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At the age of twelve, Deborah Digges's son Stephen was running in gangs, stealing cars, and bringing home guns. This is the story of the adolescence that followed, of a boy growing up quickly and aggressively, with unrestrainable energy and a flair for risky and outrageous behavior. It is his story, as told by his mother, who is intent on pulling together a family that can get her son through these years alive, not just undamaged but the better for them.
In beautiful, vibrant prose, devoid of self-pity, anger, or blame, Deborah describes her struggle to understand and protect her son as his behavior escalates beyond her control. Even in the midst of the most harrowing experiences, Stephen's intelligence and sensitivity shine through: in an essay he writes about his older brother, in his photography, in his incisive explanations for his unruly activities, in his impulse to take care of those in worse shape than he is in. And as Stephen's misadventures take him into territory; emotional territory, but also actual neighborhoods Deborah has never encountered before, she tags along behind (sometimes literally, trailing him under cover of night) and teaches herself to understand how and why he acts, thinks, feels the way he does.
Eventually, mother and son begin to rebuild their lives. A visit to a therapist who suggests they throw knives at a cardboard target proves surprisingly effective. Together, Deborah and Stephen take in a bizarre menagerie, including an unforgettable trio of dogs: Buster the epileptic bulldog; GQ, another bulldog, this one on Prozac; and Rufus, a basset hound who decides to raise a litter of motherless kittens. And, finally, Deborah andStephen open their home to Trev, a friend of Stephen's abandoned by his family. Each new responsibility strengthens their unusual household into a real, if unconventional, family that can defend Stephen when he goes too far, that can pull him back him back in and help him redirect his energy.
At times touching, at times terrifying, this is a taut and fiercely engaging, uniquely insightful, and inspiring portrait of male adolescence in our complicated world.
“What makes this book so terribly fascinating is its honesty and Digges’s refusal to consider her son bad or worthless.” — USA Today
“Thought-provoking … Deborah Digges offers a kind of mythological account of her son’s rebellion” — The New York Times Book Review
“Deborah Digges’s beautifully written, lucid memoir about raising a badass son on her own is impressively devoid of any poor-me sentiment” — Esquire
Thirteen-year-old Stephen has run away again. He's out there somewhere with his gang, all of them dressed for the dark in black-hooded sweatshirts, oversized team jackets, ball caps, baggy pants that ride low on their hips. Inside their pockets they hold on to guns, switchblades. Recently Stephen has shaved part of his right eyebrow.
It's about 4:00 a.m., late September. I'm in my study on the east side of our brownstone apartment house in Brookline, Massachusetts, three stories above the street.
Maybe Stephen can see that my study light is on. I imagine him looking up from one of the condemned train cars' shot-out windows in the rubble field not far from us, looking up to this coin of light like a lighthouse beacon in one of my mother's favorite hymns.
But Stephen would protest he is no flailing ship. He is Henry Martin, the youngest of three brothers in the Scottish ballad I used to read to him, Henry Martin, who became the robber of the three, having drawn the losing lot.
But as fate would have it, Martin was good at piratingbrutal, unequivocal, the beloved captain of a ship that cruised the shoals off Britain, pillaging shipwrecks and intercepting inbound merchant vessels.
All night in Boston sirens close in, scale back. We are as far north as we have ever been, the light here opening on a series of stingy, frigid days, shutting down suddenly.
Maybe the cops have picked Stephen up, in which case I will hear something soon. More likely he has fallen asleep on the floor of someone's room. It might be hours before I hear from him. He has run enough times that I know he will call. He hates himself for having to, but hecan't help it. When he hears my voice he will be profane.
It's cold in my study, cold throughout our rooms. Stunningly beautiful is our apartment, but cold, often barely fifty-five degrees. But cold as it is, the oil bills are enormous, midwinter, half my salary.
I'd build a fire but this would mean my taking the back stairs to the yard, opening a common door. We are in enough trouble. Our landlords, who live below us, call often these days to tell Stephen to turn down the rap music. And sometimes he brings his gang home, ten or more boys stomping up the front flight of stairs.
Then there are the shouting matches between Stephen and his older brother, between Stephen and his stepfather, Stan, who visits when he can, these days about every third weekend.
And there are the shouting matches between Stephen and me. They get us nowhere despite my wailing, begging, and then my sudden turns from despair to fury that find me chasing after him down the stairs, out the double doors and over the back wall, up the eighty or so steps to the car.
