March 15, 2010

Amateur Ethnography: The Good Daughter

A few years ago, I had a student named Julie (name has been changed). Through various class assignments, I learned a little about Julie's life. Mostly, I realized she was a nineteen-year-old girl raising her four siblings because her parents were in prison on drug-related charges.


Julie doesn't have a very strong relationship with her biological father. In fact, she rarely sees him. Julie's mother and biological father had a child in 1987 (Julie), then her mother had a second daughter with another man in 1989. Her mother and biological father had two more children in 1991 and 1993. Finally, Julie's mother remarried and had a fifth child in 1995.

Staying with me?

This weekend, Julie and I reconnected over a beer. I knew two years ago that I wanted to write about her story, and I felt this new experiment would be the perfect time to share her story with others.

Julie remembers going on drug runs with her mother and stepfather as a teenager. Her parents had a truck, so when they had to make a deal, they threw the kids in the back of the truck and made the trip. Julie and her siblings would lie in the truck bed to keep the dealer and/or buyer from getting spooked and running off.

Sound like your family outings as a kid? I didn't think so.

Julie's mother and stepfather became hardcore addicts. Her mom would stay in bed all day, every day. Things went from bad to worse. Julie ran away from home at age seventeen, and shortly after, three of her younger siblings were kicked out of the house, leaving her mother, stepfather, and youngest sister to fend for themselves. When the addiction was at its worst, the three of them were sleeping in their car and living on the streets.

Eventually, Julie's mother and stepfather were arrested and sent to prison. Because their youngest daughter was only thirteen at the time, Julie was forced to take legal custody of her sister. Julie's sister was a mess, caused a tremendous amount of trouble, and drove Julie crazy for years.

At age nineteen, Julie was going to school full time, working a part-time job, taking care of her four siblings, and trying to manage a very strained relationship with her mother. Julie told me her sister was suspended from school almost every single day. She had to leave her college classes to go pick her up and meet with the school's administration.

At the same time, Julie's mother was making ridiculous demands of her daughter. Money, shoes, and even a television (you're allowed to have a television in prison?).

Three of Julie's five siblings had children over that stretch of time (and remember, Julie is the oldest at age twenty-three). So, not only was Julie responsible for looking after her four siblings, she now had a handful of nieces and nephews to care for.

Julie described her family as a soap opera, but I haven't seen anything like this on daytime television.

Julie's mother and stepfather are now out of prison, separated, and supposedly off drugs.

Julie has serious trust issues with her mother. Who could blame her? Can you imagine? Seriously, can you imagine being in the back of a truck while your mom is in the parking lot dealing drugs? Can you imagine watching your parents go to prison? Can you imagine being a teenager and being forced to take care of your mom as though she was your child? Can you imagine being responsible for a troubled teenager...while you're still a teenager?

I always thought Julie was a smart girl. She always seemed mature, but I had no idea she had so much courage.

She isn't bitter. Can you believe it? I have been around people my whole life (and look at one in the mirror daily) who are angry and bitter about far less. Obviously, Julie has her difficult moments, but she is still trying to love her mother.

A mother that chose drugs over her own family. A mother who stole Julie's identity and opened up a credit card in her name (that she later defaulted on). A mother who stole Julie's debit card, who put a phone bill in her son's name and didn't pay the bill, who borrowed her daughter's car in order to commit a crime (using a stolen credit card). Of course, her mother still denies all of it.

Julie admits she probably has some trust issues. How could she not?

I mean, seriously, can you imagine? If there is one person on this planet who I know has my back, it's my mom. She would sacrifice anything for me (and probably has over the years). Even with amazing parents, I have all kinds of issues. I can't imagine what it would be like without my mom in my corner.

I don't know how Julie isn't incredibly screwed up. I actually hinted at the idea that God has been by her side through the nonsense she has been forced to deal with. Julie has never attended church on a regular basis, so I'm not sure how that sounded to her. I also shared the verse, "Well done, good and faithful servant," which I suggested God might be saying to her.

As a nineteen-year-old kid, Julie kept her family from falling apart. As a 33-year-old man, I'm not sure I have that much strength inside of me.

Julie said she's looking forward to the day when the weight of the world is off of her shoulders. She looks forward to the day she can take a deep breath and live happily ever after.

Currently, Julie is proud of her new job. She's also proud of having her own apartment for the first time in her life. Those seem like two very practical steps in the right direction.

There's a great quote by Nehru that sums up my position on the free will vs. determinism debate: "Life is like a game of cards. The hand your dealt is determinism. The way you play your hand is free will."

So many people are dealt pocket aces in life, and they piss away their blessings. Others, like Julie, are dealt some pretty crappy cards, but they don't give up, and they don't make excuses. She could have. Hell, no one would blame her if she did. She could have become a statistic. She could have buckled under the pressure.

But she didn't.

And that courage should inspire us all.