'Augusta, Gone': growing up, with pain

March 25, 2001|By Jan Winburn | Jan Winburn,SUN STAFF

"Augusta, Gone: A True Story," by Martha Tod Dudman. Simon & Schuster. 256 pages. $23.

Deep in the jungle of adolescence live a parent's worst fears: lies, rage, silence, defiance. A descent into drugs, suicide and, maybe, madness.

"Augusta, Gone" is the frank, wrenching memoir of a mother's journey to hell and back with her troubled teen-age daughter. Martha Tod Dudman is a single mom and a successful businesswoman raising a son and daughter in a small town in idyllic Maine. She is the type of devoted mother who reads to her children, who talks to them - and who really listens. They are a happy threesome, until Augusta turns 15.

"These are the definitions she has set for herself," Dudman writes of her daughter. "She always goes barefoot, she's no good at school, she loves drugs, she smokes, she doesn't like rich people, she's against war, she wears only thrift store clothes, she doesn't comb her hair."

One by one, the rules are bent. Rules about curfew, about clothing, about school attendance and acceptable behavior. And with each rule relinquished, Dudman and her daughter inch closer to ruin. Augusta lies, steals and later confesses to even more: taking acid, smoking pot, snorting cocaine, shoplifting, stealing cars, dealing drugs. Just talking to her is "like sticking my hand into the garbage disposal," the author writes.

Dudman's tough, poignant tale goes from moving to devastating. "Somewhere out there ... is a deep, vast crater, and that's where she's headed," she says of Augusta. "I don't know where it is and I don't know how deep it is and I don't know why she is drawn to it. I can only follow her, worrying that I will fall, that she will fall, that I will not catch her in time, will not hold her back, will let her go."

Dudman acknowledges her feelings of guilt, her culpability. Did she spend too much time working? Is her divorce at the root of Augusta's problems? Dudman herself was thrown out of high school for smoking pot, and she is a permissive parent. She doesn't know whether "it is adolescent behavior or craziness or all my fault or all three."

Eventually Dudman and her ex-husband send Augusta to a wilderness program, then to a school for troubled kids. More than once, she tries to kill herself. More than once, she runs away. At last her mother brings her home.

When life begins to look normal again, Augusta and her family members forge new relationships, each of them having been changed by the experience. What finally saved Augusta? Dudman is careful not to pretend to know the answer. Yet her thoughts hint at the insight gained from this harrowing journey.

"Really it was Augusta who saved herself," she writes. "That same proud, angry powerful, living spirit of hers that I used to battle with is the same spirit that shines through now. Even during the

worst of it, I knew that the very

qualities that made me crazy

during her adolescence would make her successful as an adult one day. If she could only stay alive that long."

If she could survive adolescence. It is a far more treacherous passage than any parent wants to admit.

Jan Winburn is The Sun's assistant managing editor for enterprise reporting. She lives in Catonsville with her husband and their 9-year-old daughter.

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