Alcoholism in YA Lit

I recently finished I’ll Meet You There by Heather Demetrios, which is mostly about a girl falling in love with a Marine with PTSD, but which is also about a girl dealing with her alcoholic mother. And as I was reading the book, something started niggling at me about the way the mom’s alcoholism was described/treated. It sounded really familiar.

In the past year or so, I have read the following YA books that deal with a parent’s alcoholism:

  • I’ll Meet You There by Heather Demetrios
  • 52 Reasons to Hate My Father by Jessica Brody*
  • This Side of Home by Renee Watson
  • Best Foot Forward by Joan Bauer*
  • The Museum of Intangible Things by Wendy Wunder*
  • The Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Robin Palmer
  • The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • The Year of My Miraculous Appearance by Catherine Ryan Hyde

In all of those books, except the ones with the asterisk that I’ll get to in a moment, the alcoholic situation was the same: single parent (usually the mother) who was incapable of taking care of herself so the teenage child took on the responsibility of paying bills, running the household, etc (except in The Corner of Bitter and Sweet because the mom was loaded so had an accountant/maid).

In the books with the asterisk, the alcoholic parent didn’t live in the home, either because of death or divorce/separation, but still: single parent.

Even in the adult fiction I’ve read that deals with alcoholism (Firefly Lane and Orange Mint and Honey), the alcoholic parents were single.

If I were using YA lit as a gauge for how the world works, I would think that that’s what alcoholism looks like: a single parent completely incapable of taking care of herself and a child that steps in to take over. Or, on the other hand, a parent not in the home because of his/her alcohol abuse.

That is not what the alcoholism I grew up with looked like. I grew up in a two-parent household, the alcoholic parent never left, and I didn’t deal directly with the family finances. The non-drinking adult in my family did that.

Where is my story? Or the story of other kids like me?

When listening to older people describe their experiences with alcoholism, several of them say they always thought of alcoholics as bums in the street, and they never connected the drinking they saw in their homes with alcoholism because the pervasive media message was that alcoholics are a specific type of person and you can recognize them because their lives devolve in a specific kind of way (i.e., Skid Row derelict).

Because the image of the single alcoholic parent is so pervasive in YA lit, because the experience of the child in that scenario is so specific, I wonder how many teens who live in a two-parent household like the one I describe recognize themselves in these single alcoholic parent narratives?

Because I didn’t see those similarities until I was an adult. Now I can recognize that the emotional response (heightened sense of responsibility, tamping down of emotions, walking on eggshells, and on and on) is the same no matter what the alcoholism you grew up with looked like. I remember talking to a friend, and she would say, “Well, you know how it was because you had the same thing” and I would think, “I mean kind of but no” because she grew up in a physically abusive home, and I didn’t. But she was right. Our experiences were more similar than not. However, I wasn’t emotionally mature enough to recognize that then.

I don’t know exactly what I’m getting at here. Wait, yes I do. All alcoholics are not single women who rely on/allow their children to do everything. All teens who grow up with alcoholism are not from single parent households. There is a range of experience of growing up with alcoholism, and I would like to see that reflected in YA literature.

Please let me know in the comments if there are books that depict different kinds of alcoholic parents than the type I keep running across, so I can check them out. I know Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta is one. Any others?

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15 comments

  1. Sarah

    You’re completely right–there isn’t much nuance at all with regard to the depiction of alcoholism. And as common as it is, you’d think there would be. I also am trying to recall if I’ve read any depictions of kids growing up with recovering alcoholics and I can’t think of one.

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  2. msannaverity

    It’s not at all a kids book, but I was surprised by how much I liked Blame by Michelle Huneven. I grew up with an alcoholic mother, and while I didn’t see myself in Blame, I felt like maybe I understood her a little bit more, or that I understood who I wanted her to be, or something. Mostly, it was interesting to me because it’s told from the perspective of a recovering alcoholic vs. a family member thereof.

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  3. Vasilly

    I don’t read a lot of YA, so I couldn’t help you with recommendations. As someone who also grew up in a two-parent home with an alcoholic, I hope you’re able to find a TON of books that depicts the life we’ve lived as children. Teens need to see both sides.

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    • Akilah

      Seriously. Also, I know people who grew up in homes where both of the parents were alcoholics/addicts, and that also should be explored. Like I said: range of experience when growing up with alcoholism.

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      • msannaverity

        I would love to read a book with my own teen experience, which was growing up with two alcoholic parents, but only one who let the alcoholism negatively effect the rest of the family (at least in any way that I found notable at the time). That is, I thought of my mom as a “non-functioning” alcoholic, while my dad was the “functioning” alcoholic, and…that’s a very specific dynamic that has a lot of story potential.

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          • carriemesrobian

            This a great point you make and now I’m going to look for it in more YA. I also think that often adolescents like the parent who is drunk or neglectful at times bc it collides with the adolescent need for privacy and independence, and so they often protect that parent or prefer him or her.

            I sometimes wonder if the single-parent-alcoholic thing isn’t overused as a means to “neutralize” the adult parent figure and make the teenaged story come into sharper relief?

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            • Akilah

              I also think if the non-drinking parent is a nag/hardass, then the adolescent may feel like the drunk parent understands what the adolescent is going through re: non-drinking mom/dad being a hardass/nag. So an ally in the mom/dad won’t let up on me. If that makes sense.

              The sharper relief is a good point. The single-parent-alcoholic thing also gives the same affordances an orphan narrative gives in a lot of ways.

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  4. Trisha

    I haven’t encountered one… My experience was an alcoholic father that I never knew because my mother left him when I was around 2 (because of his drinking). For me, I didn’t even notice his absence until I was well into grade school, and it was never an issue for me. My experience is rarely reflected – the “no issues” because of absent alcoholic father storyline isn’t that exciting I guess. 🙂

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