Six years ago, Mia Fontaine was kidnapped by her own mother and forced into a behavior modification program in the Czech Republic. Around that time, she was a teenage drug addict living in the back of a skinhead's van in rural Indiana, a most unlikely place given that she is Jewish and had been a straight-A student at an L.A. prep school not long before that.
The cause (sexual abuse by her own father) and effect (Mia's recovery through extreme measures) of that scene make up the bulk of Come Back: A Mother and Daughter's Journey Through Hell and Back, co-written by Mia and her mother, Claire.
Come Back is a powerful memoir which combines the voices of Claire and Mia as they fall and, through unconventional therapy and the rediscovery of their own parent-child bond, learn how to pick themselves back up.
I had the good fortune of speaking to Mia, who has gone on to graduate from a major university and currently works in the publishing industry, via email over the past several weeks, and you will find the results below.
It would be understandable for someone who has gone through the kinds of struggles you've endured—from being sexually abused as a child to getting involved with hardcore drugs as a teenager—to want to keep that past hidden and to try to forget about it. You have done the opposite. Why did you decide to write a book about your experience?
I wrote the book to reach out to others who are, or have been, "troubled." When you're struggling, it's often hard to see past wherever you're at; feeling happy or "normal" seems like such an impossibility, there's no incentive to change. I wanted to use my story to demonstrate how change IS possible. It seems to me that we're comfortable sharing our joy but don't know how to share, and learn from, our sorrow.
The sexual abuse was what I was most nervous to include, but it was for this same reason that I felt compelled to do so. To explain: my senior year of college, I was still on the fence about sharing my story. At the time, I was taking a class called the Personal Essay and for our final paper, people had chosen such topics as living with a mother dying of cancer, or being raised by two men. I decided to write about my molestation to give it a test-run, so to speak. Not only was the response overwhelmingly positive, but people came up to me after class to share their own stories of abuse. I was the first that two of them ever told.
This was a decisive moment for me. If I, someone who had "dealt" with my past, was still scared, how must the millions of others feel who have never told anyone, let alone sought help? Victims of sexual abuse in general, and incest in particular, are usually given the message to be quiet, to not upset the family, which means they're punished twice—first by their offender, then by society. I want to help take away this stigma.
Given that you got into drugs at such a young age, I get the feeling that your self-destruction was somewhat inevitable—that someone who goes through that sort of trauma as a little kid doesn't have much of a chance to mature enough to deal with it before the ill effects begin to ruin their lives. Do you think that's the case? What, if anything, do you think could have been done to prevent the abuse you endured as a small child from destroying your teenage years?
I do agree that my problems were inevitable, though to what degree I can't say with certainty. I was lucky in that I had play-therapy immediately after the abuse, then again at age seven and eight, when my nightmares returned. Between those times and until early adolescence, I had a rather happy childhood with my mom and my "new dad" (stepdad Paul). I've later learned this is typical, as puberty marks the onset of sexual maturity. If an adult is partially defined by their sexuality (and a child by their lack of it), for those of us whose sexualities were "discovered" in childhood, our natural sexual development was corrupted.
Teenagers tend to define themselves by their feelings. Because of the abuse, I saw myself as dirty and different, so I embraced the identity of a screw-up and acted accordingly. Since it was these feelings about myself that led to my self-destructive behavior, and because these didn't surface until adolescence (upon which I acted on them almost immediately), any sort of prevention seems almost impossible, as it would have required my mother to predict the future.
I would like to add, however, that I don't think inevitability was necessarily a function of my young age. On the one hand, yes, children have fewer psychological tools than adults. On the other hand, adult rape victims, or PTSD veterans, often suffer similarly for years—panic attacks, substance abuse, irritability, etc. Trauma is a powerful enough force to impact people equally, regardless of age.
Also, rather than attribute my problems to a lack of maturity, I feel it was the opposite. A part of me matured too soon. Being abused taught me from early childhood that things were not often as they appeared and that evil was very real. This, more than almost anything, made me feel different, and older, from my peers, and therefore more comfortable running away and acting independently of them (i.e. being the first to lose my virginity or use drugs).
