(Trigger warnings: Death, alcoholism, and a school shooting.)
When I was twenty, my mother finally finished her decade-long quest to drink herself to death. I’m not completely over it.
Somehow, in the weird unspoken way that tasks are handed out in dysfunctional families, I’d decided in adolescence that it was my job, as a parentified child, to keep Mom from dying. That was my first big failure.
When she drank, my bright and broken mother, Carol Elizabeth Gloster, did it with even more intensity than she brought to everything else. She drank as if she were bleeding out through multiple wounds that only bourbon could plug, only to find that it sloshed through those holes too, leaving her desperately pouring in more.
Mom had a wicked dark sense of humor, and she was creative, lurching from oil painting to magazine writing to fiction. But she was doomed by her own upbringing. My grandmother Bea, Mom’s mother, essentially lived vicariously through Mom and had raised her to believe she was the most brilliant, beautiful, and gifted woman on earth. That’s heavy baggage to drag on creative endeavors, because anything interesting has a steep learning curve. You have to accept a certain amount of, well, sucking for a while before you get good. For my mother, not being the best at something was an agony that she couldn’t stand for long.
In turn, my mother raised three scary-smart boys, and told us that we could do anything and that we were expected to excel at everything. It’s an amazing gift, in our society, to grow up believing you can do anything. It’s also, of course, a lie—to be a world-class sprinter you should be born with a predominance of fast-twitch muscle fibers, and to star in the NBA you should probably have at least some genes for tall.
But as a teen I believed it. If I could do anything, I thought, I could even save my mom.
That’s not, unfortunately, how addiction works. You don’t have control over someone else’s addiction. She has to decide to quit. Many don’t. My mother didn’t. Not even when her son desperately wanted her to choose life, partly for his sake.
Mom was fierce and—at least until she pickled her brain into a confused fog—political. She had been the state PTA chair of Nevada; and a letter she wrote, published in the Reno Evening Gazette, resulted in the local John Birch Society chapter denouncing her as a “Communist dupe,” which in turn resulted in a brick thrown through our living room window. (This was long before online rants, but even back then, right-wing threat notes were incorrectly spelled and punctuated.)
Like other children, on Mother’s Day my brothers and I gave my mother a mug that said “World’s Greatest Mom.” But that, of course, was also a lie.
Mom drove blind drunk with me in the car. She was dangerous and—as a sometimes mean drunk—occasionally shockingly cruel. She had narcissistic personality disorder, back when that was still a recognized diagnosis, not the defining characteristic of the U.S. presidency. Eventually, she had episodes of full-blown alcohol psychosis, hallucinating that burglars were climbing up the outside of our house using clamps. Which was alarming, to 14-year-old me, when Mom was the sole adult in charge.
But you can love your mother even if she is broken and complicated and even dangerous. (If that seems hard to believe, consider that in the United States, millions of people love having readily-purchased assault rifles more than they love having safer school children.)
I know now that a teenager shouldn’t be expected—even if it’s only himself who expects it—to save a mother determined to drink herself to death. But I didn’t know that then.
Life is like a novel in that you learn more—and grow more—from difficulties than from easy circumstances. I know something about how the adult world fails young people and how sometimes teens carry unfair burdens. My teenage years, and having lost my mother, inform the YA novels I write: I write about death and about whether it’s possible to save someone. They’re hard stories to tell, but I have my mother’s dark wit and I have a background doing stand-up comedy; using humor helps.
You can use terrible past experiences to create. We don’t always have control over what happens to us, but we do have some control over how we respond.
I’ve thought about that in the last two weeks, in connection with the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida. This one—like so many others—was perpetrated by a young angry white man with a history of violence in a prior relationship, who brought a military-grade AR-15 assault rifle with multiple high-capacity magazines to turn a school into a killing zone.
But this time, after the gunshot echoes died away, something different happened. Teenagers in the school—the classmates and students of the dead—refused to accept the usual cycle: thoughts and prayers…too soon to talk about gun control…you can’t prevent…the national gaze moves on.
They’re angry, as they should be. The adult world failed to keep them safe. They’re also passionate, they’re skilled at social media, and they carry the moral mantle of survivors of the horrific.
And they’re not willing to sit down and shut up in the face of hypocrisy and indifference or even pervasive attacks from their elders meant to silence them. They are spending the hard coin of their anger and loss to try to change the world for the better, so that what happened to them and their friends doesn’t happen again.
They’re awesome and brilliant and I applaud them even as my eyes blur. Because it isn’t fair that they have to carry this burden.
But they’ve taken it up, so the least the rest of us can do is help them, including standing up for them when the paid shills for the NRA and their paid-for politicians try to shush them.
They loved. They lost. And they’re doing something about it.
You go, Parkland students. Be well. Good luck to us all.
Dean Gloster has an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is a former stand-up comedian and a former law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. His debut YA novel DESSERT FIRST is out now from Merit Press/Simon Pulse. School Library Journal called it “a sweet, sorrowful, and simply divine debut novel that teens will be sinking their teeth into. This wonderful story…will be a hit with fans of John Green's and Jesse Andrews's .” Dean is on Twitter: @deangloster