Cathy Rentzenbrink: 'Writing the book helped me to see my brother’s death as it really was'
Cathy Rentzenbrink's memoir The Last Act of Love is the incredibly moving story of the accident her brother, Matty, was involved in just weeks before his GCSE results came out, and how it changed the life of everyone in her family forever.
It is unflinchingly honest and, in spite of the tragedy at the heart of the book, an uplifting story of family, love, grief and friendship. We asked Cathy about how she came to tell the story that has defined her life.
Are there any books that you read that really helped you in the process of writing The Last Act Of Love?
Yes, lots. In the first draft I wrote a lot about reading and responding to certain books but then I took it out because I didn’t want it to be a book that only bookworms would appreciate. For the whole period of writing the book I felt that everything I read had something to teach me. Julian Barnes is very wise about grief in the final part of Levels on Life and Edward St Aubyn’s Melrose novels always make me think about how writers and people in general process trauma, or not. I read A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride and How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran at about the same time and they both helped me to see that my construction of myself had been so cruelly interrupted by what happened to my brother when I was 17. I read other memoirs and autobiographical novels and clung to these when I felt panicked about over exposing myself, or worried that people like me didn’t write books. Damian Barr, Sathnam Sanghera and Nina Stibbe were all (unknowing) inspirations.
What themes do you think will resonate most with the readers of your story?
As I wrote the book I realized that lots of us have a defining story that we don’t like, a toxic narrative we can’t shift and that we get stuck in. Also, and this is very sad, a lot of us give ourselves such a hard time and tend to feel guilty about things that weren’t our fault or that we couldn’t control. I think anyone who has witnessed a long or complicated death might find resonance, but also anyone who has experienced any kind of shock or loss that they brood over and becomes an obstacle to everything else.
Did the process of psychotherapy help you to write this book?
I’m not sure about this. I am in general very in favour of therapy but I rather think I stopped having therapy and wrote my book instead. I was frustrated that my therapist kept wanting to talk to me about my early childhood when I didn’t think that was important compared to what happened later. I think I could have done with a therapist who was trained in the specific area, but then maybe I wouldn’t have written the book!
What would you say to someone who has a painful story to tell but does not feel brave enough to tell it?
Be very gentle with yourself. Try to treat yourself with the consideration and compassion you extend to other people. Buy a beautiful notebook and a pen you like and just start writing things down, one sentence at a time. Don’t worry about structure or readership, just dip a toe in and see how it feels.
How did you choose the title for the book?
I didn’t have one for ages, I had lots of ideas but knew they weren’t right. Then I was rereading my mother’s affidavit, which forms part of the book, and that line jumped out at me and it felt right. Writing the book helped me to see my brother’s death as it really was, a last act of love, though I now think the real last act of love for anyone who leaves us is to try to live well without them. If reading my book helps anyone feel that way about themselves, then I’d feel very proud and happy.
In the summer of 1990, Cathy's brother Matty was knocked down by a car on the way home from a night out. It was two weeks before his GCSE results, which turned out to be the best in his school. Sitting by his unconscious body in hospital, holding his hand and watching his heartbeat on the monitors, Cathy and her parents willed him to survive. They did not know then that there are many and various fates worse than death.
This is the story of what happened to Cathy and her brother, and the unimaginable decision that she and her parents had to make eight years after the night that changed everything. It's a story for anyone who has ever watched someone suffer or lost someone they loved or lived through a painful time that left them forever changed. Told with boundless warmth and affection, The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink is a heartbreaking yet uplifting testament to a family's survival and the price we pay for love.