well, you know, we've been together about six weeks and so we're clearly going to be together for the rest of our lives so I should tell her that I was, you know, Mexican. And she dumped me. And she dumped me because, you know, when she first moved to the neighborhood it was Mexicans that were the ones that were taunting her, teasing her, was cruel to her family.
REHMOh, I see.
SKYHORSEAnd she literally had this incredibly visceral reaction. And so everyone in the school, all my friends were like, well why'd you two break up? And I said, well because -- and then I had to explain it. I basically had to come out as a Mexican. And, you know, it would've been so much easier, like, if this was on Facebook because I could just, you know, done and upped it, hey, I'm Mexican, guys. You know, sorry for any confusion. But most of the reactions was just kind of like indifference, like, oh you know, weird but whatever.
REHMInteresting. Did your mother actually marry each of these men?
SKYHORSEThere were ceremonies. There were events involved. There were dinners. The second stepfather I had, we went to -- had a Baha'i faith celebration. And, you know, I believe she was part of that religion until she had the ceremony because you could use, like, the ceremonial hall. And then of course once we got married it's like we never went to another, like, meeting or never went back there again.
SKYHORSEMy mother got married in Vegas but she always used aliases. So there was never any, like -- you know, she liked the ceremony. She liked going to the chapel and the whole thing but as far as the paperwork and everything else, you know, she was giving so many pseudonyms and so many aliases that there was never any official paperwork.
REHMHow long did each of these men live with you in that house?
SKYHORSEAbout two to three years. And that was basically because a number of these men, you know, they had wanderlust, they had places to go, things to do, things to steal perhaps. So they weren't necessary, you know, 9:00 to 5:00 guys. And I think that that was part of the allure for my mother. I think that deep down inside she chose men that she knew would not work out. She invested herself in relationships that she felt were basically time-ups, that would basically self destruct. And I think she did that because in part maybe she felt that she wasn't worthy of, like, an actual relationship.
SKYHORSEThe one constant figure through my life has been a man named Frank who my mom started dating in the late '70s and basically became a surrogate father figure.
REHMHow old were you at the time?
SKYHORSEI was four or five years old. And Frank was actually really helpful in reconstructing a lot of the memoir for me because there were things that, you know, holes I had or memories that I had a vague idea of. And, you know, we're still in touch and he's the man that I basically consider my father now. And the first time I met him I came up to him holding a book. And he's like, well what do you got there? And I said, oh my Grandmother's reading this. It's the Lincoln Conspiwacy (sic) and I had a lisp. And he's like, wow this kid's something else. He can pronounce Lincoln. And he was just -- he was so impressed. And we just sort of gravitated towards each other.
SKYHORSEAnd really he was the rudder that provided the sort of constant surrogate father figure that I really needed and wanted throughout all of these other father figures.
REHMHow did your mother support you and her mother?
SKYHORSEMy mother was a phone sex operator for a number of years. And initially she worked as a head hunter and she got fired from her position at a place called Manpower. And so the way my mother tells it -- so again, take this whatever grains of salt you need -- is that we were supposedly watching "The Donahue Show" one day. And they had this show on, oh phone sex operators. You know, talk dirty on the phone for money. And supposedly I leaned over to my mom and said, you know, you could do that. And that's how my mom got in the business.
SKYHORSEIf you believe her accurate, you know, telling of the story. And she did that in her own bedroom usually with the door locked for maybe ten to fifteen years.
SKYHORSEThe business, you know, obviously transformed as, you know, went to 900 numbers, etcetera. So I became more affluent about the nature and mechanics of phone sex than probably I would've preferred to. It's like somebody who was in junior high but that's how mom, you know, made ends meet.
REHMHow did your grandmother react to that?
SKYHORSEShe didn't like it. She was very, very against it. And I think that that was one of the things that led to sort of their riff that happened as I got older. My mom really took to it. Not to say that she liked it but she really liked the money that she could make, you know, because it was tax free. You didn't have to report it. You were at home all day. The idea was that she was going to spend more time with me. In actuality she spent less.
