Reviewed by Christine Selk
As the mother of a newly minted teenage daughter, I approached Lauren Kessler's new book, My Teenage Werewolf: A Mother, a Daughter, a Journey Through the Thicket of Adolescence, with a mix of eagerness and trepidation. It should be noted that this was my exact mindset nearly 14 years ago when opening that ubiquitously pastel bible, What to Expect When You're Expecting. (The answer to that question -- two months of colic and the dizzying if temporary decline of my mental health -- went mercifully unrevealed until Mia was 4 weeks old.)
For her part, Kessler deserves a medal of valor -- or perhaps a Valium -- for the lengths she went to to research her newest book: She completely immersed herself in her daughter Lizzie's life for 18 months. To say that Kessler shadowed her daughter is an understatement: She sat in on her seventh- and eighth-grade classes; she attended (and sometimes participated in) Lizzie's wrestling and track practices; she even followed her to summer camp. Perhaps the helicopter parents among us think this sounds like a little piece of heaven. Many of us, however, are reaching for the chardonnay at the thought of spending one day, let alone a year, following our kid around middle school.
Which is why we owe Kessler a debt of gratitude for such heavy lifting. Kessler, who directs the University of Oregon's graduate program in literary nonfiction, is no stranger to embedding herself in the lives of her subjects. (In her book Full Court Press, for example, Kessler documented the season she spent observing the UO women's basketball team and Coach Jody Runge.) But taking the Margaret Mead approach with a group of strangers is not the same as taking it with your adolescent daughter, as Kessler learns on a number of occasions during her journalistic experiment. As she writes: "There is no other relationship that veers so sharply between intimacy and distance, between love and hate."
While much of the book will feel like familiar territory to mothers of teen girls ("Who are you texting? Why are you wearing those pants? Exactly how old IS that boy?"), Kessler's honesty about her feelings and motivations is a comfort, illustrating the emotionally primal nature of the mother-daughter dynamic. Concerned about Lizzie's food choices and weight gain, Kessler writes: "It occurred to me then that maybe this whole weight thing was more about me than about her. In fact, one of the toughest things about having a daughter is just that: parsing out what are her issues and what are actually our own."
My Teenage Werewolf is, at heart, a testament to the mother-daughter bond in all its schizophrenic glory. While it won't make the slammed door less infuriating, the "I hate you" less hurtful or the eye roll less annoying, it will help you understand each for what it is: normal. And, mercifully, temporary.
Books mentioned in this post