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Friday, April 17, 2009

Live Through This by Debra Gwartney

Live Through This: A Mother's Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love by Debra Gwartney

When Debra Gwartney's two oldest daughters turned 13 and 14, they began running away from home. At first, they'd stay out all night, then they'd leave for a few days at a time, hanging out with punk rockers and street kids in Eugene, Oregon. Then, after a year of tough love, wilderness retreats for troubled youth, and family counselors, the girls hopped a freight train to San Francisco, and disappeared.

Recently, This American Life rebroadcast the episode, "Didn't Ask to Be Born," which features Gwartney, and her daughters Amanda and Stephanie, telling the story of the rebellion, unhappiness, and family conflict that led the girls to run away from home, and Gwartney's efforts to hold the rest of her family together, not knowing if her daughters were dead or alive.

It was a harrowing, compelling story, and after listening to it, I ran out and picked up Live Through This. While the This American Life segment includes more details about the girls' time on the streets, the book focuses more on Gwartney's struggles on the homefront. I admire that she doesn't say much about what her daughters did while they were away, that she respects these as their stories to tell or not tell. As a result, it's not an exploitative story of how bad and wild and out of control her kids were. Instead, it's a very frank, introspective, and honest account of a worst-case family scenario.

Reading this book, I couldn't help but think of Linda Carroll's memoir about raising Courtney Love, Her Mother's Daughter, though only by its stark contrast. While Carroll tends to absolve herself of some highly ill-considered parenting decisions (e.g. sticking her kid in foster care while she moved to New Zealand to find herself, etc.), Gwartney doesn't shy away from the hard, ugly parts, the things she did wrong, the times she could have tried harder or better or differently.

And Gwartney's not a "bad mother" - far from it, in fact. She's loving, steady, smart, and supportive, and yet still completely powerless to stop her daughters once they've made up their minds to live on the streets.

It's a great book, with a powerful, hard-won resolution. Check out this interview with Gwartney to learn more about the book, and what's happened with her family in the years since Amanda and Stephanie ran away.

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