by: Marrie Stone
“Amanda was cutting herself.” This haunting line opens Debra Gwartney’s debut memoir, soon to be featured in People Magazine and on Good Morning America, and the subject of a 2002 This American Life episode.
Following a tumultuous divorce in the early 1990s, Debra moved her four daughters away from their Arizona home, away from their father, and settled in Eugene, Oregon. Her two eldest, Amanda, 15, and Stephanie, 13, grew increasingly depressed and withdrawn. They immersed themselves in the punk rock scene, drawn in by the angry, drunk, and violent aspects of its culture. It spoke to them. They slowly melded into a custom of smoking pot, skipping school, wearing spiked jewelry, cutting their hair and, in Amanda’s case, cutting herself. At one point, as a prank, Amanda set a sink full of paper-towels on fire in the girls’ locker room. She was arrested and charged with felony arson.
As Debra developed a frantic need to hold things together, her vigilance and frenzy began to push Amanda and Stephanie away. Debra laid down laws. Amanda and Stephanie broke them. Debra set ultimatums. Amanda and Stephanie left. Debra hired a private investigator to find them. All her efforts only served to push the girls further away. They moved onto the streets, eventually hopping a freight train bound for California, leaving Debra panicked, devastated, and desperate to bring them home.
The memoir is at once an honest rendering of a mother’s loss, and a window into the world of parents trapped on the other side of the runaway wall. The system, for good or bad, is set up to protect runaways: their anonymity, their whereabouts, and their decision to remain on the streets. Once a child runs away, unless or until they commit a crime, authorities will do little to help a parent get them back. Debra Gwartney battled not only her daughters: she battled the system that helped to keep them on the streets.
Live Through This is wholly grounded in Debra’s story, as the mother left behind. As Debra said in a KUCI interview, “I never, ever thought of [this project] as an attempt to help other people. But I thought, ‘If I write this out, maybe I’ll understand my own agency better and my own dynamic in this relationship.’
“It took eight years to write, but the last two years, I would wake up five or six times a night with such guilt. I’d think, ‘Why did I say this?’ or ‘Why didn’t I do that?’ I finally had to seek out therapy and talk about this constant guilt. In the end it was hugely cathartic.”
With intense insight into her own role in the family’s demise, and a journalist’s eye for story and narrative, Debra Gwartney stitches together a memoir that will keep you awake at night, not only in anticipation of what happened in the end, but wondering what could have been done differently along the way.
Marrie Stone is the co-host of "Writers on Writing", with Barbara DeMarco-Barrett, broadcasting Wednesday mornings at 9:00 a.m. and available via podcast. She is a former corporate attorney. Her work has appeared in several publications including The Writer's Digest and The River Oak Review.