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Review and praise of Into the Briar Patch: A Family Memoir

"Long before family historians begin formal research, they pass through an informal stage of inquiry. This casual phase, in which an outwardly passive child or adolescent absorbs lore handed down through the generations, is nearly universal. Most of us do it at one time or another. In some cases, that child or adolescent ponders those stories and formulates, over the years, a surprisingly pointed series of questions and tentative answers. Then comes the formal research and, if we're lucky, an astute and graceful account of one family's origins.

"In Mariann Regan's case, we've been lucky. Her memoir Into the Briar Patch explores the legacy of slaveholding as it plays out in one American family. Mariann—we’ve become friendly through our blogs and on Twitter, so I'll use her first name here—opens her story with an account of a catastrophic fire that tore through the family home in 1915. Her mother, then an infant, was thrust into the arms of her seven-year-old sister Ansie, who ran from the flames, carrying the infant to safety. Save the baby, the adults cried, save the baby, and Saving the Baby becomes thereafter a recurring metaphor in Mariann's chronicle.

"Mariann pursues this theme through the labyrinth of her family history. The metaphorical baby being saved varies with each episode. We witness strenuous, even heroic, efforts to save the family farm, wayward children, individual reputations, and the family's collective self-concept. Baby-saving becomes an endless task for this family, which seems fundamentally compromised by its slaveholding past.

"In Mariann's view, America's odious trade in human beings had far-reaching effects, not only on its practitioners and victims, but also on their descendants. Among the practitioners, guilt and fear were the chief burdens—guilt arising from an awareness of slavery's intrinsic immorality, fear from a realization that numerically superior blacks could, if aroused, easily wipe out their white overseers. These two primal emotions lead to an endless and contradictory search for expiation and justification, as well as a need to display courage and cultivate physical strength.

"Mariann's research is impressive. Drawing on historical accounts, courthouse records, family papers, interviews, and correspondence, she traces the lives of her forebears as they wrestle with their complex family legacy. We meet strong-willed landowners and sharecroppers, an intrepid sheriff's deputy, a missionary, teachers, and doctors. Augmenting her research with insightful analysis, Mariann draws on the writings of Montaigne, Alice Miller, Langston Hughes, Henry Louis Gates, and others to sketch an insightful and compelling theory of white racism and black resistance.

"These last two qualities are in the end the most gratifying. While some writers and readers may see the memoir as a vehicle for catharsis, there is something overrated about blowing your stack, or having it blown for you. With her mix of deep research and keen analysis, scrupulous honesty and emotional restraint, my friend Mariann has created a moving account of one family's experience with America's peculiar institution."

  “The Legacy of the Briar Patch,” by Andy Kubrin. February 3, 2013


 

"Regan recounts her family's history in the South, particularly in relation to slave ownership. In her memoir's introduction, Regan ... informs readers that she will present the account of her ancestors -- including the period of time in which they and many of their neighbors owned slaves -- without judgment. Pulling from an early established metaphor of 'the baby' a family tries to protect and preserve through all trials and transitions, Regan takes us through riveting details of how her relatives 'saved the baby' by physical wherewithal and classically masculine courage.

"With succinct, rich language that rings in one's ear like a wind chime gently stirred by a slow breeze, Regan describes brushes with death, toughening-up scraps among brothers and practical decisions involving life on the farm. She delineates how many of her family's demonstrable characteristics (i.e.; their go-to methods of protecting 'the baby') were probably hatched, or at least hardened, during the prominent period of slave ownership....

"She shares interesting, well-developed thoughts on how Southern womanhood, particularly inasmuch as it was purported to encompass pitch-perfect purity, was offered as proof that slaveholding was not the barbaric undertaking that Northerners had tagged it. Regan's portrayal of her mother, Maisie, who, as a baby, was saved from a house fire (the event that gave rise to Regan's framing device), is stylistically well-written.... An expansive, accomplished memoir that reverberates with down-home cadence and picturesque rough-and-tumble family memories."

  Kirkus Discoveries, July 1, 2011


 

"Every family history is a journey of one kind or another. Sometimes it's a journey across an ocean. Sometimes it's a journey across the years.

"In the case of Into the Briar Patch, author Mariann Regan takes readers on a journey into the personalities of her family. She burrows Br'er Rabbit-like through the psychological briar patches of her family's past to discover how traits such as emotional tenderness and physical courage often existed alongside emotional and physical abuse.

Using a captivating memoir style, Regan reflects on the historical evidence that suggests her family's traits had their origins in the early 1800s when family members owned slaves in the Carolinas. Her ancestors paid a steep emotional price as they tried to defend an institution as inherently evil as slavery and to see themselves as good and honorable persons at the same time.

"Regan's parents, aunts, uncles and cousins could be genuinely loving and caring folks. Regan recalls how she spent many pleasant summers on the family's historic farm owned by her aunt and uncle. Here she could frolic in the fields with her cousins free of the strictures of home. Such pleasant family stories are among the many wistful and often amusing anecdotes that make up the basket of berries Regan picks from among the thorns.

"Yet there were thorns. Looking back at slavery, Regan sees a connection between a belief in the need for physical discipline to control slaves and physical discipline to control children in her family. Being subjected to the arbitrary will of a more powerful person sometimes created fears of unseen demons that children carried into adulthood.