You went through a unique recovery, being rescued from the streets by your mom and then sent away to an extreme behavior modification program in the Czech Republic. A lot of parents would never be able to ship their only child off to a faraway country, and in the book, you seem to be in disbelief when it happens. Looking back, do you think you would have made the same decision if you were your mom?
In a second. I realize this sounds strange, considering I literally wanted to kill her when she put me in, but there's a good chance I wouldn't be around to answer this question had she not. Speedballing and living with skinheads (while being Jewish) isn't exactly something you wait around for your kid to grow out of. Teenage rebellion is to be expected, but my behavior was way beyond the norm and, as my mother intuited, it wasn't about rebellion in my case, but self-destruction due to the extreme self-loathing I felt. Thankfully, my mom knew I needed outside help.
Given that she had tried everything else (alternative schools, therapy, the psych ward, living with a family friend, living with a relative), at that point this was really her only option. There's little available for parents whose kids are completely out of control. The state isn't of much help and regular rehab is often too short to make a difference (it's also where kids find the best drug connections). Besides, I could have just signed myself out in three days, as no state except Montana and Utah allow parents to hold their child against their will for more than a few days. Civil rights are absolutely necessary, but like the father's rights laws that allow a man to continue visiting a child he admitted to molesting, they can sometimes backfire. In my case, the state of California left my welfare in my hands—a fifteen-year-old drug addict.
Because these schools are so controversial, I would like to add that though our experience was very positive, it was at a specific time and place. Yes, it was extreme, but so was I, and the extremity of it was largely what worked.
Mia on her first day at Morava Academy
One of the turning points in your life (and, by extension, this book) was when Czech authorities shut down the Morava Academy, which forced you to move to a less extreme sister program in Montana. In what ways do you feel the change from Morava to the Montana facility affected your development? What specific aspects of each program were most effective in helping you recover?
Morava's closure was such a nightmare that most all of the kids suffered an emotional setback. Several of the staff we had come to love and trust were arrested before our very eyes, most journalists were aggressive, biased and cruel, and police strip-searched many of us. Having been so closed off to any sort of help, and then to have the help I finally accepted violently ripped away, I shut down quite a bit. I came to Spring Creek Lodge (SCL) very hesitant to open up and went back to old, self-destructive patterns. It was a good wake-up call, however, in that it gave both my parents and myself a reality check. It's easy to make initial changes, harder to internalize them, so seeing how quickly I reverted gave us a better idea of where I was actually at with myself.
In terms of the differences between the programs, while they were run by the same general rules and philosophies, the environments were like night and day. Morava was as quiet and orderly as SCL was spontaneous and unpredictable. The most obvious thing that was so effective about Morava was its location. Given my previous lifestyle, my mom, wary of another system I could b.s. my way through, chose a different country in the hopes that I would feel like I hit a brick wall. It had the intended effect. I was on total silence most of the day; I was completely separated from the opposite sex (we had to literally turn away and touch our noses to the wall when they passed); I had a uniform; I couldn't shave (which for an Italian is an unimaginable curse), wear make-up or keep in any piercing or jewelry; there was no contact with the outside world save letter-writing; no music, no TV, no radio. The reality of the "program," as we called it—short for "behavior modification program"—was so alien that when you add that to being in a foreign country and having to speak a different language (German), it was a mighty high wall!
Because it was so vastly unlike anything I was expecting or had previously experienced, it took me awhile to adjust, and was therefore much harder to manipulate my way through. By the time I had actually figured out how to do this, the desire was gone. Also, because much of it is peer-regulated, while you could potentially fool an adult, it's nearly impossible to con your peers; as they say, you can't lie to a liar.