SKYHORSESo what happened, as my mom made money she'd give it to my grandmother and then we'd go out and do things. We'd go out to Disneyland, we'd go out to the library, etcetera. But, you know, my grandmother knew what went on in that room and I think that she felt like my mother was demeaning herself.
REHMAnd what about the men who were progressively living in your home?
SKYHORSEYou know, they didn't mind it because they didn't have to do as much work as my mom did because, you know, a number of the men -- two of the stepfathers in particular had prison records. So, again, not to make excuses for them, but it's not like they could just go down to the local shop and, you know, ask, oh hey, do you have a job that we can fill for you?
SKYHORSESo there was money coming in and it wasn't really an issue because, you know, my grandmother basically let us live there rent free. But I don't think it was really anything that, like, you know -- it didn't bother them. But also at the same time, they weren't titillated by it either. It's like, oh you know, can I call you on the line for, like, you know, a freebie or something like that? I think they just accepted that this is who my mom was and was going to stay out of her way.
REHMDid that first man, Paul Skyhorse Johnson ever come to live with you and your mom?
SKYHORSEHe did. He finally made his way out to Los Angeles in about '84 or '85. And he lived with us for about two years. And I was really excited because I thought, oh okay, you know, here is the person that I believe is my father.
REHMThe real father.
SKYHORSEThat was right. Yeah, that was around the time when I had started to suspect that maybe I had another, like, biological father elsewhere. But my mother was so good at shutting down that argument, you know, I didn't really want to have that conversation with her. Also because I was, like, 12. And he made a number of initially promising forays into fatherhood. You know, we spent a lot of time together driving around Los Angeles. You know, he bought a really, like, old car which we spent time working on together. We went to McDonald's a lot.
SKYHORSESo a lot of the sort of stereotypical things that you would expect a father to do, or I expected a father to do. But unfortunately he was also a rampant alcoholic. And it became quite clear at a very short period of time that he wasn't going to last in our house. And because of that he just went out to the bars more. There's a scene where I talk about in the book where, you know, it was like 10:00 at night. I was doing homework and my mom said, you know, Paul isn't home yet. Go to the bar, get him.
SKYHORSEAnd so I had to go to this bar and, you know, again I was like 12 years old. It's like, you know, I don't know what's going on in there. So I basically spent, like -- I had this sort of song and dance with myself, do I go in, do I go out. And finally I went in and then, you know, he was there and then I got kicked out. And then, you know, he basically said, yeah, you know, just leave me alone. Like, just -- you know, just I don't want to be bothered. I don't want to go back to the house. He considered it a prison.
SKYHORSEAnd so when he finally came back he was so drunk he couldn't even walk up the front stairs of our hill. And he just kept rolling back down to the bottom of the hill like a broken top.
REHMYou saw him do that.
SKYHORSEYeah, I saw him. And, you know, that leaves an impact because it was -- there were two things at work. It was like, my god, this person's in so much pain he clearly doesn't want to be a part of this family. He should go. But at the same time it's like, this is my father, right? Like, this is my father. This is the person I feel who'd worked all these years, gotten out of jail to finally come here. I have his name. So it was complicated. And it got more and more complicated the older I got understandably.
REHMAnd he left and never came back.
SKYHORSEHe left in a rush, as most of the men that lived in our house did. I got one phone call from him. I think maybe I was just about to start high school. He called and he said, oh, you know, this is a dead man talking to you, because my mom -- basically what happened when a man left is that they were exiled. They basically were dead. You didn't talk about them anymore. All the pictures removed, letters thrown away, evidence expunged. And I really didn't have anything to say to him. Like I had that block up. I had that sort of like knot in my throat.
