“For People magazine,” says Barry Lopez, watching as a photographer arranges a group of women before the Eugene, Oregon, condominiums in which Lopez lives with his wife, Debra Gwartney. She stands at the group’s center, a Maypole around which the blond braids and long limbs of her four daughters wind as the photographer urges them to get close and closer still. Lopez is the author of 15 books; the photo shoot is for Gwartney’s first, in which she writes about the years her two oldest girls ran away, from a different home in Eugene, when barely into their teens. When it’s suggested that readers have lately been besieged with so many fabricated and/or Tuscan sun–filled memoirs that Gwartney’s is a great tonic washing through the goop, Lopez says, “I think that’s right, even to People.”
Not that any writer will envy Gwartney the experience that brought forth Live Through This: A Mother’s Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love. Any parent who has misplaced a child for even a matter of minutes knows the sensation of the floor dropping from beneath their feet, the white fear the very air becomes, until, racing through the supermarket aisles crying the child’s name, you find her and crumple in relief. Now multiply that by three years and two girls, girls who do not accidentally wander off but graduate with alarming speed from ballet and soccer and honor rolls to jumping trains and overdosing and disappearing into the bowels of other cities. Trying to find these daughters while caring for two younger ones — Gwartney had divorced her “boy-man” first husband and uprooted the girls from Tucson, in order to take a teaching job at the University of Oregon — keeps her in a state of suspended terror as she scours the shelters of Portland and streets of San Francisco, where she is treated like a pariah by sanctimonious outreach workers, who assume Gwartney is an abusive parent and will not so much as glance at the missing-children fliers she carries.
A former correspondent for Newsweek, Gwartney writes with wrenching honesty and not some small self-recrimination of how she tried, and failed, to undo the mother knot. “How could my children not have come home?” she asks early but not later, after pleading, “tough love” therapies and wilderness programs have failed to tame her ferocious daughters; the ones who when younger had made tea parties for their mother “because they wanted our everyday life to include some possibility of elegance” but now drop by to leave black or pink hair dye in the sink and shove pantry food in their packs.
“I put up with their showing up and leaving because I didn’t know what not putting up with it would look like. If I told Amanda and Stephanie they absolutely weren’t allowed back in the house unless they came home to stay, I’d give up the last shred of contact with my own children. I wasn’t about to do that.”
The struggle over whether to keep reaching for children who repeatedly reject her (about which Lopez, who met Gwartney in 1990, says, “She did not share or complain”), or to let them go (Gwartney’s Idahoan father tells her, “Just cut your losses; you got two to take care of”) lets us know, in a new and horrifying way, why parents freak out when confronted with a daughter’s adolescence; that we are afraid not (only) of what some man or men might do to her, but we are afraid of her, of the awesome unhappiness and unfixable rage that inhabits her body like a toxin, until she finds herself cutting (as Gwartney’s oldest daughter did) to get it out, and which properly or perhaps improperly harnessed becomes a cannonball that blows holes in the entirety of existence, as it does when Gwartney watches, in real time, the decision of her second daughter to follow her older sister, who she has just learned is not coming home:
“Stephanie sank back, away from me, all angles and stiffness, and I saw a plan fit across her face that was unmistakable ... she’d go where Amanda was. As soon as she could. I reached for her again, terrified now and planning to squeeze the desire to leave me from her skinny body ... neither of us admitting to the other what was already set in motion, both of us frightened — she would not be without her sister, and I would not lose another child.”
One of the many feats of Live Through This (a fitting double entendre: The year the girls disappeared, Gwartney, “with the puffed-up pleasure of being a with-it mother,” had bought them the Hole album of the same name) is to make us feel that what happened to Gwartney and her family is not out of the ordinary, not someone else’s nightmare but nearly inevitable.