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Stories from a Boy's Adolescence

Written by Deborah DiggesAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Deborah Digges

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On Sale: July 29, 2009
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-307-49130-5
Published by : Anchor Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Stephen Digges is the kind of angry adolescent a lot of parents would have given up on. He is out of control by the time he is 13 -- running with gangs, stealing cars, fooling around with drugs and guns, and in general making his family’s life hell. Confronted with his growing recklessness and defiance, his mother, the poet Deborah Digges, decides to try to accept Stephen on his own terms--a course that stuns her family and leads to the breakup of her second marriage. Digges “shadows” him on his late-night forays so that she can understand his world, welcomes his gang into their apartment, and tries to see life through his eyes. When she discovers that children who are devoted to animals have an easier time forming attachments to other people, she fills their home with a menagerie of ailing or abandoned pets. She also turns to an unconventional therapist who offers unusual — but helpful — treatment.

The Stardust Lounge isn’t your usual story of rebellious adolescence. The power of Digges’s memoir comes from her stubborn unwillingness to give up on Stephen. Even when things are roughest, Digges manages to see the intelligent, sensitive child behind the hostile behavior. However difficult the path she chooses, her story is ultimately a heartening one, and it’s impossible not to root for this family as it rebuilds itself.

Excerpt

Fall, 1991

Thirteen-year-old Stephen has run away again. He's out there somewhere with his gang, all of them dressed for the dark in black-hooded sweatshirts, oversized team jackets, ball caps, baggy pants that ride low on their hips. Inside their pockets they hold on to guns, switchblades. Recently Stephen has shaved part of his right eyebrow.
It's about 4:00 a.m., late September. I'm in my study on the east side of our brownstone apartment house in Brookline, Massachusetts, three stories above the street.

Maybe Stephen can see that my study light is on. I imagine him looking up from one of the condemned train cars' shot-out windows in the rubble field not far from us, looking up to this coin of light like a lighthouse beacon in one of my mother's favorite hymns.

But Stephen would protest he is no flailing ship. He is Henry Martin, the youngest of three brothers in the Scottish ballad I used to read to him, Henry Martin, who became the robber of the three, having drawn the losing lot.

But as fate would have it, Martin was good at pirating--brutal, unequivocal, the beloved captain of a ship that cruised the shoals off Britain, pillaging shipwrecks and intercepting inbound merchant vessels.

All night in Boston sirens close in, scale back. We are as far north as we have ever been, the light here opening on a series of stingy, frigid days, shutting down suddenly.

Maybe the cops have picked Stephen up, in which case I will hear something soon. More likely he has fallen asleep on the floor of someone's room. It might be hours before I hear from him. He has run enough times that I know he will call. He hates himself for having to, but he can't help it. When he hears my voice he will be profane.

It's cold in my study, cold throughout our rooms. Stunningly beautiful is our apartment, but cold, often barely fifty-five degrees. But cold as it is, the oil bills are enormous, midwinter, half my salary.

I'd build a fire but this would mean my taking the back stairs to the yard, opening a common door. We are in enough trouble. Our landlords, who live below us, call often these days to tell Stephen to turn down the rap music. And sometimes he brings his gang home, ten or more boys stomping up the front flight of stairs.

Then there are the shouting matches between Stephen and his older brother, between Stephen and his stepfather, Stan, who visits when he can, these days about every third weekend.

And there are the shouting matches between Stephen and me. They get us nowhere despite my wailing, begging, and then my sudden turns from despair to fury that find me chasing after him down the stairs, out the double doors and over the back wall, up the eighty or so steps to the car.

At forty I am amazed at my speed, my skill. But Stephen is faster. Just recently he has outgrown me by a few inches. By the time I reach the landing lot, he and my car are gone.

In my study near dawn I turn back to a grant proposal I've been working on while I wait for word from the cops or from my son. If I could get a semester off from teaching, I'd have the time and concentration to move us out of here, find a place outside the city far enough that Stephen couldn't get in, close enough that I could commute to the university.

I refuse to entertain the impossible logistics, all the binding clauses, and how broke I am. I owe the landlords for oil, and the electric and phone companies, owe Stephen's therapist, and a lousy therapist at that. Or maybe it is that no one can help us just now.

