"Food was strictly rationed. Students were deprived of provisions, sleeping bags, and shelter..." (Jon Krakauer, "Loving Them to Death," Outside Magazine, October, 1995.)
An Open Letter to Anne Lamott
By Suzanne Rivecca
I was excited to hear that you had a new novel out, “Imperfect Birds,” that reprised the characters from “Crooked Little Heart” and “Rosie.” I’ve read the latter two books over and over. I’ve treasured them for their emotional honesty, uncompromising depiction of complex family and romantic relationships, and heartrendingly relatable characters who, like all of us, are imperfect, struggling, selfish, but somehow ennobled by their flawed, foundering, fierce devotion to and concern for the people they love. The chronicles of the Ferguson family are precious to me largely because of the palpable sense of bittersweet hope and celebration that haunts me long after I’ve finished reading. Through these characters, you illuminate the excruciating choices people have to make, and the consequences—internal and external—of those choices. The toll they take. The isolation they engender. In the wake of a difficult choice, the characters—and the books—never quite stop second-guessing, analyzing, rationalizing, longing for the safety of absolutism but ultimately rejecting the false comfort of it. Above all, the novels, and the people in them, refuse to cop out.
Much to my disappointment, I found “Imperfect Birds” to be, at its essence, one giant copout. Maybe it wouldn’t have bothered me so much if the subject matter—out-of-control teens and the “tough love” necessary to rein them in—wasn’t so close to my heart. Like you, I live in the Bay Area. From 2008 to 2010, I worked as a grant-writer at Homeless Youth Alliance, a drop-in center for homeless teenagers and young adults in the Haight Ashbury. The kids of HYA range in age from 13 to mid-20s. Most of them are runaways. Many grew up in the foster care system and/or survived familial abuse and neglect. More than half have serious mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression. The majority are habitual users of alcohol and drugs. Everyone who works directly with the kids at HYA is a former runaway, and understands what kind of intervention is needed to enable these kids to find a path from self-destruction to autonomy and empowerment. And, over and over again, we have seen the devastating consequences that come when well-meaning, scared-to-death parents make the choice to send “problem kids” to a wilderness survival program, boot camp, or other “tough love” environment where the therapeutic philosophy is to “break kids down in order to build them back up.”
In “Imperfect Birds,” 17-year-old Rosie, a straight-A student and high achiever, uses drugs. She drinks. She has unsafe sex. She lies, compulsively and hurtfully, to Elizabeth and James, her parents; she deceives them and breaks their hearts, and she does so with an infuriating self-righteousness that conceals a secret well of misery, anxiety, and low self-esteem. After imposing a regimen of restrictions and groundings that don’t work, her mom and stepdad make the very painful decision to “kidnap” her and send her, against her will, to a 3-month wilderness program in Utah. To pay for it, they have to ransack their savings, her college fund, and the IRA her deceased birth father left her. Rosie is furious and resentful at first, of course, but ultimately the program restores her self-respect and well-being as well as her relationship with her parents. After much parental hand-wringing and tears, the book ends with the unequivocal sense that Elizabeth and James have done the right thing—indeed, the only thing possible. Not to kidnap and forcibly enroll their daughter in such a program would have been a dereliction of duty and a cosigning of Rosie’s death certificate. There is no ambiguity about this. The reader is not left to draw his or her own conclusions; the conclusions are drawn for us, in a way that sublimates complexity in the service of suburban complacency.
I could recount hundreds of examples from my workplace that refute the book’s assertion, but for the sake of time, I’ll just cite a few. My boss, for instance, a brilliant 30-year-old who’s been working at HYA since she was 19 and freshly off the streets, was sent to a rehab program in Utah by her desperate parents when she was 16. This program has since been hit with multiple lawsuits by former students and their parents for cruel and inhumane treatment of children, and has a laundry list of websites detailing and exposing its abuses. Utah, in particular—the setting for Rosie’s redemption—is notorious for having little to no government regulation or oversight of its 1000 behavior modification programs for teens. These programs are a cottage industry, capitalizing on parents’ fears and desperation, and they are allowed to operate with impunity. The program my boss was sent to seemed to run on a curriculum of emotional terrorism and humiliation. My boss, while there, was shut up in solitary confinement for not “admitting” that she had an eating disorder (she didn’t; she was underweight from chronic heroin abuse). When kids “progressed” to the stage of being able to go to the bathroom without supervision, they were required to loudly sing The Star Spangled Banner as they relieved themselves, to prove they weren’t throwing up, drinking, or using drugs in the bathroom. Many kids—primarily the boys—were beaten or put in restraints or restrictive “holds.” Letters home were read and censored; phone calls were monitored. A kid could be held there as long as staff deemed he/she hadn’t yet “recovered.” As long as parents kept paying the exorbitant tuition, the program held on to their kids. My boss’ parents could only afford a month’s worth of treatment. When they ran out of money, their daughter was pronounced “cured” and released. She used heroin and lived on the street for three more years.
