Runaway daughters

After her teenagers hit the streets, author Debra Gwartney faced desperation and panic. She talks about why her children left -- and how they finally returned.

Published March 7, 2009 12:23PM (EST)

Debra Gwartney was trying to escape a failed marriage when she moved from Tucson, Ariz., to Eugene, Ore., in the early '90s with her four daughters in tow. What the newly single mother didn't foresee was that, as she fled from her past to a different city and job, her relationship with her girls would be forever transformed, too. Enraged by the divorce and the move, her two oldest daughters, Amanda and Stephanie, soon ran away, seeking adventure on the streets and shelter in abandoned buildings with other teenagers like them.

In "Live Through This: A Mother's Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love," Gwartney relives the private desperation and shame of being a mother whose teenage daughters disappear for days at a time, only dropping in occasionally when no one else is home to stock up on supplies, leaving empty beer cans, fetid clothes, empty cigarette boxes and puddles of brilliant Manic Panic hair dye behind. As the girls' absences stretch to weeks and months, Gwartney recalls her frantic searches for them, first in Eugene and then in San Francisco. Along the way, she delves into her own culpability in the family dynamic that drove them away.

A former correspondent for the Oregonian and Newsweek, Gwartney wrote about her relationship with her eldest daughter, Amanda, in Salon back in 1998. Debra, Amanda and Stephanie also appeared together on "This American Life" in March 2002, in an episode tellingly titled "Didn't Ask to Be Born."

Gwartney's new memoir, which she published with her now-adult daughters' blessing, explores not only what it's like to be the mother left behind, but also how she, Amanda and Stephanie and their younger sisters, Mary and Mollie, have found a way to be close again.

Salon spoke with Gwartney by phone from her home in Portland, Ore., where she now teaches nonfiction writing at Portland State University.

When did you first realize that what Stephanie and Amanda were going through wasn't just normal teenage rebellion?

I think it was the night that they stayed out all night long. I was getting more and more concerned about the fact that they were skipping school and their grades were slipping. I was feeling very uncomfortable about their friends. And then one night they simply did not come home. They were 12 and 14. They had formed quite a group of friends out on the streets, and they just kept disappearing for longer and longer periods of time.

No matter how many times I would say to them: "You have to come home at night. This is the absolute requirement of living here." They didn't, and they would say: "Yeah, what are you going to do about it?" The girls pretty quickly found out that I didn't have much authority there.

What was your ex-husband's reaction?

He was still very angry at me. I was still very angry at him. His message to them was: "If you're unhappy, just go." He did have that kind of very free spirit. If he felt like just taking off, he took off, and took a lot of risks.

What do you think made the culture of street kids in Eugene attractive to your two oldest daughters?

It was full of adventure. It was like their version of "My Side of the Mountain." This group of kids downtown said: "Here's an abandoned building. We'll show you where to get blankets. We'll show you where to get food. We'll show you how to get money on the corner. And you don't have to listen to anybody's rules. You can make up this life as you go along."

They were hauling around copies of Charles Bukowski poetry and listening to Tom Waits all the time. They built this whole reality for themselves that felt very exciting.

My daughter Amanda says that the day that they jumped on their first freight train, when she was 16, and they were in this boxcar in the middle of the night, and she stood in the doorway as they were going past Mount Shasta, while all this cold air was hitting her in the face, she said that was the moment that she felt most vibrant and capable of anything.

How did you cope with their absence when they were away?

I was completely a mess. I didn't realize until years later that I had just simply stopped feeling. When you're in panic every single day, it has a huge effect on the people around you.

Throughout this ordeal, you seemed very isolated from other parents going through something similar.

Yes, I was.

This was before blogs. Now, if you just type in "runaway kids" or "runaway youth," blogs pop up all over the place. I thought that I was the only person going through this, and that the other kids on the street must have come from parents who didn't care if their kids left.

I had to disabuse myself of that one.

There are a lot of parents feeling just like I did, very scared, and very humiliated and just loath to admit to anybody that their families had fallen apart to this degree. If I have any advice to parents now, it's go out there and discover other people who are going through this, and talk to each other. I just think that would have helped me so much.

