“When we drove, it felt like we were traveling just for the sake of traveling. Where we were going or why didn’t matter to me. I never knew, and when I asked, it was only to hear [my mom’s] voice when she answered, ‘To hell if we don’t change our ways!’”—Brittany Means, Hell If We Don’t Change Our Ways
Before we get started, I have a confession. Really, it’s more of a brag, but either way, you should know: Brittany Means, author of Hell If We Don’t Change Our Ways, was my student in the Creative Writing Program at Ball State University. I knew her when, as they say, and from our first days in class together, I was struck by her kindness, talent, intelligence, and gentle ferocity—all of which are abundantly present in her first book.
Back then, Brittany needlepointed a teeny version of our beloved dog Lola for me and I forecast her literary success (along with fellow Hoosier writer, Ashley C. Ford) on Essay Daily—so, no, this is not the sort of review that purports to be wholly objective, but because I make my living reading and writing literary nonfiction, perhaps you’ll believe me when I tell you that Hell If We Don’t Change Our Ways is one of the best memoirs I’ve read in the past decade (and I read a lot of memoirs). Each well-crafted sentence carries the urgency of a debut—a story that must be told, the book the author was born to write—and yet it has the artfulness, the care with language, the dexterity with form, and the psychological maturity of a book by a veteran author. Means asks hard questions and then shows us the truth: “Nothing that happened to me made me monstrous.”
What you’ll encounter here is tough stuff, but Brittany knows the pain of abandonment, and this narrator is determined to take good care of the reader. From the get-go, she invites us in—and as she returns to impossibly difficult events from her childhood so that she might make some sense of them from the perspective of a healing twenty-something, she never forgets we’re there. We move forward together. “I’m telling this story the way I need to tell it. I’m also asking you to be here with me. This isn’t a small request, I realize. These experiences live inside me, and now I’m casting them into you. Forgive me this human hunger.”
A mixed-race child in rural Indiana, Brittany grew up in a maelstrom of God and trauma, hoarding and hunger, love and neglect, addiction and chaos, navigating her own brown skin in a midwestern world. Brittany is a Chicana—“a rape baby,” she hears her white Pentecostal grandmother explain at church. Her small family is always on the run, living out of cars, motels, and relatives’ homes to hide from her mom’s dangerous boyfriend. Brittany suffers profound, prolonged abuse, and to survive, she learns to leave her body, exist in imagination, live in a state of hyper-vigilance. Too young for the responsibility, she fights to keep her mother and her baby brother safe. These are all facts—and the other facts are these: It’s not all bad. There’s a good dog named Puzzums. Sometimes they have fun in the car—singing along to Fleetwood Mac or sleeping in a cozy nest of clothes-stuffed garbage bags, her mom within easy reach. Smart, funny, and endlessly resourceful, Brittany and her brother Ben stay alive through “[t]he ridiculous, inelegant tragedy of it all.”
In Hell If We Don’t Change Our Ways, Brittany takes us to the darkest places—but, chugging cold orange juice right out of the jug in the glow of the refrigerator, she is also generous with her light. Ultimately, a memoir is a journey through the narrator’s mind and Brittany’s mind is a spectacular place—observant and empathetic, hilarious and tender. This is a story so full of love it becomes a kind of metronome for the heart. Read it, and see. Her story will help you navigate being human in this broken, beautiful world.
Jill Christman had the honor of being Brittany Means’s creative nonfiction writing teacher. She is also the author of If This Were Fiction: A Love Story in Essays (2023 Heartland Booksellers Award Finalist; 2023 Foreword INDIES Silver Winner in Autobiography and Memoir; and Winner of the 2023 Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction from the Chicago Writers Association) and two memoirs, Darkroom: A Family Exposure (winner of AWP Prize for CNF) and Borrowed Babies: Apprenticing for Motherhood. Her essays have appeared in many anthologies and in magazines such as Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Iron Horse Literary Review, Longreads, and O, The Oprah Magazine. A 2020 NEA Literature Fellow, she is a professor in the Creative Writing Program at Ball State University, senior editor of River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative and Beautiful Things, and executive producer of the podcast Indelible: Campus Sexual Violence. Visit her at jillchristman.com, riverteethjournal.com, and on the site formerly known as Twitter @jill_christman.
Brittany Means’s debut memoir, Hell If We Don’t Change Our Ways, published by Zibby Books in October 2023, earned a starred review from Kirkus (“A harrowing and soulful memoir to be read, savored, and reread”) and appeared on PEOPLE magazine’s Best Books Fall 2023 list. A Chicana writer and editor now living in Albuquerque, her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in magazines such as DIAGRAM, Hippocampus and fields. Brittany grew up in Indiana, earning a Bachelor’s in English from Ball State University and an MFA from the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. She has received several awards for her work, including the Magdalena Award, the Geneva Fellowship, the Grace Paley Fellowship, and the Herodotus Award. Her other talents include doing horror movie screams and baking ugly but delicious cakes. Visit her at brittanymeans.com and on X @BrittanyMeansIt.
Monthly reviews of books written by Indiana authors are made possible by the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Awards and Indiana Humanities. Opinions expressed in this review are solely those of the reviewer, not any affiliated entity.