Like Mother, Like Mother
Daniel Paul Simmons III -- 2/26/01
Two memoirs about raising troubled teens show the other side of Go Ask Alice

Adair Lara and Martha Tod Dudman have never met. They live on opposite coasts, Dudman in a rural village in Maine, Lara in the urban hills of northern California. They have very different careers. Lara has been writing a twice-weekly column in the San Francisco Chronicle for more than 12 years; Dudman owned and managed a network of radio stations in New England for nearly a decade before becoming a professional fund-raiser. At first glance, they seem to have little in common.

But Lara, 49, and Dudman, 49, are both mothers, and both women spent years mired in a similar personal hell: raising a deeply troubled and self-destructive teenage daughter. Now their private stories are becoming public with nearly concurrent releases of Lara's Hold Me Close, Let Me Go: A Mother, a Daughter, and an Adolescence Survived from Broadway Books, February 13, and Dudman's Augusta, Gone: A True Story from Simon & Schuster on March 8. Both tales are told with uncompromising candor, but the styles of the tellers are dramatically different.

Lara's prose is more contemplative, plumbing familial interplay of today and yesteryear in search of causes and effects. Dudman's is more visceral, a rush of white-water words pulling the reader across "uneven ground," as she writes, "where there is gravel, bits of rock, sudden small holes,
Though similar in theme, the two books
are as different as their covers.
ice heaves, and somewhere out there, unexpected, without warning there is a deep vast crater." In their distinct styles, both authors vividly illuminate their shared, singular obsession: foiling their daughters' headlong rush toward that abyss.
Each author has two children: a daughter (Dudman's Augusta and Lara's Morgan) and a younger son. Each is divorced from her children's father. Each had a flawed adolescence of her own. Dudman was a rebellious '60s flower child who used drugs and had a rocky relationship with her own mother; Lara was "a good girl" who nevertheless got pregnant at sixteen, married at seventeen and moved out of her mother's house before graduating high school. Each tried to rationalize her daughter's worsening predicament--the smoking and drinking and partying, the lying and cheating and stealing, the sullen recriminations and screaming tantrums and unexplained disappearances. And each kept a journal, chronicling her painful progress from numbed acceptance through desperate action to, finally, joyful resolution.

"I started writing about Morgan [in the Chronicle] during those years," Lara said, "but of course I was telling only a fraction of what was going on." In private, she said, she was frantically reading every self-help book about raising teenagers she could lay her hands on. "But I couldn't find anything about what it feels like to go through the experience," she said. When Lara determined to fill that void for others, she first thought to filter the story through fiction. "It was a novel for a while," she said. "Morgan became Jordan." Eventually, as the memoir form gained popularity, Lara dropped the pretense.

"At first I thought the book was going to be about her," Lara said, "a sort of hell-child review." Responses to those angry early drafts led Lara to refocus the work. "A friend told me I should call it Chicken Soup for What's Left of Your Soul After Your Teenager Has Ripped Your Heart Out of Your Chest and Stomped on It with Her Platform Sneakers," said Lara. "I realized then that it really had to be about me. I had to go deeper."

Dudman, too, had set out to write a very different book from the one she eventually completed. After selling her radio stations, said Dudman, she thought to reinvent herself as a novelist. "I started writing this romance about a middle-aged woman living in Maine, natch," she said. "But no matter what I tried to do with her, she kept relentlessly going back into her daughter's room. I realized after a while that I was writing the story of what happened with my daughter." Unlike Lara, Dudman chose to use a pseudonym in place of her daughter's real name. "I felt very strongly," she said, "that I did not want these moments in her childhood to define her life."

Each girl was given veto power over her mother's project. "Morgan could've pulled the plug at any time," said Lara, who allowed her daughter to read the manuscript as it developed. As Morgan, now 22, told PW: "I was still in my late teens the first time she mentioned it. I read two pages and threw a fit; I said there's absolutely no way." Time and maturity softened her stance. "Even though it's painful for me," Morgan said, "it's such a good book that I didn't feel I could take that away from her." Lara said she chose to give Morgan 10% of the proceeds and admits to making "some minor changes" at Morgan's request. "Still," said Lara, "it's very brave of her to let this book go out."

