Monday, April 29, 2019
Published February 2009 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Source: purchased for my Nook based on an NPR story
After a miserably failed marriage, Debra Gwartney moves with her four young daughters to Eugene, Oregon, for a new job and what she hopes will be a new life for herself and her family. The two oldest, Amanda, 14, and Stephanie, 13, blame their mother for what happened, and one day the two run off together—to the streets of their own city, then San Francisco, then nowhere to be found. The harrowing subculture of the American runaway, with its random violence, its horrendously dangerous street drugs, and its patchwork of hidden shelters is captured by Gwartney with brilliant intensity in Live Through This as she sets out to find her girls. Though she thought she could hold her family together by love alone, Gwartney recognizes over the course of her search where she failed. It's a testament to her strength—and to the resilience of her daughters—that after several years they are a family again, forged by both forgiveness and love.
As a general rule, I don't read books or watch movies in the horror genre. There is enough in this world that scares me day to day; I don't need to look for that in my down time. When I do, it's the movies and books that really could happen, or are just within the scope of my "maybe" that generally scare me the most. Like Psycho, Misery, Fallen, or even The Fly. This book is not meant to be a horror book. Yet, it literally is about something that was one of my worst nightmares for years.
I looked at that publisher's summary and questioned if I should include that final sentence. It's not, after all, my usual m. o. to give away the ending of a book. But I'm going to guess that if you read this book, you, like me, will only be able to handle it knowing that, in the end, these girls will survive and return to their mother. Without that knowledge, I'm not sure I could have read this book. I know I couldn't have if I had read it ten years ago, when it first came out and I had a fourteen-year-old daughter. Ten years ago, I made decisions I wish I hadn't made but I made them in no small part because I knew that if I didn't, my daughter would run, just as these girls did. This may be a book that's best read after parents have been through the teen years of their children's lives.
Gwartney is really a fine writer. I was expecting the book to be a good story but I was surprised to find who well Gwartney tells her story. And she tells it with real honesty.
Yes, her ex-husband comes off looking really bad; we are certainly given to believe that had he been a better father and husband, maybe none of this would have happened. But Gwartney is perfectly willing to admit to the errors she made; she bad mouthed the girls' father whenever she had the chance, she picked fights with him when trying to work together would have been the better choice, she moved the girls far away from their father to try to give herself a new life instead of keeping them near him. All of which are things any one of us might have done, in the moment.
Gwartney's pain and desperation are palpable. I couldn't not imagine trying to go about your regular life (she did, after all have to keep working) and to raise your other children while you were dealing with the fear of what might have become of your daughters. She had to try to give her other two daughters as normal a life as possible; she had to hide her fear from them as much as she could.
So much of what happened came down to communication. When one of her daughters comes home, she builds her her own room in a shed in the back yard, thinking she's done a good thing by giving her daughter her own space. But her daughter feels like she's no longer a part of the family but not being allowed to live in the house. And the book raises real questions about how groups that try to care for runaways and homeless children might be hurting them as much as they are helping them. True, the young people will not turn to these groups if they know their parents could just come walking in and find them. But for parents who are desperate for answers, these places are no help at all.
Gwartney was, in the end, lucky. Both of her girls survived their time on the streets. According to the National Runaway Hotline, 1.6-2.8 young people run away every year. Of those, about 112,00 - 196,000 will be gone more than a month; that doesn't account for the kids that were already on the streets. About 71% are endangered by risk of substance dependency, sexual or physical abuse, and proximity to criminal activities; 32% of runaway or homeless children attempt suicide.
Hug your babies tonight, even if they are 24 years old.