Then there’s the story of Clyde, a 26-year old from New Mexico with bipolar disorder whose parents sent him to an offshore boot camp when he began “acting out”—drinking, using drugs, getting in fights—as a 14-year-old. At this program, he was routinely beaten, hog-tied as punishment, and forced to ask staff’s permission to perform the most basic actions: using the bathroom, entering or exiting a room, standing up or sitting down, eating and drinking, etc. When he was released, severely traumatized with a mental illness worsened by the stress and degradation he’d endured, he ran away to San Francisco, where he spent the next several years drinking himself into oblivion and fathering illegitimate children. This was the state he was in when HYA staff encountered him. HYA counselors spent years working with Clyde, mediating between him and his frantic parents, and helping rebuild the trust and love that was shattered by the ill-informed decision they made to send him away. Clyde is now on good terms with his parents, is taking his medication for bipolar disorder, and is no longer homeless. Today, his parents admit that sending him to the boot camp was the worst decision they possibly could have made, and they’re grateful that the consequences weren’t fatal. They still keep in touch with Clyde’s counselors at HYA, and refer to them as “part of our family.”
In HYA’s case files, there are many more examples of the consequences of sending troubled teens to these kinds of programs, and none of them has a happy ending. Even if the programs aren’t flagrantly physically abusive—and many, if not most, are—by their very nature they are a gross betrayal of every tenet in the adolescent value system. Indeed, they seem almost designed to permanently estrange and alienate teenagers from adults and all they represent. Invasion of privacy, coercion, intrusion into the most intimate and private sanctums of inner and outer life, the stripping away of dignity, the denial of individuality and uniqueness, the forced acceptance of diagnoses or therapist-imposed “revelations” that are inaccurate and insulting: no teenager in his/her right mind would respond positively to such tactics. These programs seem to ignore—or, worse, to blatantly capitalize upon—the fact that teenagers “act out” because they feel like they have no control. Their “bad behavior” is reactionary, a backwards stab at self-definition. Acts that we, from our comfortable perch of security and stability, view as self-destructive are to their minds self-preserving, empowering, and defining. It’s counterproductive to try and “save” these kids by taking even more control away from them. The only hope is to help them reshape their own definition of what constitutes autonomy and independence, while acknowledging that there are going to be slip-ups and remissions along the way. I could launch into a treatise on “harm reduction,” the proven treatment philosophy practiced by HYA and many other youth and adult programs all over the country, but there’s plenty of literature available about it, and if you’re interested in learning more you can visit HYA’s website (homelessyouthalliance.org) or that of the Harm Reduction Coalition (harmreduction.org).
Back to “Imperfect Birds.” So much of this book is a beautiful, wrenching evocation of what it’s like to be a teenage girl. Which is why the book’s facile and simplistic betrayal of Rosie—and of lost kids everywhere—in its latter half was so painful for me. In its last third, the novel becomes an apologia for parents who resort to betraying their kids, and for the programs that extract huge sums of money to help them do it. There were several passages that made me want to throw the book across the room. A sampling: Rosie’s high school friend Jody, a drug addict whose own parents hired “obese Samoans” to kidnap her from her bed in the middle of the night and spirit her off to a rehab program, by the end of the novel is clean, sober, and reduced to a functionary whose only role is to endorse and justify Rosie’s banishment:
Jody took Elizabeth [Rosie’s mom] by the hands. “You did the right thing,” she told the older woman sternly. “You made the same messy decision my parents did, when I made such a mess of my life. They know now that they did the right thing, and I do, too, for sure. And Rosie will too, someday.”
And if that contrived display of Stockholm Syndrome isn’t enough of an endorsement, we have Elizabeth guiltily Googling “deaths at wilderness facilities, from exposure, suicide, violence.” All she finds are “endless diatribes against wilderness programs in general,” which are apparently nullified by “testimonial essays by kids who said they would have died without intervention, or ended up in jail or as runaways.” Then she Googles “teenage traffic fatalities” and readers are left with the implication that more kids die from drunk driving than from wilderness programs. We can follow this line of logic to its inevitable conclusion: even more kids would be dead from traffic fatalities if it weren’t for wilderness programs. The narration neglects to mention that the vast majority of those “endless diatribes” against wilderness programs are written by kids who have survived them, by their parents, and by the ACLU.