SKYHORSEAnd he asked me, he said, what are you doing? How's school? And I gave him very monosyllabic answers like, yes, no, thank you. And he's like, oh so you don't want to talk to me ever again, is that it? I'm like, yeah, I don't. He's like, okay. I'll never bother you again. Goodbye, in exactly that tone of voice. And I never heard from him again.
REHMWhat about your real father? What happened to him?
SKYHORSEMy biological father's name is Candido Ulloa. And my mother and Candido met in Los Angeles in the early 1970s. And if you see photos of them, they look like literally the hottest couple you've ever seen. Like, it's no accident why they got together and why I was created because they looked absolutely smoldering. But they really didn't get along that well.
SKYHORSEAnd, you know, my father just, you know, immigrated to this country from Mexico. He didn't have an excellent command of English. My mother was always on his back. You know, it was basically like, you're not working hard enough. You're not doing this. You're not doing that. And so she kicked him out so many times that basically the last time she kicked him out, which was in '75 or '76, he said, look I'll go but I'm not coming back. And there was this huge argument and, you know, there was violence and stuff.
SKYHORSESo he left. And what he did was he moved in with a friend in east Los Angeles and he basically restarted his life. He met somebody -- he met another woman whose name is Aurora, wonderful woman, and they basically started a new family. And so they then moved to Whittier, Calif. which is about 30 minutes away south of Los Angeles.
SKYHORSESo this entire time my mother's telling me, oh, you know, once I found out about him, she was like, oh, you know, he's been abducted by the Mexican Mafia, he has amnesia, he has, like, you know -- so I threw a brick at his head. All these sort of fantastical tales when in reality it was the simplest explanation. He restarted his life, he got married and he had three children. So I have three brand new sisters that I didn't know existed until about four years ago. So...
REHMAnd now you are in close touch with him.
SKYHORSEYeah, I am. Actually my sister -- my middle sister Karany just called me last night and said, hey I saw your book in the bookstore and it wasn't placed properly. So I went ahead and sorted it and put it, like, right up in front where it should be.
REHMThat's a good sister at work. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." 800-433-8850. That's the number you can call if you'd like to offer a thought to Brando Skyhorse. His earlier book "The Madonna of Echo Park" received the 2011 PEN/Hemingway Award and the Sue Kaufman Award for First Fiction from the Academy of Arts and Letters. Really quite a prestigious beginning for you.
SKYHORSEIt is, isn't it? Yeah, it sounds so impressive when you're reading it like that. I write literary fiction but I knew that this was a story that I had to write because anything that I write from here on out is going to be mediated by the experiences that I had growing up. And I've had so many people when they hear, oh Brando Skyhorse is such an interesting name, it was just really helpful for me to just kind of put all these stories together.
REHM...really digging through and find out exactly what it was about.
REHMTell us -- describe for us your mother.
SKYHORSEOh my goodness. My mother was...
REHMHow tall was she?
SKYHORSEShe actually wasn't tall. She was like about 5'3", 5'4", but what she could pack in those -- what she could pack in that height was really kind of extraordinary. I've seen pictures of my mother from the time she was like 7 or 8 years old because she didn't purge everything. And fortunately I was able to keep photos of her as like a pudgy, you know, sort of like child with pigtails, you know, growing up in Echo Park.
SKYHORSEAnd then seeing her growing up into this really beautiful young woman with this sort of like, you know, long luscious hair. And, you know, unfortunately she had weigh issues. She fought issues regarding her size most of her life but in the early '70s she was really skinny. And if you were to look at her, look at her facial structure, look at her hair, you would think she was an American Indian. And I think that's part of the reason that her deception worked so well because she had that sort of like, you know, that fiery look. And she also wore lots of, like, you know, Native American-inspired clothes, lots of turquoise jewelry.
SKYHORSEThere's a scene I mention in the book where, you know, she would go to jewelry stores and look at, like, the turquoise and southwestern sections and she'd start feeling the pieces. And, you know, she would tell anyone that was in earshot, this was made by real skin. She was made by a real Indian. You know, and there were -- like, whomever was in the store would kind of gravitate toward her, how do you tell? You know, how do you know? Like, I'm so glad that I met you. Running into Ms. Skyhorse is so amazing.
