Sunday, July 19, 2009

Live Through This by Debra Gwartney

One of my favorite This American Life segments was about 12 year old and 14 year old sisters who run away and their mother and their eventual reconciliation. Now, quite a few years later, their mother has written a memoir of that time, and it's just as powerful and upsetting and empathy-producing as the radio show was. And it raises some interesting distinctions between what a radio segment does, what an essay does, and what a book does. The advantage of the radio was the girls also told their story and so there are things that aren't in the book that they revealed on the show--like what they were thinking and doing during the time they were away. But it's interesting that despite the fact that Gwartney now knows more of what the girls were doing--at least what they've told her--she chooses not to reveal much of it. It's very much her version and her experience and that's one of the reasons the book works as a complement to the much-replayed radio program rather than as simply another version of the same thing. It does raise the interesting possibility, though, of what if memoirs were written by a collective of people--constructed from multiple voices like the show was. I guess in some sense that's what journalists do when they write other people's stories, but I mean more allowing each person to fill in their part as a portion of the overall structure (which would need to be authored by someone).

Anyway, the radio show by nature of its length is more like an essay than a book--and this book is a good argument for what the long form can do. The radio version, and likely an essay version, powerfully convey what it was like to have the girls run away, and it suggests Gwartney's sense of guilt, it suggests the things that lead up to the worst events and how they were reconciled...but the book tells a much more complicated version. Only now do I realize how many years of problems there were. How serious those problems were. How different the two sisters actually are (in the short form they kind of merge into one character) and how different the relationship between mother and each daughter actually is. You also get a much much closer understanding of how guilty Gwartney feels and how she really did make some mistakes (understandable, human mistakes) and how both genetics and her ex-husband were factors. And you get a much closer understanding of how long the recovery period for this family was (is). So it's an obvious statement, but the book tells the bigger story and is a case for why sometimes the short form can't do quite as much.

By coincidence, I'm also reading the novel Rule of the Bone by Russell Banks which is about a teen boy runaway just a few years earlier, and it made me consider how much I appreciated that this memoir was about girls. I lived in Tempe, AZ from '96-99 and it was a big period of grungy kids riding into town on the freight trains and camping out in parks in the warm weather, so I have a strong picture of how these girls were living--and it's important to realize that those troops of youngsters were in no way just a bunch of guys hobo-ing and testing their manhood. It was a weird communal horrifying tribe of kids and girls were/are very much a part of it.

1 comment:

The Storialist said...

What a great post, and blog!

This made me want to read the book, certainly. I was thinking the other day that it would be great to compile a list of amazing books about the awkward teenage life (or maybe from 12-18), both usual and unusual.

The graphic novel "Skim" would make that list, for me!