Brown has titled his upcoming book âDaring Greatly,â and his fans know all about being in the arena. (A recent joke from “Ted Lasso”: “We’re going to hear BrenÃ© Brown read an excerpt from her new book,” Enter the Arena: But Bring a Knife. “)” I’ve never even seen the TED talk, âBrown told me. “Just to be really honest, it’s still painfully difficult for me.”
I first spoke to Brown in March, via Zoom. She was at home in Houston, wearing a green patterned blouse, and her smile was happy and relaxed. âI’m normally nervous for these things, but last night I was, like, anyone who loves Ramona has to be OK,â she said. Beverly Cleary had just died, and I had written a review. Cleary’s writing was fun and “always valid, and it was never too fun,” Brown said. âGiving direct advice is difficult for me – I didn’t want to escape my family for more of it. “
Brown was born in 1965 in San Antonio. Her parents, Charles and Deanne, “were both from southern San Antonio and had a lot of grief,” she said. (Brown often uses âSouthside San Antonioâ as an abbreviation – as in, BrenÃ©’s name is not French, it’s âSouthside San Antonioâ.) Deanne’s mother was an alcoholic; Charles, captain of a football team, “was the wild guy on the verge of trouble all the time,” she said. âBut really smart. My mother was the top of her class and the head of the brigade. They met in high school, got married at age 23, and had BrenÃ© soon after.
Belonging, in Brown’s work, is a cornerstone of the human experience, and she sees her own life as an outsider. In 1969, the family moved to New Orleans, so that his father could attend Loyola Law School. New Orleans schools still fit in and the city, while “wonderful,” she wrote, was also “stifled by racism.” Class lists determined birthday party invitations, and parents saw her name and assumed she was black; she was not invited to many white friends parties and was surprised but accepted at black friends parties. Later, Brown, although an episcopal, attended Catholic school – no longer without belonging – until one day a bishop sent her home with a note that read “BrenÃ© is Catholic now”. (As an adult, she returned to the Episcopal Church.)
Charles became a tax lawyer for Shell and the family moved to Houston; then to DC, so he could work as a lobbyist; then back to Houston. For others, his parents were cool and fun, âMr. and Mrs. B.â, but they fought, and their marriage was slowly unraveling. On top of that, âfears and feelings weren’t really considered, “Brown told me.” We were brought up to be tough. “She described seeing a picture – of her and her younger siblings, as children, on their golden velvet sofa. – and remembered sitting there and reading her parents’ cues, looking for tension. She knew when a fight was coming, when to take her siblings upstairs. “The creation of patterns ended up being a survival skill for me, âshe said.
As a new high school freshman, Brown hoped to find salvation in the drill crew, the Bearkadettes, but was unsuccessful. âMy parents didn’t say a single word,â she writes in âBraving the Wildernessâ (2017). “It became the day that I no longer belonged to my family.” In her final year, she entered the school of her dreams, UT. But Charles, who had left Shell and invested in an oil industry construction company, lost his savings in the oil crisis. “We’ve lost all“Brown told me.” Like the IRS stickers on our cars. There were several suicides in our subdivision, because everyone worked for oil and gas. The guy next door was a big guy. in one of the oil companies, and he ran the local chicken coop.
Her parents divorced, college was dropped, and a certain illusion of security, ingrained in the comfort of the classroom, had been dispelled. âI always think of that song,â Brown said, and sang a bit of âLittle Boxes,â popularized by Pete Seeger, about middle-class conformity. (“… And they all look alike.”) “When you come from the world of little boxes, where everything’s supposed to have some cigarettes out your bedroom window, thinking about how to get out. Brown ran away in. Europe, where she spent six months working at a youth hostel in Brussels, serving as a bar, cleaning rooms and hitchhiking across the continent. “It was completely out of control,” a- she said, “Self-destructive, terrible. That I’m alive is likeâ¦ yeah.”