SKYHORSESo she had this sort of like -- just imagine, like, you know, the hottest sort of '70s version of like, you know, a young American Indian woman you could find. And that was my mother.
REHMAnd as she grew older and gained weight how did you feel about her?
SKYHORSEIt was unfortunate because initially we were travel partners. When we were looking for surrogate fathers for myself, for husbands for her we used to travel around the country, go on Amtrak all the time, met so many people on the trains. It was a wonderful way to travel because she hated flying. It really terrified her. And I felt like we were, like, you know, basically part of a crime-solving duo, you know. Like we would just go to a new town and oh, here we are in Klamath Falls. And like, who's going to meet us here today? You know, like mother and son together.
SKYHORSEAnd as I realized that there was basically no end in sight for this kind of like traveling, this kind of itinerate lifestyle, I slowly started to resent it. And then I really grew to hate it because I felt that at its core I thought, like, we were trying to go out and find some sort of stability for us. When I came to realize it was the journey that my mom was interested in. She really wasn't interested in the actual getting of a person. It was just more about, like, the journey, what was on the horizon.
REHMDid she find someone on one of these journeys?
SKYHORSENo one that lasted really long, to be honest. I think it's one of those things where, you know, the answer that's right in front of you is the answer that you really -- you know, you want to come to grips with. Frank, I feel, was probably the closest that she had to a stable relationship. But, you know, Frank was in his 20's and I think he felt like, I don't want to necessarily get tied down. And my mom was a very complicated person to live with. You know, prone to erratic outbursts and it scared him quite frankly.
SKYHORSESo I feel that if she was going to get close with somebody it probably would've been with Frank. But I'm also sure that it wouldn't have worked out. I think my mom was just perpetually in motion, one of those people that's always in motion.
REHMBrando Skyhorse and his new memoir is titled "Take This Man." Short break here. When we come back we'll open the phones. We'll talk with Richard in Orlando and Jusminda in Wellsville, N.Y. Stay with us.
REHMThe book we're talking about in this hour is titled, "Take This Man." It's a memoir by prize winning writer Brando Skyhorse. And he is talking here about his life, growing up with a different father every two or three years. Here's a first email from Gabe, who says, you sound very well adjusted. Are you able to have normal relationships with others around you, or are you worried about abandonment?
SKYHORSEThat's an incredibly astute question. And yeah, I think all things considered, I am reasonably well adjusted, but I hope that one thing people can get from the book -- there's a section at the end of the book called "Closure," and it's about, maybe about 40 or 50 pages. And it was a theatrically disorganized life, my mother was crazy, my grandmother was complicated. I survived it, but there are scars. And I think that's important. Whenever you have a story like this, to acknowledge what those scars are. And there are certain things that are just harder for me.
SKYHORSEBecause of the way -- well, I 'm incredibly thin skinned. Not necessarily a good trait for an author, because if you go online, anytime you look at anything, somebody's gonna be hating on whatever it is that you're doing. In relationships, I tend to feel more attacked than I actually am. I'm very sensitive. Those are all scars that I know come from living in an environment where, basically, anytime my mother called me, any type of situation she was dissatisfied with, her anger, her dissatisfaction, it could always be turned on me.
SKYHORSESo, it's taken me a lot of years of therapy and several years of Wellbutrin to basically piece those things together. It's really, again, it's important to acknowledge that you can come out of these situations with your sanity reasonably intact, but there's always a cost.
REHMHere's another email, from Carol, who says there is someone out there who had a childhood like mine. My mother sounds so much like Brando's. She was also married five times. It was a very confusing way to grow up. I also did not know my father, but did gain a wonderful dad who has stuck with me to this day.
SKYHORSEOh, thank you so much. That's a really incredible message.
