Eugene Weekly : Books : 2.19.2009


Searching for Peace
Debra Gwartney’s memoir tackles hard times
by Suzi Steffen

LIVE THROUGH THIS: A Mother’s Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love, memoir by Debra Gwartney. Houghton Mifflin, 2009. Hardcover, $24.

Her two teenaged daughters sneak home only to pick up clean clothes, steal from their mom and terrorize their younger sisters in the pages of Debra Gwartney’s Live Through This, but she never seems to give into fury. And that’s too bad.

In the early 1990s, Gwartney’s two older daughters fell in with other street kids in Eugene and eventually ran far from Oregon. Instead of anger, the author (editor of the Eugene Weekly during some of the time described in the book) takes entirely too much on her own shoulders. She blames herself for marrying their dad; she blames herself for caring about the girls; she blames herself for never, ever doing enough.

“I didn’t take into account how [my love / my actions / my need for them to be good kids] would affect them,” she writes, over and over. Almost every parent could list a ton of moments she regrets, but not every kid decides to live without showers, decent food or shelter. The girls treated themselves badly, and they treated their mother with repeated betrayals, continual contempt and callous disregard even as they took and took and took some more from every adult who tried to treat them with decency.

This may be a funny thing to say about a memoir whose writing contains beautiful prose passages and whose content appears to be reported with brutal openness, but Live Through This needs more emotional honesty. The girls and their mom have long since made up, and the former teens are adults with lives and families of their own. Perhaps that’s a fragile peace, not worth breaking with a memoir that rips open the scabs, but this book would be much stronger for it.

Debra Gwartney reads from Live Through This at 7 pm Thursday, Feb. 26, at the UO’s Knight Library and signs books at 2 pm Saturday, Feb. 28, at J. Michael’s.