THE LOST CHILD: A Mother’s Story, by By Julie Myerson
Any parent who has had to confront a child’s drug abuse is familiar with the drawn-out agony of despair, impotence, fear, grief and, while there is still a chance for recovery, hope. That last is perhaps the most ravaging of all. Hope means you aren’t yet numb enough, not yet at peace with the chaos into which life has spilled, not yet so defeated and angry that you’re unable to try to help. Julie Myerson, a novelist living in London and the mother of three children, was finally forced to throw her eldest son out of the house — and change the locks — when his cannabis habit so deranged him that he became physically violent. He was 17 years old.
“I am flattened, deadened. I have nothing in my mind except the deep black hole that is the loss of my child,” she writes in “The Lost Child: A Mother’s Story.” Myerson undergoes a crash course in drugs. Her son is smoking skunk, she learns, a strain of cannabis whose THC content is much more potent than garden-¬variety pot — except that it has become garden variety. I had never heard of skunk either, but a quick search online led me to a souk of seeds for the home farmer, advertising up to a toxic 22 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content in some strains. My shopping cart remained empty as I browsed in disbelief. Even as stronger varieties are being bred and marketed, medical research is linking cannabis use to behavioral and cognitive changes reminiscent of psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression and anxiety disorder. And yet we find ourselves arguing about whether pot is addictive or a gateway drug or should be legalized. We are collectively losing our minds. “The Lost Child” is a cry for help and a plea for a clear acknowledgment of the toll this drug is taking on our children.
Myerson does have something else on her mind while her son’s life shatters. She is in the midst of writing a book about a young woman, Mary Yelloly, who died of consumption in 1838, at the age of 21. Mary left behind an “extraordinary” album of more than 200 watercolors of a fantasy family’s life in Regency England. (The Yale Center for British Art owns three other sketchbooks attributed to her sisters.) Myerson sets out to bring Mary Yelloly to life, tracking down descendants of the family, visiting old houses, discovering diaries and keepsakes stashed in cardboard boxes. Interleaved are descriptions of the madness unfolding in Myerson’s own home. Her son has turned on his 13-year-old brother. He is crashing on friends’ ¬sofas, disappearing for weeks at a time, only to turn up haggard, ill, insensible and still stoned.
Mary and the boy are a strange, difficult pair. The switching back and forth between their stories is jarring and confusing — Mary is addressed intimately as “you”; “the boy,” nameless, is always spoken of in the third person — and mostly maddening. Perhaps there’s a problem in across-the-pond translation: I couldn’t begin to understand why I should care about Mary Yelloly. Her story pales in comparison with the boy’s. There is something tepid in its effect.
I could see what Myerson might be getting at. Mothers in any century will grieve over their lost children. Mothers in any century save little tokens of their love. ¬Every era has its plagues. But the unfolding narrative of a sick child — a sick child here and now — has such inviolable urgency that I had to force myself not to skip past Mary to keep the boy in my sights. Myerson heightens the delusional nature of her quest in a moving scene that draws on her strengths as a novelist: a conversation in a church with Mary’s ghost. “He’s very lonely,” Mary tells her. “He’ll come back.” Mothers will find comfort wherever they can.
But, of course, Myerson finds no respite in her imagination. She is brutal in describing the heartbreaking varieties of hell through which she and her family are dragged.