Elena Bowes

New York-London design & culture writer of a certain vintage looking for meaning and wholeness in life

Q&A with Brittany Means- Hell If We Don’t Change Our Ways: A Memoir

November 27th, 2023
Books & Authors

Not since The Glass Castle have I read a memoir so moving and so beautifully told as Hell If We Don’t Change Our Ways by Brittany Means.

Here is an excerpt:

IN-67 stretches diagonally across Indiana like a seat belt. All that time I spent thinking it would take us far away, and it turns out it doesn’t even leave the state. It was never an escape route. Years later-I must have been around ten years-old-my mother would tell me she tried to walk in front of a car on that road.

“They wouldn’t hit me,” she told me. They just kept going. It made me so angry.”

What could I say? I pictured her lurching out into the headlights, the sharp swerve, close enough to blow her hair back. Her teeth bared, growling at the receding headlights.

“I’m glad you didn’t get hit,” I said. The necessary thing to say. Heartfelt. Limp as the day-old bouquet of wildflowers I’d once picked for her and left on the dashboard.

Hell If We Don’t Change Our Ways is a superbly told memoir about Mean’s harrowing childhood where she spent time living in a car, homeless, with her mother or with various family members including her fervently Pentecostal grandparents. Means’ childhood was traumatic and colourful. This is a story about a mother-daughter relationship, family trauma, breaking cycles, and forgiveness. Below is my Q&A with the Albuquerque-based writer.

I wonder if you have any regrets. Your story was so devastating at times and painful to read, but read I did because you write like an angel. I’m just wondering about regrets because without the complicated life you led, you wouldn’t be you?

What an incredible compliment! Thank you!! There are certainly things in my life I wish I had done differently. I wish I had been more critical of certain beliefs about myself and the world sooner. I wish I’d gone outside and checked on Ben. I wish I had never hurt anyone else in the process of learning how to be better. I wish I’d reached out to Luis and checked on him. I wish I would have used a lunch tray to beat certain bullies about the head in middle school. I wish the watermelon mint Smart water flavor had not been discontinued. But I’m only able to make these wishes in retrospect. I’m only able to regret now that I know better. It doesn’t make sense to get mad at myself anymore because it was a different version of me who did or didn’t do those things, and she couldn’t have done it differently because she doesn’t know what I know, and so it doesn’t make sense to get mad at her either. And Smart water, if you’re reading this, come on.

How did you deal with writing about people who hurt you who you love?

My main goal is to hold all of it at the same time without falling into a binary. It can be true that someone harmed you and loves you and failed and did their best. None of these things has to contradict the others. I always want it to come through that I loved them and that they’re complex people with inner lives as rich and meaningful as my own. Even the people I had to walk away from permanently.

 If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

I can’t imagine a life where I’m not a writer or storyteller in some way. If I didn’t write books, I would write for TV or movies or video games or freelance breakup letters or something. If I got hit in the head by a rock in the exact spot that made me incapable of writing though, and if that collision also coincided with the glorious downfall of capitalism, I would love to spend all my time doing things like gardening and playing my violin and cleaning and solving puzzles and learning how to make household repairs. But alas.

Tell us something surprising about yourself.

Most people are very surprised when they learn this, but I’ve actually never officially been named Sexiest Man Alive.

The rest of my Q&A with the witty and supremely talented Means can be found here on UK writers’ site 26. There you’ll learn about the value of writing mentors and chickens.

November, 2023

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