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Like Family: Growing Up in Other People's Houses: A Memoir Hardcover – March, 2003
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From Publishers Weekly
The teenage years are trying for many, but they're downright hellish for those abandoned by their parents and shuffled from foster home to foster home. Such is the painfully obvious message of McLain's memoir. Sparing no harsh details, McLain recounts the 15-year span during the 1970s and early '80s when she and her sisters endured all sorts of hardships at the hand of so-called parents, even including sexual and physical abuse. The girls never felt accepted by or connected to anyone, and these identity conflicts only amplified their normal teenage insecurities. McLain has won recognition for her poetry from the NEA and with a grant from the Academy of American Poets for her first book, Less of Her. She displays her poetic inclinations with florid descriptions of every person and place she encountered and concrete illustrations of her feelings. Recalling the first uncomfortable moment upon entering the first strange house as an eight-year-old, she writes, "the distance between the door and the couch seemed vast and unnavigable, like the distance between Baretta and dinner, evening and morning, tomorrow and next week. We sat down." Although McLain's constant embellishments and fixation on superfluous character development detract from a consistent narrative thread, this is a brave account, evidently cathartic for the author and occasionally difficult for the reader.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Library Journal
A real-life White Oleander: McLain's 14 years in foster care.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Top customer reviews
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The first few chapters describe the three sisters' rocky and rapid progress through a series of unsatisfactory foster homes, following the separate disappearances of their mother and father when the oldest of the three children is just 4 or 5. The pain and loneliness and sheer embarrassment of walking into a new house with new rules and a new dynamic are beautifully described by McLain. The three sisters' closeness and their very limited understanding of what is happening (they must leave one idyllic home because, they are told, their foster parents have to move for work, but later the girls realize that they haven't moved at all, and never learn what happened) are evoked perfectly by McLain.
But once the girls find their final placement, with an offbeat couple who buy the girls horses, take them on trips, and generally act like parents (or so it seems to the reader), McLain is less successful at describing why she and her sisters never really feel at home. The foster mother is a rather remote German woman, but the father is a very involved, fun parent who is always launching new projects and schemes. As the girls grow, we learn a lot about their typically tumultuous adolescent years, but we never get why things are so bad with the foster parents that McLain leaves at 19 and never sees them again, not even returning when they are dying. Yet this seems the very heart of the problem of foster care: the inability to bond, after being shunted around too much. And it would seem to be exactly what McLain is trying to communicate in this memoir.
The other issue is her relationship with her birth mother, who returns after the children are out of high school and just beginning life on their own. Predictably, they all reunite to try to make a life together. But we don't really know, behind anecdotal incidents, what that relationship turned out to be. The final pages describe each of the sisters' relationship with her mother as McLain sees it, but we're never shown it, so it doesn't feel real to us.
I enjoyed this book tremendously and think it needed to be written, but I wish the second half had been as illuminating and detailed as the first.
The author describes her journey through the foster care system in Fresno County in the 1970s and 1980s, and as she mentioned streets and places within the city and its surrounding areas, it all resonated with me. I had spent almost those same years as a social worker for Fresno County, and while I had not crossed paths with her or her sisters, Teresa and Penny, I could relate to much of what she wrote. However, my perspective came from the “other side” of the story. The side that represented the system, which I can readily acknowledge to be broken. Or at least severely damaged.
I had heard similar stories from the children in care, but in this author’s case, she kept most things secret. She did mention telling a neighbor some of her experiences, only to be dismissed.
As the years passed, there were good times for the sisters, and there were seemingly ordinary coming-of-age moments, but the lack of an emotional connection to a parent was keenly absent.
The sisters did share a strong bond with each other that lasted through their time in care…and afterwards, when they finally reconnected with their biological mother. But again, physical proximity seemed to be the main connection between the long absent mother and the sisters.
Like Family: Growing Up in Other People's Houses, a Memoir was an all too familiar tale to those of us who have worked in the system. Reading this story from a real life “graduate” of that system was inspirational. It is a testament to the author’s strength and resilience that she made it through to the other side, and can now share what she has learned along the way. 5 stars.