"Live Through This"

Author Debra Gwartney is visiting Pacific University on Thursday as part of the Visiting Writers Series. Her memoir, Live Through This, is a poignant, if painful, recollection of her experience as the mother of runaway teen daughters.

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I’ve been cringing for days. With my iPod clenched in one hand, I’ve curled up, shoulders scrunched to my ears, lower lips clenched between my teeth, a perpetual crease between my brows.

Repeatedly, my family has asked what’s wrong. And I’ve said, again and again, “This book hurts.”

I’ve been hurrying to read Debra Gwartney’s memoir, Live Through This: A Mother’s Memoir of Runaway Daughters, before she presents a reading this week at Pacific University (where she is a faculty member in the low-residency master of fine arts in writing program).

It is, to say the least, a painful story. After her divorce from their father, Gwartney’s two oldest daughters fall into a spiral of self-destructive behavior, rebellion and, ultimately, disappear onto the streets. The story chronicles Gwartney’s often desperate journey to figure out what on earth to do: how to find her daughters; how to reach them even when they are standing in the same room; how to find, afford, and make use of the help everyone in the situation needs; how to regain control, if control is an even an option, much less the right one.

I felt guilty, early in the book, for my anger at the mother in the story who was too consumed with her own needs, her own feelings, to see what her actions did to her children. I wanted to shake this woman, though I had set out to read the book without judgment. Then, of course, it occurred to me that the mother was the one writing the book: I wasn’t feeling anything toward her that she hadn’t, at some point, felt about herself.

As the story went one, I was equally as exasperated with the daughters. Yes, their parents had made some mistakes, but no one beat them, or starved them. These weren’t abused children running from home for survival—at least not in a physical sense—so why were they so angry?

As both a once-teenage daughter and a mother, I saw myself on both sides of the story. I wondered how I avoided falling into the anger that these girls display. I wondered how I could avoid losing my son the way this mother did. I read, not only for the story, but looking for some sort of road map, a way to learn from this family’s experience.

It didn’t come.

Toward the end of the book, Gwartney writes, “I often ground away at one question: where had we gone so wrong? I ‘d cast back to the past to try to sort out what had torn us up, the train wreck of their teenage years. I’d asked myself again, and again: What happened? And how do I ever get over what happened? How do I forgive myself for what happened?”

Later: “…Somehow we found our way back to each other without the explanations I once thought would be required. I’ve not asked why and she’s not said why, and month after month, the why of our once-separation becomes less important.”

Perhaps the writing of this story is the answer for her. As readers, we don’t get a “why.” There’s no tidy answer, no aha-moment to sum it all up and teach us what we need to know.

Instead, there’s just a glimpse into the lives of another family, an opportunity to open our eyes and drum up a little compassion as we recognize that we never really know what’s going on in another person’s heart and mind. It’s an opportunity for humility—if there’s no clear reason why this family fell apart, then there’s no clear reason why another family, my family maybe, holds it together.

I remind myself that Gwartney’s reading this week is sponsored by the Department of English and the English Club, not by the Psychology Department. This isn’t meant to be a primer on child-rearing or interpersonal relationships—it’s a story, and a well-written one at that.

Otherwise, I wouldn’t be cringing.


Live Through This was a 2009 finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the National Books for a better Life Award and the Oregon Book Award. Gwartney’s appearance at Pacific is the latest in the Visiting Writers Series. She will present a reading at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 19, in Taylor Auditorium, Marsh Hall, on the Forest Grove campus.