“Iwas a full-blooded Indian boy in a Mexican neighborhood who now had a white older sister that lived on another coast,” writes Brando Skyhorse in his memoir, “Take This Man.’’
Only one of those biographical facts turned out to be true: Echo Park was, in fact, a predominantly Mexican neighborhood in Los Angeles when the author was growing up in the 1970s and ’80s.
But Skyhorse wasn’t full-blooded Indian, nor did he have a white older sister. If the young Brando Skyhorse was constantly searching for a stable sense of identity in his Southern California home, his mother — the source of all information true and imagined — was a genealogical San Andreas Fault.
TAKE THIS MAN: A Memoir
What was it like to grow up the son of Maria Teresa Bonaga/Ulloa/Skyhorse/Zamora, et cetera (she was married five times, though she never divorced her first husband, and Skyhorse omits the surnames of most of his short-time stepfathers)?
To put it a different way: What was it like to grow up the son of a pathological liar? “Much the way certain singers perform a song a different way each time they sing it, my mother told her stories a different way each time she spoke them,” Skyhorse writes. “Her history and her experiences were mercury in a barometer, fluctuating based on what she felt you wanted to believe.”
A young, beautiful Mexican-American woman with long black hair, Maria Bonaga grew up in Echo Park with a mother obsessed with Hollywood. “A manufactured identity is nothing new in Los Angeles,” Skyhorse writes, so it follows that Maria would first get the idea to adopt a wholly invented racial identity while watching the Oscars.
When the Native American actress Sacheen Littlefeather accepted Marlon Brando’s Academy Award for “The Godfather” in 1973, the pregnant Maria turned to her Mexican husband Candido Ulloa and declared that their baby’s name would be Brando. It was “a great name to honor her own nonexistent Indian heritage,” Skyhorse notes in a rare moment of humor.
But of course, a childhood filled with psychological and physical abuse isn’t very funny — or prolonged. “You’re already five years old,” his mother once admonished him: “You’re not a child anymore.”
When Brando was three Maria ditched not only her husband, but her own name and her Mexican identity, too.
Brando Ulloa became Brando Skyhorse Johnson, adopted son of an imprisoned American Indian Movement activist whom she met after placing a (dishonest) personal ad: “Young, single Indian mother searching for a good Indian father and devoted husband.” Maria became Running Deer Skyhorse, and she and her son suddenly became Native Americans.
Skyhorse’s memoir is structured as a succession of portraits of would-be fathers, some sweet, some surly, all hapless and ultimately doomed to dismissal by his mother’s insanity and abuse. “First I was forced to accept” each new father figure, Skyhorse writes, “then slowly I trusted them, then I grew to love them. Then they left.”
The repetition of this theme, while essential to understanding the troubled young man he became, can sometimes be wearing. We, too, know that each new father, however exciting at first — Frank, the bumbling straight man; Robert, the sexy Aleutian thief — will eventually misstep and then suddenly disappear.
Yet Skyhorse is a thoughtful, lyrical writer, and his memoir is filled with epigrammatic observations that keep his story from becoming a mere catalog of misery. He writes of his family: “The difference between a leap of faith and a leap of madness depends on where you land.”
Skyhorse never stops loving his mother. If anything, he’s angrier with his biological father for leaving the family; his mother was maddening, but she was also always present in his life. And they shared something else, too. “My mother lied in her stories for the same reason I’ve told the truth in this one . . . stories sustain us,” he writes.
Like his mother, Brando became a storyteller. He understands why she couldn’t stop reinventing her own life. “[Stories] carry us through the lives we convince ourselves we can’t escape,” he writes, “to get to the lives we ought or need to live instead.”