The most stunning, clarity-sharpening words said in this dark week were not uttered by an elected official or fulminating columnist.
Instead, they were the words of Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer, who was killed last weekend in Charlottesville. “They tried to kill my child to shut her up. Well guess what, you just magnified her.”
Bro was speaking at her daughter’s memorial service, and just as those words earned a standing ovation and much whooping, so Bro’s presence on TV this week has been both refreshing and radical.
Anyone who has experienced them knows that grief and loss are far from linear. TV shows and films may show a loved one die, their surviving kith and kin struggle, and then—final reel—all arriving to a sunny upland of understanding and acceptance.
People expect many things of the grieving: that they will be too sad to function, that they will be OK in time, that time will heal.
Real life is not so prosaic and scripted. Grief comes, goes, comes again. The reality of grief and its effects stretches across years. It changes shape, it is not linear. You learn to accept its presence as a kind of permanent if unseen house-guest.
In the short, and even long, term grief can immobilize and it also can—as it has for Bro—galvanize. If you saw her multi-textured, impassioned and warm speech at Heyer’s memorial service you will have seen this; and in her interviews with CNN before that service, and on ABC’s Good Morning America on Friday where she revealed she would not speak to Trump.
As Bro herself noted, to lose a child is the ultimate upset of the natural order, but from her there have not been tears and homilies, and she shows no sign of wanting to be patronized and mollified by TV anchors.
Indeed, the oddest thing in her TV encounters has been to watch her interviewers slightly struggle to speak to a mother in command of what she is saying, who—even when her voice breaks with upset—is precise in her thoughts, and who will not play the “mother of the victim” in the conventional composition of that media trope.
What comes through most when she speaks is the sheer, awed respect Bro had for her daughter, and the clear-sighted way she saw her, and how both fed into her love for her.
This was a young woman Bro admired as a person as well as her child. This was also a child who could be tough to be around, Bro said—a mother telling the truth about a child, the truth of a life of many shades, the truth of the many calibrations of a loving family.
Heather’s legacy, for Bro, should be that others take their place in the world, and do not walk on by; to confront, however tough, that which isn’t right.
Because of the grieving parents you may have seen on TV, and how you expect how a parent might behave after the loss of a child, alongside the treacly sentimentalism TV invites, Susan Bro’s appearances this week have been remarkable.
Most obviously, and ironically, the clarity and directness with which she has spoken about her daughter, who was killed by a car which drove into a group of counter-protesters last weekend, has been in marked contrast to President Trump.
His words have been a widely condemned conflagration of offense and inanity. Bro’s words, in contrast—and at what must be the most awful time of her life being played out in the public eye—have been deeply felt, precise, and politically and culturally nuanced. They are a call to action and connection, not arms and destruction.
‘You Never Think You’re Going to Bury Your Child’
Bro began her memorial service address by repeating Heyer’s famous Facebook post: “If you're not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” She paid attention, her mother added, she made a lot of us pay attention.
Dinner with Heyer, she told the audience, could be “an ordeal of listening.” Sometimes her husband went out to play a video game. But she and Heather would grill, and talk, and Susan would listen. Her daughter was single, so Susan got “a lot of it.”
The humanity—the moves from warm and funny memory to the horror of her daughter’s death, to what it meant—is stunning in this address.
Bro ruminated on how she had not taken a recent picture of her, which had been requested since Heyer’s death. She had them of Heyer as a girl, but you had to go Facebook to find new pictures of her, where she and Heyer themselves checked in before bedtime. “You never think you’re going to bury your child.”
A small, private funeral was not who Heather was, her mother said. “Go big and large, and have the world involved.”
Yes, Heyer was caring and compassionate, her mother said, but so are “a lot of you.” The reason her death struck a chord was that “we know what she did was achievable,” although we shouldn’t have to sacrifice our lives to achieve it.
When she said, “They tried to kill my child to shut her up. Well guess what, you just magnified her,” it received a standing ovation and whoops. It set out her stall, and it also spoke for so many.
“I want this to spread. I don't want this to die,” Bro added. “This is just the beginning of Heather’s legacy.”