"Regan traces this historic pattern of behavior to her own family. 'I fooled them all,' Regan's father told her shortly before he died. He never explained his cryptic statement that seemed to point to deeply buried fears of a true self being discovered. The reader winces to learn that Regan also found herself subject to frequent physical discipline by her mother. The beatings were designed to ensure that Regan grew up a good girl.

"Regan is able to trace such family patterns of behavior for us without becoming entangled in her own emotional web of briars. Ultimately, Into the Briar Patch shows how our personal story began long before we were even born, and shows how our ancestors just might still be a part of us.

  “A journey into family personalities,” by Ralph Poore, author of Poore Boys in Gray. January 14, 2013


 

“Into the Briar Patch is, first and foremost, the story of a fascinating and quintessentially American family. It’s also the work of a gifted and scrupulous historian, a stylist whose warm voice and nuanced prose keeps you turning the page. Mariann Regan is a writer triply blessed and working at the height of her powers.”

  Peter Duval, author of Rear View, winner of the 2003 Bakeless Prize for Fiction


 

"Into the Briar Patch is a richly textured memoir -- beautifully conveyed through story, anecdote, dialogue and reminiscence -- which brings to life the tangle of relationships binding a strong-minded, yet also deeply loving, Southern farming family from the pre Civil War era to the present. It is also a profound meditation on the mixture of good and evil that we discover in any far-reaching investigation of our personal past.

"First shocked to realize that her 19th century ancestors were slave-holders, Mariann Regan does not flinch from this unwelcome news. Rather, she explores it -- not only to understand better the people she came from, but also to reflect on how otherwise hard-working and god-fearing people can not only participate in, but also assent to, such harm. She offers a central story from her family about her mother Maisie, who was saved as an infant from a burning house by her older sister Ansie, to represent the core values of her extended family. Yet the seemingly simple moral of 'saving the baby' could not address the full range of social dilemmas they faced—where being strong, brave, and responsible in family terms could also place one at the center of racial conflict about 'whose baby was to be saved.'

"Taking a deeper step into this morass, Regan traces the relationship between her family’s experience of slave-holding and the ways they reared their own children -- with an acute sense of care, but also with a belief in the importance of physical discipline -- in order to maintain control, not only of unruly others (like slaves or children), but also of their own unruly wishes or desires. Herself a subject of frequent physical discipline at the hands of her well-educated and socially self-conscious mother, Regan has a first-hand understanding of the pain and humiliation of being subjected to the arbitrary will of a more powerful other.

"Yet this is not a memoir of (belatedly recognized) social guilt, nor does it seek to join the contemporary tide of memoirs documenting various forms of child abuse. What is most unusual -- and most compelling -- about this book is its labor to achieve not only clear-eyed understanding of the past, but also compassion for all of the (living and dead) players involved.

"Into the Briar Patch speaks to everyone who seeks to confront his or her immediate past as well as the entangled roots thereof, which necessarily include larger social conflicts, as well as deeper (and sadder) realizations about the fraught and flawed nature of human relationships, not only within individual families but also within the geo-political societies where we all struggle to live and thrive."

  Madelon Sprengnether, author of Crying at the Movies: A Film Memoir and The Spectral Mother: Freud, Feminism and Psychoanalysis.  Dr. Sprengnether is Regents Professor in the Department of English, at the University of Minnesota.


 

"What do you do when you find unspeakable things in your family history? How do you handle the accurate reporting of what happened? It’s easy to judge others, but I think a fundamental key to really reconstructing your ancestors’ lives is to not judge them. It’s paramount to take a step back from your emotional reaction, and walk in their shoes for a little while. To do this does not mean you approve of everything your ancestors did in their lifetimes, but it allows you to freely explore as much as you can of their lives. In doing this, a researcher can get a more accurate picture of the conditions in which your ancestors lived in and the circumstances in which they went through.

In her book, Into the Briar Patch: A Family Memoir, Mariann S. Regan does a superb job dealing with difficult family history issues. At the beginning of her book, she promises the reader that she will be objective with all information she finds, and she lives up to that promise. She delves into all family relationships she encounters in her family tree and shows the reader the complexities of family relationships.

Additionally, Mariann explores her ancestors who were slaveholders, and gives the reader a glimpse as to the repercussions of slaveholding on her family tree and the relationships contained therein.

As we've seen in several episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? and in the first two episodes of Finding Your Roots, it is not easy for descendants to learn their ancestors were slaves nor is it easy for descendants to learn their ancestors were slaveholders. And I believe in her memoir Mariann takes it past her emotional reaction and carefully looks at her slaveholding ancestors - not to condone the actions - but to fully understand the influence these actions have had on her family tree.

I highly recommend this book to anyone, but especially those who have come across unspeakable circumstances and actions in their family history research, and especially to those who have come across ancestors who were slaveholders. Not only does she give a great example as to how to explore this difficult issue, but her "Works Cited and Selected Bibliography" might be helpful to the researcher as well.

I invite you to visit Mariann’s website, as she has written in other genres as well. She also indicates on her memoir page that she is in the process of writing another memoir, and she includes the surnames of the ancestors that she is currently researching for it. Personally, I would like to know from where her Sanders line originates in America as I have a Sanders line as well from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Thus, I’m eagerly awaiting her next memoir. 

  March 2012 by Caroline Pointer, Genealogist and Family Historian, In2Genealogy Columnist for Shades of the Departed