TBR: The Stardust Lounge

A few months ago, when I wrote about how much (or how little) effect parents have on how their children turn out, Jen recommended a book called The Stardust Lounge: Stories from A Boy’s Adolescence, by Deborah Digges.  It’s Digges’ memoir of how her younger son got into trouble — car theft, running with gangs — how helpless she felt — there’s a great passage where she describes following him through the night streets as he heads out to do graffiti with his friends — and how they eventually made their way through the rough waters of his teenage years.

Digges recounts the conversation with Steve’s therapist that seems to have been a turning point.  Ed, the therapist, says:

"Kids like Steve have come to understand themselves as capable, independent thinkers by the time they reach their teens.  Despite their problems with impulse control, even problems with conventional learning, they believe in their abilities to solve their own problems because — Steve’s an example — they’ve been allowed to.  Or because — like his street friends — they’ve had to."

"After a childhood of being allowed to make his own decisions — after your encouraging him to explore his passions and play them out, even when they were a bit dangerous, even when they involved risk — now you’re telling him no.  That’s all over.  Now he’s got to do what you say, what his teachers say, what the cops say, no questions asked."

"But the stakes are so much higher! He got himself into gangs and guns.  And he’s still just a kid.  He’s failing school…"

Ultimately, Digges decides to back off and let go, to let Stephen make his own decisions — and to let him deal with the consequences imposed by schools and legal systems when he makes bad ones.  Part of the charm of the book is that Digges never suggests that this is the only right approach.  In fact, she never is sure that it’s the right approach, even for her and Stephen.  Even at the end, when he’s going to college for a fine arts degree, she doesn’t suggest that this means the story has a happy ending, only that he’s on an easier path for now.  But she accepts that she’s not cut out out to be a controlling parent, and that Steven can tell she’s faking it when she tries.

Social services programs for youth talk a lot these days about building on adolescents’ strengths, not just seeing them as a bundle of trouble waiting to happen.  Although Digges doesn’t use this language, this is precisely what she does — encouraging his music and his photography even when he’s at his most rebellious, expecting him to act responsibly in caring for their chronically ill dog. 

Perhaps the bravest — or craziest — thing that Digges does is take in one of Stephen’s friends, Trevor, when his own family turns him away.  It would have been easy for her to say, sorry, I have enough on my plate dealing with my own kid and my job and my falling apart house and the tax authorities.  No one would have faulted her for saying, no, Stephen’s peace is fragile enough, I can’t take in a ghetto kid with a whole set of his own problems.  But she didn’t. Perhaps because of Stephen’s difficulties, Digges didn’t have the expectation of being able to control how everything would turn out, and so was open to letting even more chaos — several high-needs pets, a troubled teen — into her life.

I hope I don’t experience the challenges that Digges did, but if I do, I hope I can face them with as much grace as she did.

One Response to “TBR: The Stardust Lounge”

  1. Nancy Says:

    Elizabeth – thanks for recommending this book. I finally read it and want to share two short passages at the end that particularly resonated with me. These are from Digges’ Fall, 1999 chapter when she is recounting her son’s high school graduation celebration.
    “A subtext of possibilities went unspoken. But the alternative story with its different tragectory ghosted, even intensified our celebration. It offered that Stephen’s graduation from high school was not *the* moment that he and we who loved him had been waiting for.
    “Rather it was *a* moment, like so many others, which made one kind of future more immediately accessible than another. We were not unaware of the other grueling, even tragic alternative. Inside that alternative we glimpsed ourselves as flat, dismissible characters – the helpless single mother and the rebellious teen – roles reinforced by a culture pointing fingers at us, roles that separated a son from his mother and isolated us in our confusion.” (p 224)
    and
    “The jury is blessedly out on all of us, and if and when it comes in with its verdict, let’s hope that we’ve grown up, that we’ve escaped, somehow, that we’ve beat it into years in which life appears to make sense, years in which we finally, for the first time, catch up to ourselves, and that the charges brought against us long ago, in that other life – that other strange life in which we were a blur to ourselves and to the ones who loved us – are forgivable.” (p 226)
    Making me think…

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