What bothered me most, though, is the book’s portrayal of the “lost kids” who hang out in the “Parkade,” a public space in Rosie’s fictional Marin County small town. Rosie’s stepdad, James, decides to write a KQED piece about these kids. It’s here that James—a character I loved in the two preceding books—begins his horrifying transformation into C.W. Nevius, the incompetent San Francisco Chronicle columnist who writes hand-wringing, hate-mongering, and grossly inaccurate “articles” about the homeless kids in the Haight. (Interestingly, he lives in affluent Walnut Creek). According to James, the Parkade kids aren’t actually homeless; they simply choose to look and live that way. They have homes—stable, affluent, loving homes—to go back to, if only they could stop getting high and realize that their parents love them and want the best for them. This is the prevailing attitude of police and homeowners in the Haight. In fact, I’ve sat in on a police precinct meeting in which the captain, with a totally straight face, announced that the homeless kids in the Haight aren’t actually homeless. By arresting them for sitting on sidewalks and by confiscating and destroying their beloved dogs, she claimed, we’re actually helping them, by giving them no choice but to go back to their loving, caring homes! The neighbors attending this meeting—all white, well-dressed, professional, and pro-Obama social progressives, according to the bumper stickers on their Priuses—nodded along and felt sanctified in their visceral contempt for poverty and suffering. I can imagine these very same neighbors, and the police captain, reading “Imperfect Birds” and feeling smugly justified in their prejudices and assumptions. If a popular and acclaimed Bay Area writer—a vocally liberal and tolerant one at that—says that a.) these kids aren’t homeless, and b.) all they need is a good kick in the pants, then, by God, what further endorsement do we need?
Toward the end of the book, Elizabeth, James, and their best friend, Rae, attend a maudlin, New Agey “candle ceremony” at the Parkade to memorialize kids who have died from those damn traffic fatalities, have run away, or have become junkies. Joined by a few kids who wander over from the bus kiosk, the town’s adults gather together to “consecrate this piece of land on which so many of the town’s children had gotten so lost.” It was the piece of land, apparently, that was to blame, not any internal or external circumstances of the kids’ lives. Someone plays guitar and a choir sings “Blowin’ in the Wind.” This is followed by a self-congratulatory speech by Rae:
Tonight, we lit something inside ourselves to be spread, lit a tiny flame to consecrate toxic ground, to consecrate our caring, our attention to this matter, our wish that there would be help for the parents of the dead. My belief is that their children did not die in vain and their children did not die alone…Each candle is so temporary, but it says that there is light and there are people who can help: it says the time is now.
The time is now, presumably, to throw your kid upon the tender mercies of perfect strangers in the unregulated Utah hinterlands. While reading this scene, I wondered about those peripheral kids, the ones hanging out in the bus kiosk watching a bunch of sanctimonious yuppies light a candle in acknowledgment of their heartbroken parents. Maybe they were thinking, “Why don’t they ask me why I left home? Why don’t they ask me why I started drinking? If this ceremony’s about us, why aren’t they coming over to actually talk to us? What are they afraid of?”
I put those same questions to you, and to anyone else who presumes to know why and how kids end up lost. Come down from Marin and visit Haight Street. You’ll find the kids everywhere—on street corners, on Hippie Hill in Golden Gate Park, and, especially, in HYA’s drop-in center. Be warned: They’re not cute. Many of them have no social skills; they left home too early to develop any. Some of them will be drunk, covered with sores, visibly sick. A lot of them will be asking you for change. Almost all of them will have a dog—usually a well-socialized pit/lab mix constantly in danger of confiscation by police—that they love more than their life and care for with a singular devotion. Know that the kids’ appearance can be off-putting. Your first and most primal impulse will be to look away. But try to supersede that. Look them in the eye and say hi. Ask them how it’s going. You don’t have to give them money, but they appreciate food just as much. If it’s too intimidating to talk directly to them, talk to their dogs. Pat their heads. Tell their owners how beautiful their animals are. What these kids respond to, more than anything, is to be talked to, not talked about. They get enough misrepresentation already; they need the opportunity to represent themselves, and to have someone actually listen.
I’ll end with an admission: I’ve never been the mother of a teenager. And I can’t pretend to know how nightmarish it must be to watch your kid, the most important person in your life, turn into a monster who hurts you and herself. But I do know that hurting her back, making her feel some of the pain she inflicted on you, isn’t going to turn her back into your little angel or suddenly make her develop a sense of empathy. And I’d hate to think that parents all over the country will read “Imperfect Birds” and tell themselves those comforting lies—those kids aren’t really homeless; wilderness programs aren’t really that bad, you just have to do your research and find the right one; it’s okay to read your kid’s diary; etc., etc.—that make the case files at HYA grow longer, fatter, and more discouraging.