By Katharine Webster
“Teenagers are hard-wired to get thrills,” says Maureen Stanton, associate professor of English.
In the creative writing professor’s second book, “Body Leaping Backward: Memoir of a Delinquent Girlhood,” she chronicles her own thrill-seeking years as a troubled teenager growing up in Walpole, Mass., during the 1960s and ʹ70s. The book, released last month, is this fall’s Lowell Reads selection.
To write it, Stanton immersed herself in her teenage diaries and decades’ worth of personal writing. For context, she enriched it with research into social trends of the late 1960s and ʹ70s that affected her and her family – the rising divorce rate, juvenile delinquency and widespread use of angel dust (PCP). She also included research on the teenage brain.
In writing the book, Stanton says she found understanding of the choices her parents made and forgiveness for her younger self. She hopes to place her readers “inside the heart and mind of a teenage girl” who appears tough on the outside, but struggles with insecurity, naïveté, alienation and shame, especially after her parents split up when Stanton was nearly 12.
Stanton, who earned a bachelor’s degree from UMass Amherst and an M.F.A. from Ohio State University, has won numerous awards for her literary nonfiction, including the 2012 Massachusetts Book Award for her first book, “Killer Stuff and Tons of Money: An Insider's Look at the World of Flea Markets, Antiques and Collecting.”
She recently sat down to discuss her new book, memoir writing and how diving into her history has shaped her teaching.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book, and why now?
A: I had been writing this book for decades, starting in college. But I kept pushing it aside because I was ashamed of what I did. And then my dad died in 2014, and I thought, “OK, now I can pull this stuff out.”
Q: How did your father’s death allow you to finally complete this memoir? And what about your mother – isn’t she still alive?
A: It was always hard to talk to my father about emotional things, and I think the book would have made him very sad. He didn’t know the half of what I and some of my siblings did because he wasn’t there much after the divorce, and I think he would have blamed himself. When he died, I didn’t have to worry about him being very hurt.
My mother’s easy to talk to, although we still argue sometimes. I can just be so honest with her about anything I’m feeling, and she knows some of the stuff that happened. My mother doesn’t blame herself – and she shouldn’t, because she was busy putting food on the table and working and going back to school and taking care of the younger kids, who needed her. And she trusted us: She trusted that she’d raised us right and that we wouldn’t do stupid things.
Maybe there was too much trust. I don’t think my mom understood what was happening in the town; I don’t think people in the town knew anything about angel dust for years. Parents just weren’t as clued in as they are now.
Q: What do you teach your students about the ethics of memoir?
A: It’s complicated. When I teach, I say, “Write everything as if no one’s going to read it: Be as honest as you want on the page and write absolutely everything. Don’t have that editor on your shoulder. Don’t have your parents looking over your shoulder. But when you get ready to publish, you have to think about privacy – there are some legal reasons for that – and your family. You have to think about how you want to maintain those relationships with people you love.” But every writer has to make those decisions for herself or himself.
Q: Where did you draw those lines?
A: My siblings read my manuscript, and I gave them veto power. They didn’t take anything out, but I’d already removed a lot. In the editing process, I asked myself, “Is this my story to tell?” and if it wasn’t, I took it out. I also changed the names and physical characteristics of my friends from back then. But I couldn’t disguise the town, because growing up near the prison (MCI-Cedar Junction) was such an important part of my story.
Q: Your mom always warned you that, if you didn’t behave, you could end up inside the prison. At the end of the book, you have an appendix listing 50 crimes that you, your family and your friends could have been charged with – but weren’t. Why did you include that?
A: I never felt like a juvenile delinquent, and no one ever looked at me as a juvenile delinquent because I was a white girl from the suburbs. I wanted to push back against the stereotype of juvenile delinquents as black and brown and from the inner city by claiming that label. The research shows that, across demographics, kids commit the same offenses at the same rate. So I wanted to starkly show the things that the “good citizens” of the town were doing that, if we had been caught, we could have gone to jail or a juvenile detention center.
Q: Did immersing yourself in your teenage diaries again help you identify more with your students or change the way that you teach?
A: I’ve always been really sympathetic to those kids who feel like outsiders – troubled, anxious, awkward, artistic, sensitive – and hearing their stories. I tell them that it’s powerful to write your story, and I try to encourage them, because studies show that expressive writing is good for your mental health.
Still, after reading some of the sociology books and research on the teenage brain, I shared stories in class about some of my issues and problems that were similar to theirs, to make them feel safe and not judged. Everything’s confidential to the classroom. A writing workshop can be a very intimate place, and students can feel very tender and supportive toward each other.
Q: How did that research help you put your own experience in perspective? You talk a lot about the boredom of growing up in suburbia and your desire to escape.
A: When I was growing up, there was nothing to do, and so we just did a lot of drugs. I just felt empty. I never had substantive conversations with my friends anymore. This is why an older co-worker at the gas station finally brought me around – because he talked about books and ideas and philosophy, and he talked to me like I was a smart person. I saw a little reflection of myself in him, and he was not empty.
Q: It sounds like a lot of your struggles began with your parents’ separation and divorce. You also talk about the explosion in the divorce rate, which went from 25 percent to 50 percent over a decade.
A: It was stark: We were the first on our street to have our parents separate, the first among our friends. No one knew what to do or say. The church basically said “Goodbye” just when we most needed support; my parents were devout Catholics, and suddenly they could no longer take communion. The society, the culture, didn’t know what to do for the kids. The conventional wisdom at the time was, “Kids are resilient. They’ll bounce back.”
Instead, it was like dominoes that fell. The kids that I hung out with and got in trouble with generally came from single-parent families. Not that that’s the cause of it, but if your parents were both at work and not around, you could just get away with stuff. Schools weren’t paying attention. There was a lag time of several years before the culture – schools, the town, the police – knew about angel dust and how many kids were using it. Then they caught on.
Q: You’re surrounded by wonderful writers on the English Department faculty. Does working in this environment help you?
A: My English Department and Creative Writing Program colleagues are just really, really supportive about writing and teaching. My department chair was supportive about my taking a sabbatical to write, and Library Director George Hart got me access to the newspaper archives that I needed for my research.
I love the students here. I’m a working class kid, and a lot of students here are from working class and low income families. Many of them are first generation college students. I’m amazed by the things some of them will do to get an education. I also love that the university is so diverse. I get to read so many interesting stories and family stories and help my students find ways to tell them more clearly. If I have anything to give, I want to give it to them.