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A Mother's Memoir Of Runaway Daughters

Mar 20, 2009 (Weekend Edition Sunday)

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It's tough to be a teenager. Many make it through their teen years fairly unscathed, but there are others who decide that running away from home is the only way to get through them.

Debra Gwartney has firsthand knowledge of teenagers on the street; in 1995, her two oldest daughters — Amanda, then 16, and Stephanie, then 14, — hopped a freight train and disappeared. Gwartney writes about the constant worry and uncertainty of that time in her new memoir, Live Through This.

The story begins with Gwartney's divorce in 1991, when she moved her four daughters from Tucson, Ariz., where their father lived, to Eugene, Ore. At the time of the move, Gwartney tells Liane Hansen, they looked like a "very normal family" — the girls were in many activities and had lots of friends. "But of course they were devastated by this double whammy that hit them — that their parents divorced and that I decided to move away from their father."

Looking back, Gwartney says, her daughters' concerns about their father's welfare was a warning that she didn't want to see at the time. More signs of trouble followed: Amanda began to cut herself and was involved in an arson incident at school. Then, during a visit to her father, she swallowed a bottle of Tylenol.

"We were paying attention," says Gwartney, "but unfortunately we became more polarized with each other and there was a lot of blame being tossed back and forth, which was absolutely no good for her."

Amanda and Stephanie began to skip school, sometimes disappearing for days at a time. But despite the money and resources Gwartney and her ex-husband poured into finding their daughters, there was only so much they could do.

"What I found out when they started to disappear for days and then months at a time was it's not against the law to run away from home, so the police just can't do much," she says.

Gwartney visited shelters for runaways in her search for her daughters, but the standard reply was that the shelters existed to help the kids, not the parents, so they couldn't tell her if her daughters were there.

Gwartney says she lived in a "state of panic" every day that her daughters were missing. She was working multiple jobs and taking care of her two younger daughters, who she calls "my reason for getting up in the morning."

Finally, after months on the road, Amanda overdosed on heroin in a tunnel in Tucson. After a brief stint in the hospital, she decided she was ready to come home. But Stephanie wasn't finished with life as a runaway — she jumped on a freight train and disappeared again.

Finally, after nine more months on the road, Stephanie called and made the first overtures toward coming home.

"I think she was just ready to come back," says Gwartney. "They both had to choose to come home."

The author says that healing has been a gradual process. She says she's slowly learning to forgive herself for whatever she may have done to contribute to her family's ordeal.

"I woke up six times a night for years thinking, 'Why didn't I do this? Why didn't I do that?'" she says. "It was torturous. But it was what I had to do to make peace with it and to go back to my daughters and say, 'Please forgive me for falling down on the job of being your mom.'"

Years later, the family seems to have achieved some measure of peace. Not long ago, Gwartney says, all four of her daughters were at her house cooking and laughing and joking. "And I thought, whatever forgiveness is, it has entered our lives now."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Live Through This
By Debra Gwartney
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Hardcover, 280 pages
List Price: $24

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