Saturday, 11 April 2009

Book Review: Runaway - Diary of a Street Kid, by Evelyn Lau (1989)

There is a monster hovering over the young life of Evelyn Lau, as she recounts her two years as a Vancouver street kid after escaping from the home of her parents at age of 14.

The monster is worse than the drugs, the depression, and the prostitution that Lau describes in vivid and sometimes agonizing detail. The monster is too scary, and too evil for Lau to be able to look it in the eye and describe it the way she describes every other detail of her sordid street life.

The monster is, of course, Lau's mother. We see her in glimpses -- a few words here, a couple of sentences there, and at most a short paragraph in that corner, sprinkled across a 340 page book. If we collect all the passages that describe Lau's mother, they would make up less than 2 pages of the book.

Yet it seems evident that Lau's mother is the one overwhelming reason for her escape from home. An apparently domineering, demanding, angry woman incapable of demonstrating love, Lau's mother so effectively convinced Evelyn that she was a worthless, useless, inadequate child, not worthy of being loved and not capable of ever satisfying anyone's hopes.

At 14, Evelyn, whose passion is writing, only knows her mother as a wretched, screaming woman who has crushed the spirit of her father and imprisoned Evelyn in her bedroom to complete endless bouts of homework. Like a spring that is over-compressed, Evelyn unwinds violently, straight out of the house and into a dramatic downward spiral.

Runaway is a long series of journal entries that chronicle the two years that Evelyn spent on the street, aged 14 to 16. There are escapes to a hippie commune, to the US, and to Calgary. There are endless social workers, psychiatry sessions, casual friends, distant relatives, pimps, johns, and drug pushers. There are many graphic descriptions of drug-induced hallucinations, deep depression and mental anguish, suicide attempts, and acts of prostitution. There is no mistaking the writing talent on display, which is nothing short of amazing from the pen of a young teenager.

Evelyn's desperate search for the affection and loving attention that she so obviously lacked at home leads her to easily believe that she is falling in love with an assortment of men, from a social worker to a drug pusher to her psychiatrist. But as a girl who hates herself, she is clueless about the skills needed to establish proper human relationships, and she stumbles into prostitution as a substitute means to feel needed. And all her emotional emptiness is dulled by an endless amount of drugs, that progress from marijuana to cocaine.

There are many touching moments in Runaway. Many revolve around Evelyn recounting her relationship with her father, whom she perceives as equally a victim of her mother's crushing lack of affection. And towards the end of the book, Evelyn starts to come to terms with the need to confront the anguish of the first 14 years of her life, to try and understand what it is that she is running away from.

The real lessons behind the story of Runaway are about the essential importance of parenting in a young child's life, and the importance of parents properly nurturing the emotional needs of children when they are most dependent and helpless. The overwhelmingly influential role of parents in the first decade of their child's life means that both the good that parents achieve and the damage that they cause is ever-lasting.

Published in paperback by Harper Collins.
341 pages.

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