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The Chat with Mary Fairhurst Breen

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Author Nancy Jo Cullen says “Without minimizing her and her family’s experiences, Breen manages to pull off a breezy read that feels a little bit like sitting around a kitchen table reminiscing with an old friend. This book is serious and honest; it’s full of self-awareness, devoid of self-pity and very engaging.”

Mary Fairhurst Breen grew up in the suburbs of Toronto and raised her kids in an artsy, slightly gritty part of the city. A translator by training, she spent thirty years in the not-for-profit sector, managing small organizations with big social-change mandates. She also launched her own arts business, indulging her passion for hand-making, which was a colossally enjoyable and unprofitable venture. Its demise gave her the time and impetus to write her family history for her daughters. She began to publish autobiographical stories, and wound up with her first book, Any Kind of Luck at All.

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Trevor Corkum: Congrats on the publication of your debut memoir, Mary. It’s such a powerful exploration of resilience and a reminder of the vital importance of community in the face of trauma. Can you share more about how and why you decided to write the book?

Mary Fairhurst Breen: Thank you! As I explain in the foreword, excerpted here, I had no notion that I was writing a book to be read by the public when I started. I thought I was writing a very long note to my daughters. But I can’t really think without a pen in my hand (or my hands on a keyboard), so the process helped me find answers to questions that had been plaguing me and impacting my mental health for many years. I kept having moments where I’d read what I’d just written and think, “Oh, that explains it!” even though I was reflecting on my own experience.

TC: In the memoir, you write honestly about several devastating events in your life, including the loss of your daughter to opioid poisoning. Near the end of the book, you share your decision to be open and forthright about how Sophie died, in part to counteract the stigma associated with addiction. Were you surprised at all by the reaction to that decision, and how her story was taken up by the media?

MFB: When Sophie died, I published a very honest obituary in the paper, and the media requests began then. Sometimes I forget how open our family is to sharing our truths. I remember a reporter saying to me, “You sound proud of Sophie,” with some surprise. I made it clear to her that I was immensely proud of my daughter. She had suffered more than most of us can begin to imagine, and had left no stone unturned in her quest to treat the symptoms of her depression, anxiety and PTSD.

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I made it clear to her that I was immensely proud of my daughter. She had suffered more than most of us can begin to imagine ...

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She had a concurrent drug addiction, like so many people with PTSD in particular, and was in recovery. She was already on a cocktail of legal drugs to treat her symptoms, and had tried every form of therapy available. I would like people to understand that she was at her wits' end, and to feel only compassion when they learn that she died of fentanyl poisoning. What difference does it make whether she had a substance use disorder or took an illegal drug? She was in terrible pain and all she wanted was to feel better.

The response to my book from readers and the media have shown me how very far we still have to go. Nothing I say should be news to anyone. Being upfront about mental illness and addiction shouldn’t be an act of bravery. It should be no different than being honest about diabetes or cancer. What encourages me is the number of people who choose to share with me something about their own family’s experience either before or after reading the book. I don’t think there are many people who haven’t been touched by either mental illness or addiction in some way.

TC: One of the great pleasures of the book is its fierce and lively voice, coupled with your wonderful sense of humour. It feels very conversational, as if you’re generously sharing stories and insights with old friends. Did you have a particular audience in mind as you wrote?

MFB: I wanted to break up the heavy stuff with chapters that were funny for a couple of reasons. First of all, who would read a book that was mercilessly tragic? Not me. And more importantly, life is a mix—if not necessarily a balance—of tragedy and comedy. Many years ago, I did stand-up and it felt fantastic. I have very generous friends, who have supported me in so many ways when I needed help. What I can give back is laughter. Making people laugh helps me get out of bed. I can’t always access my sense of humour, and I can’t always get out of bed, but two years after my daughter’s death, I do know the waves of grief will pass.

TC: Among the stories you share is your journey coming out as a lesbian later in life, along with some very poignant (and very often humorous) stories of online dating and relationships. Do you ever imagine some of your dates or old flames reading the book? What’s that like?

MFB: I expect some of them have. Those who got substantial ink were offered the chance to read the parts about them before publication, and I did tweak some language in an effort to be as accurate, gentle, and fair as possible. I know that any two people may have vastly different memories of the same experience. I can only claim to represent my own version of events. Fact is so often funnier than fiction, I found no need to make anything up.

TC: What’s one thing someone’s never asked you about the memoir ... that you secretly wish they would ask? How would you respond?

MFB: It’s hard to imagine something I haven’t already exposed. I feel like I’m standing naked in the street as it is. I guess I’d like to be asked how I pack so much into so few words. I see my brevity as a skill (I can name that emotion in three words!). It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, this sparse style, but I enjoy thinking and talking about why I write like this. Part of it is an artistic choice, and part of it is a reflection of all the training I’ve had as a translator and a literacy worker. The goal of being perfectly clear is deeply ingrained in me.

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Excerpt from Any Kind of Luck At All

For years, one of my daughters or I would joke, “Uh oh, this is going in the book!” Sometimes it was more like, “Well, fuck, this is definitely going in the book.” There was no book at the time, but as our adventures and mis-adventures accumulated, it began to feel like there might need to be one.

The first, very raw, draft of what would eventually become this memoir spewed out of me over the course of five days at the end of 2014 ... What I thought I had made was a document for my daughters that might answer some of the spoken and unspoken questions swirling around us at the time. I hoped it would explain how things had gone so terribly wrong. My original audience was just these two people. I also embarked on a project to digitize and caption images from my huge collection of family photos and ephemera. All I felt I had going for me at the time was the strength of my foremothers. I couldn’t fix anything, but I could at least try to share that with my children.

My therapist once told me, “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone with worse luck than you.” His point being that I shouldn’t blame myself for all the things that have gone awry; only some are the direct result of my life choices. My dad liked the old chestnut, “If it weren’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all!” Maybe it’s the Irish thing; after all, on the Breen side, my story begins with a famine.

I’d like to emphasize that plenty of people have far worse luck than me. I have always had loads of white and middle-class privilege, good food, access to health care, and a roof over my head, though the dwelling underneath it has become less commodious over time.

I have, however, experienced a series of rather momentous clusterfucks and a few cruel losses. I have bollocksed my selection of spouses. I have spent quite a while hovering around the poverty line. I have had to parent mostly unassisted. I have been a mother significantly longer than I had a mother, which has landed me in uncharted territory, where the landscape and its inhabitants can seem rather hostile.

What I inherited from my mother, my grandmother and all the generations of aunts I never met is the ability to cope. I have coped, inelegantly but adequately, with everything that has walloped me so far. My foremothers’ creativity, humour, resilience, and gentleness have given me what power I have to either fight or accept each new development (and perhaps to fully enjoy the good ones too). At this moment in history, when the refusal of reality is wreaking havoc globally, I am especially grateful for this gift.

Excerpted from Any Kind of Luck at All by Mary Fairhurst Breen. Published with permission from Second Story Press.

February 8, 2022
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