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Leah Odze Epstein Headshot

The Book That Let Me Know I Was Not Alone

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As the daughter of an alcoholic mother, I often wondered if there was anyone else out there in the world like me. None of my friends had alcoholic parents and I felt like a freak. I was the only girl not invited to a neighborhood friend's birthday party because her mom worried that I came from a bad family. I knew this because my best friend tried to console me by telling me that the girl said it wasn't her fault I wasn't invited -- it was her mother's.

Eventually, my mom got sober, went to Alcoholics Anonymous and explained how she could never tell who else attended the meetings at the local church. It was a secret, but trust her, some of our neighbors were there. How would I ever find someone like me out in the real world when alcoholism was a big secret that everyone kept?

My solution was to read everything I could get my hands on, to see if I could find someone like me. I devoured all the realistic fiction in the library -- Freaky Friday, Harriet the Spy, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Bridge to Terabithia, The Brothers Lionheart. I loved that many of the adults and kids in these books were the opposite of  the sparkly, perky perfectly put-together TV people in shows like Father Knows Best and The Brady Bunch. Parents in books were inattentive, harsh, insensitive or otherwise flawed. Kids were complicated creatures whose problems were existential or monumental and couldn't be solved in the literary equivalent of one episode.

I'm sure I read books with a drunk father or a town drunk (always a man) lurking in the background, but it wasn't until I was a teenager that I first read Robin F. Brancato's Something Left to Lose, a novel featuring the daughter of an alcoholic mother.

The book's main character, Jane Ann, likes to play it safe, but she is drawn to the charismatic Rebbie, who has an alcoholic mother and a highly successful father who is never around.

Finally, here were girls just like me! Jane Ann's mother disapproves of her daughter's friendship with Rebbie, just like that neighborhood mom didn't want her daughter to invite me to her birthday party. I, too, had a rebellious best friend who drove the family car at age 14 and drew me into other situations that thrilled and scared me.

A book doesn't have to mirror your life exactly to change it. Unlike Rebbie, I never felt like I had nothing left to lose. My wild-child older sister had already taken that route.

I'd always pigeonholed myself into the role of the good, safe, responsible girl -- the "Jane Ann" -- but while reading Something Left to Lose, I found bits and pieces of myself in all the different characters: Rebbie, the confused rebel; Jane Ann, the artsy dreamer; and Lydia, the perfectionist peacekeeper.

Eighth grade, the year I read the book, marked the year I broke out of my shell. Previously, I had a habit of slumping down in my seat and shrugging my shoulders if anyone spoke to me. If the teacher called on me, I'd say, "Sorry," before I spoke, and then when I answered the question, I'd turn bright red.

Something Left to Lose made me bolder, made me feel less ashamed because it gave me a model of a bad-ass girl who experienced the same thing as I did and instead of internalizing everything and shrinking inward, used her anger, disappointment and upset as fuel.

At the end of the book, Jane Ann's family decides to move to another state, but she is forever changed by her friends.

She carries some of Rebbie's boldness inside her. "How's your mother?" she asks Rebbie. When Rebbie answers, "O.K.," Jane Ann presses on. "Is she drinking?"

Brancato writes: "[Jane Ann] is surprised by how easily the question came out -- no substitute word -- just the question, pure and simple."

Jane Ann dares to ask Rebbie about her mom's drinking. It is no longer a secret.

As long as we continue to hide the dark parts of our lives and present a one-sided story to the outside world, there will be girls and boys like I was, aching to find characters that show them all the different ways of dealing with life's actual problems.

Here are some additional books for daughters of alcoholic mothers:

My Mama's Waltz: A Book For Daughters of Alcoholic Mothers by Eleanor Agnew (nonfiction)
A Door Near Here, by Heather Quarles (young adult fiction)
Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr (young adult fiction)
Teens Talk About Alcohol and Alcoholism by Paul Dolmetsch (nonfiction)
Easter Ann Peters: Operation Cool by Jody Lamb (middle grade fiction)

Was there a book that saved your life when you were a kid?

Leah Odze Epstein is the co-editor of Drinking Diaries: Women Serve Their Stories Straight Up (Seal Press). Her essay in the book is about growing us as the daughter of an alcoholic mother.