Posts Tagged ‘children of alcoholics’

breaking night     Breaking Night by Liz Murray

 Being the child of drug addicts makes for a life both frightening and weird. There’s no stability, the strangers in house can be anyone, including child sexual predators. And the parents themselves are pretty much checked out even while they’re checked in.

 Liz Murray tells her story of growing up this way. Her father was a drug dealer. He was making a lot of money selling prescription painkillers, but was caught. After that, he had no real means of supporting his family. And he was a drug addict himself, mainlining cocaine. During the day, he would roam the streets, looking through others’ garbage and collecting thrown-out objects that he considered useful gifts for his wife and two daughters.

 Meanwhile, Murray’s mother had been using drugs since adolescence. She was addicted to cocaine. She was mentally ill—schizophrenic—and it seems that she used drugs as a way of self-medicating. She is truly disabled, incapable of having a job. She receives welfare checks monthly, but with the cost of her and her partner’s (Liz’s dad) drug habits, the money is always gone in a week. Eventually, her habit causes her to contract AIDS.

 Murray discusses the love she has for her parents despite their serious failing. They also appear to love her and her sister, who vies with Liz for their parents’ affection and who plays mean tricks on her as a way of getting attention. At any rate, the child Liz often has to take care of her parents, and their roles are reversed. Her sister seems to be above the fray. She is capable of studying and going to school while the world is falling apart around her. Liz can’t manage that attitude.

 When Liz’s mom and sister leave the father, Liz stays behind. The apartment is crumbling and filthy. Eventually Liz finds herself part of the ‘system,’ living in a home for girls. She hates it and hits the streets, depending on a few friends and her new boyfriend, Carlos, to keep her safe. But Carlos is a hustler and Liz eventually realizes this. She is tired of asking her friends if she can spend the night and use the shower. She decides to go back to school. At seventeen, she has exactly one high school credit.

 Fortunately, Liz has the opportunity to enroll in a school for students whose lives have been rough. She has that second chance and takes full advantage of it. With the help of some excellent teachers, she gets a scholarship from the New York Times and heads for Harvard.

 High school housekeeping: I think most teens are really going to like this story. The ones who are fortunate will have the sense of their lucky breaks. (“But for the grace of God, there go I” as we used to say.) For those less fortunate, Murray’s tale offers hope and genuine evidence of a teen being able to turn things around. I did wonder why Murray preferred to live on the street or in cheap hotels (right next to a murder scene in one), rather than stay in the home for girls. She lacked privacy there, but there was food, shelter, and clothing. And, well, it wasn’t a murder scene. I wish Murray had given more information about her choice. But other than that, this is truly inspirational stuff.

Murray’s situation and the outcome made me reflect on the importance of teacher-mentors in teens lives. Here’s a little unasked for advice to teens: many good and excellent teachers care deeply about their students, but they can’t all mentor every student (like 160 per teacher?). They’ll connect deeply with a few. If you don’t connect with a particular teacher, it doesn’t mean that s/he is a bad person. But it does mean you need to reach out to another good teacher for help. Having a mentor can make all the difference in a life, as Murray shows us.


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 reason to breathe    Reason to Breathe, by Rebecca Donovan

I was talking to another teacher at Chaffey High, Mrs. Vanderbeck (who used to work at Colony as well), about the bullying books I was reading this year. She told me about one she thought was great, so I asked her to write a guest blog post and share the book with you. Here it is!

I just finished a book, Reason to Breathe, by Rebecca Donovan.  It’s about bullying and physical abuse, but from the adults that are supposed to look out for you.  Emily, “Emma” has worked really hard to create a facade of indifference to all the students around her.  She is counting the days to her “liberation”. The day when she graduates from high school and is able to go to college. 

Emma is a straight A student, editor of the school newspaper, is a star soccer and basketball player, all the while hiding a terrible secret.  Her best friend, Sara, knows that things are not perfect at Emma’s home, but she doesn’t know the lengths Emma has gone to protect her little cousins.  In spite of her best efforts, she falls in love with Evan Matthews, a new student to her school, who won’t take “No” for an answer. The book is graphic, sad, and yet allows the reader to feel Emma’s annoyance, curiosity, interest and finally the love she thought was not meant for her, at least not in her current situation. I really enjoyed it. It’s a fast read. I am going to put it out for my students so they might read it during SSR. –Mrs. Vanderbeck

High school housekeeping: I looked and I have one copy at Chaffey, none at Colony. So I’m adding it to my ‘purchase ASAP’ list. I also see that it is the first book in a series, so if you also enjoy it, I’ll get the sequels. –Ms. W.

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los angeles diaries

The Los Angeles Diaries: A Memoir by James Brown



James Brown begins with that phenomenon of nature that all of us here in the Inland Empire know: the Santa Ana winds. We’ve seen the uprooted trees and downed powerlines in front of our schools, the smashed fences in our backyards. And we know about and fear the fires, and that less natural phenomenon, the arsonist.


And so Brown begins by speaking directly to our experience, and continues to do so. Though heartrending, many of the details of his biography are not so uncommon. There are the crazy lives he and his siblings lived with their unbalanced mother, his drug abuse at an early age, his alcoholism and the way it wrecked his marriage. That he not only survived all of this, but later moved on to have a creative life would be reason enough for me to recommend the book to you.  Well, that and the fact that Brown doesn’t waste any time blaming others for his addiction and missteps.


