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Claire and Mia Fontaine

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jan 01, 2006
Category: Memoir

The cover shows a little girl, aloft. Her mother’s open hands are at the bottom of the photograph. It’s a lovely, joyous picture. And one that every parent can relate to. Because the picture is a complete metaphor for our idealized relationship with our kids — we launch our children heavenward, and revel in what we see: beautiful purity backed by a pure blue sky. What comes next is certain — we’ll catch them. Without fail. Because that’s our first, our most important mission in life: to serve our children and protect them until they’re able to take flight on their own.

But in Chicago, in the early ’80s, Claire Fontaine — for legal reasons, a pseudonym — makes a seemingly innocent mistake, the kind made by any number of young women in love: She marries the wrong guy. Nick is a Golden Child of Mayflower stock. Well, not so golden. He smokes as much dope as he grows. And his family has views about sex that are — well, "progressive" might not be the right word for it. "Sick" and "incestuous" come closer.  

Claire and Nick have a daughter, Mia. Nick, who has long enjoyed nude gardening, now likes to wander about the house in the buff, pressing his two-year-old daughter against his erection. Clair objects. Nick has a stunning comeback: “Sex isn’t something children should be protected from, Claire. It’s like protecting them from good food or music.” And, soon, he moves on to abuse his child. And, of course, to beat his wife and wreck their home.  

Claire is confused, numb, slow to bolt. Taking Mia to the doctor is a defeat — the pediatrician, impressed by Nick’s name, defends him. Judges prefer more tests to making definitive rulings. No professional cares to hear from Mia, who remembers everything and is now terrified of her father. Finally — at great length — Nick is ordered to undergo therapy as a condition of seeing his child. He declines.  

When Mia is five, Claire meets Paul. He is handsome and decent, and he loves Mia the way a father should. Off they go to Los Angeles, where Mia becomes a top student at a prestigious private school and Claire establishes herself as a screenwriter. The past? Buried.  

But life turns out to be like a horror movie; when you least expect it, the monster returns. When Mia is 15, she runs away. Her true friends and her real life, she says in the note she leaves behind, are on the streets. Oh, dear parents, don’t worry: "I have a Swiss army knife and mace."  

Right. A double life. Claire and Paul have missed it. The weight loss, the red faces, the pictures of dead punk heroes and books about street kids — hey, she kept her grades up. And now Mia’s off in the rain, probably to Venice Beach, where castaways find free drugs in exchange for free sex.

A miracle! Mia is found! Not happily, but here she is: home again. For about a minute. The windows are locked. She finds the hidden screwdriver. And fights Paul "like a biker chick" to get out.  

Off now to a hospital with a psych unit for troubled teens. Mia escapes. This time, she makes it to Utah and an even more unsavory crop of losers before she’s found. Clearly, she can’t live at home. Off now to an aunt in rural Indiana. Sounds nice? That county has, as the cops will tell Claire, "one of the worst heroin problems in the nation."  

How low can a girl fall? To a van. To skinheads. To heroin. And the thing about the bottom…well, as Emmylou Harris sings, "One thing they don’t tell you about the blues/When you got em/You keep on falling cause there ain’t no bottom/There ain’t no end." There’s always worse, always greater degradation.  

It hurt me — I mean: physically — to read this stuff. I wanted to kill Nick. To shake Mia. Claire? I don’t know. I’m a parent. Of a daughter. Mostly, I kept muttering, "Please, God, not me…."   A poet friend once wrote: "How bright a light/there must be/to cast so dark/a shadow."

And here comes the sun: a tough love school run by Americans in the Czech Republic. It’s like a jail. You don’t talk without permission. You earn tiny privileges by observing the rules to the letter, go back to square one if you screw up. And the administrators are in your face 24/7.  

Let me be clear. These schools you see exposed on TV — boot camps in the desert, where would-be drill sergeants run kids ragged until they drop and die — are detestable. The people who run them, in my view, are second-stage abusers, destroying children as surely as the folks who screwed them up in the first place. But this Czech school, as Mia and Claire present it, is grounded in unconditional love and a passion for truth-telling. By the evidence offered here, this method does return kids to themselves. 

But do not think for one second that this is a story about the reclamation of screwed-up teens. This is a book about families, and the parents are on the hook too. Indeed, they’re on a much bigger hook. For not only must they learn how to adjust whatever behavior that contributed to their kids’ spectacular delinquency, they must learn to relate to the very different child who will be coming home. In short, they must undergo a mirror of the therapy their kids are getting.  

It is quite something to see a proud, professional woman like Claire stripped naked. To read her admission of complicity — no, call it what is: criminal negligence. "My child is imprisoned because I stood in a doorway thirteen years ago and didn’t understand the questions of a sad, puzzled monster who wanted some explanation, some reason why decent people found sex with children a problem. Because I didn’t see his transformation any more than I saw hers, till too late. We carve our destinies blindfolded, with sharp knives."  

I don’t think I’m the only reader who — at midpoint in this book, when the therapy kicks in — stops reading a book about Mia and Claire and starts reading one that’s much more personal. There are no spectators here. Some of the failings you’re reading about — if you’re like me, they’re yours too. And so the book morphs into a harsh, raw and yet altogether loving confrontation. A wake-up call. With a message that comes down to this: Look at what’s there. Look how you deal with it. Look how it affects others. And, hardest of all, look what you get out of it.  

To say there’s a happy ending of this joint memoir is wrong. There’s a happy beginning. When you get to the end, you’ll want to cheer.   Limited cheering, alas. The sexual abuse figures in this country are disgusting. I must have done something right in a previous life, because something wonderful happened to me in this one — Anne Lee asked me to serve on advisory board for her cause, Darkness to Light. Its animating idea is very simple: Kids cannot stop abuse. They’re on the powerless side of the sick relationship. Teaching them to say "bad touch" and believing that will level the playing field is insulting. The way to stop childhood sexual abuse is to train adults to recognize it — and step in to stop it. D2L works. If you suspect something is being done to your kid or that an adult you know has a problem, please go there.  

You don’t have to be a parent with a death-bent kid to need this book — just a parent who knows it’s possible to communicate better with your child, but doesn’t know quite how. Which is pretty much all of us.