I never write about a book I dislike, eh, what’s the point. But, I’m going to complain about a desperation airport purchase. “Live Through This” (you know), is a mother’s agonizing account of dealing with two terrible teenaged daughters. Debra Gwartney’s daughters in question are her two oldest (she has FOUR), Amanda 15, and Stephanie 13. Pre-meltdown, they are both regulation-style, not particularly precocious nor daft. The Gwartney Family is a typical, middle-class, loving-chaotic-sheltered-dysfuntional-broken home. You know the type, most of us are products of some semblance of the same. One shitty divorce and one unsettling cross country uprooting (Arizona to Eugene) later, the previously good daughters become bad. VERY bad. They stay out all night, skip school, dye their hair PURPLE and pierce things. They disappear for days at a time, only dropping in to steal, stock up on supplies and leave their fetid clothes and puddles of violet hair dye around the house. Finally they just leave. And there is NOTHING Mom can do about it! As a cruel and intimidating united front, the bad sisters are able to bully their mother to the point where she loses control entirely, the force of the evil twin providing them the stamina and bravado to go on like this for a long time. What the sisters are running away from is clear enough, in this wholly unsatisfying and completely unmoving book (I cried, CRIED when I read Nancy’s Spungeon’s mother’s story), but the extent of the girls apathy and cruelty towards the family is never even close to being explained.
While most runaways – historically and in my personal experience – are fleeing materially intolerable home situations, apparently there is another group altogether. These are fashion punks with a non existent value placed on the adult perspective and a frightening confidence, who are ensconced in uncomfortable or painful situations in the household, and don’t want any constraints imposed by adults. What suburban grouch in the freefall of adolescence, doesn’t fantasize about running away? I did. ALL THE TIME. “The Streets”, even with their bedbugs and scabies, is inarguably more appealing than “Home” to an abject 15 year old. And apparently – in the Pacific NW at least – there’s a Runaway Welcome Wagon, a built-in support system. It’s like a summer camp of like-depressed teenagers who share tastes in clothes and music, offer camaraderie and a safety net, drugs and Manic Panic hair dye. They aren’t the same girls escaping brutalization and abuse at home only to face the same on the streets. They’re more of a merry band of teenage travelers, with their Charles Bukowski and their Pearl Jam, hopping trains from city to city, like the Boxcar Children, or Huck Finn or any number of childhood “running away” fantasies, tromping about the mysterious world sans parents. To a kid, roaming free, without boundaries, breaking the rules (and the law), having wildly dangerous adventures without parents – especially mothers – hanging around, is the more titillating option to being exiled in suburbia, surrounded by familial chaos, being screamed at, going to school. And when there are no stakes, when you are secure that you will never have to turn tricks or eat garbage or get beaten to a bloody pulp because you have a bedroom, in a house, with a family who will always be there to feed and protect you, no matter what you do…well, then….The minute Mom gives Stephanie the looong overdue ultimatum of going into a program or getting shitcanned out of the family, her “rebelling” comes to a screeching halt. Why would she want to runaway when there are real stakes? How could she runaway when there is nothing to run back to?
Mom Gwartney tries to account for why her young daughters turned so terrible, deciphering her contribution to this devastating time in her and her younger daughter’s lives, but comes up empty. The reader sure doesn’t understand or – ultimately – care. Mom’s gravest fuckup was marrying and procreating with one of those lazy, spindly, self-absorbed, tweakerish types – the spoiled man-child, the semi literate “free spirit”, an over-drinker who likes imbecilic pranks and who is vaguely terrifying. The only explanation (other than the untended rage the girls felt over the divorce and displacement), for why Mom – caring and moderately intelligent – raised such exceptional ingrates and such apathetic people (for wilding the streets of Oregon, both girls are curiously dull. The most interesting thing about either of them is that Amanda played Pepper in “Annie”), is the diabolical combo of bad nature and poor to middling nurture: Genetically defective on the father’s side, escorted into awfuldom by Mom’s weakness, panicky, flawed instincts and inability to cope under the stress of FOUR daughters.
After finishing the book, I listened to a podcast interview with all 3 Gwartney women. The daughters, now young women, came off aloof and strangely inarticulate, speaking in slow, supine sentences as they reminisce and giggle about the good ol’ days of setting trashcans on fire and bullying the girls at school who dared to wear sweaters and be rich. There was little detectable contrition for the damage they inflicted on their Mom or on their two younger sisters – who were wildly neglected and emotionally brutalized by the fiasco. Stephanie, in particular, seems oddly detached. Now a beet farmer or something, Stef looks back fondly on her running away days, it was a pretty cool experience, full of “weird, fun adventures”, you know, “like a book”. Sigh. Now I am not one to ever trivialize the harrowing plight of the teenage girl, having been one, and not a great one. But even the Gwartney girls stories of doing heroin seem puerile, sizzling with Hot Topic irrelevance. I really pondered the question that the book never came close to answering: What the hell is wrong with these two? They seem damaged, empathetically challenged. Reading the book, I was worriedly expecting the mystery to reveal itself, that the sisters were harboring some wound deeper than divorce and displacement rage….that something brutal had happened to those sweet faced little girls to put them where they are….but there is nothing. The story ends without any real insight into their outsized behavior. And to think how I ache with guilt over every unkind thing I’ve ever said to any family member and over the atrocities I committed in the name of my adolescent rebellion and “punk rock”, to this day.
224 pages of further proof that middle-class punk kids are lame and that parenthood is a fucking nightmare.
The cackling, well-fed, pearly-teethed, rosy-cheeked, well-turned-out faces of today’s “runaways”.