I'm also looking at a huge tuition bill for spring term at the private school we placed Stephen in a year ago. We hoped a change would help, the smaller classes, and the "positive peer group," the "family atmosphere" the school promised.

But the new school has made things worse. Stephen's circle of friends has widened. They live all over greater Boston, from Wellesley to Mattapan to Beacon Hill, and as usual, Stephen has attracted the most spirited and rebellious.

Weekends they rove the city on public transportation or in taxis, buy expensive clothes for each other on Newbury Street, score dope in Harvard Square, then hole up in someone's absent parents' Beacon Hill apartment where they smoke, make phone calls, and experiment with their bodies while they watch the parents' stash of X-rated videos.

Perhaps such unsupervised activity has gone on for a long time, before Stephen entered the school, and nothing more than the fact of decadent boredom has come of it. The kids get high, order carryout, mess around, come down.

Then it's getting late. They hop in taxis again and go home, eat with the family, do their homework, go to bed. No one asks where they've been or what they did today. Or if asked, the kids lie. No one misses the money they spent, or cares that they spent it.

That Stephen has become part of the group is to them neither here nor there, except that as he participates he hates it, not because it's wrong or dangerous, but because he can't recover from it.

It is not in his nature to be noncommittal, to dip, unaffected, in and out of worlds. He can't play the game and then go home as if nothing had happened. If he spends his allowance money he has none. If he gets high he gets depressed and sick. And when asked what he did all day, his difficulty with lying makes him hostile, silent.
He hates himself for his vulnerabilities, for his lack of impulse control, for how sick he feels after the dope, and for the fact that he can't keep up, like the others, with his academic work.

But to quit would mean losing his peers. What would he do without them? How would he function without his friends? Because he is doing poorly in his classes and refuses to play team sports of any kind, he believes he has nothing else but this circle of friends he judges and resents.

As for his mother, she's in his face all the time. She tries to get him to "talk about things," sends him to a therapist--another secret he's got to try to keep from his friends. It's her fault he's in this situation. Isn't she the one who insisted he enroll in the Park School where his failures have now so drastically come to light? She deserves to be lied to, lied to, shut out, punished.

Stephen will not quit his friends, though as far as he can tell, they don't have his dilemmas. Were he to confide in them, they'd surely laugh.

Stephen begins to befriend and be befriended by the kids who deal the drugs, the ones who sneer at this entourage of adolescent rich, kids willing to use them for their money and their naivete. And after a while Stephen finds that he has the power to play one group against the other. When the dealers and their gangs begin to coerce the entourage for expensive gifts, steal from them, bully them, Stephen acts as mediator, savior. He is playing with fire, but the risk is exhilarating.

So much so that at the end of the day, as Stephen's classmates head home, he stays on the streets with his new companions, as angry and confused and as full of self-loathing as ever, but now somehow more in control.
I'm keeping my own secrets regarding a sense of fear and failure. I, too, am torn between identities. I have been a snob, a bohemian snob who believed that the arts, music, poetry were religion enough by which to raise my sons and that somehow, above all the groups in culture--rich and poor alike--we were superior in our passionate pursuits.

I have judged Stephen's new friends; moreover, their parents in their business suits and furs, who speak to me coolly, if at all, on the occasions when I have visited the school on Parents' Night, or to watch Stephen perform his censored raps in the talent show. Their children play flat, dispassionate Bach on the violin. One girl, dressed as a pauper, sings badly, "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?"

At the same time, I have tried to mold Stephen to "fit in" here. Night after night I have done Stephen's homework, listed the phylum, class, order, genus, species. Mimicking the hand of my thirteen-year-old, I've written notes on his history text, mapped the Nile, made up a rap for him of the capitals, while Stephen, having disappeared up those steps again, spray-paints his tag on another mailbox, climbs a fire escape to put up a piece, a wall of graffiti that will chide greater Boston on its way to work.

And while I have always been an advocate of the underprivileged, the ones in culture most in need, I have to admit to myself now that, well, I guess I didn't mean it this way. I didn't mean, for instance, that Stephen should befriend street kids, bring them up into our apartment and feed them and give them his clothes, his watch, his bed. That's not what I meant. But what did I mean?

