by Debra Gwartney
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009
Review by Christian Perring on Jul 21st 2009
Live Through This is a rich memoir of Debra Gwartney's experience when her two eldest daughters when they become more difficult as teenagers and at the ages of 13 and 14 ran away from home. She spent two horrific years not knowing where her daughters were, whether they were safe, who they were with, and even if they were alive or dead. The central mystery is why they did this, and it is never entirely solved, but we get plenty of information on which to base guesses. Readers will want to lay blame somewhere, because that's such a natural inclination, and the main contenders are Gwartney, her ex-husband, or the girls themselves.
Debra Gwartney got together with her future husband Tom when they were in college, and they were mismatched. She was timid and cautious and he was wild and undisciplined. Their marriage didn't last long but they did manage to have four daughters. Gwartney takes her daughters to live in Eugene, Oregon, a long way from their former home in Tuscon, Arizona. Gwartney's relationship with her ex-husband is bad, and they blame each other all the time. Her eldest daughter Amanda feels loyalty to her father, and soon wants to return to live with him, but Gwartney will not (at first) let her. This is the start of the battle between them; Amanda soon gets into trouble at school for starting a fire, and it just gets worse. Within a few months Amanda and her younger sister Stephanie are spiraling downward in their rebellion, taking drugs, acting self-destructively, and being completely disrespectful towards their mother and sisters, staying out all night even though they are only barely into their teens. Eventually they end up jumping freight trains to bigger cities in search of more drugs and a different environment. Despite all her strenuous efforts, Gwartney finds that there is basically nothing she can do to control her daughters.
This is a frightening tale for all parents, since it suggests that no matter how much they prepare, it is still possible that their children will rebel, treat them with scorn and anger, and ruin their own lives. Readers will suspect that there must be something more than a messy divorce that explains the girls' bad choices; maybe some kind of childhood abuse, or possibly a mental illness. However, there is no sign of that such explanations are right, and indeed, Gwartney does little to defend herself from possible criticism, and frequently acknowledges that she handled the divorce badly. One of the great strengths of the book is that she freely documents many of her not-so-admirable actions and emotional reactions. She gets to a point of frustration and exhaustion with her daughters that when one of them is traced to Texas, Gwartney does not go to get her, but lets her stay. Eventually she becomes reconciled with her daughters, but it is clear that the intense anger and frustration she went through will have left its mark on her relationships with them for the foreseeable future.
The result of this honesty is that readers may not warm to Gwartney and may well find her parental decisions questionable. Ultimately though it is just about impossible to know what led to Amanda and Stephanie becoming so rebellious and obnoxious. If Gwartney is to move on with her life and remain in contact with her daughters, she and her family have to give up blaming and have to let go of their anger as much as they can. We do not learn much about what the daughters have done to repair their relationships with their mother, or what their own perspective on the past is, and it would be interesting to know how they feel about their past behavior. The greatest value of the memoir is in Gwartney's unusually frank discussion of her own feelings towards her daughters, although it is still possible and indeed likely that she holds something back about her reaction to her experience.
The performance of the unabridged audiobook by Joyce Bean has a good amount of energy and she gives the different characters distinct accents.
© 2009 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.