hide captionDebra Gwartney is a former reporter for The Oregonian. She lives in western Oregon and is a member of the nonfiction writing faculty at Portland State University.
Debra Gwartney is a former reporter for The Oregonian. She lives in western Oregon and is a member of the nonfiction writing faculty at Portland State University.
It's tough to be a teenager. Many make it through their teen years fairly unscathed, but there are others who decide that running away from home is the only way to get through them.
Debra Gwartney has firsthand knowledge of teenagers on the street; in 1995, her two oldest daughters — Amanda, then 16, and Stephanie, then 14, — hopped a freight train and disappeared. Gwartney writes about the constant worry and uncertainty of that time in her new memoir, Live Through This.
The story begins with Gwartney's divorce in 1991, when she moved her four daughters from Tucson, Ariz., where their father lived, to Eugene, Ore. At the time of the move, Gwartney tells Liane Hansen, they looked like a "very normal family" — the girls were in many activities and had lots of friends. "But of course they were devastated by this double whammy that hit them — that their parents divorced and that I decided to move away from their father."
Looking back, Gwartney says, her daughters' concerns about their father's welfare was a warning that she didn't want to see at the time. More signs of trouble followed: Amanda began to cut herself and was involved in an arson incident at school. Then, during a visit to her father, she swallowed a bottle of Tylenol.
"We were paying attention," says Gwartney, "but unfortunately we became more polarized with each other and there was a lot of blame being tossed back and forth, which was absolutely no good for her."
Amanda and Stephanie began to skip school, sometimes disappearing for days at a time. But despite the money and resources Gwartney and her ex-husband poured into finding their daughters, there was only so much they could do.
"What I found out when they started to disappear for days and then months at a time was it's not against the law to run away from home, so the police just can't do much," she says.
Gwartney visited shelters for runaways in her search for her daughters, but the standard reply was that the shelters existed to help the kids, not the parents, so they couldn't tell her if her daughters were there.
Gwartney says she lived in a "state of panic" every day that her daughters were missing. She was working multiple jobs and taking care of her two younger daughters, who she calls "my reason for getting up in the morning."
Finally, after months on the road, Amanda overdosed on heroin in a tunnel in Tucson. After a brief stint in the hospital, she decided she was ready to come home. But Stephanie wasn't finished with life as a runaway — she jumped on a freight train and disappeared again.
Finally, after nine more months on the road, Stephanie called and made the first overtures toward coming home.
"I think she was just ready to come back," says Gwartney. "They both had to choose to come home."
The author says that healing has been a gradual process. She says she's slowly learning to forgive herself for whatever she may have done to contribute to her family's ordeal.
"I woke up six times a night for years thinking, 'Why didn't I do this? Why didn't I do that?'" she says. "It was torturous. But it was what I had to do to make peace with it and to go back to my daughters and say, 'Please forgive me for falling down on the job of being your mom.'"
Years later, the family seems to have achieved some measure of peace. Not long ago, Gwartney says, all four of her daughters were at her house cooking and laughing and joking. "And I thought, whatever forgiveness is, it has entered our lives now."
Excerpt: 'Live Through This'
by Debra Gwartney
Live Through This: A Mother's Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love By Debra Gwartney Hardcover, 240 pages Houghton Mifflin Harcourt List price: $24.00
The girl next to me on the Portland city bus is bone thin and has mouse-brown hair. Her crooked horn-rimmed glasses— the temple on my side held together with oily Scotch tape— hang at the end of her nose. The coat she's wearing is two sizes too big, three sizes, so she's rolled the sleeves halfway up her arms and she's using ragged fingernails to pick at an exposed knob of wrist. I'm guessing she's sixteen years old, give or take a year, and I know she's coming off a drunk. Either that or a bad high. She's got sallow skin, half-shut eyes, hunched shoulders— but mostly it's her smell. When I lowered myself onto the vinyl seat next to her, I got the first whiff, the air around her so pungent it tasted of drugs and booze and smokes and daze. The dried-urine, stale-ashtray stench of a binge.
I turn away and glance around the crowded bus. Is anyone else troubled, disgusted even, by this girl, this child, and her obvious downfall? It's twilight outside, and the others squeezed in the seats and aisles are only pointed home, lost in themselves, not noticing the girl next to me huddled in her soiled parka tent. But I notice. I take in every detail; I fume over my bad luck at getting stuck next to her. I slide to the far edge of my seat and try not to glance in her direction.
And there, staring out the window across the aisle, I start to wonder about myself. About my suddenly prickled skin and hands knotted in my lap. Why am I revolted by everything about this girl: her puffs of shallow breath, the scab she's opened on her arm that's now steak red and glistening, the white crust that formed on her lips while she slept in a train station chair or a building's frigid alcove?
Of course I know why. Of course this stranger has stirred memories of my daughters when they were no more than sixteen and fourteen years old. My own girls, who'd show up at home looking and smelling something like this on the days they bothered to show up at all. The child I'm sitting by has also reminded me of something else I don't like to think about: the mother I was back then who couldn't manage the trouble that had landed on my family.
It's been ten years since Amanda and Stephanie stopped going to school, stopped coming home; a whole decade since they joined those on the street who gave them access to beer, dope, tattoo ink, every circus shade of Manic Panic hair dye, metal spikes, and the best corners for getting money from strangers— spanging, they called it. I've let myself believe the passage of time and my daughters' turns for the good have washed me clean of most old aches and pains, but then I get ambushed: by the girl next to me and others like her at bus stops and on street corners and sleeping on benches in the hallways of the university where I work. When I see such kids, when I get up close, I'm inevitably shoved back into my daughters' old life and into mine, and right up against the question that can't seem to leave me alone: why?
When my daughters got tired of having their mother search for them on the streets of Eugene, Oregon, and then drag them home again, where we'd scrap and yell and accuse and blame, they jumped a freight train to Portland, two hours straight north up the West Coast. I found out they were in that bigger city a few days after they'd left— friends had spotted them panhandling in the downtown Pioneer Courthouse Square. I drove a hundred miles north to look for Amanda and Stephanie in the nooks and crannies of a strange town; the lack of a single sign of them sent me back home.
Years later, the girls told me they'd heard I'd been asking for them, heard I'd stopped at youth shelters and the police station with their photographs. So they'd hopped another train to get farther away, this one to the Tenderloin District in San Francisco, where the drugs were meaner and the cold wind off the bay drove them to accept about any comfort. My daughters had disappeared.
Amanda was gone for three months; I didn't see Stephanie for a year. For nearly a decade, I thought I wanted to forget everything about that empty expanse of time. But those kinds of memories don't just get wiped out, they don't get swept away. Instead, now I find I must wander through the worst of it again— where my daughters went, what they did. How I, every day, handled or failed to handle their absence. I have to face it, although until recently our past has felt too thick, too dense, and, somewhere at its heart, too implicating of me.