At forty I am amazed at my speed, my skill. But Stephen is faster. Just recently he has outgrown me by a few inches. By the time I reach the landing lot, he and my car are gone.
In my study near dawn I turn back to a grant proposal I've been working on while I wait for word from the cops or from my son. If I could get a semester off from teaching, I'd have the time and concentration to move us out of here, find a place outside the city far enough that Stephen couldn't get in, close enough that I could commute to the university.
I refuse to entertain the impossible logistics, all the binding clauses, and how broke I am. I owe the landlords for oil, and the electric and phone companies, owe Stephen's therapist, and a lousy therapist at that. Or maybe it is that no one can help us just now.
I'm also looking at a huge tuition bill for spring term at the private school we placed Stephen in a year ago. We hoped a change would help, the smaller classes, and the "positive peer group," the "family atmosphere" the school promised.
But the new school has made things worse. Stephen's circle of friends has widened. They live all over greater Boston, from Wellesley to Mattapan to Beacon Hill, and as usual, Stephen has attracted the most spirited and rebellious.
Weekends they rove the city on public transportation or in taxis, buy expensive clothes for each other on Newbury Street, score dope in Harvard Square, then hole up in someone's absent parents' Beacon Hill apartment where they smoke, make phone calls, and experiment with their bodies while they watch the parents' stash of X-rated videos.
Perhaps such unsupervised activity has gone on for a long time, before Stephen entered the school, and nothing more than the fact of decadent boredom has come of it. The kids get high, order carryout, mess around, come down.
Then it's getting late. They hop in taxis again and go home, eat with the family, do their homework, go to bed. No one asks where they've been or what they did today. Or if asked, the kids lie. No one misses the money they spent, or cares that they spent it.
That Stephen has become part of the group is to them neither here nor there, except that as he participates he hates it, not because it's wrong or dangerous, but because he can't recover from it.
It is not in his nature to be noncommittal, to dip, unaffected, in and out of worlds. He can't play the game and then go home as if nothing had happened. If he spends his allowance money he has none. If he gets high he gets depressed and sick. And when asked what he did all day, his difficulty with lying makes him hostile, silent.
He hates himself for his vulnerabilities, for his lack of impulse control, for how sick he feels after the dope, and for the fact that he can't keep up, like the others, with his academic work.
But to quit would mean losing his peers. What would he do without them? How would he function without his friends? Because he is doing poorly in his classes and refuses to play team sports of any kind, he believes he has nothing else but this circle of friends he judges and resents.
As for his mother, she's in his face all the time. She tries to get him to "talk about things," sends him to a therapistanother secret he's got to try to keep from his friends. It's her fault he's in this situation. Isn't she the one who insisted he enroll in the Park School where his failures have now so drastically come to light? She deserves to be lied to, lied to, shut out, punished.
Stephen will not quit his friends, though as far as he can tell, they don't have his dilemmas. Were he to confide in them, they'd surely laugh.
Stephen begins to befriend and be befriended by the kids who deal the drugs, the ones who sneer at this entourage of adolescent rich, kids willing to use them for their money and their naivete. And after a while Stephen finds that he has the power to play one group against the other. When the dealers and their gangs begin to coerce the entourage for expensive gifts, steal from them, bully them, Stephen acts as mediator, savior. He is playing with fire, but the risk is exhilarating.
So much so that at the end of the day, as Stephen's classmates head home, he stays on the streets with his new companions, as angry and confused and as full of self-loathing as ever, but now somehow more in control.
I'm keeping my own secrets regarding a sense of fear and failure. I, too, am torn between identities. I have been a snob, a bohemian snob who believed that the arts, music, poetry were religion enough by which to raise my sons and that somehow, above all the groups in culturerich and poor alikewe were superior in our passionate pursuits.
I have judged Stephen's new friends; moreover, their parents in their business suits and furs, who speak to me coolly, if at all, on the occasions when I have visited the school on Parents' Night, or to watch Stephen perform his censored raps in the talent show. Their children play flat, dispassionate Bach on the violin. One girl, dressed as a pauper, sings badly, "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?"
At the same time, I have tried to mold Stephen to "fit in" here. Night after night I have done Stephen's homework, listed the phylum, class, order, genus, species. Mimicking the hand of my thirteen-year-old, I've written notes on his history text, mapped the Nile, made up a rap for him of the capitals, while Stephen, having disappeared up those steps again, spray-paints his tag on another mailbox, climbs a fire escape to put up a piece, a wall of graffiti that will chide greater Boston on its way to work.