Dudman waited until her manuscript was on the brink of selling before breaking the news to Augusta. "One day I just put the rake down, walked into the house and said, 'I've got to tell you something,'" Dudman recalled. "And she said, 'What'd I do?' And I said, 'No, no, I did something this time. I've written a book and it's about you.'" Her daughter quickly consented to its publication, but Dudman made her wait to see the work in galleys. "She kept bugging me to read it," said Dudman, "but I didn't want her to try to change it." Augusta, now 18, told PW she remembers "getting very impatient" with her mother's delays. "But when I finally got to read it, I cried," she said, "because it's basically about how much she loves me."

Simon & Schuster editor Denise Roy won Augusta, Gone in what she called a hotly contested auction early last year. "This was a rare find," said Roy. "How to deal with teenagers is a perennial question in our society, and there aren't many people who can write this honestly about it." Enthusiasm for the property led her to expedite the publishing process. Said Roy, "We were so excited that we got it on the spring 2001 list."

Broadway had Lara's book in-house longer. In mid-1999 editor Harriet Bell acquired Hold Me Close, and early last year editor Gerry Howard took over the reins. "I thought there was something very powerful about it," said Howard. "It wasn't just about Adair's difficulties with Morgan but about her whole family." Still, it's the parenting component, Howard said, that gives the book particular currency. "Clearly parents today are flummoxed by what kids are throwing at them," he said. "This is a new style of the durable mother-daughter genre, and very of the moment."

Allison Hill, general manager of Book Soup, an independent bookstore in Los Angeles, told PW that it remains to be seen if the proximity of publication dates heralds the imminent arrival of similar "Go-Ask-Alice-but-from-the-parent's-point-of-view" books. But Hill, who wrote about both books for Contentville, said she wouldn't be surprised. "Two major publishers having books come out so close together that, in plot at least, seem so similar," said Hill, "always makes a bookseller go, 'Hmm, what's going on here?' Especially when we're seeing such a dramatic increase in family-situation memoirs." Trend or not, Hill said that the market is prepared to support such titles. "People are responding to the truth in things like Augusta, Gone and Hold Me Close," she said, "where mothers are stepping forward and saying, 'Hey, it's not all cut-out cards and Mother's Day.'"

Both publishers claim the memoirs' release just before Mother's Day is entirely coincidental. "I think Hold Me Close will appeal not only to a mother-daughter audience but to the general memoir audience, as well," said Alana Watkins, Broadway's publicist on the project. Still, both sets of mothers and daughters will participate in their book's promotion. Beginning March 1, Dudman is undertaking a six-week, 11-city book tour for Augusta, Gone, which will have a 30,000 copy first printing. The tour includes a March 8 appearance with her daughter on the Today show. "I'm proud to be Augusta," said Dudman's daughter. "I want to go into bookstores and say, 'That's me!'"

To reach readers of Lara's long-running newspaper column, Broadway will support its 25,000-copy first printing with a number of events in the San Francisco area in addition to a four-city tour (also kicking off on March 1) targeting independent booksellers that host mother-daughter reading groups. Said Morgan: "It's going to be so much fun traveling with her."

Not long ago, such mother-daughter camaraderie seemed an unattainable dream for either author. Today, their daughters call them their best friends and are philosophical about their turbulent teen years. Dudman and Lara said they hope their nonprescriptive books will assuage the loneliness of mothers in such situations and, by example, help them find their own paths to reconciliation. "The thing about teenagers," Lara said, "is you have to just make the mistakes and hang in there." Said Dudman, "The message for parents who feel stunned and paralyzed is 'Just do something.' Even if they don't like it now, they'll appreciate it later on. And you might save their lives."