As you page through Debra Gwartney’s new memoir, Live Through This: A Mother’s Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love (Houghton Mifflin, 224 pages, $24), there are times when you think: It’s not possible. No one could live through this. And yet thousands of people do. Gwartney’s story is an ordinary one: a divorce, a cross-country move (in this case, from Arizona to Eugene, Ore.) and two estranged and furious daughters who run away. What makes this memoir spectacular is Gwartney’s clear and honest eye.
Gwartney was a former correspondent for Newsweek and a reporter for The Oregonian. This memoir grew out of a piece she did in 2002 for NPR’s This American Life. Her prose that is clean and workmanlike. But it’s impossible to see her as cold, as her ex-husband accuses her of being. Grief, guilt and shame rip through every page.
Her achievement lies in having evoked a universal experience—that of the rebellious, wounded teenager versus anguished parent—out of painful specificity. She never attempts to make overarching statements. She can’t. Other runaways make her fists clench. Street culture represents the Jezebel that lured away two of her four bright, beautiful daughters in Eugene and later San Francisco, and she describes her ventures into it with horror. Street kids are soiled, scabby and drugged-out. Above all, they reek.
Instead, Gwartney examines her own history and that of her daughters with as much objectivity as she can. She recounts her history with their happy-go-lucky father, how it was his wildness that drew her to him even as it was the cause of their divorce. And though her husband is reckless and her daughters are defiant, she takes more than enough of the blame on herself. She readily states that her own pain and need drove her daughters away. “It wasn’t right,” she says, “to need a child this much.”
But she loves them. She obsesses over them in the brief glimpses she has of them, and it was in this ridiculous detail that I had my first shock of recognition. Gwartney remembers not only what bands they like, but which albums—the title of her book is taken from the title of Courtney Love’s second Hole album, released days after Kurt Cobain’s death. I am a year younger than Gwartney’s daughter Stephanie, who was 13 when she disappeared, and at 13 I also dyed my hair in the bathtub, listened to Bikini Kill, mooned over Adrienne Rich, got infected piercings, screamed at my mother.
In The History of Love, Nicole Krauss says that by holding on to a quarter-inch of something, you can get a better sense of how the universe works than if you tried to paint the whole sky. By narrowing her focus to one family, Gwartney captures the helplessness and rage that characterizes adolescence in any family—troubled or not. At the happy resolution, you’ll cry because the ending feels like your own, even as you’re grateful that your story never went that far.
READ: Debra Gwartney appears at Broadway Books, 1714 NE Broadway, 284-1726. 7 pm Tuesday, March 10. Free.