Thursday, December 6, 2012

Imperfect Birds

Anne Lamott: I like your non-fiction.  A former pastor of mine used to reference you fairly frequently in his sermons.  I was intrigued by one other piece of fiction that you wrote. But this hit home, hard.

Imperfect Birds essentially revolves around a mother-daughter relationship: the mother is a recovered alcoholic and the daughter spirals more and more out of control with various substance abuses throughout the text.  But it also deals with teenage relationships, friendships, student-teacher relationships, peer pressure, freedom, and ultimately recovery. 

1.  I'm a teacher.  I don't like the mom or the girl from a teacher's stand-point.  I look at the mom and see a myriad of ways that she enables her daughter.  Enabling is a fine line to walk, and teachers struggle with not doing this with students all of the time.  You want teenagers to succeed, grow, learn.  You want to believe them.  You want them to get along with you.  I get it why teachers and parents do it; in fact, it would be awfully hard to fully negate all levels of enabling.  But this parent is decidedly an enabler, knows that she's an enabler, and continues to do so simply because she craves and needs her daughter's approval.  There's enough background information about the mom's upbringing for the reader to pretty easily understand that the mother-daughter relationship distinctly parallels the mother & her parents.  In fact, there is quite a bit of parallel/symbolic STUFF going on throughout.  I give props to Lamott because it's not always inherently obvious.  You know what they say (I say it a lot now at least after stealing it from a former professor), if something quirky happens once, you think "oh, how interesting;" if something quirky happens twice, you think "hmmm;" if the same quirky thing happens three times (or more), you think "yeah, this is purposeful."  The mom was enabled, and she then enables her daughter.  The mom abused as a teenager, and her daughter abuses as a teenager, often with her mom's approval.  This is the part that is most especially irritating as a teacher.  What does she expect her daughter is doing at school and after school with her friends, whom her mother knows are also using.  What does she expect?!?  There is one jittery moment where the mom ups and calls the science teacher (the daughter is somehow brilliant at Physics but only good at Chemistry, all while heavily abusing substances) to check how her daughter is doing.  The mom is nearly unable to communicate with the teacher (admittedly, she thought her daughter had something going on with the teacher).  Yet the implication is that the mom is so far out of touch with her daughter's school life that the very notion or action of calling a teacher to check on her daughter's progress was enough to about fall off of the wagon again. 

2.  I'm a mom.  Need I refer to the enabling again?  But more than that, I kept thinking about how this could be my daughter.  The girl in this story is a strong student.  I hope that my girls will be strong students.  But it was also just the thought of my girls doing anything of this nature that was knotted my stomach multiple times while reading this.  And I felt a lot of empathy for parents who do have to live this torturous nightmare.  Kids from good families do stuff like this.  And on the outside, you would probably think that this was a good family in the book.  But on the inside, you definitely see the profusion of cracks forming and spreading, specifically with the mother.  As another mom, I feel some amount of repugnance for her again for what she is allowing to happen because she so avidly demands her daughter's approval, love, and friendship.  This woman has mentally disabled herself and serves little purpose for anything, contributing little and understanding that she was lacking. 

3.  I'm fresh out of my teenage years (10 years removed).  I feel a definite disgust for the teenage mentality that the daughter continued to proclaim, never letting go of her mantra from beginning to end: "Everyone else does this...I'm not doing nearly as much as everyone else...what I'm doing isn't even is only fun when I do this...I'm nothing without doing this and I refuse to be nothing."  This girl was seriously using any and everything, so the idea that "what I'm doing isn't even bad" is the height of ignorance and stupidity.  And for any teenager who claims that any of these statements are true, I challenge that because you know what, I did just fine without any of that and I enjoyed being a teenager.  Dare I say that I even had plenty of fun times without so much as a cigarette or a discreet sip of anything.  And my daughters better understand someday that any of these lines is nothing short of malarky with me and their dad.  It's pure selfishness, and that's not cool.

Imperfect Birds was one of those books where I thought at least a dozen times about stopping in the first 50 or so pages.  But I didn't.  And it didn't have any warm fuzzies at any point to really make a Hollywood moment.  But it has validity and some amount of merit insofar as I think it's addressing what is a largely ignored/overlooked/blind issue in society, one that has been festering and one that will continue to ferment in its own oozy stench for much, much too long.

1 comment:

Crystal said...

First, thank you for this blizzard of posting; it's great. Just last week I finished reading "Some Assembly Required-A journal of my son's first son" by Anne Lamott. I picked it up largely because you and several other friends of long ago always said how much you enjoyed her writing. I did not enjoy it. I appreciated her honesty to a difficult and personal story-her 19 year old son and his 20 year old girlfriend who decide to keep an unplanned pregnancy and raise a child in a rocky relationship. But she portrays herself as quite needy, insecure, and anxiety riddled. She is not a likeable character. I started reading "All New People", a fiction piece she wrote in the late '80s, today in hopes of finding writing of hers that I like. Do you have a favorite Lamott book?