Other self-condemning words go round, culture's words for Stephen and me, words I read on the faces of the Park School parents and their children, dysfunctional, enabling, words I've heard Stan say over the telephone. Frustrated, he tells me that I've never been strict enough with my sons and that now I am paying the price.
And I hear the same frustration from my family as they bemoan the fact that I've brought up my sons without organized religion. They offer that perhaps we've moved around the country too much and that this has bred an unhealthy alliance--perhaps I am too much a friend to my boys, not enough mother. Implicit in their words is the slap of the fact of my divorce from my sons' father, my marriage to Stan, our commuting relationship.
And because they love Stephen and me they offer advice. One of my sisters suggests a school she has looked into where troubled children like Stephen are dealt with through highly structured days, lots of sports, severe consequences for their actions. "Hip restriction," she explains. "It means kids have with them at all times one of the school staff, wherever they go."

I've looked into such a school located in western Massachusetts. But such schools cost twenty-five to thirty thousand a year, almost a year's salary for me. And when I try to imagine Stephen under those circumstances, I see him in his infancy, a baby so violently undone if I left him that I gave up my teaching assistantship in California to stay home with him.

Then there is the "Tough Love" approach, which Stan offers as a solution. This idea costs nothing. According to its policies one simply locks one's child out, calls the police if there is a disturbance, and hopes the world beats the kid up enough that he begs to come home on any terms.

But this approach to our problems is absurd. It is too dangerous to do such a thing to a thirteen-year-old. Better than anyone, I know Stephen, know that he would get lost, would in his anger and despair take some risk that would very likely kill him. I'm not willing to take such a chance with my son.

"You just won't give him up," Stan offers.

"This isn't about you," others suggest.

In the end, I agree with both assessments. I won't give him up and it isn't about me. Sometimes there is no language for what a mother knows about her child. Because there are no words, no argument, it is as if the matter should be taken away from her.

Stephen's therapist doesn't seem to have any particular solution in mind, and though I don't feel he is doing Stephen any good, his approach to our dilemma seems the most appropriate.

"He's angry." Mike states the obvious after each session. "Do your best to keep him out of jail."

Outside, the streetlights and the dim Boston sunrise are almost equal to each other. Light swallows light. Stephen's name means crowned.

I see him clearly just now in memory, a boy of about six, scrambling up rocks to a high plateau. The winds off the Atlantic are fierce. We have come to Tintagel to show him King Arthur's castle, a magnificent ruin off the Cornwall coast. He has run, as always, out ahead of me.

The wind carries off my voice as I call to him to wait. But he has disappeared up the rocks and over the rise. Panicked, I clamor after him, lose my footing, recover. The winds shoulder me against the rock face. Where is Stephen? What if he is blown off into the sea?

I heave myself up to the table of green meadow. Out of breath, half-blinded by sea spray, I glimpse the boy running wide circles around the ruins, his arms open, his face lifted to the elements. He is shouting, running, lost to something, in thrall to its dangerous joy.

What if Stephen is a Henry Martin, in the end an outlaw? If he is, do I stop loving him? And how do I go about withdrawing my love? It appears that is what humans do in crisis. We pull away. Stan and I have done it. We are doing it now. We don't touch, make love, laugh.

I contend it must be different with a child.

Maybe Stephen believes he is Henry Martin, or he is Odysseus duping the Cyclops, sneaking out of the cave wearing animal skins, crouching among the sheep herds as he leads his crew toward the ship; Stephen, my Ishmael, wild, street-smart, strident, swaggering, who has learned to use his anger and his terror like a weapon and won excellence in the bow shot.

Now the phone rings. "Fuck you," he greets me. Sirens close in again, recede.

"Will you be home soon?"

"Maybe, maybe not," he spits, but the fight has gone out of him. He sounds so very tired.