What did you make of the well-meaning people who helped your daughters by giving them free food or clothing or blankets when they were living on the streets?

It's such a double-edged sword for me. Of course I'm grateful to the people who gave my daughters food and money and clothes so that they weren't in terrible shape. And, yet, I really despise those people at the same time, because I think: "If you had just not given them all those things, maybe they would have come home sooner."

There's a federal law that was signed in 1974 that decriminalized running away, and that was resigned into law in October 2008 by President Bush, and basically it provides funding for shelters for kids, and educational facilities for street kids, and a national network that they can call, and get help. There is a little bit for parents, but not very much.

I think that there is a misunderstanding in this country -- not every kid who runs away from home is running away from an abusive home with abusive parents. That is the assumption that is kind of built into the system. If your child leaves you, you must have done something terrible to chase them away.

You got very little help in looking for your daughters -- basically none -- from the police. Why? Is it because running away is decriminalized?

It is.

The police have no mandate to find runaways. I found that they don't really want to, because if they expend all this energy to find a runaway kid, return that child home to her parents, then she runs away a week later, they're looking for her again. I went to quite a few police stations and asked for help, and they all told me the same thing: "We don't do that. Sorry."

And you got a similar reaction when you went to these centers for homeless youth?

Right. They would say: "We're here to help the kids, and in helping the kids we cannot tell you if your child is here. We protect them, and that's part of the protection."

What about truancy laws with schools?

They're all gone too. In fact, when I called the school district and said: "Isn't there a truancy law, can you help me out with this?" They said: "No, in fact, we could arrest you for negligence for not getting your child to school."

What other steps did you take to find the girls when they were missing?

I hired a private investigator, finally, to search for them. He was a former Los Angeles cop, and he had a reputation of being able to find kids pretty quickly. He found them within 24 hours, and I put them into a wilderness therapy camp, which lasted about a month.

What was your take on the impact of that program?

It was a stopgap measure. When they first got out, it was wonderful. They said: "We just love you so much, and we want to be with you." That lasted about two weeks.

Later they said that the skills they learned there really helped them when they finally jumped on a train, and really ran away. So much of the wilderness therapy is about self-reliance. You have to build your own fire with flint and steel. You have to create your own structure.

After they got out of that program, and came back to live with you, they left for a much longer time. Can you describe that?

They left on a September day, early September, and I heard from Amanda, every couple of weeks. She would call and say, "We're alive," but she wouldn't tell me where they were. And Stephanie would never get on the phone.

In late November on Amanda's 17th birthday, I got a call that she had overdosed on heroin, and she had given the police her real name. That started the process of getting her back home.

At that point did you know that she'd been on heroin at all?

Absolutely not. No, I couldn't believe it. I never, ever thought that they would go that far. In some ways, it was this weird silver lining, because it got Amanda home.

Many months later, when Stephanie finally came back home, too, interestingly, that wasn't really a relief for you.

In my experience, your kids don't call one day and say: "Guess what? I changed my mind, I love you, I want to come home." And then you say: "Oh my gosh, well, I want you to come home, and you'll be in history class in the ninth grade tomorrow." That time was over.

I was so angry, and so hurt, and I just thought: "Now what?" I wanted her to come home desperately, but I just knew it would be more difficulty when she gets here, and indeed it was. She came home, and she just couldn't go back to being a kid. It was just too late.

I found out about a boarding school in Colorado that really emphasizes outdoor learning, community and self-responsibility. She applied there, got in, and it was transformative. It just couldn't have been a more fabulous thing for her.

But I never got to live with her again.

Was that bittersweet for you?

So bittersweet. To this day when I walk into a grocery store and see a mom with her teenage daughters, I have to leave. Every time I just get tearful, I just can't be in the same room, even after all these years. It just kills me that I don't get that time back.

You've said that one of your dearest illusions of motherhood was that your daughters' autonomy was a threat to you. What do you mean by that, and what was it like to give that illusion up?

