all in the family

Untangling the Secrets of a Teenage Mother

The author, Erin Keane, and her mother. Photo: Courtesy of Erin Keane

In 1970, a 13-year-old girl from Kansas ran away from home, leaving behind her parents, her siblings, her friends, her school, and the only life she’d ever known — first for Colorado, then Massachusetts, then New York. She called herself “Megan.” Megan briefly returned home, but a few months later, at 15, she went back to New York, this time as “Alexis.” There, she met a 36-year-old man everyone called “Red.” In November of that same year (when she was still 15) they married.

Three years later, they had their daughter, Erin Keane, who is now the editor-in-chief of Salon. Keane’s father, who died when she was 5, had always seemed “mysterious,” so she set out to learn more. In 2018, she began interviewing her mom for a Salon essay meant to be about her father, but Keane quickly realized it was her mother whose story she needed to tell.

Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me is the result of this investigation. Keane’s debut memoir, Runaway is the harrowing personal story of how one girl survived on her own, traversing America, hitchhiking from Aspen to Boston to New York City. It’s also a critical examination of the cultural forces that have shaped the way we view, and tell, the stories of adolescent girls.

In Runaway, Keane also tells the story of a larger movement. In the ’70s, America’s “teenagers just took off,” Keane tells the Cut, eventually leading to the passage of the Runaway Youth Act of 1974.

Regardless of how many other teens were following the same path, Keane is critical of the way women in particular have been punished for straying while also being forced to grow up early. “​​Every girl deserves to live as a girl, not an adult before she is one, for no other reason than the fact of her humanity, which as a culture we are still quick to find reasons to discard: she looked older, she wanted it, she shouldn’t have been talking to grown men in the first place, she knew what she was getting into,” she writes. “A bright girl learns early there are three ways to hear those words: First as praise, then as a threat, and finally as a taunt.”

You wrote that your mother’s story “should have been a legendary tale of survival, but was hidden away.” Why was that?
When it comes to family, there’s several layers. After she reconciled with her parents [years later], she was very close to them for the rest of their lives. She felt like she had caused the family a lot of pain by leaving the way she did, and she spent the rest of her life trying to make it up to them. (I came to a different conclusion about who should have been doing the bulk of that work, but those are my conclusions, not hers.) So on one hand, maybe it felt a little unseemly to sit around and tell too many bold tales about something that there was a lot of shame around in our family: that my mother was on the trajectory that my grandmother had wanted her on, and she rejected it.

Also, I had a pretty strict upbringing. I had the worst parts of having a young mother that had a wild past. She was not permissive the way that the pop-culture narrative tries to paint the “cool mom.” She was a cool mom in the sense that she knew great music and had great style and a great closet full of vintage clothes I could raid. At the same time, she’s not a cool mom as in “What’s a curfew?” or “As long as you do it at home, it’s okay with me.” She was very strict because she knew what the options were out there. And she wanted a different life for me.

I internalized those layers and then became the striver: Get the good grades to get the scholarship to go to the cute little college and live out the life that my grandmother and grandfather always thought my mother had been on the path to. Nobody ever said to me that that was my responsibility, but somehow I intuited it, absorbed it.

She has also always maintained that the scary things that happened, the bad things that happened to her, do not have to define her. So I think being very selective about what she would share was also part of that.

What were the new things you learned about her past?
The exploits, that she had run away from home — these things were not secret. But some of the more dangerous things that happened, or some of the wilder, more bold things, like getting arrested in Boston and then running away, she had briefly alluded to. But when I was a little too interested, she just shut it down. I think she didn’t want to glamorize the parts of her life that really were dangerous.

The Megan portion of the story was a revelation. I couldn’t believe that there was a whole other name that my mother had gone by, a whole other part of her life that she just didn’t share with us. By the time she became Alexis, she became kind of permanent. There are still people in our lives — family, friends, and such — who call her Alexis. So [Alexis] was the permanent, known quantity for me. But Megan was really different.

Describe the process of interviewing your mom. Did it change your relationship?
I did it mostly over the phone. I believe that some conversations, especially with somebody you are very close to, are easier over the phone. She’s less likely to get up and start doing something and sort of signal that a conversation is over. Also, it puts a little bit of a barrier between us. You can treat the phone as sort of a confessional sometimes. I love an in-person interview, but I’ve experienced that the phone can give you the distance that you need in order to treat an interview like an interview.

It definitely brought us closer. I feel like I finally understand her a lot more than I did before I could see her as a 13-year-old girl. But when [the manuscript] was submitted, I was so nervous. The book was done, and all I could do was hope she was okay with it. I didn’t want to write a book that she features so prominently in that was going to hurt her or make her feel misunderstood. But I also had to write the book and the story as I understood it. So that was really nerve-racking.
As a critic, you describe your “complicity in perpetuating these narrative imbalances” that focus on men. How have you done this?
[In general], our ingrained biases are toward explaining the man. The women or girls end up having to overcome an extraordinary burden of proof — and, really, impeccability of character — in order to be taken seriously.

I’m squarely at the young end of Gen X. And I felt a very strong sort of cultural ambient push to be on the guy’s side of things. They still sort of controlled what was cool and, therefore, what was quality. I probably upheld that a lot. I really admire millennial cultural critics for saying, “Actually, here’s the cultural value and quality of, say, boy bands. Or Britney Spears.” That was not at all a sort of argument that you made when I was a teenager. Those things were coded as for teen girls — therefore coded as being sort of lower on the quality index.

When you get that message that even the things that are designed to appeal to you, that are more innocuous stories in the larger sense, are less important — especially when they’re cast in opposition to someone seen as more important or higher on the quality index — that’s a tough, internalized bias to shake.

Your mom was 13 when she ran away. She was a child living an adult life: taking care of herself, feeding herself, finding communities, and figuring out ways to get around. Do you wish someone would have stepped in and treated her like a child?

The author’s parents. Photo: Courtesy of Erin Keane

This was part of the digging I was doing. When I look at pictures then, yes, she’s tall and she’s beautiful. But at 13, she still looks like a kid. In the thick of writing and reporting this book, my oldest niece was 13. She’s poised and articulate but recognizably 13. One of the things I was looking for was evidence that other people perceived my mother to be a child (she did not). I found it at every step of the way — the judge in Boston not buying her story for a second that she was over 18, the first guy she was with on the road, outside of Aspen, looking at her saying, “You should go home.”

But my mother is adamant that she is not a victim. So the way I want to approach the story is to honor the experience of the person I’m writing about. This story can include all of those dimensions: Adults should have treated her like a child and protected her like a child, and that was in conflict with how she perceived herself — as older and ready to embrace the adult world.

Why did your mom leave?
One of my biggest questions was, How do I reconcile what I think I know about why someone leaves — that homelife was so bad that leaving was preferable — with what I know about our family? My grandfather was deployed, but they were a stable couple, loyal. There was no home trauma I could perceive.

My mother was not unique. A lot of kids took off. There was the youth-culture movement. There were groups of young people that were untethered that she could slip into. And there were ad hoc groups that were trying to take care of the problem because a lot of runaways were jailed instead of immediately being picked up by a social worker. The Runaway Youth Act of 1974 was instrumental to changing this.

It’s a bit of a period story. It’s harder these days to work under the table. Everything is more digitized. Things were looser and more permissive then. But it’s absolutely still a story that can be told today. There are 13-year-old girls not living at home. There will always be girls that people don’t set the Amber Alert for.

Untangling the Secrets of a Teenage Mother