"Okay. Come on. Watch your back. I'll put on some coffee."
Deborah Digges

About Deborah Digges

Deborah Digges - The Stardust Lounge
The poet Deborah Digges was born and raised in Missouri.  Her first collection, Vesper Sparrows, won the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Prize from New York University. Late in the Millennium was published in 1989, and Rough Music, which won the Kingsley Tufts Prize, was published in 1995. Trapeze appeared in 2004. Digges also wrote two memoirs, Fugitive Spring (1991) and The Stardust Lounge (2001). The recipient of grants from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Ingram Merrill Foundation, Digges lived in Massachusetts, where she was a professor of English at Tufts University until her death in 2009.
Praise

Praise

“Penetrates that most mysterious and dangerous of places: adolescence. — Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here

“What makes this book so terribly fascinating is its honesty and Digges’s refusal to consider her son bad or worthless.” — USA Today


“Thought-provoking … Deborah Digges offers a kind of mythological account of her son’s rebellion” — The New York Times Book Review

“Deborah Digges’s beautifully written, lucid memoir about raising a badass son on her own is impressively devoid of any poor-me sentiment” — Esquire
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“Penetrates that most mysterious and dangerous of places: adolescence.” —Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here

The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of Deborah Digges’s The Stardust Lounge, a mother’s story of her son’s harrowing adolescence and of how she and her son forged the extraordinary bond that helped them survive their difficulties.

About the Guide

At thirteen, Deborah Digges’s son Stephen was an angry, troubled boy who went roaming after midnight with gangs, tagging buildings with spray paint, and stealing cars–including his mother’s. He had always been a restless, intelligent child, but he was growing up quickly and aggressively, with unrestrainable energy and a flair for risky and outrageous behavior. He refused to speak with his mother or to eat at the same table with her. Caught carrying a gun, he was expelled from the private school his mother could barely afford. Digges’s husband left her, unable to cope with this impossible child from his wife’s previous marriage.

In beautiful, vibrant prose–devoid of self-pity, anger, or blame–Digges describes her struggle to understand and protect her son as his behavior escalated beyond her control. Noting that Stephen still connected profoundly to their dog G. Q., however alienated from the people in his life, Digges took a risk. She adopted another bulldog, this one seriously ill with epilepsy. Buster needed medication several times a day to prevent seizures, and Stephen would have to help care for him. Stephen rose to the challenge, becoming much more empathetic and responsible in the process. At about the same time, Stephen asked his mother to take in a homeless friend, Trevor, a sixteen-year-old boy who had spent a year in a juvenile detention facility. Soon, Digges became Trevor’s foster mother. The household was often chaotic with three dogs, two teenage boys, assorted cats, and a devoted single mother trying to balance parenthood with her teaching job.

This is the story of an unusual family who realizes how vitally they are tied to each other and to their animals. It is an inspiring and eye-opening memoir, a journey narrated by a mother who refused to give up on her son. At times touching, at times terrifying, The Stardust Lounge is a fiercely engaging, uniquely insightful, and inspiring portrait of male adolescence in our complicated world.

About the Author

Deborah Digges is the author of the memoir Fugitive Spring and three award-winning volumes of poetry. Her poetry appears regularly in The New Yorker and other publications. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, Frank. Her son Stephen Digges graduated from the Parsons School of Design in 2000 and is now a photographer based in New York City.

Discussion Guides

1. In the prologue, why does Digges use the meeting with the parapsychologist at the laundromat to foreshadow the troubles with her son? Is it a fitting introduction to the mysteries of Stephen’s temperament and behavior?

2. Digges writes of her own sense of “fear and failure” in thinking about the way she has raised her sons: “I have been a snob, a bohemian snob who believed that the arts, music, poetry were religion enough . . . and that somehow, above all the groups in culture–rich and poor alike–we were superior in our passionate pursuits” [pp. 9—10]. Why did this approach, which worked so well with her older son, not work with Stephen? What is Stephen looking for that he doesn’t find in the creative environment his mother has provided?

3. How do the comments and suggestions from Digges’s family and her husband Stan undermine her confidence in her skills as a mother? Does anyone make useful suggestions for dealing with Stephen? What insights finally allow Digges to help Stephen?

4. A drawing of guns that Stephen made at the age of five appears on page 30. What are the most remarkable aspects of this drawing and its accompanying text? How does Digges’s decision to include examples of Stephen’s work (the essay about his brother, his photographs, etc.) affect the reader’s understanding of her son? What effect does the presence of other material–lists, police logs, notes to teachers, etc.–have on the reader’s experience of this memoir?