I think that I have given it up, thank goodness. I was a very young mom. I had four kids really fast in an unhappy marriage.

Your first was when you were 21?

Right. I was so identified with those children that -- the old cliché -- I didn't know where I ended and they began.

I wanted them to be reflections of me, and I wanted them to have the lives that I had imagined for them. And -- guess what? -- they wanted to have their own lives, and they deserved to. I way over-identified with my children.

As a young woman I believed that if I didn't do anything else right in my life, at least I would be a good mother, and that was a kind of nugget that I hung on to -- this ferocious love that I felt for my kids. I just adored them, and then to find out that I was the person that they thought of as the enemy was so crushing to me that everything I thought about motherhood was just thrown in the air.

Do you feel like you ever found a satisfactory answer as to why this happened to your family?

No. I think it was just so many things coming together, a bad divorce, a move to a new place where we knew absolutely no one, a subculture willing to take them in. My kids had a lot of trouble fitting in at school. All of those things kind of colluded in a way to create this crisis.

My own responsibility was that the more scared I got, the more panicked I got, the more shutdown I became emotionally, and just didn't have the resilience to handle this the way that I hope that I would today.

You really make it clear that you don't blame society for your family's problems, but what do you think could be done differently socially to help the families of runaways in addition to the runaways?

It would be great for federal lawmakers to talk to parents about what is going on. The statistic that they use says that 95 percent of kids on the street report that they're abused at home, and that's why they ran away. And I absolutely do not believe that figure. I just don't.

I just think that the parents need to be allowed to communicate more about what they're going through, and how difficult it is to find help. I just wish that more of that federal funding went toward support groups for parents, family counseling. I'm not against the shelters. I think that's really important that shelters are out there, and that schools are offered to runaway kids, but I think that more could be done to help the parents and not leave them so frustrated and alone.

Why do you think the parents haven't had more of a voice? Is it because of the cultural shame -- like you're a bad parent, and you should be able to control your own kid?

Absolutely. People have said to me, "Oh, this is because we spoil our children, they feel all this privilege. It's the weak parents that are sending the kids out on the streets."

I think, well, "OK, maybe we have a whole culture of privileged children, but that doesn't mean it's OK for 3 million kids to be living on the streets." That's what it is now -- 3 million kids on the streets, and I think that we need to figure out why that is happening.

When you write about your divorce, you express regret that you and your ex couldn't find a way to be a united front, or somehow tamp down the anger you felt toward each other. Do you think that was a big issue for the girls?

It was a huge issue. Amanda especially tells me that she felt so much the pawn between us. That her dad would say something rather insidious about me, and she would report that to me, and I'd say: "Well, he's this and this," and she'd report that to him, and that just became a trap that squeezed her to the point where she wanted to kill herself.

Can you talk a little bit about the younger girls, Mary and Mollie, and how their older sisters' absence impacted them?

My younger daughters were just amazingly tender and loving toward me, and they gave up big chunks of their childhood to stay home and make sure that I had support and comfort, which was so wonderful of them, and yet, I regret that. I should have insisted that they go out with their friends. The three of us were just kind of in our house not talking to anybody, not doing very much, just waiting and hoping that the girls out on the street would call us.

They did very well in school, they were very active. They kept up with dance and art and all the classes that they had, but they were also very worried. They would wake up crying in the middle of the night, and they would act out in school.

How old are all your daughters now, and how are they?

Amanda is 29. She is a mother of two. She lives on a farm with her husband, and they raise animals, and have a huge garden. She spins her own yarn, and has a business where she sells yarn and sweaters and things.

Stephanie is 27. She lives on the East Coast, where she goes to school. She owns her own gardening business. She is just thriving, too. They've had the most mellow 20s, those two. I think that they got it all out of their systems. Mary and Mollie are 22 and 24, and they live in Eugene, and each have good jobs and boyfriends, and everybody is just doing great.

Now that Amanda is a mother herself, do you feel that she understands better how much her running away hurt you?

She sure does. She has told me several times that if she didn't know where her child was for 10 minutes she would just completely fall apart.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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