There was also an innocence and joyousness to our lives in Morava that I never found duplicated in SCL, which was in the States. If you've ever traveled to a poor or non-Western country, it's not uncommon to find a whole village of kids and teens playing a game using sticks, or having the time of their lives dancing to bad eighties music. Because they don't have the luxuries American teens do (video games, TV, a constant supply of films and concerts, etc), they are more resourceful and self-reliant for entertainment. When I first arrived, I was embarrassed for teenage ex-gang members laughing like kindergartners while playing Red Light, Green Light or Capture the Flag. Were they not aware they looked like complete dorks? But it wasn't long before I was actually having more fun dancing to Richard Simmons' "Sweatin' to the Oldies" than I used to have running around high as a kite. Because there is absolutely no contact with the outside world, our previous lives and desires became further and further removed. With other programs, the end was always in sight, but because of the length of this, once I got over wanting to kill my mom and finally accepted I'd be here for a while, I slowly began to lose sight of my previous life and rediscover who I really was beneath the drugs and depression.
While Morava was very by-the-book, at SCL they dealt with us more individually and spontaneously. When I first got there, being somewhat testy and withdrawn, I was put on a challenge to look a new person in the eye for thirty minutes each day. If I broke contact, we started all over again, so while this took hours on some days, it did give me a chance to look at why I had such trouble creating intimacy.
Months later, when Cameron, the director, noticed my extreme distrust (and disgust) of the opposite sex, he threw me in a boy's family for a few months!
Being in rural Montana, the staff were much less formal and direct and took absolutely NO crap from us—from time to time we would manipulate our staff's lack of English to our advantage at Morava (hence the shift to making us learn and speak only German). Also, unlike Morava, SCL offered private therapy and I began seeing Mike Linderman. Unlike previous shrinks, Mike had no problem confronting me, and as I came to trust and respect him, we began dealing with my molestation on a much deeper level than I had before. He wasn't just concerned with my feelings surrounding the event, but how those played out in my daily life—choices of boyfriends, being uncomfortable with my own femininity, etc. There was nothing clinical about him, and just as he'd swear right back at me and toss me out of his office for being stubborn or snotty, he'd pull me in for a hug when I needed one.
What were some of the issues you faced after leaving the program and re-entering the "real world"? How did the experience of returning to L.A. after being secluded in the Czech Republic and rural Montana affect your view of American culture?
I wasn't terribly concerned about relapsing, going back to street life, etc. I just wanted such different things for myself (college, traveling, dating) that the excitement I had for that was much stronger than any fears I had of going backwards.
There was, however, quite a re-adjustment period! Unexpected things, like the physical world, bothered me—the noise, the constant movement, the sheer volume of visual images (people, billboards, buildings). Sometimes it was humorous. In the program we had to say "excuse me" every time we passed someone, and for a few months I got a lot of weird looks when, out of habit, I would excuse myself when no one else would. My first day of college, I had a moment of panic when I walked into class and the only other person in there was a boy (being alone with the opposite sex would drop you several levels).
I often missed the program. The environment created there was very open and loving, and the fun we had there was so child-like and innocent, almost utopian in some ways, strange as it may sound to say that about a place you're locked up in. It wasn't at all uncommon that you would walk into a classroom or the dining room and to see people circled up listening to someone share who had an unexpected issue come up for them. Coming home, it made me sad to have to get used to the walls people put up and the way people so often hide or disguise their emotions. You're stripped down to the bare essentials in the program; you speak, eat, sleep and speak pretty much only as needed. It took time to re-adjust to how much people make meaningless small talk, how excessively we spend money, the unnecessary quantities of food and drink consumed.
Because I went from one extreme (sex, drugs, street life) to another (celibacy, sobriety, country living), it took me a long time to find a good group of friends, as well. The first year or so, I pretty much hung out with my parents, family friends (which, thankfully, we had an abundance of), and I threw myself into schoolwork, sculpture, and martial arts. By the time I went away to university, I was more like a "normal" teen and did find a great group of friends.
