Telling the Story
By Jon Silman
They met in Boston when she was 17. Upton Brady was older, a Harvard man with “the bluest eyes I’d ever seen.” Sally Ryder was a high school student visiting Boston for a dance. She remembers even now how he cut in, and she felt immediately as though she knew what his next dance step was going to be. They fit together.
They met again four years later, and after an 18-month courtship, Upton pleaded with her to marry him. “I cannot live without you,” he said, tears in his eyes, as they walked the beach in Newport, R.I. She couldn’t wrap her head around the notion that the most accomplished person she’d ever met couldn’t live without her. “Surely not,” she said in disbelief.
But marry they did, and it lasted 46 years, although it was not free of trouble. Upton, for many years editor-in-chief of the Atlantic Monthly Press, was sometimes abusive and frequently drunk. But they carried on.
Three years ago, Upton Brady died unexpectedly of heart failure, 12 years after the couple moved to Hartland. Soon after, Sally Ryder Brady made a discovery that led her to question the validity of their long union. While sorting through his belongings, she found gay pornography hidden beneath the dust jacket of a book of short stories. It was shattering, even though Upton had acknowledged on one occasion having had sex with a man, promising never to do so again.
Brady’s candid memoir of her complicated marriage, A Box of Darkness, was released earlier this year by St. Martin’s Press. The title comes from a poem called The Uses of Sorrow, by Mary Oliver:
Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.
Brady’s book is the story of one woman’s attempt to come to terms with difficult truths and find the gift they contained.
And so she did. It took her seven months. She would get up every day “wrapped in mohair and down and be all warm and write” until 4:30 or 5 p.m., eventually falling asleep with the chronology of her marriage in her head.
The result was a memoir that The New York Times called well-written and moving, and about which Entertainment Weekly said: “At its best, Darkness is a fascinating peek into a bygone era of three-martini lunches and receptions that saw John Wayne pass out on the dance floor.”
“This the era of the memoir, and in many ways I think the memoir is doing what used to be exclusively done by the novel,” said Jill Kneerim, Sally Brady’s agent, who also represents authors such as Brad Meltzer and Sue Miller. “In the same way that television is moving over to more reality-based shows, we’re all finding stories in each other’s lives.”
Among these works: Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, written in response to the death of her husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne; National Book Award winner Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story: A Memoir, about the loss of her husband; and New Hampshire poet Donald Hall’s poignant account of the death of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, in Without.
Part of what sets A Box of Darkness apart, however, is that Brady doesn’t try to resolve the issues or provide answers; she just tells the story as it was. Not that it was easy. If anything, writing the story intensified her sense of loss. “I’ve become a welcome wagon for both self-pity and her more important brother, grief. The three of us are thicker than thieves,” she writes.
Lately, she’s been doing promotion for the book, going out into the community and reading passages and meeting people.
“Every time I do a reading, I weep,” she said.
“It’s wonderful to be in this house,” Brady said, sitting at the table for an interview. “It’s easier to remember being with him.”
She’s short, and her white hair is a strong contrast to her striking blue eyes. In conversation, when she has a troubling thought, she’ll close her eyes and bow her head. You can get a sense of hardship from her, but also a calm resilience.
Her literary career began quietly, writing reviews for a short-lived magazine, The Boston Review of the Arts. She was busy with children and the household, but the writing gave her solace and clarity. In 1976, she wrote her first novel,Instar, and in the ’90s she appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show for her two books about celebrating Christmas in New England.
She continues to run the literary agency she operated with Upton, although she’s not taking on any new clients, as well as teaching writing workshops and free-lance editing.
“It was like something clicked, because my father was always a little removed,” he said. “When I found out, it was like ‘Oh, OK,’ that’s why. His whole life he was keeping a secret, it’s like there was always a part of him I didn’t know,” he said.
Looking back on it now, Sally thinks that perhaps Upton thought marrying the prettiest girl he could find would “cure him,” and that a normal life and a family would erase his attraction to men.
She remembers the first time the issue came to light. Sometimes he wouldn’t come home and she’d worry. Because of his drinking, she’d sometimes imagine him dead on the highway or incapacitated in the hospital. One night in particular, he called home drunk and said he was staying with a friend named Edward for the night. He sounded pitiful and apologetic, and she could hear clinking glasses and Edward’s voice. But at least he was safe.
Back at home in the morning, over an untouched breakfast, he looked broken. “I had sex with Edward,” he confessed. He promised it would never happen again.
They carried on, but there were other problems in the marriage.
“I knew he loved me even though he didn’t love himself,” she said. “Even when he was hitting me over the head with a chair.”
That wasn’t the only case of physical abuse Upton inflicted on Sally. One Christmas, after a particularly long day of drinking and fighting, he slapped her in the face and almost pushed her down a flight of stairs. The next day, he acted like nothing had happened.
They stayed married through it all because Upton, despite his demons, tried hard to make the marriage work. He agreed to regular counseling sessions. But even after years of therapy, Sally Brady said, Upton never talked to his therapist about his gay side, and never discussed it with Sally. Whatever the truth was, he took it with him to the grave.
Writing the book intensified the bereavement process, she said, but she’s optimistic, and she keeps herself busy. The journey has been trying, but she came to the conclusion that what she and Upton had really was true love, regardless of the circumstances. Her son Alexander agrees.
“Part of my mother writing this book, from discovering the porn to finishing the book, was finding out that my father really did love her,” he said.
That’s enough for Sally Brady. She’s moved on, as much as anybody who has lost a spouse can. Currently, she’s working on her next book, called Stillwater, a novel about “misplaced passion and enduring love,” themes she knows something about.
“I’m not sitting here wearing black or anything,” she said.