After returning home, she spent several years in and out of school in San Antonio. (On several occasions she cleaned houses, “played a lot of tennis” and went from “surly steward” to company trainer at AT&T.) In 1987, at twenty-one, she was working as a lifeguard in a pool. , where she befriended another lifeguard, a UT student named Steve Alley. “I credit the time,” she told me. âThat summer it rained for, like, thirty days in a row in June. We spent a lot of time in that little lifeguard hut during thunderstorms, talking and laughing, or walking to the convenience store. and buying Hot Tamales and Slurpees. They both came from the small club world and shared stories about unhappy homes. “Neither of us ever had someone we talked to about the tough things about our life, “she said. They married in 1994. (Steve is now a pediatrician; their son, Charlie, is in high school and their daughter, Ellen, is in college.)
Recently, Brown drove his mother to the Old Quarter. âEach of these houses has a story that would bring you to your knees,â she said. âAddiction, suicide, violence. It was never what everyone claimed to be. You didn’t know that as a child. You know that as a shame seeker, however, you can bet your ass on this. “
Early in Brown’s career, Steve asked her what her dream was, and she said, âI want to start a global conversation about vulnerability and shame. This vision took a long time to become clear. After finding her rhythm in community college, she enrolled in UT (she didn’t graduate until 1995: âthe twelve-year plan,â she told me.) There. down, she befriended another UT student, Charles Kiley, who, like her, was a bit older than their peers. As waiters, they had different styles, Kiley told me. âI liked the high volume, a lot of people coming in and outâ; Brown loved to talk to his clients, “getting their life story”.
She was then a passionate student. One day, as she walked to the history department via the social work building, she stumbled upon a workers’ rights protest and was impressed by its energy and diversity. She had also read her first psychology book, “The Dance of Anger” by Harriet Lerner, which Deanne, in post-divorce therapy, had given her. (âI remember reading it and thinking, ‘I’m not alone!’ Brown wrote.) She moved on to social work and eventually enrolled in MSW and PhD. programs at the University of Houston. While working in a children’s residential treatment center, she encountered a striking idea during a staff meeting. âYou can’t shame or put people down to change their behavior,â a clinical director told the group.
Brown began to think about shame and behavior. As part of her masters program, she interviewed Deanne for a family genogram and found that “what had been disguised as a difficult life” among loved ones was addiction and mental health issues. She went to AA, where a godfather suggested that she quit drinking, smoking, eating emotionally, and trying to control her family’s seizures. (Great, Brown thought.) She’s been sober ever since. Sobriety helped her understand the instinct to âgo out of the wayâ as a desire to numb and control emotions.
The importance of welcoming these emotions, both joyful and painful, has been reinforced by his research. In her graduate program, Brown was rarely a qualitative researcher. Rather than using tests and statistics to measure phenomena, she interviewed a diverse group of people on certain topics and then coded the data, monitoring for themes to emerge. (This theory-based methodology was developed in the mid-1960s by sociologists Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss.) Unlike guilt (“I did something wrong”), which held her responsible. She found a supportive mentor in social work professor and femicide expert Karen Stout, who told her, âWhen it comes to women being killed by intimate partners, I wish all we had to do was to put numbers in front of people. But we also need the stories.
After completing his doctorate, Brown wrote a book on Women and Shame, ultimately titled “I Thought It Was Just Me.” It was rejected by the specialist editors, so she published it herself. She fought her own shame about it: having a âbook published out of vanity,â as a college colleague called it, was like a failure. She sold copies of her car’s trunk at events and stored the rest in Charles Kiley’s guest bedroom. Then, on a night out with friends, at what she called a “magical night”, she met Harriet Lerner. âI liked BrenÃ© from the start,â Lerner told me. She also sympathized with it: âThe Dance of Anger,â the first of Lerner’s many bestsellers, had been rejected for five years. “And what I learned was that the border between a New Yorker Times The bestselling author and someone who is never published is indeed a very thin line, âLerner said. She helped connect Brown with an agent; within three months, Brown had a book contract.