REHMIsn't that wonderful? All right, let's open the phones. 800-433-8850. First to Richard in Orlando, Florida. Hi, you're on the air.
RICHARDHow are you doing, Diane? Love your show.
RICHARDI believe my brother-in-law did time with his dad in -- it was outside of Vandalia, Illinois in the federal prison. Isn't that where he was, your dad, Skyhorse?
SKYHORSEYes, that's correct. He was in Illinois. That's correct.
RICHARDYeah. Yeah, my brother-in-law did, I think, 11 years there, and it was maximum security. That replaced Alcatraz, and as my brother-in-law was telling me about all the different Indians that were there, because it's a federal prison. They fall under the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. That's where they send their maximum security guys at.
RICHARDBut, some of the stories he told about that prison, it was unreal. I mean, it's interesting to listen to him.
SKYHORSEYeah. No, it's one of those things where, you know, that's probably not the ideal place to meet the person that you think your father is, for the first time. But, you know, Paul, when he came to us, he really kept that part of his life compartmentalized. He really didn't spend a lot of time talking about it. Basically, anytime I had a question about like prison, or something to that effect, he would say, well, stick to your books.
REHMAll right, let's go now to Stacy in Cincinnati, Ohio. Hi, you're on the air.
STACYDiane, great to hear you.
STACYI actually was -- I didn't catch all of the show, but I only caught part of, half of it. And one thing that struck me is the idea that perhaps Mr. Skyhorse's mom, or Skyhorse himself, lied about being a Native American. And the first thing I thought to myself was that being Mexican, actually, is not an ethnicity. And that there are native people of Mexico, which is why it was, perhaps, so easy to say that. Because, perhaps, it was true. Now, we, in the US, say Native American as far as like, US Native American, but there are, you know, as in -- we Latinos do get lumped into one big thing of Latino, but there are Euro-Latinos, Afro-Latinos and, of course, the native people of the Americas.
SKYHORSEYeah. That's absolutely true. And that's a really excellent point. I think the issue with my mother, though, is that she was much more interested in sort of like living the stereotypical ideal of what the prototypical American Indian was like. So, it's entirely true that both myself and my mother might actually have Mexican-Indian blood in us, but the person, the persona that she wanted to adopt was basically that of the sort of noble, American Indian brave. And, of course, there's been a whole history of that sort of like, acculturation, in which basically, American Indians have had their sort of names and their identities and their narratives basically taken from them.
SKYHORSEAnd, of course, there's been a whole history of that sort of like, acculturation, in which basically, American Indians have had their sort of names and their identities and their narratives basically taken from them. And that's a whole other complicated discussion to have.
REHMAnd here's a tweet from Bridget, who says your mother sounds bi-polar. Was she ever treated?
SKYHORSEShe wasn't treated. I believe my mother was actually borderline personality disorder.
SKYHORSEYeah, I believe. That's cause I've actually done a little bit of research on this. And there are about six to 10 million Americans that have borderline personality disorder. It's more than bi-polar, it's more than schizophrenia. All of its sort of conditions -- the idea that my mom would sort of like praise -- like, want -- seek attention, and then just get really closed up. The fact that she would have these sort of like violent mood swings, and at the same time, be like the nicest, sweetest person imaginable. Yeah, I'm convinced that she definitely had a mental illness.
SKYHORSEAnd the challenging part would have been, if she had survived, would have been getting her to treatment. Because I'm convinced that she would have said, well, therapy, that's for crazy people.
REHMHow old was she when she died?
SKYHORSEShe was 50-years-old.
REHMAnd how old were you?
SKYHORSEI was, I believe, around 24. I was born in '73, so yeah, around 24 years old.
REHMAnd how did she die?
SKYHORSEMy mother had been, for a number of years, taking speed, in order to lose weight. Because she bought all of those useless, you know, weight loss things that never worked out for her. And she had been dabbling with it throughout the 80s, but the last couple of years of her life, she never left her house. She never went down the stairs, never went for a walk. So, she started taking speed with Fen-Phen, which, as we all know now, was taken off the market. And yeah, I mean, the last time I spoke to her was on a Saturday. She sounded great. She sounded upbeat.