Returning, of all places, to L.A., where so much of American culture is generated, was quiet a culture shock! Granted, I was only fourteen when I began my downhill slide, but I was still amazed to see pre-teens parading around with thongs showing, heavy make-up and smoking. It seemed that in the time I'd been gone, what teens used to do at fifteen was now being done by twelve-year-olds and preteen behavior was now imitated by children. Don't even get me started on the first time I saw a Bratz doll!
Our obsession with sexualizing kids struck me as well. I remember seeing American Beauty shortly after I came home, and while I liked the film because of how well done it was, as someone who personally felt the repercussions of an adult sexualizing a child, I simultaneously felt guilty about watching something that felt irresponsible. Though ultimately nothing does happen between them, what stays in your mind after the movie are the fantasy scenes filled with rose petals and the promise of sex between a fifteen-year-old girl and a forty-year-old man.
Do you have any ideas as to where this "obsession with sexualizing kids" comes from? Why are advertisers so insistent on trying to convince twelve-year old girls to dress like whores?
The easy answer is money. If advertisers can take an already existing market (women) and greatly expand it by marketing the same products (make-up, thongs, jewelry, etc.) to children and teens, their profits dramatically increase. It's common knowledge that kids want to grow up, that they strive to appear older than they are to win respect among their peers (it's typically the kids that experimented first with drugs, alcohol and sex that were seen as the "cool" kids). It's even easier to market to young girls because they're insecure about their looks in a way boys aren't. The sad part, though, is that most kids only like the illusion of adulthood; the reality of it, once they discover for themselves what that is, is generally less agreeable. I often observed girls get into situations where, flattered by the adult attention received from acting and dressing like they were much older, they are either forced into sex or just do it because they're too scared to say no when they realize older guys usually aren't content with a junior high make-out session. The school I was at was full of girls wounded from those encounters.
The harder question to answer, however, is why our culture condones, if not subtly encourages, this. I think part of it is parents. Advertisers probably know that a lot of parents find it easier to throw the Bratz dolls and thongs in the cart than face the inevitable tantrum if they don't. Some are simply too busy or checked-out to notice what their kids bring home with their allowance. I also think there are a lot of men who are aroused by pubescent girls. It's a cliché, but it probably makes a lot of them feel young again or reminds them of their first sexual encounter. The other thing you usually hear, and I think is true, is that young girls come without the maturity and expectations of adult women—young girls are more pliable, unthreatening; older, more sophisticated men can mold them to their desires and needs.
Mia with mom/co-author Claire
As a teenager you went through this whole ordeal of running away and speedballing with skinheads, tormenting your mom. Then, after your time in the program, you actually ended up writing a whole book with her. After everything that happened, what was it like writing a book with the woman who, not long before that, essentially had you committed?
Thankfully, by the time we sat down to write the book, that wasn't an issue. Besides the passing of time, the work we had done on our relationship during the two years I was in the school had totally transformed our relationship. Yes, I was furious for the first few months, but once I had completely detoxed, even for a stubborn fifteen year-old, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize what might have happened if I stayed where I was. Or to recognize the gift that was dropped in my lap. Not many people get a chance to start over with such a clean slate; I had the opportunity to explore every aspect of myself in great depth—basically I got an instruction manual in being me. The emotional and psychological tools I learned still benefit me today.
Nonetheless, any mother and daughter working AND living together is a challenge. There's both more fun and more bickering than would exist in a typical professional relationship, as the line between personal and professional is completely blurred. There were times when my mom would use professionalism as a guise to continue mothering her adult daughter (“stop eating that ice cream, TV adds ten pounds”), and there were times when I, childishly, was reluctant to listen to professional comments simply because of who they came from.
Additionally, to authentically recreate your life on paper, we both found it necessary to relive it to some degree. When we wrote about my time in Indiana, my lowest low, levels of irritability and tension were pretty high. We also both learned some very painful things about each other that we hadn't previously known. She, for instance, hadn't known I was raped and, because of my young age, I never realized the extent of what she suffered while married to a perverse and abusive husband (my biological father).
