By the time Liz turns twelve, she and the rest of her family have learned to live “on entirely different continents … detached and floating so independently from one another that I worried we might never come together again.” Liz spends most of her time pumping gas or hanging out with her friends.
Liz continues to be strong and independent, but her independence comes at a price: she spends barely any time with her family, and, furthermore, doesn’t seem to miss them much.
Ma begins spending more time with a man named Leonard Mohn. He and Ma pop pills, which Leonard procures with the money Ma and Daddy give him. Liz despises Leonard, and Leonard seems to hate her in return. Once, Liz overhears Leonard telling Ma, “The good years are all gone before forty anyway,” to which Ma tearfully replies, “I know […] We’ll never be old.” After Leonard enters the picture, Ma begins getting high more often, to the point where her entire body becomes covered in needle marks.
The passage suggests that Ma, recognizing that she’s going to die soon, begins using drugs even more often than she did before her diagnosis: she thinks AIDS gives her license to “live life to the fullest,” which, in her mind, means ingesting lots of cocaine.
Liz barely goes to school. But she reads Daddy’s books, and is smart enough to pass her year-end exams without going to class. More often she spends her weekdays hanging out with Rick and Danny, riding the subway across New York.
Liz is clearly intelligent, as evidenced by her reading habits, but she decided early on that school isn’t worth her time, so she spends her days having fun in the streets and on the subway.
One day, the truancy officer, Ms. Cole, visits Liz’s home and asks her why she hasn’t been going to school. Liz is confused: she wonders why Ms. Cole doesn’t ask Liz parents some other questions—why there’s no food in the house, why Ma is on drugs, etc. The officer tells Liz that if she doesn’t start attending school, she’ll have to go to another home—a harsh, lonely place.
As Liz suggests, the truancy officer is so limited in her view—or doesn’t care much about the situations her job takes her into—that she can’t appreciate the root cause of Liz’s truancy: in other words, she can’t appreciate that Liz has little interest in school because her family life is in ruins.
That night, Leonard Mohn comes by and he and Ma stay up late, getting high and talking. Liz overhears Ma talking about a man named Brick who she is sleeping with. Leonard encourages Ma to spend time with this other man, saying, “You deserve better.” Liz is furious: Leonard smiles in Daddy’s face and yet behind his back tells Ma to find someone better. In the two years since Ma was diagnosed with AIDS, things haven’t been the same between Liz and Ma: Liz finds it harder to love her.
Although Liz has a conflicted relationship with her father, she despises Leonard for acting hypocritically around Daddy. Notice also, that Liz seems to blame herself for not loving her mother after her AIDs diagnosis. But, based on what Liz has already written, it would seem that Ma is distancing herself from her daughter just as quickly as Liz is distancing herself from her mother: she’s using more drugs and seems to neglect her children more often.
A month later, Ma takes Liz to meet Brick. Brick is a former officer in the Navy, Ma claims, and he works in a “fancy Manhattan art gallery.” Brick turns out to be a big, bald, quiet man. He’s clearly attracted to Ma, and Liz doesn’t trust him—she’s always suspicious of strange men, since they remind her of Ron.
Liz’s traumatic experiences with Ron have clearly left their mark on her view of the world: she regards men as menacing.
Ma and Liz spend the day with Brick. From time to time, Brick goes into an alleyway to drink from a large bottle of beer. Ma explains that Brick needs the beer to calm his nerves. Liz sees Ma running her hands over Brick, and realizes that in her entire life, she’s only seen Ma and Daddy kiss twice.
Although Brick doesn’t seem to be a cocaine addict like Ma, Liz suggests that he’s an alcoholic (which is itself a drug addiction). Also, Liz is exposed to the uncomfortable sight of her mother flirting with another man—which is disorienting not simply because Liz hasn’t seen Ma and Daddy show much physical affection, but also because Ma and Daddy are still living together.
After saying goodbye to Brick, Liz tells Ma that she doesn’t want to see Brick anymore. Ma hesitates and then tells Liz that she’s been trying to get off drugs. Liz wonders if Ma is “serious this time.” She tells Ma not to bring drugs into the house, adding, “It’s simple if you really want that.” Ma points out that Daddy will continue bringing drugs to the house, but adds that she’s thinking of leaving him for good. Liz protests that she doesn’t want to leave Daddy, and Ma replies that she’ll give Daddy a chance to get clean, adding that she hopes Daddy will stop using drugs one day. But secretly, both Liz and Ma know that Daddy will never stop using.
Liz desperately wants to believe that her mother will get clean, especially since, on the surface, this should be as simple as no longer bringing drugs home. But Liz has seen Ma try and fail to “get clean” too many times to be one hundred percent convinced. Liz knows that Daddy will continue using drugs around Ma. This would mean that, as Ma herself suggests, Ma will continue using drugs, too. By the same token, Ma’s claim that she’ll give Daddy a chance to get clean suggests that she’s not all that serious about getting clean herself—instead, she’s passing on that responsibility to her partner. That’s what’s so heartbreaking about this section: Liz wants Ma to stop using drugs, but even as a child she seems to intuit how unlikely this is.