SKYHORSEAnd then a couple days later, she had passed away in bed. And the autopsy report said that she had something called dilated cardio myopathy, which basically means the elasticity of the heart's walls just gave out.
SKYHORSEThe heart just stopped pumping.
REHMYeah. And in large part, indeed.
REHMHow did she manage to put you through college?
SKYHORSEWell, I don't know how much she put me through college, but let's just say when I agreed to go to Stanford University, I was a recipient of an extraordinarily generous financial aid package.
SKYHORSESo, it was through, basically, loans and grants and moneys that was donated, you know, cause again, they have a large endowment that allowed me to have my education there.
REHMSo, you were clearly very bright in high school. You applied for, or what?
SKYHORSEWell no, I was like yeah, I did okay in high school. I think, yeah, no, I undersell it a little bit. But I always saw college less as a means of like, oh, I want to go to a franchise school like Stanford, Harvard, Yale. I just wanted to get out of the house, because I knew somewhere, somehow, that if I had stayed in Los Angeles and gone to a Los Angeles school, like, I might not have survived. I might have just got like sucked into the house and become some sort of permanent caretaker, which I really didn't want to be.
SKYHORSESo, when I saw the opportunity to basically take off, to basically, you know, do what all these other men had done to my mother, I felt, how -- what's the furthest I can get away from her, and Stanford seemed like the compromise solution.
REHMAnd how much were you in touch with her during those years?
SKYHORSEThat was challenging, because my mom didn't take me leaving her that well. So, this is again, pre-internet, pre-email. Or, at least, certainly, we didn't get email until like, second or third year, but she would call and leave messages on my answering machine, sometimes as many as 10 to 15 in a week, and she was always filled with anger and fury and then sadness, and then discontent. And then, you know, please call me back, and it was really challenging, because she seemed to have this intuitive sense of like calling me whenever I was like trying to study for a test, or whenever there was a mid-term.
SKYHORSEOr when I was like prepping for finals. I had to drop everything and take care of her, as best as I could. I just simply couldn't do it, so I didn't make the most of my Stanford experience as I would have liked to, because I felt that I was torn between this college life that I wanted to live and still trying to take care of my mother, in some way.
REHMAnd yet here's an email from Susan, who says, I remember Brando from his earliest fiction classes at Stanford, which I had the privilege to teach as a lecturer at that time. Even then, she says, you could see he took such risks with his writing and put his heart on every page, every time.
SKYHORSEOh, thank you. Thank you, Susan. I'm glad that...
REHMIsn't that wonderful?
SKYHORSEYes. That's really -- that's incredible. I'm really glad and gratified to hear that.
REHMWere you writing from an early age?
SKYHORSEI want to say yes, but no. I started writing to impress a girl. The aforementioned relationship -- the girl that broke up with me...
SKYHORSEWhen we decided to officially become a couple, she said well, how did it happen? How did it begin? Write it down. Write it like a story. And I thought, wow. That's a really weird thing to request, but sure. Why not? So, you know, I went away and I wrote it. And then, like, you know, I gave her, basically, a stack of pages and she said, Brando, this is over 80 pages. And she started giving me that creepy look, like wait. Did I make a mistake with this guy? And I was like, but I thought you wanted the whole story, cause it started in eleventh grade and such.
SKYHORSEAnd so, she flippantly said wow, maybe you could do this for a living.
REHMSo that seed was planted.
SKYHORSEI think she planted the seed. I don't know how much responsibility she wants to take for that, but...
REHMThat's great. All right, let's go to Carrie in Hyattsville, Maryland. Hi, you're on the air.
CARRIEThank you, Diane, for taking my call.
