The prologue of Debra Gwartney's memoir, Live Through This: A Mother's Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love, begins with her riding a bus. She's describing her surroundings. Her voice has a sense of authority, critical to memoir. The former reporter gives you the facts. You're with her on the bus.
She becomes angry, and it's not just bus anger. The girl next to her sets off a diatribe. She smells like "dried urine," the "stale-ashtray stench of a binge."
The well-written detail shines on. Gwartney notices her "sallow skin, half-shut eyes, haunched shoulders...her spoiled parka tent." And she wonders, Does anyone else notice this girl next to me? Why am I disgusted by her? Why am I like this? How did I get this way? These, textbook memoir questions.
Then the realization: This isn't her daughter but it is. It reminds her of what her daughters were.
Ten years ago, Gwartney's two oldest daughters stopped going to school, stopped coming home. They ran away. Jumping on trains, they left Eugene, and eventually the state of Oregon.
From Portland's Pioneer Square to the Tenderloin District of San Francisco, from Austin to Boulder, Colorado, Gwartney's Live Through This contemplates what it's like being a mother to daughters that don't want one.
Gwartney teaches nonfiction writing at Portland State University, where I was her student. After I read Live Through This I emailed her a few questions about it. Below are her responses.
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Your memoir takes up much of your daughters' lives, spanning almost 30 years. How were you able to capture that much time from memory?
The first piece related to the book (written before I even imagined the possibility of a book) was the story of looking for one daughter in the Tenderloin District, which was published in the journal Creative Nonfiction. Then I wrote a story about a particular dinner with another daughter at a Chinese restaurant that was published on Salon. Obviously, these events had taken place in the recent past, so my memories about them were still vivid. I also found that once I started writing about my family's dynamic, about the nitty-gritty of our lives during this period, earlier memories came gushing back. I wrote down the images as they came to me, fleshing out these moments that rolled up in my mind, figuring that at least some of it would be relevant when I turned to the larger project. If I couldn't remember a scene well, I either didn't include it in the book, or slid over it fairly quickly. After the book was finished, the girls recited some stories that I wished I'd remembered myself — they would have fit well — but those tales came from their memories, not mine.