Liz passes the sixth grade and proceeds to junior high, much to her surprise. Liz’s family doesn’t attend her graduation. A few weeks later, Ma calls to tell Liz that she’s moving in with Brick, and that she wants Liz to come with her. Lisa goes with Ma, but Liz chooses to stay with Daddy.
It’s another sign of the distance between Liz and her family that they don’t attend her graduation. Also, it’s in character for Lisa to move in with Brick before Liz does so: Liz has usually accepted what’s given to her without complaint, whereas Lisa has usually been more interested in finding something better.
Soon after starting junior high, Liz gets a call from Ma, explaining that she hasn’t been using cocaine and that she loves Brick’s apartment. Meanwhile, Liz’s life with Daddy is sad. Daddy doesn’t complain about Ma leaving, but he continues to use drugs every day. Liz finds an old photograph of her parents kissing—“the single greatest act of affection I had ever witnessed between my parents.”
Even after years of living with Ma, Daddy seems strangely indifferent to Ma’s departure: his priority, as it has been for a long time, is getting high. Liz underscores this point by contrasting Daddy’s indifference with the affection for Ma he shows in the photograph: it would seem that Ma and Daddy did love each other at one point, even if they don’t anymore.
Liz finds old photographs of her father from when he lived in San Francisco. In the photographs, he looks very serious and intelligent. She also finds old letters from her grandmother, informing Daddy that she’s wondering how long he’ll be in California. Finally, she finds a photograph of a little girl in a pink dress, with the name “Meredith” scrawled on the back. Liz is terrified by the idea that her father could abandon one of his own children. Liz finds one more photograph, which shows Daddy kissing a man—the name “Walter” is scrawled on the back. Liz begins to cry. She wonders if Daddy ever loved Ma, and if he gave Ma AIDS. In the following days, Liz begins avoiding Daddy whenever possible.
Liz accepts some harsh truths about Daddy in this scene. Though she already knew about Daddy’s abandoned child, she seems to realize, as if for the first time, that Daddy could easily abandon her, too. Liz also raises the possibility that Daddy was gay or bisexual, which might in turn suggest that he contracted AIDS (a disease whose victims at the time were predominately gay—AIDS was even termed the “gay plague” in the early 1980s) and gave it to Ma. But of course, these are only possibilities: Ma easily could have gotten AIDS from sharing infected needles with other addicts, or through heterosexual sex.
Shortly after Liz turns thirteen, Child Protective Services finally takes her into custody for her truancy. Daddy signs the papers turning Liz over to the state of New York. Authorities take Liz to a hospital, where doctors examine her. The doctors find bruises on Liz’s body, and ask her how she got them. Liz honestly explains that she got them while playing.
For the second time in the book, authorities loosely raise the possibility that Daddy physically abused Liz, only to have Liz fervently deny that such a thing ever happened. Liz appears to include these two passages in her memoir in order to emphasize that Daddy, for all his other faults, never hurt his children. (Although it’s worth noting that victims of child abuse often repress their experiences.)
The authorities take Liz to a building called Saint Anne’s Residence, a “diagnostic residential center.” In reality, it’s a place where girls with a history of “behavior problems” are taken to be evaluated before they’re sent off to foster homes. Liz is miserable during her time at Saint Anne’s. On her first night, she experiences a searing pain in her abdomen, and the other girls laugh at her.
As much as Liz dislikes her home, Saint Anne’s is much worse. She receives no sympathy from the other children, even when she’s in great pain—at least Daddy and Ma sometimes tried to take care of their daughter.
A doctor named Eva Morales meets with Liz and asks her about her life. Morales gives Liz condescending advice, saying, “Consistency brings progress.” Liz learns to act responsive and agreeable around Morales, knowing that if she plays along, she’ll be able to leave sooner.
Liz doesn’t seem to get much out of her talks with Dr. Morales: Morales speaks in buzzwords and empty slogans. However, Liz does become adept at telling her mentor what she wants to hear—a skill that later serves her well.
Over the next week, Liz gets in trouble with Auntie, the woman who runs Saint Anne’s. The other girls blame Liz for putting bleach in a girl’s shampoo bottle—something Liz would never do—and Auntie punishes her by sending her to the “quiet room,” which is basically solitary confinement. Later, she’s moved to a room with Talesha, a fifteen-year-old girl who quickly opens up to Liz about her baby son. Late at night, Talesha cries in her sleep and tells Liz that she misses her child. When Talesha is fast asleep, Liz cries, too, and thinks that she misses her home and family.
Although Liz endures a lot of pain and unfairness during her time at Saint Anne’s, she makes one friend: Talesha. Like Liz, Talesha has been exposed to sex at an unusually young age. Although Liz and Talesha are different in many ways, they form a strong emotional bond, and Liz seems sympathetic to Talesha’s situation. However, Liz herself doesn’t open up to Talesha: she’s still a private person and she guards her emotions very carefully.
Liz is discharged from Saint Anne’s in the spring. On her last day, she embraces Talesha, and they wish each other good luck. Liz is about to be taken to live with Ma, Lisa, and Brick, but she’s worried that this home will turn out to be “another place I didn’t want to be.”
Liz looks to the future with great concern: she doesn’t want to be in Saint Anne’s, but nothing about Brick’s home makes her think she’ll be happy there, either.