The experience deepened our bond and broadened our relationship. Just as writing about Indiana created some tension between us, remembering how close we came to losing each other—and later writing about how we mended our relationship—allowed us to re-learn some lessons and renew our appreciation of each other. Also, as painful as it was to read the early chapter, in which my mother chronicles the abuse, because she was writing about a time in her life when she was just a couple of years older than I am now, I was able to see a side of my mother that most daughters don't, and I came to value and respect sides of her as a woman, not just a mother.
The end result of your collective work is a remarkably effective blend of your mom's voice and yours. Off the top of my head I can't think of many narratives with two authors which are able to create the force of your memoir. Beyond the mother-daughter aspects of creating this book, what issues were involved in shaping the structure and the voice of Come Back? Were you influenced by other memoirs?
One of the hardest things about writing a memoir is deciding which incidents to include. You can write several memoirs of one life, and, depending on the focus of the book, have several very different stories. It essentially depends on what your argument, or purpose, is. That's what determines which lens you view your life through, what events, and the themes they embody, you choose to include. Because our purpose was to emotionally impact those dealing with any of the issues we did—the mother/daughter relationship, abuse of any kind, family dysfunction, substance abuse, not living up to your potential—to best carry this out, we felt the narrative had to be present-tense, dramatic and honest.
The basic structure was determined by actual events in the order they happened. My mom being a screenwriter meant that we structured it in great detail before we wrote a word. A lot of memoirs go back and forth in time throughout the book, but with two voices we felt that would confuse readers. My mom decided to go back in time only once to tell the background story of my early childhood, then bring us back to the present and stay there.
We used the back/forth format of our two voices both to create dramatic structure within each chapter, but also to bring to light how easy it is for communication between two people to break down. Very often, particularly between a parent and child, when one says something, the other hears something very different. Using two voices also allowed us to show how vastly different two people can experience the same events. The emotional tone of our sections were true to our experiences, which meant that sometimes they were complimentary, others in sharp, almost painful, contrast.
We did read a few memoirs, West with the Night, by Beryl Markham, Tara Smith Bray's Into the West, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by David Eggers, though not for anything we might learn from. There really isn't a memoir—that we know of—that's written the way ours is. It was often doubly hard, by the way, because even if one of us got our own sections of a chapter down well and we were really happy with it, it all was up for grabs as the other integrated theirs. So we had to create each chapter twice—first our own sections, then the chapter of two married sections.
What have you learned from all this? Where do you go from here?
As a young teen, I felt really powerless. Being screwed-up seemed like such an intrinsic part of who I was that the drugs, the running away, etc., didn't seem like something I could control, they were simply things that someone like me did (which was, of course, a huge cop-out).
But I've come to realize that it isn't so much what happens to you or what you witness, it's the story you tell yourself about the event that matters. And that's the key. Once I got that, on a gut level got it, I made lasting changes and that's the lesson I hope others take away from my story because that realization changed my life. You can tell yourself any story you want because you get to create your life—we really do make it all up every day. Little kids know this and it's something we forget too easily as adults with bills to pay and places to be and people to meet. With rare exceptions, life doesn't really just "happen," we create it with the choices we make throughout every day. This is what accountability, as I understand it, really is—owning all your results, good and bad. Accountability is incredibly empowering; it allows you to take control of your life, of who you are, of how you show up in the world.
Writing a book seemed like a fitting end to this chapter of our lives (no pun intended). Looking back on what happened, with the objectivity that time gives, and capturing what it all meant was a great way to reflect on what we learned, celebrate our good fortune, gain closure, and give back to others.
Future plans: The first thing most people ask is if I have future books in the works. The answer, currently, is no. I have a couple of ideas, but they're both subjects that require a lot of research and, frankly, having been out of society for over a year while writing Come Back, I like the idea of living in it for awhile. I feel like I have to take something in before I can put something out. So I'm currently living in New York City and work in the publicity department of a publishing house. It's cliché, but yes I'd like to travel, perhaps teach English in a foreign country (preferably a non-Western one) to get a radically different perspective on life and the world.