This was a disturbing book. Evelyn Lau writes about her experiences living on the street after running away from home at the age of fourteen to escape her abusive, controlling parents.
Lau had always wanted to be a writer, and had already received some awards and recognition for her writing at a young age, but she was forced to leave home to escape an unendurable situation. She stayed with friends at first, given the network of friends and fellow writers she had already established, but as the pressure from police and child welfare authorities increased, her friends became unable and unwilling to shelter her.
Thus began a long, painful road into addiction, prostitution, and desperation. Lau wrote intermittently throughout most of this experience, and has presented the reader with a seemingly honest and definitely raw story about her life on the streets. She hasn’t smoothed over her initial naivete, or her adolescent grandiosity, or her hero-worshiping of figures such as her first social worker and her psychiatrist, or her experiences of both loving and loathing drugs. She also writes very candidly about addiction and how she felt that the drugs and her writing were in direct opposition to one another.
It was hard to read about her negative experiences, and lovely to read about how her commitment to writing kept pushing its way forward. Out of all the terrible things she experienced, though, what was closest to home for me—and thus hardest to read about—was how people in positions of authority failed her. Her parents failed her through their abuse of her. The child welfare system—with its ever-changing workers, strict jurisdictions, and emphasis on family reunification— failed her. Some of her mental health workers failed her (most specifically, by providing medications she abused or stockpiled for suicide attempts).
What was especially horrific for me was how schools, social workers, and others did not believe how bad Lau’s home situation was. Her parents were not beating her black and blue; they were not raping her. They were “just” emotionally abusive. On the outside, the family looked solid and healthy, and Lau was under considerable pressure to return to her parents. The pressure she endured from outside the family, and the gaslighting and undermining she endured from within it, worked together to make her doubt her own perceptions and feel like she—an abused minor living on the streets—was somehow the guilty party in this family dynamic.
For many years now, I have held low-status job in an organisation that works with young people at the intersection of mental health and criminal justice, with substantial interface with the education and child welfare systems. I mostly keep my head down, but based on all the information I process as part of my job, I can tell you straight and true that Lau’s story is everyday and commonplace and a shameful indictment of how we treat our young people. What makes Lau’s situation somewhat different, though, is the type of abuse she experienced. Emotional abuse doesn’t get taken as seriously as it should. While it is dramatically obvious that a starving or drug-addicted or beaten child should be removed from the home to a safer place, it is somehow less obvious when you look at a child who has been emotionally abused and who is desperately trying to hide it because the punitive consequences of failure are devastating.
I understand why Lau ran away from her emotionally abusive, controlling parents who forbade her to write. I understand how even when she was trading sex for drugs and didn’t know where her next meal was coming from, that this life was still preferable to going back home. I was “lucky”—I could escape my stepmother when I was at my mom’s house. But the system failed me and my brother, too. The system says that if the kids are clean and fed and attending school, nothing can be that bad at home. That’s bullshit. Kids can be desperate on the inside, and sometimes not even the people closest to them can see or believe that. Children who are so utterly controlled and forced into obedience that even a dissenting opinion or the expression of a wish is seen as defiance or misbehaviour, to be punished and ridiculed, are children who are unequivocally harmed.
Child abuse is fucking awful. But what’s even worse is how poorly we as a society manage and treat abused kids. How seldom we believe them. How chickenshit we are when it comes to pointing it out and standing up for these vulnerable people.
Interfere. Intervene. Interrupt. People don’t get to raise their kids without interference any way they like. Support parents and support kids and don’t assume that parents know best or that families are safe places for kids.
Lau’s story is only exceptional in that she was able to tell it. In every other way, this happens every day.
Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid by Evelyn Lau.