What American teenager hasn’t wanted to run away from an unhappy home?
When I was thirteen, a girlfriend and I spun elaborate fantasies in which I ran away to her house and lived underneath her canopy bed. After a fight with my parents one Saturday morning, my teenaged sister made it as far as the train station, a place where people from our suburb commuted to jobs in Boston. Because it was a weekend, the commuter trains weren’t running—while she waited, my sister’s teacher talked her into returning home.
But what if life on the streets, even with danger and scabies and wet, cold nights, were still more appealing than the home you were leaving? What if there were an underground system to help you survive? And what if there was a group you could belong to, travelers, whom you followed on trains from one city to the next, who even shared your taste in music and drugs?
When Debra Gwartney’s two daughters, Amanda and Stephanie, left their home in Eugene, OR, they were fifteen and thirteen. Newly divorced, with two other daughters and a full-time job, Gwartney cobbled together her limited resources in search of her girls, finding clues to their whereabouts in Portland and San Francisco, where the trail went cold. In Live Through This: A Mother’s Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love, Gwartney chronicles the anguish of this experience with clarity, perspective, and honesty. A former reporter at The Oregonian newspaper and correspondent for Newsweek, she reports the story with the in-depth research of a trained journalist, while shaping events into a complex and satisfying story. Except for a stunning scene in which Stephanie, the younger runaway, gets stabbed in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, Gwartney mostly sticks to the story she’s most familiar with: her own.
And it’s not an easy story for a mother to tell, since Gwartney has to account for why her young daughters wanted to leave and figure out her own contribution to this devastating time in her family’s life. Regret plays an outsized role in this telling, as in Gwartney’s recollection of her soon-to-be-ex-husband’s final plea to stay together:
I might have given him a different response if I’d been able to see the ways in which my daughters would be torn apart in the years to come because of the battles between their parents, two people who didn’t belong in a marriage together but who couldn’t manage to find a decent way to split up.
After moving her daughters far away from their father, Gwartney discovers that Amanda has begun to cut herself. One therapist dismisses the severity of this symptom, and although Gwartney doesn’t agree, she ignores her suspicions. “And yet,” she writes, “I didn’t seek out another therapist, another expert, who might give me a different opinion or offer a solution. I simply told myself that my daughter would get past this soon. Then it was too late.”
Gwartney lets us into painful moments such as a particularly bad Christmas right before the girls run. She knows they are going to leave for good and she tries to stop them physically, eventually calling the police in a desperate last effort. But running away from home was decriminalized in 1974 and the police won’t help:
I hung up and went to the front door. I made my body wide. My arms out, my feet spread. I waited there, a joke. If they wanted to go, they’d go. A part of me believed it might even be better just to get it over with and let them be gone. Except this night felt different than the other times they’d left. This time it seemed that what I’d stitched together in our little house was about to follow them out the door as a long, unraveled thread.
Gwartney wrote Live Through This over a period of eight years, during which time excerpts were published in literary journals, and a segment was produced for the radio show This American Life, including interviews with her daughters. The title comes from the 1994 Hole album of the same name, a poster for which hung in Amanda and Stephanie’s bedroom. “Live through this” might be a command, a retort by rebellious daughters as they are leaving; or it might be an affirmation, as in, “You will live through this.” Gwartney goes on to tell how she did just that, coping with a parent’s nightmare, trying to give her two younger daughters a normal life, all the while fighting to bring her older daughters home from the streets and from the hole of drugs and despair they’ve fallen into. When no one, not even Amanda, has heard from Stephanie for months, Gwartney makes an excruciating admission to her now-husband, the writer Barry Lopez: “I drove to Barry’s house and sat up on his rug, woven reds and purples and blues… I said what I’d come to say. ‘I think Stephanie might be dead.’”
Gwartney’s narrative moves back and forth in time, relating moments from the past that impact the present. It is her voice that binds the story together—steady and reflective, lyrical and emotional, but never sentimental or overly dramatic. She takes material that would make any parent hysterical and renders a memoir so important and satisfying that you will want to force every parent you know to read it. You must experience for yourself the gorgeously written final pages of the book, a scene so powerful and hopeful, I held my breath.
Illustrations by Laurenn McCubbin.