And while I have always been an advocate of the underprivileged, the ones in culture most in need, I have to admit to myself now that, well, I guess I didn't mean it this way. I didn't mean, for instance, that Stephen should befriend street kids, bring them up into our apartment and feed them and give them his clothes, his watch, his bed. That's not what I meant. But what did I mean?
Other self-condemning words go round, culture's words for Stephen and me, words I read on the faces of the Park School parents and their children, dysfunctional, enabling, words I've heard Stan say over the telephone. Frustrated, he tells me that I've never been strict enough with my sons and that now I am paying the price.
And I hear the same frustration from my family as they bemoan the fact that I've brought up my sons without organized religion. They offer that perhaps we've moved around the country too much and that this has bred an unhealthy allianceperhaps I am too much a friend to my boys, not enough mother. Implicit in their words is the slap of the fact of my divorce from my sons' father, my marriage to Stan, our commuting relationship.
And because they love Stephen and me they offer advice. One of my sisters suggests a school she has looked into where troubled children like Stephen are dealt with through highly structured days, lots of sports, severe consequences for their actions. "Hip restriction," she explains. "It means kids have with them at all times one of the school staff, wherever they go."
I've looked into such a school located in western Massachusetts. But such schools cost twenty-five to thirty thousand a year, almost a year's salary for me. And when I try to imagine Stephen under those circumstances, I see him in his infancy, a baby so violently undone if I left him that I gave up my teaching assistantship in California to stay home with him.
Then there is the "Tough Love" approach, which Stan offers as a solution. This idea costs nothing. According to its policies one simply locks one's child out, calls the police if there is a disturbance, and hopes the world beats the kid up enough that he begs to come home on any terms.
But this approach to our problems is absurd. It is too dangerous to do such a thing to a thirteen-year-old. Better than anyone, I know Stephen, know that he would get lost, would in his anger and despair take some risk that would very likely kill him. I'm not willing to take such a chance with my son.
"You just won't give him up," Stan offers.
"This isn't about you," others suggest.
In the end, I agree with both assessments. I won't give him up and it isn't about me. Sometimes there is no language for what a mother knows about her child. Because there are no words, no argument, it is as if the matter should be taken away from her.
Stephen's therapist doesn't seem to have any particular solution in mind, and though I don't feel he is doing Stephen any good, his approach to our dilemma seems the most appropriate.
"He's angry." Mike states the obvious after each session. "Do your best to keep him out of jail."
Outside, the streetlights and the dim Boston sunrise are almost equal to each other. Light swallows light. Stephen's name means crowned.
I see him clearly just now in memory, a boy of about six, scrambling up rocks to a high plateau. The winds off the Atlantic are fierce. We have come to Tintagel to show him King Arthur's castle, a magnificent ruin off the Cornwall coast. He has run, as always, out ahead of me.
The wind carries off my voice as I call to him to wait. But he has disappeared up the rocks and over the rise. Panicked, I clamor after him, lose my footing, recover. The winds shoulder me against the rock face. Where is Stephen? What if he is blown off into the sea?
I heave myself up to the table of green meadow. Out of breath, half-blinded by sea spray, I glimpse the boy running wide circles around the ruins, his arms open, his face lifted to the elements. He is shouting, running, lost to something, in thrall to its dangerous joy.
What if Stephen is a Henry Martin, in the end an outlaw? If he is, do I stop loving him? And how do I go about withdrawing my love? It appears that is what humans do in crisis. We pull away. Stan and I have done it. We are doing it now. We don't touch, make love, laugh.
I contend it must be different with a child.
Maybe Stephen believes he is Henry Martin, or he is Odysseus duping the Cyclops, sneaking out of the cave wearing animal skins, crouching among the sheep herds as he leads his crew toward the ship; Stephen, my Ishmael, wild, street-smart, strident, swaggering, who has learned to use his anger and his terror like a weapon and won excellence in the bow shot.
Now the phone rings. "Fuck you," he greets me. Sirens close in again, recede.
"Will you be home soon?"
"Maybe, maybe not," he spits, but the fight has gone out of him. He sounds so very tired.
"Okay. Come on. Watch your back. I'll put on some coffee."
Deborah Digges lives in Massachusetts.
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