Summer 2011

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Teen Werewolf

My Teenage Werewolf

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Seth Walker is a writer and the owner of Walker Storyworks in Portland, Ore. His first narrative nonfiction book, A Great Divide, is due from Milkweed Editions in November.

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Author and professor Lauren Kessler immerses herself in her teenage daughter’s life. Let the fun begin.

by Seth Walker

Best-selling nonfiction author and University of Oregon journalism professor Lauren Kessler (J71) had to write about her daughter’s teenage years to survive them. It was that or go into therapy, she says. She chronicles their mother-daughter ups and downs in My Teenage Werewolf (Viking Adult, 2010, due out in paperback this summer). Kessler and her 16-year-old daughter, Lizzie (aka the “werewolf” for her ability to be sweet one moment and slam a door the next), sat down with Northwestern magazine’s Seth Walker for a caffeine-infused Sunday morning chat.

Lizzie, how’s the mother-daughter relationship this morning?

Good! No outbursts, yet.

What did you think when your mother proposed following you around like a journalist?

I was kinda weirded out because I didn’t want anyone reading about us.

So your objection was less to mom and more to people knowing your life’s details?

I thought we were just like everyone else. I didn’t know what people would learn from us. Now I think the book can help people by letting them into our relationship.

Lauren, your original “mother-daughter” search on netted 104,365 results. How is My Teenage Werewolf different from other books on this topic?

The vast majority of books I found on Amazon were self-help books and prescriptive. They were the “you have a problem, and here are the 10 ways to solve that problem” books.

It didn’t scare me that there were so many books. It made me think that no one had hit it. As a writer, mother and teacher, I’ve learned that the way to get people to reflect is to tell them stories. If I say, “This is what you should do” to my daughter, her eyes glaze over. But if I tell her a story, she’s engaged. With this book, I figured that if I involved readers in an ongoing and fairly dramatic story, it might start to break through the self-help barrier.

Oh, and self-help books are so perky. They try so hard to lift your spirits. I just thought that was insulting to thinking women. This mother-daughter stuff isn’t perky, it’s your life. And psychologically, it’s hard work.

Lizzie, are you now glad that she wrote this book?

Yes. We learned to bend to each other. By writing the book, she understands more what I deal with, and I understand more how she sees my relationships. That allowed us to solve problems together. It really helped.

You wrote on your blog that the book made you step back and look at your relationship with your mother. That’s not something you usually hear from a teenager.

I would’ve kept fighting, fighting, fighting and losing terribly.

Lauren, is this something that you foresaw?

Not in that way. I was hoping that something could be worked out in the doing of the book. I felt that we were at this juncture in our relationship where things could go wrong and stay wrong, because that’s what happened with my mother. I thought I could do nothing, or I could woman up and see whether there was a way to move the ship in another direction.

Trying something new helped our relationship. For example, we would fight while I was writing the book. The next day, the book gave us the opportunity to debrief. I would say, “Just before we argued, what were you thinking?” Then we’d have a conversation about what happened.

Lauren, you teach your students about the dangers of getting too close to subjects.

You have to ask whether the person you are talking with is a source, which is traditional journalism, or is that person a character, which is narrative journalism, or is that person a friend or family member? I think a lot about this. Most of my books have been full of characters, but my last two books have been about people I’ve lived with. There are different — and challenging — ethical considerations. I can’t distance myself, even if I want to. I constantly struggle with the line and try not to cross it.

Lauren, you write that the mother-daughter relationship is more primal and vitally important than nearly all relationships.

Certainly the parent-child relationship is extraordinary and important. But with the mother-daughter thing it’s “I’m her future, and she’s my past.” That psychologically complicates every interaction. So you see yourself and you feel rightly or wrongly — I think rightly — that you understand what’s going on because you were once there.

Some people think that most of what women learn about love, connection and friendship is learned between a mother and daughter, and that’s the single most important relationship a woman ever has.

Was the relationship with your mother the most important in your life?

(Pause. Lauren thinks as Lizzie texts). My relationship with her was not good. For better and worse, it was an extraordinarily important relationship. But not in the way I would hope my relationship with Lizzie is important. Part of my relationship with my mother was learning what not to choose in life if I were going to be happy.

Lauren, you say that today’s teens are sophisticated about the dark side of life.

It’s like in Lizzie’s “The Math of Sex” post on our blog, where she mentions the three girls she knows who are/were pregnant. Things are just happening earlier and faster for this generation. Self-cutting, eating disorders, binge drinking … all these things are happening in middle school. “Sophisticated” is probably not the word. Experienced beyond their years.

In the book you talk about the underdeveloped prefrontal cortex in teens.

Lauren: It’s the part of the brain that makes you stop and think about consequences; it’s the policeman of the brain. It’s underdeveloped in teens and helps explain why they can go from “We’re doing that!” to “I can’t believe you thought I would ever do that — what planet are you from?!” in 30 seconds. This behavior is totally normal and explainable.

Lizzie: So I guess wisdom comes with age?

Lauren: Well, it comes with a developed prefrontal cortex, which comes with age.

Lizzie: I believe that I do act out like that. I feel like I have control over it at school but not at home.

Lauren: A daughter can metaphorically punch her mother in the face a million times, and mom won’t leave. If a daughter does this to her friends, they will leave. Teens act out at home, in part, because they are so comfortable with the love and security of home.

Lizzie, are you preparing to write My Middle-Aged Werewolf, the Lauren Kessler story?

Definitely not! I would never put my mother through that torture.