Like Family
Paula McLain
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Buy *Like Family: Growing Up in Other People's Houses: A Memoir* online

Like Family: Growing Up in Other People's Houses - A Memoir
Paula McLain
Back Bay Books
288 pages
May 2004
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Reading memoirs -- getting inside others' lives, situations perhaps unfathomable to the reader -- is so fascinating and revealing. But, unfortunately, many memoirs these days seem so sad, so narcissistic, so full of "look at me, I'm in pain."

Paula McLain's memoir of growing up as a foster child does not seem to be one of these. Even though Like Family is about a situation most of us cannot begin to fathom -- not getting to know one's biological parents in one's formative years, never having a real "home" -- she tells her story with amazing insight and humor and, yes, some sadness. But the sadness does not tip the scales. McLain, a poet who now lives in Wisconsin and teaches poetry at New England College, has an even hand. She has gained enough distance from her extremely unsettled childhood. Despite some terrible occurrences, and because of a great love she shares with her sisters, she gets through and is able to write about it in an amazingly objective way.

The three McLain girls' mother leaves them when they are very young (the author is four at the time); their father is in jail. They live with their elderly grandmother and an aunt for a while, but these relatives are unable to keep the girls for long, so they become wards of the state. Through the '70s and '80s, their early childhood through teenage years, the sisters live in several foster homes in California, the longest with the Lindberghs, a couple with a daughter, horses, and dogs. In all fairness to the foster parents, the sisters do have some wonderful experiences: sailing, camping, having their own ponies, getting new bicycles, throwing parties at home, and more. Yet along with these quite usual and some idyllic family events, they also experience some extremely strict rules and some horror. At one home, all the furniture is covered with plastic; they can't walk on the rugs. They can't lean on the refrigerator in such a way. Aside from not knowing why their mother left them and never seeing her for sixteen years (by the end of the memoir, they are reunited with her; she is on her fifth husband), Paula also goes through several traumatic experiences -- including physically abusive incidents with two foster dads. Her last foster mother, Hilde, a large, cold woman and the mother they lived with the longest, is also abusive, literally tossing the teenage girls around, swatting them with a broom, and never, ever hugging them. Here's how the author describes this "mother":

"All you had to do was look at Hilde, her mouth in a hard line as if a ruler had slapped it there, arms crossed severely over her heart, to know there was no map, no access, no turnable knob to the door that was her ? at least not for me and my sisters."
Ever resilient, the girls love and protect each other. They hang out together, discussing clothes, their periods and boys. Teresa and Paula even get jobs at the same nursing home, in which one of the happiest anecdotes is embedded: the sisters sing to a woman who hasn't spoken in years, and she begins to sing along with them. Within two weeks, that elderly patient is living a much more "normal" life than she had in years.

Although the sisters maintain ties to a few blood cousins, aunts and uncles, the three of them remain their only reliable family. After high school, when Teresa leaves to try living with their real mother, Jackie, and she and Paula have left on a sour note, Paula writes, "in losing her I was losing a foot, arm, heart chamber, an anchor, an every godamned thing."

However, this reader wishes there were yet more detail of these relationships, more of their conversations. By the book's end, I felt as though I know something of Paula, how she felt about the various placements and abuses, but much less about Teresa's or Penny's feelings or questions. Admittedly, Teresa, slightly older than Paula, "wasn't like me .She was the tough-skinned one, the turtle girl. She didn't look at anything too closely, didn't ask questions she didn't want to know the answers to." Paula was always asking questions, at least of herself; obviously this book was an attempt to answer some of them. This is a warm, courageous, page-turning memoir, one that is at heart about survival. Despite extremely high odds against her, its author has turned out well. Many of us cannot imagine having no one stable home, but all of can appreciate the love that saves us and allows us to develop in healthy ways, no matter where we find it.

© 2003 by Deborah Straw for Curled Up With a Good Book

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