Children die. They die so easily. They are feeble and know virtually nothing and they are small. Leave them alone by roadsides or expose them on hillsides and they are finished. Abandon them in forests and they are lost. (The hag in the gingerbread house knows this.) They have no idea whom or what to trust. They eat poisonous mushrooms. Hot sunshine parboils their brains. Infections overcome them. Children can be caught with bait as easily as any fish. They can be hoisted over shoulders, into cars and crevices and rooms where you would never think to look for them. Their bones snap like Chick-O-Sticks. Their skin is very soft. Ogres in fairy tales knew this. Perverts know it and bank on it, cruising the Net posing as twelve-year-old boys named Brandon and Zac.
Adults rush around striving to protect them. Society and church and school try to protect them, to save them from us and each other and themselves. Yet because they are small, soft, and impressionable, they slip easily between the guardrails and through the cracks. And fall, and fall, and break.
The luckier ones survive and write memoirs. This is probably cathartic, like talking to a bartender or your therapist, uninterrupted, for a year, with all the concomitant rushes of validation and revenge. And what emerges is that no matter what kind of hell kids find themselves in, grownups — hapless or helpless, cruel or oblivious, specific or systemic — one way or another led them there.
After ten years spent drinking Jim Beam, Bud Light, wine coolers, Corona, Korbel, Stoli, and countless nameless “Creamsicle-flavored cocktails” — much of this with a best friend whose nickname was “Hit-and-Rum” — Koren Zailckas went sober last year at age 24. She flays herself in her memoir, Smashed, but does it wearing velvet gloves, resulting in a funny and highly readable confession-cum-condemnation of that pop-culture icon: the drunk party girl, “the shit-faced starlet … a sad and beautiful ingenue, who appears in photographs with tousled hair, smudged eyeliner, and a visible thong.” In magazines, she is “beer-ad Barbie. … We need to believe that whatever she is seeking — be it a great love or the next great lay — is just a few drinks away.”
It all begins in eighth grade with a slug of Southern Comfort whose “flavor is completely foreign, a revolting combination of black licorice and antiseptic.” Yet Zailckas is instantly won over, remembering this moment today “in tender minutiae” while retaining no memory of her first kiss. Thus begins a life of sneaking out by night to troll for parties, falling down drunk in trucks, in strange apartments, in the local cemetery with a bottle of brandy that makes “all of my worries fall over and die like canaries in a mine shaft.” Knowing none of this, her loving parents believe that when a toxically drunk Zailckas has her stomach pumped at sixteen (the tube “coasts down my esophagus like a snake”), it is merely a fluke. College is one long hangover, made possible mainly “because there is an overwhelming sentiment that underage drinking is now okay. The adult universe may not extol the nights we’ll spend swallowing enough rum to pass out on the tile floor of the dorm bathroom, but they accept it as part of the college experience. … Administrators at the University of Colorado have gone so far as to propose ‘drinking permits’ which would allow students to drink even if they’re not yet 21.”
Abstinence, she concludes, means having to face the intransigent fact of a wasted youth. “It has meant starting from scratch, reliving my awkward phase. … It’s meant I will act like less of an asshole, but feel much more like one.”
The six teenage mothers whose stories Joanna Lipper tells in Growing Up Fast never knew the middle-class luxury of tile-floored dorm anythings. Products of rust-belt western Massachusetts, these young women speak with unnerving candor about abuse, violence, poverty, and mistakes that cannot be unmade. Molested by her mother’s boyfriend at age seven, Liz ran away with a gang member at thirteen and became a prostitute. Thinking a baby would bring love into her life, “I was always trying to get pregnant,” she says of those STD-riddled days. She got her wish at fifteen. Almond-eyed Shayla remembers: “When I was sixteen, I really wanted to have a baby because all my friends had babies. I wanted a baby so I’d have a friend 24 hours a day, and because I thought they were really cute. I sort of planned it because I didn’t take any birth control.” She too got her wish, with the help of a fifteen-year-old party animal who fiercely opposed abortion but couldn’t accept fatherhood either.
What’s so upsetting about these stories is how many of the young mothers — whom Lipper, a documentarist, got to know over a four-year period — made the exact same blunders their own parents made, following them with eyes wide open in a woeful lockstep that neither hindsight nor insight nor culturewide epiphanies could do anything to halt. Shayla’s mother had given birth to her at fifteen; Sheri’s mother had her at seventeen after miscarrying at fifteen when a boyfriend kicked her. Jessica’s parents married as teenagers, then promptly divorced. In account after account, such echoes ripple down the generations with grim determination. Girls with ex-con dads bear the babies of prison-bound bad boys. Girls whose parents clobbered each other are going at it tooth and claw with guys as their infants watch horrified from the floor. The book tries to strike a hopeful note — Lipper’s interviewees are struggling to put their lives together — but it just casts a pall of despair. Shuttling back and forth from fast-food jobs to jails while their childless counterparts are learning to drive, enjoying summers at the beach, and choosing prom gowns, can these kids keep their kids from repeating the same routines? Or will the echoes never stop?
There was virtually no way Hiner Saleem could have avoided a wasted youth. Born Kurdish in the early ’60s in Kurdistan, otherwise known as part of Iraq, he watched the Baathists rise to power amid strafing, bombing, and harsh ethnic discrimination. He begins My Father’s Rifle with a scene in which government militiamen beat his mother with a rifle butt, burn his cousin’s house, tie the cousin by his feet to the back of a jeep, and drive away. “Three times they drove him around the town center, as a warning to the other [Kurdish] patriots. By then my cousin was a lifeless rag streaked with blood. That day, we lost seven men in my family. … I was still a kid.”
After hiding in a cave, the Saleems are forced with other Kurds to cross the border to an Iranian refugee camp: “I felt as if I were in a cemetery. … We were annihilated, and I started to cry.” Later, they return to an Iraq where vast numbers of Kurdish books are being destroyed — to be replaced by pro-Baathist volumes whose covers bear smiling pictures of Saddam Hussein. Several Saleem brothers join their father in becoming peshmerga, volunteer fighters — risking their lives in perilous antigovernment operations. The author, who fled as a teenager and is today a filmmaker in Paris, confronts major issues in bracingly lean prose. Yet his most crystalline descriptions are of the most intimate moments. Gorging on fruit, swimming in a cold river, learning to paint: classic boyhood frissons, all rendered glaringly ironic by unfolding against a backdrop in which teachers are executed, loved ones vanish, and Kalashnikovs proffer false hope.
What each of these books evokes is the tenderness of the young, their breakability. Despite what we tell ourselves so confidently about human resilience, the kids we meet in these pages are alive today only by accident, by miracles, by chance, by luck. Thousands of things happened to them that could have killed them, and thousands more almost happened. That such books might entice us or inform us, that they even exist, is no thanks to us.