Any mom worth her carpool car keys will recognize Elizabeth, the fraught and embattled mother in Anne Lamott's new book, "Imperfect Birds."
Every siren sends her imagination flying to the place on the road where she is certain her teen-age daughter, Rosie, lies bleeding. Every exchange with Rosie is likely to flare like a match and burn them both.
And every mother whose heart has been wrung out like a dish rag by a daughter will recognize Rosie, a smart, athletic, beautiful lying machine on the cusp of college. Secretive and manipulative and stealing her independence as if it was money from her mother's purse. A vicious little snake who hisses the most painful things at her mother and then crawls tearfully into her mother's lap for a caress.
"Imperfect Birds" is the story of Rosie's slide into drug addiction and her mother's struggle to keep the peace even if it costs her daughter. She cringes at Rosie's indignant rage when questioned and responds by giving her "the benefit of the doubt," a get-out-of-jail-free card Rosie does not deserve.
"I'm a good kid," she tells her mother. And, indeed, she is an excellent student and the children at the vacation Bible school love her, but Rosie is doing every drug she can get her hands on, trading oral sex with strange guys and stealing out of medicine cabinets to keep the costs down.
In fact, it is so easy to deceive her mother that Rosie has a sneering pity for her, "getting tricked like that all the time, like a child."
You don't have to have a child who is popping everything that looks like a pill and washing it down with cough medicine to recognize yourself and your daughter in these pages. I did, and it was as painful as catching a glimpse of your aging self in a mirror. You just want to look away and forget what you saw.
Lamott's dialogue – most of it taking place in the heads and hearts of Elizabeth and Rosie — is pitch perfect. The mother's obsessive fear for her daughter's safety. Her overbearing need to write the script for her college career. Her grief for the little girl who is gone. Her irrational need to please Rosie, to have her approval. Her willingness to sacrifice her relationship with her spouse on Rosie's altar.
Elizabeth reads Rosie's diary for "intel," and then regrets the trust she has broken. She asks advice from friends who teach high school and ignores their tough-love answers. She is dangerously close to losing her own sobriety, but flees to AA meetings — anything to distract her from her daughter's duplicity.
All of this takes place in a cozy, laughing, loving family, just like the one you think you have. Rosie's stepfather, James, is funny, goofy and as devoted to her as if she were his own. The three hike, shop, see movies and eat dinner together — the kind of closeness that is supposed to be guaranteed protection against the dangerous choices Rosie is making.
And, as I watched Rosie lie so easily to her mother, watched her successfully call her mother's bluff, saw the disdain that Elizabeth endured from her daughter, I looked back on my own trip through my kids' adolescence and wondered how big a fool I had been.
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