5. What is the significance of the episode that takes place at the Stardust Lounge, described on pages 18—21 and 81—84? Why might Digges have chosen this for her title?

6. The cover photograph shows Digges as a beautiful young mother holding Stephen as a happy toddler. She describes the day on which this picture was taken, an outing with her mother and sisters to pick cherries at the family orchard [pp. 62—70]. Why is the memory of this day so significant? Years later she observes, “I am someone I never imagined, an isolated, bitter, defensive mother navigating by shame the deep waters of her son’s adolescence” [p. 70]. Does Digges imply that all parents feel responsible for their children’s unhappiness? Is her shame justified?

7. What do Stephen’s photographs throughout the book express about him and about the way he sees the world? What do the photographs of Stephen reveal about him?

8. What is psychologist Eduardo Bustamante’s role in Stephen and Deborah’s relationship? Does Bustamante seem right in thinking “that for some children, indeed for Stephen, adolescence is simply a nightmare, a terrible, seemingly unending nightmare. . . . He is paranoid, besieged, his hormones are raging” [p. 98]? What might have happened to Stephen if Bustamante hadn’t entered his life?

9. What effect does single parenthood have on Digges’s situation? How does her economic status exacerbate her difficulties? What gifts and strengths does she bring to her situation?

10. Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man, about her work with chimpanzees, turns out to be crucial for Digges in her ideas about how to understand and help Stephen. What is striking about the passage on pages 94—95, about the gorilla named Mike? Does Digges suggest that it is sometimes useful for human beings to step back and think about themselves as animals, with animal instincts and impulses?

11. Deborah and Stan discuss a newspaper article about a father who chained his wayward teenage daughter to the stove so that she couldn’t escape the house to do drugs. Digges comments, “We are no longer surprised with ourselves for our mutual consent to behaviors such as the father’s, or of any parents we hear of whose desperate attempts at control are meant to keep their children from harm” [p. 76]. What happens when Digges realizes that she can’t control Stephen? How does this truth affect her sense of herself as a parent?

12. What part does Stephen play in the breakup of Deborah’s marriage to Stan? Does it matter that he is not Stan’s child? Was Stan right or wrong to leave? How does the book reveal the damage caused to an entire family when a child is in a constant state of crisis?

13. Describe Digges’s writing style and the way in which she organizes her book. What roles do memories and flashbacks play in her story? What point is she making by shifting so freely between the present and the past?

14. The bulldog Buster suffers from epilepsy, and his medication is life-saving; the other bulldog, G. Q., begins to exhibit violent behavior that is treated by behavioral therapy and Prozac [see pp. 158 and 163]. Is it surprising then that Digges never wonders whether Stephen’s behavior is generated by a biochemical imbalance? Is she right to avoid such diagnoses, and to stick with her own intuition that Stephen suffers from what she calls “detachment disorder” [p. 57], and that “grief makes Stephen want to hurt back” [p. 58]? She writes, “But what if Stephen could feel empathy for something again? Maybe through empathy, he might find his way” [p. 58]. How well does Buster function for Stephen as a way of learning empathy?

15. Given the fact that several lives were improved and perhaps saved (particularly Trevor’s) by Digges’s generous approach to adoption, does The Stardust Lounge attempt to change the way readers think about adoption? Does Digges attempt to bring about a shift in the way her readers think about the relationship between humans and animals, and about the benefits for families which include both?

16. What is most interesting about the way in which Deborah, Stephen, Trevor, and their animals work together in creating an alternative family? What do they learn from each other? What is most gratifying about the book’s ending?

Suggested Readings

Frank Conroy, Stop-Time; Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; Paula Fox, Borrowed Finery; Alexandra Fuller, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood; Dorothy Gallagher, How I Came into My Inheritance, and Other True Stories; Jane Goodall, In The Shadow of Man; Nick Hornby, How to Be Good; Mary Karr, Cherry; Susanna Kaysen, Girl, Interrupted; J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye; Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting, Tobias Wolff, This Boy’s Life.

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