She asked people to find in their hearts “that small spark of accountability,” to motivate them to confront injustice, “to take that extra step.” Heyer was “no saint,” her mother said with the wry knowledge only a mother has, but she was a firm believer in what she believed. It was necessary, Bro added, to have difficult dialogue, to have differences (as her daughter’s Facebook conversations showed), but channel that “into righteous action.”
Imagine, as Bro did here, rationalizing how “to make my child’s death worthwhile.” But in that call to action and call to purpose, she aimed to do just that. “I’d rather have my child, but by golly if I have to give her up we're going to make it count,” she concluded to another standing ovation.
‘You Have Ruined Your Life, and You've Disturbed Mine’
Before the funeral, and before Donald Trump backtracked on his carefully (and criticized as way too late) prepared statement mentioning white supremacists by name, Bro spoke to Anderson Cooper. She was measured as she talked about Heyer’s belief in challenging that which she saw as unfair. It was only now that Bro was hearing stories of Heyer protecting others on the school bus and other vulnerable kids; Heyer had never mentioned such incidents. “I was so awed by that,” Bro said.
Her voice cracked as she recalled hearing that something had happened last Saturday.
Cooper asked how she felt about Heyer’s alleged killer. First, she said that he was an adult, he made his own decisions. He thought, she said, that hate was the solution and she hoped that one day he would see that was not the case. She was sorry for the pain he was going through, and she hoped he was sorry for the pain he was putting his mother through.
Then, utterly composed, she added: “I’m also extremely sorry he chose to kill my child and injure a bunch of other people. He didn't have the right to do that. You have ruined your life, and you've disturbed mine. You took my child from me, and I’m going to be the voice she can no longer be. And so you gave us a national forum and maybe I should thank you for that, but I can’t. I would rather have my child.”
Cooper didn’t look stunned, but he also didn’t know how to really follow up on that; Bro’s words said it all, and were said so incontrovertibly.
Heyer would want, as does Bro, that people be accountable for what they do, Bro said. She concluded emphatically: “There is no excuse for hatred, no excuse for bigotry, and no excuse for discrimination.” Again, Cooper could not really add anything, and again Bro had defied the simplistic TV stereotype of the grieving parent. She was saying so much more than simply how bereft she was.
‘You Can’t Wash This One Away By Shaking My Hand and Saying, “I’m Sorry”’
In her GMA interview with Robin Roberts, Bro talked about the well-wishers whose missives were holding her together. She had been amazed at how far her words at the funeral had reached, but I think it’s because she spoke as an honest and admiring parent.
She was already aware how politicians and others were trying to capitalize on Heyer’s death, which made her “leery.”
As to whether she had spoken to President Trump, Bro was clear: “I have not, and now I will not.” A flurry of calls from the White House had come, during the funeral of all times. Then she saw him re-equating the white supremacist protesters with the counter-protesters. “I’m not talking to the president right now,” she said. I’m sorry after what he said about my child… You can’t wash this one away by shaking my hand and saying, ‘I’m sorry.’ I’m not forgiving for that.”
Roberts asked, what would she say to him.
“Think before you speak,” said Bro, tightly.
That’s what mommas say to their children, Roberts said (puzzlingly), which Bro utterly ignored.
Remembering her daughter, Bro noted “that tenacious, stubborn spirit that just would not let you get by with a half-assed answer. You had to get to the truth. You had to get to the bottom. You had to get to the nitty gritty of it. She was not going to let go.”
Afterwards, Roberts noted that Bro had herself received death threats, but would continue her daughter’s mission.
Roberts’ colleague couldn’t help adding, “A mom on a mission.” But Susan Bro is not the “mom” early morning television targets so narrowly, with fashion looks, cooking segments, and ‘back-to-school bargains.’ Bro is a person, part of that identity including being a mother and a mother currently grieving the loss of her child.
She clearly respected and loved her daughter as a whole, complex person, too. In that memorial address and in her TV interviews, Bro vocalized what loving the totality of a person really means, and how profoundly personal the political can be. In Bro’s spare, heartfelt words we see the truth of love and memory.
Often it is children who continue a parent’s legacy, but not for Susan Bro. In the best testament to her daughter’s activism and beliefs, she will, you hope, do things her way.