Fortunately, there is so much more here, packed into a tightly narrated work, in what feels like a group of loosely-woven short stories, organized not by chronology but through emotional connections.  For example, the thoughts on the Santa Anas lead to the story of Brown’s mother leaving him in the car while she runs out to set an apartment building on fire, an act which costs a life.


The book itself is littered with (well-deserved) praise from many famous people, but the comment by Janet Fitch is the one that struck me as closest to my experience with The Los Angeles Diaries: “Oddly inspirational, the tale of the last man standing.” In part, Fitch is referring to the fact that both Brown’s sister and brother committed suicide. This is certainly a story of survival—and of survivor’s guilt. That is it so well written is the bonus that makes me want to hand it to you when you when come in to the library for a biography.


Since I am dealing with high school and with assignments, I want to add the housekeeping details that only pertain to our particular situation: The Los Angeles Diaries is exactly 200 pages long—that is, the exact number of pages that many teachers use as a minimum requirement. This, I know, will thrill some of you. Since each chapter reads like a stand-alone story, I don’t think you’ll have any problems stopping and starting; you won’t get lost, and each new day’s reading will be a sort of fresh tale. Oh—and you are going to love the story about how the alcohol-addled Brown, in hopes of making up with his wife, buys her a pot-bellied pig.


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my beloved worldMy Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor

Sonia Sotomayor is one of the first women (the third) and the first Hispanic to become a Supreme Court justice. Her memoir, My Beloved World, is not quite an autobiography because she stops the story just as she secures her first judgeship. This makes sense as there are reasons both political and legal for not discussing her career. So, since she stops before she has become historically important, why would you want to read her story?

The book’s prologue contains an answer. Sotomayor discusses an argument between her parents that she overheard at age eight. She had just been diagnosed with juvenile diabetes—a very serious type of the disease that at the time was often a cause of early death. Neither parent wanted to give her the required daily shot of insulin. She tells them she will do it herself. This self-injection indicates her grit as a child, an important part of her personality that binds her to success throughout her life.

Sotomayor’s father died of alcoholism when she was nine. She discusses how women were always blamed for the faults in a man—and thus her abuelita, her father’s mother, blamed her mother for her father’s shortcomings. But Sotomayor realized that people are responsible for themselves and didn’t fall into the trap.

So Sonia Sotomayor began very early to be responsible for her life. She knows that she had many breaks—good luck—that helped her to get where she is today, but her determination can’t be overestimated. She grew up in a housing project in the Bronx. While her brilliant cousin succumbed to drugs, she persisted. Her mother worked hard to keep Sonia and her brother in Catholic school. Her education there, and the nuns who ran the schools with iron fists, was both blessing and curse.

Sotomayor loved reading—she discusses how reading The Lord of the Flies rocked her world because she pondered it and connected it to the real world of the Bronx. She came up with the answer to the question she had been asking herself—“How does this [meaning evil, people willing to harm others] happen?”  She realized it was because people can’t see others’ points of view.

Another aspect of her pre-college schooling, besides reading, to which Sotomayor attributes her success, is being involved in forensics (debate). By having to argue both sides of an issue, she learned to always see both sides; this was training in fairness. And she liked it. She could envision herself arguing in a courtroom, and she later became a public prosecutor in the DA’s office in New York. There she also learned that if you want people to understand you, you need to appeal to their emotional side as well as to their logic and rationality.

Another important educational tool arrived in Sotomayor’s home when the family got its first TV. This broadened her world to show her what was outside the Bronx, to give her other models. The adults in her world, the nuns and priests, worried about the influence television would have on the students. I mention this because I think there’s a contemporary analogy with the Internet. I admit to being one of those worrying adults, but I also see the world opening to students who have the savvy to use the Internet by assessing the information it contains.

Being as driven as Sotomayor was, and working in law enforcement (where divorce rates are very high), ruined her marriage. She discusses this with honesty. In addition, as a prosecutor, she worried that there was a futility to her work as she would see repeat offenders. When she started prosecuting the big felony cases, including a particular murder case, she felt that the devil was alive and in the courtroom with her. For the first time in her life, she met people who were beyond redemption. Eventually, she felt that she couldn’t continue to witness that much sorrow and depravity without drowning in it.

Sotomayor was always very focused on success—and she had always wanted to be a judge. She realized that she would need to practice on civil cases as well as criminal cases if she expected to get to the bench. She made a great career choice in deciding to work for a small firm where she found excellent mentors.

Sotomayor relates stories that anyone can find a connection to. Particularly poignant is her discussion of having a sense of shame when others would belittle her accomplishments. The way she gets past that and owns her accomplishments without accepting the belittlement is an important lesson for the reader.

Ultimately, Sotomayor believes that what separates her from others who are equally intelligent, but whose lives go adrift, is her will. She wishes that there were a way to instill it in every kid—and I’m sure all teachers agree.

This is a very inspiring book, by turns poignant, funny, and triumphant. It’s a great choice for reading about an inspiring American.

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