I recently finished I’ll Meet You There by Heather Demetrios, which is mostly about a girl falling in love with a Marine with PTSD, but which is also about a girl dealing with her alcoholic mother. And as I was reading the book, something started niggling at me about the way the mom’s alcoholism was described/treated. It sounded really familiar.
In the past year or so, I have read the following YA books that deal with a parent’s alcoholism:
- I’ll Meet You There by Heather Demetrios
- 52 Reasons to Hate My Father by Jessica Brody*
- This Side of Home by Renee Watson
- Best Foot Forward by Joan Bauer*
- The Museum of Intangible Things by Wendy Wunder*
- The Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Robin Palmer
- The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson
- The Year of My Miraculous Appearance by Catherine Ryan Hyde
In all of those books, except the ones with the asterisk that I’ll get to in a moment, the alcoholic situation was the same: single parent (usually the mother) who was incapable of taking care of herself so the teenage child took on the responsibility of paying bills, running the household, etc (except in The Corner of Bitter and Sweet because the mom was loaded so had an accountant/maid).
In the books with the asterisk, the alcoholic parent didn’t live in the home, either because of death or divorce/separation, but still: single parent.
If I were using YA lit as a gauge for how the world works, I would think that that’s what alcoholism looks like: a single parent completely incapable of taking care of herself and a child that steps in to take over. Or, on the other hand, a parent not in the home because of his/her alcohol abuse.
That is not what the alcoholism I grew up with looked like. I grew up in a two-parent household, the alcoholic parent never left, and I didn’t deal directly with the family finances. The non-drinking adult in my family did that.
Where is my story? Or the story of other kids like me?
When listening to older people describe their experiences with alcoholism, several of them say they always thought of alcoholics as bums in the street, and they never connected the drinking they saw in their homes with alcoholism because the pervasive media message was that alcoholics are a specific type of person and you can recognize them because their lives devolve in a specific kind of way (i.e., Skid Row derelict).
Because the image of the single alcoholic parent is so pervasive in YA lit, because the experience of the child in that scenario is so specific, I wonder how many teens who live in a two-parent household like the one I describe recognize themselves in these single alcoholic parent narratives?
Because I didn’t see those similarities until I was an adult. Now I can recognize that the emotional response (heightened sense of responsibility, tamping down of emotions, walking on eggshells, and on and on) is the same no matter what the alcoholism you grew up with looked like. I remember talking to a friend, and she would say, “Well, you know how it was because you had the same thing” and I would think, “I mean kind of but no” because she grew up in a physically abusive home, and I didn’t. But she was right. Our experiences were more similar than not. However, I wasn’t emotionally mature enough to recognize that then.
I don’t know exactly what I’m getting at here. Wait, yes I do. All alcoholics are not single women who rely on/allow their children to do everything. All teens who grow up with alcoholism are not from single parent households. There is a range of experience of growing up with alcoholism, and I would like to see that reflected in YA literature.
Please let me know in the comments if there are books that depict different kinds of alcoholic parents than the type I keep running across, so I can check them out. I know Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta is one. Any others?