Jillian Lauren’s best-selling 2010 memoir, “Some Girls: My Life in a Harem,’’ detailed the 18 months she spent as a teenage concubine in the harem of the prince of Brunei. From a sea of fascinatingly sordid details, Lauren plucked psychological and social insights that grounded and elevated the sensationalism of her story. “When you find yourself doing things you never dreamed of, it often happens in stages,” she wrote. “You take a tiny step over the line, and then you advance to the next line.”
In her beautiful, heart-wrenching, brilliant, and profoundly human second memoir, we meet Lauren a decade later in a strikingly different milieu. She’s stepping over lines in stages again, but now moving toward things she’s always dreamed of: becoming a good wife, a good mother, a tattooed, pierced, upstanding member of the PTA.
“When I meet Scott in September 2003,” Lauren writes, “I am midway between the before picture and the after picture.” Her before picture? “[A]ddiction, depression, a past checkered with ill-advised intimacies and even-less well-advised sources of income.”
In her fantasy after, “I imagine a sun-drenched vintage kitchen with tiny handprints smudged across the yellow cabinets . . . a garden overflowing with heirloom . . . heirloom whatevers, just so long as they’re heirloom. I’m sure I’ll get there, if I just work very, very hard at being very, very good.”
At first, Lauren’s road to tiny handprints and heirloom whatevers is smooth. She gets the dream husband, Weezer bass player Scott Shriner, a former Marine who says, on their first date, “I’m looking to start a family. . . . So if that’s not something that you want, you should probably tell me now.”
She gets the dream house in a “trendy, family-oriented neighborhood” on the outskirts of Los Angeles. “I can’t believe I’m going to have a home this beautiful,” the former heroin addict and sex worker exalts. “Each appliance testifies to my health and growth. I have a Cuisinart food processor. I am here. I am whole.”
What Lauren doesn’t get is what she and her husband want most: a baby. “I feel like a failure,” she writes of her battle with infertility. “I read the blood as a sign, maybe a message from God. I am broken.” After trying every available intervention, Lauren — who was herself adopted — convinces her initially reluctant husband to adopt a “left-behind” baby from an Ethiopian orphanage.
One year later the two of them fly home from Addis Ababa with 10-month-old Tariku in their arms. Within moments of their arrival in Los Angeles, Tariku starts screaming, thrashing, vomiting, smashing his head against the wall. He refuses food, swaddling, holding, and eye contact. He cannot be soothed.
Pediatricians assure Tariku’s parents that his behavior is normal for this period of adjustment. One year later, two, three, it’s clear that there’s nothing “normal” about this bright, terrified, and terrifying boy. Tariku is expelled from preschools, banished from treatment centers and from the homes of kids he punches and kicks and bites.
“I stop trying to pretend it’s all okay,” Lauren writes. “I say ‘special needs’ . . . [and] [i]t’s like I’m getting benched, not allowed out on the field with these competitive coffee shop moms who are humble-bragging about their six-year-old playing Chopin.”
Lauren and her husband now run through one after another “treatment” for Tariku, all of them exhausting and expensive. Most of them useless or worse.
Years go by; Lauren and her husband draw together a web of “aunties” and nannies and friends, and slowly, slowly life with Tariku becomes manageable. As she did in her first book, Lauren uses events from her own life — in this case her rather extreme parenting experience — to mine insights that will be useful to anyone who has ever raised a child, lived through a protracted crisis, fought for his or her own redemption.
As Lauren sees her son becoming whole and well, we see that she, too, has learned to self-soothe — and what greater redemption could any human being want?
“Every mother has her past, I figure. Every woman has a big idea of what will make her acceptable as a mother, what will put the USDA stamp of approval on her and make her feel worthy of this human experience. . . . Make a mistake and start again? If nothing else, this I know how to do.”
EVERYTHING YOU EVER WANTED
By Jillian Lauren
Plume, 272 pp., paperback, $16
Meredith Maran is the author, most recently, of “Why We Write’’ and “A Theory of Small Earthquakes.’’ Follow her on Twitter @meredithmaran.