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Brando Skyhorse: What it's like growing up in Echo Park with 5 stepfathers

Brando Skyhorse, right, with Frank, one of his five fathers. They're posing at the Echo Park boathouse, in the neighborhood Skyhorse describes in his memoir,
Brando Skyhorse, right, with Frank, one of his five fathers. They're posing at the Echo Park boathouse, in the neighborhood Skyhorse describes in his memoir, "Take This Man."
John Rabe

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Off-Ramp host John Rabe spoke with Brando Skyhorse about his memoir "Take This Man," which details the astounding lies his mother told him about his father and family. They talked at the Echo Park boathouse. Frank, one of Skyhorse's five stepfathers, joined the interview. We've posted the entire, unedited interview here as a bonus for our online family.

I was three years old when my father abandoned me and my mother in my grandmother’s house atop a crooked hill on Portia Street in a Los Angeles neighborhood called Echo Park. My mother, Maria Teresa, a Mexican who wanted to be an American Indian, transformed me into Brando Skyhorse, a full-blooded American Indian brave. I became the son of Paul Skyhorse Johnson, an American Indian activist incarcerated for armed robbery whom my mother had met through the mail. She became Running Deer Skyhorse, a full-blooded “squaw” who had traded in her most common of Mexican names for the most stereotypical of Indian ones. 

My mother was mesmerizing and could make crazy schemes and lies sound electric and honest. Her deception was so good, or so obvious, she fooled each of her five husbands, our neighbors, her friends, my elementary school vice principal, even me. I lived most of my childhood without knowing who I really was. All I knew was the power in my own name: “Brando Skyhorse? That’s beautiful.” 

— The opening of Brando Skyhorse's memoir, "Take This Man" (read more here)


John Rabe: You start your memoir, "Take This Man," by telling readers the secret of your life — the thing it took you years to discover. Why'd you make that decision? 

Brando Skyhorse: I figured that in order to be honest with myself and with the reader, I needed to put that information up front. Because this isn't really a "whodunnit," it's a "whydunnit" ... It's a simple story of reinvention but it's so complicated and there's so many dimensions to it. It was important to me to give that information to the readers up front so that they didn't have to keep constantly puzzling as they're reading the book, "Wait, what's true? What's false?"

Tell me about your mom. She invented a whole history for you, a whole history for herself.

Brando: My mother was one of those electric personalities that really was the center of attention wherever she went. She was beautiful, she was dynamic, she had this sort of overflowing personality. And I think she wanted to be more than what she was and I think she saw herself as just this sort of, like, simple, Mexican-American young woman living in a neighborhood that nobody really cared about. But if she could reinvent herself as an American-Indian and become something fantastic — I mean, when was the last time you met an authentic American Indian?

[To Frank, one of Skyhorse's "five fathers"] Did you eventually feel angry because she lied to you?

Frank: No, because I'm looking at the offshoot of the relationship, and I was telling Brando, one thing I remember she said to me, "I will never take Brando away from you." And I held her to that. And hell, to this day, she's no longer here, but we're here as father and son. So I really appreciated that. 

[To Frank] From your position, what did her fabrications do to Brando as you watched him grow up?

Frank: I think it confused him, but it also gave him a sense of who he really was when he finally found out. Then he also embraced his true heritage, his true ethnicity. And I think it helped him grow as an individual.

So, Brando, was this "the pain that made you stronger?" I've always hated that phrase because it involves pain.

Brando: The situation is what it is. So, one can either accept the parameters of it and say, "Here's the pain that was caused, here's basically the ways you can try and manage it," or you can try to run from it. And I think there are certainly periods in my life where I tried to run from the pain, where I tried to deny who I was, or to just tell people the convenient lie that my mom had planned for me. Because not only was it so much easier and less complicated, it really seemed to be what people wanted to hear.

How important is it to have Frank in your life?

Brando: Frank's the rudder. When I tell people what my book's about, it's like, "Oh, you know, I had five fathers, I had a really crazy childhood, my mom was really complicated, my grandmother was really complicated." The one sort of steady presence throughout this book, and the reason that it doesn't read like a grim catalog of just horrible atrocities, is because of Frank. Frank's the light, Frank is basically the redemption.

And after all of this, after all the hell your grandmother and mother put you through, you dedicate the book to them. 

Brando: You know, it was a hell, but hell can be quite comfortable sometimes. And more specifically, it was my hell. So I'm actually pretty darn proud of that hell. And if anything, I would love for people reading this book, who are perhaps going through their own versions of hell, to understand that there's always a way out of hell.

Brando Skyhorse will be at Skylight Books in Los Feliz Wednesday night to read and sign "Take This Man." Visit Brando's website for more information on his work.