“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.
Amanda, 15 when she left home in 1995, and 13-year-old Stephanie were, Gwartney writes, “as symbiotic with each other as the red and green strands of a DNA illustration in a science book.” They still are, sitting in the breakfast nook of Gwartney’s condo, each with luxuriant hair to her waist and three or four large scrolled-silver hoops in each ear. Stephanie lives in Massachusetts and Amanda, southern Oregon, and yet they still communicate in code, needing only a few words about an arrest a dozen years ago before the other nods and cuts the story short, casually recalling the time Stephanie, at 14, fell off a freight train and cracked open her skull.
“God, I didn’t even know this,” says Gwartney, and one sees there are still gaps being filled in, and also that the self-sufficiency the girls required of themselves early on has rendered them strong.
“I can’t imagine being the person I am today without that experience. I’d be really boring, probably,” says Stephanie, who owns a landscape-design company. “I could maybe change the way I did so, without hurting people, but the experiences I had while being gone made me the person I am now, and I like the person I am now.”
Amanda lives off the grid, raising goats and chickens and spinning yarn. “I really wanted to drop out of high school and get a job, and that just wasn’t going to happen [at home],” she says. “I needed to be on my own.”
Gwartney pauses. “I wouldn’t repeat it for anything, but these two are … ” She pauses again. “I teach [nonfiction] at Portland State and I meet people this age all the time, and I know they’re my daughters and I love them, but I also know they are so much more interesting than most people their age. Something did happen to them during that time, and it was so enriching.”
They agree on what started the rift. The move. The divorce. Gwartney’s attempts to corral the chaos. “She had four daughters under the age of teenage years,” Amanda says. “It was stressful for her; she had to pay all the child-care expenses and work all day and when we’d get home, it was tough.”
Was this when she and Stephanie held the tea parties, arranging peanut-butter sandwiches on china plates and playing Bach concertos so their mom could relax?
“We wanted our mom to be happy,” she says. “Those first few years in Eugene were hell.”
“They were,” Gwartney says. “I had these ideas of how I was going to make my family work, and I would pick everybody up and get everybody all their lessons, we’d get home and I insisted on making dinner every night.”
“And not macaroni and cheese and stuff,” Stephanie says. “Full-on dinners.”
“I just never cut myself any slack,” Gwartney admits. “And in never cutting myself any slack, I never cut them any slack.”
“She was trying to control what we were doing,” says Amanda. “I remember I wanted a Mohawk, and she told me I couldn’t have a Mohawk, and I said, ‘What do you want me to be, a hippie?’ And she said, ‘I’d love it if you were a hippie!’”
“I did?” asks Gwartney. “That’s so funny.”
Gwartney’s two younger daughters arrive, bringing with them Amanda’s two children, including a toddler passed through the air first to Gwartney to nuzzle, then to Amanda, who starts to nurse. Does Amanda ever think she could find herself in the position she put her mother in, and if so, what would she do?
“I’m not going to get into that position,” she says, and while Gwartney and Stephanie laugh, gently, Amanda has tears in her eyes. “I’d probably do the same thing my mom did, but I’d know I’d have more support than she did, because I have her.”
There is quiet at the table. “It’s interesting,” Gwartney says finally, “my first week when I’m teaching, I always tell them that a memoir has to be about, what did I lose and what did I gain from the same event? That whole goal of writing a memoir is to be pushing into that. But I think the ‘what did I lose’ part is so visceral for me; sometimes I’ll be in a grocery store and I’ll see a mom with her adolescent kid and put her arm around her daughter or something.” Gwartney’s voice squeaks high as she starts to cry. “And for me, to not have that, that was just so awful.”
Everyone at the table is crying, and the girls reach for their mother’s hand. “But you know, I have this,” she says. “Especially my intellectual self, I always say to myself, if we had to go through that to get here, I’m okay with that. But I missed them so much. And I can’t get that back.”
LIVE THROUGH THIS: A MOTHER’S MEMOIR OF RUNAWAY DAUGHTERS AND RECLAIMED LOVE | Debra Gwartney | Houghton Mifflin | 240 pages | $24