CARRIEI just -- a very quick question, which I can probably take the answer off the air. I was married, in the 70s, to a pathological liar, who was very definitely a very good storyteller, but was just, basically, incapable of telling the truth. The person I was married to was not the person he turned out to be when he was, unfortunately killed in a car accident. And all of a sudden, the truth came out. And I'm just wondering what the -- might be the difference between a really good storyteller and someone who just cannot tell the truth, no matter what.
SKYHORSEThat's a really exceptional question, and it's obviously something that I've spent a lot of time thinking about. I think the difference is that a storyteller has its audience at its heart. The idea of the story. You are giving something to the audience. It's for their benefit. The difference between that and a liar is somebody who is telling you stories solely for their benefit. It's solely for themselves, because they think they can get something out of it. So, while many people often walk that line, and my mom -- she certainly walked about as thin a razor of that line, as you can imagine, I'd like to believe, generously, that in the end, she had her audience's interest at heart. Maybe that makes me naive, but that's what I'd like to believe.
REHMI wonder, though, whether you're ever tempted to cross that line yourself?
SKYHORSEOh sure. No, I mean, you know, like I said, for a number of years after I knew what the truth was, after I knew I was Mexican, you know, I continued to tell the story. Because of course, wow, Brando Skyhorse. What a name, right? Like, who wouldn't like the attention that you get? Every time I go and check into a hotel, every time I give reservations, like, you know, it's, you get that wow, that's really amazing. But, at a certain point, you realize that there's an enormous cost that comes with it. So, I'd rather relegate my storytelling to fiction.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." It, certainly, I think, does, as soon as you see that name on the cover of your book, one is really, really drawn into it. Here's an email from Charlotte, who says, I am the single mom of a little boy whose father has never wanted to meet him. He's completely out of the picture. Other than not lying to my son, the way your mother did to you, or having a revolving door of father figures, what can I do to make the gaping absence of a father easier for my son to deal with as he grows up?
SKYHORSEThat's an incredibly heartbreaking question, and I think that, again, this is something I've spent a lot of time thinking about, you know, just be the best mom you can be. Because I think, in the end, ideally, we all want fathers, we all want mothers, we all want the sort of perfect picture family. And I think the one thing I would have relayed to my mother, if I'd had the opportunity, is that, in the end, we didn't really need a guy. I didn't really need, necessarily -- like, a father would have been great. But just in the same way, you learn how to adapt your life to the circumstances that you are given.
SKYHORSESo, if you could be the best mother that you're capable of being, and if perhaps there is a father surrogate in your family or in your life or somewhere, that's enough. You don't have to go out and chase this sort of ineffable thing that's out there, cause it's probably not out there.
REHMDid you witness your mother pushing one of these fathers out of the house, and if so, what were your internal reactions?
SKYHORSEI witnessed it repeatedly, over a series of fathers. And it really wasn't a question of if, it was a question of when. Because it happened every single time. And it was an evolution of being, initially, very defensive and very protective of my mother to wishing, basically, that my mom would do the same thing to me. Which is a really sad thing to say, but I just got to the point where I just couldn't live that kind of life anymore.
REHMWere you with her when she died?
SKYHORSENo. I wasn't. I had just moved to New York, and again, as sort of a weird sort of sense of timing, I left in December. And she passed away in January. And I had no inkling, it was only a month's time, I had no inkling that anything was wrong with her. And I do remember the last sort of like, you know, goodbye that we had. Like, we hugged, but that was really it. And, you know, quite honestly, if I knew that was gonna be the last time I saw my mother, I would have done a better job of trying to remember everything in its detail about it.
SKYHORSEBecause I really didn't have that sense of closure. I mean, even now, like, I still imagine myself like, things that I'd like to say to my mother that I never got the opportunity to do so. So, I hope that this book is, in some small way, my chance to do that.
REHMLovely. Brando Skyhorse. The book is titled, "Take This Man." Congratulations.
SKYHORSEThank you so much, Diane.
REHMThank you. And thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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