"White Oleander" unplugged

In her remarkable and unsentimental new memoir, "Like Family: Growing Up in Other People's Houses," Paula McLain recalls a tumultuous childhood in the foster care system.

Published April 3, 2003 4:26PM (EST)

"Dogs are easy. If their tails are up and their eyes soft, you're in."

From the remarkable opening line, "Like Family: Growing Up in Other People's Houses" is like nothing else yet written about the experience of foster care. Billed as a "real-life 'White Oleander,'" Paula McLain's gentle memoir is at once less and much more than the bestselling novel turned Hollywood melodrama. There's no murder, no suicide -- no role for Michelle Pfeiffer or Renée Zellweger -- no drama, in fact, save that of a life unfolding within, and despite, the terrible void of the child welfare system.

McLain is a small child, the middle of three sisters living with their parents in Fresno, Calif., when her family embarks on what will be their last collective outing. A lyrical account of a trip to the drive-in -- "everything was monsters and stars in the Morse-code night" -- bleeds into disaster when McLain's father decides to go back after the movie to rob the ticket window. He is promptly arrested and jailed.

Not long after, McLain's mother heads out to the movies again, with a boyfriend, and never comes back. The girls' paternal grandmother holds on to them for a few months, until their father is released and returns to retrieve them, only to hand them over to the state.

McLain enters foster care with a childish optimism she manages to maintain through multiple placements and serial disappointments: "Up ahead somewhere was a family, a mother, a place not to wait, but to stay."

Instead, she gets the elderly, crotchety Spinozas, who pitch the girls out when their grandson falsely accuses McLain's sister of stealing change from a jelly jar.

"If there's anything odder than being introduced to your new family of complete strangers, I don't know what that might be," McLain observes. Her next home is a stifling place where the girls are locked out when they go outside to play and the furniture is triple-wrapped in plastic to prevent them from coming into contact with the upholstery. Mrs. Clapp, their foster mother, addresses their bed-wetting by feeding them a "dry dinner" and denying them water until the following day. McLain dreams of fountains and sneaks into the bathroom in the middle of the night to suck bath water from used washrags.

One of the book's most striking qualities is its conspicuous lack of drama. The most extreme moments -- episodes of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of various foster parents -- are simply woven into the narrative, dulled by dailiness. When Mr. Clapp begins pulling the 5-year-old McLain into his armchair and forcing her hand into his underwear, it feels less like a startling breach than a stop on a continuum of isolation and confusion.

When, after two years of abuse, McLain tells Mrs. Clapp what her husband has been doing, she is met with silence. The following day, her social worker appears at school to take the sisters to meet their next new family -- a childless young couple who lavish their ready-made daughters with gifts and affection, until they tire of the effort and pack them back up again.

As McLain travels from one household to the next, that family "up ahead somewhere" never materializes. She never feels loved, never "real." Her story unfolds like a grim reversal of "The Velveteen Rabbit," in which a child, through lack of love, comes to feel less and less human and more and more a toy, a prop in other people's domestic dramas.

The McLains land finally at the Lindberghs' rundown country home outside Fresno, where they will stay for the next 10 years. Hilde is a chilly German war bride who does inexplicable things like hiding McLain's gym shorts under the kitchen sink, and periodically beating her with a broomstick. Bub is a more complex figure. He gives the girls affectionate nicknames, buys them ponies and takes them fishing; he also, as they hit puberty, begins to tickle them "a little too long." On McLain's 14th birthday, he takes it upon himself to teach the girl he's raised from age 8 to "kiss like a woman."

A poet by training, McLain paints the Lindbergh years in dripping detail -- from the Lindberghs themselves, with their "pie-plate faces, fingers like Vienna sausages, shoulders biscuity and broad and stooped," to the "toast-colored grasshoppers sticking to the toast-colored grass" in the fierce heat of a central California summer -- evoking the sounds and sights of the house and family that, for better or worse, came the closest of any to feeling they might be hers.

If the description sometimes feels overly lavish, the extravagance serves a function: It is a constant reminder that childhood in foster care is a lived experience, not merely a collection of outcomes and ills. The most striking passages are those that don't deal directly with the fact of foster care -- the pages in which McLain climbs trees with her sisters; fishes for crawdads in a drainage ditch; observes her older sister's puberty and wants her own "more than world peace" -- the days and hours in which, despite everything, she grows up and into herself.

Foster youth often speak of not having had a childhood. If McLain has managed to secure one in the margins of other people's families, it may well be because, atypically, she had her sisters with her all the way through. Faced with the challenge of finding homes that will take sibling groups, many social services departments resort to splitting them, scattering siblings to separate foster or adoptive homes. Children who have lost their parents go on to lose each other -- the only family they had left.

This was not McLain's experience. "Sometimes I felt like we were all the same person, one nerve, one want," she writes of Penny and Teresa, the sisters who were her only constant. Other times, the sisters feel so estranged that they must sneak looks at hidden diaries to learn each other's secrets. Adolescence tests their bond as each retreats into her own room to blast Bryan Adams or Duran Duran on a boombox, or disappears with a boyfriend who is the new center of the universe. It doesn't matter. Together, they manage to envision a future beyond that prescribed for them as wards of the state, to feel "the pure good weight of our possible selves, of everything we could and surely would make happen."

When they age out of foster care they move in together and weather the crises of early adulthood. "We hugged like people who had saved each other," McLain recalls, after Teresa crashes her car and McLain finds her stumbling, bloodied, down the side of the road, "which was true. Had always been true."

McLain's graceful and deceptively simple memoir is also unprecedented. A few works of reportage -- Jennifer Toth's "Orphans of the Living," Nina Bernstein's beautifully reported "The Lost Children of Wilder" -- have attempted to depict the foster care experience through the eyes of those who lived it, but none come close to the immediacy and authenticity of McLain's interior angle. The best-known and biggest-selling first-person account of the foster care experience -- Dave Pelzer's "The Lost Boy" -- is so broadly drawn as to be almost cartoonish, peopled with villains and saviors and a much-oppressed protagonist hellbent on "beating the odds."

Critics of the victimized tone endemic to many recent memoirs will find much to admire here, as will those who mistrust heartwarming stories of scrappy youth overcoming adversity. McLain presents only a sketch of her life after foster care -- in which she garners three degrees, including an MFA in poetry; marries, has a child and divorces; and moves to Wisconsin to be near her older sister -- but it's enough to make clear that she sees her childhood neither as something that permanently marred her prospects nor as something over which she valiantly triumphed. She simply lived it, and that is how she tells it.

By Nell Bernstein

Nell Bernstein is the author of "A Rage to do Better: Listening to Young People from the Foster Care System."

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