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Back From The Brink

Six years ago, at age 12, Augusta began hurtling toward self-destruction. The advice from her mom, who has written a book about those dark days: 'Don't ever give up.'

April 17, 2001|Bettijane Levine | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They look so harmonious. Mother and daughter, laughing and chatting in a swank L.A. hotel room, celebrating their success. Augusta, 18, says she's happy her mom lived to fulfill her dream of writing a book. Martha Tod Dudman, 49, says she's simply happy her daughter lived.

The irony escapes neither of them: It was the daughter's self-destructive reign of teenage terror that gave the mother something compelling to write about. And it was the mother's never-say-die attempts to help her child that enabled Augusta to survive to read the tale.

To their surprise, the perceived isolation they endured, the feeling that they were alone on their turbulent, downhill hurtle, turned out to be untrue. Across the country, parents who read "Augusta, Gone" (Simon & Schuster) are nodding in recognition. Many are writing author Dudman to say they have been there themselves. In some cases, their children did not live to become adults. Even the most involved and educated among them seem not to know why such tragedies happen or even when they begin. That was true of Dudman, too.

One day they were the perfect little family. A divorced mom and two little children, a boy and a girl, one year apart, all snuggled together reading "Mary Poppins" in mommy's big bed.

They were an unsinkable unit that hiked and biked and had picnics and lived on an island off Maine, one of the most beautiful and (Dudman thought) safest places on Earth. A place where people never locked doors or took keys out of cars at night. A place where everyone knew and looked out for everyone else's kids. Dudman, divorced since the children were 2 and 3, felt that if she did nothing else almost-perfect in life, these wonderful children would be enough.

When the children were in grade school, Dudman started to work at the radio stations her parents owned. She never thought twice about it, she says. Augusta was sweet and talented, got good grades, played saxophone, loved to draw, did gymnastics and art class after school. She was a wholesome child, who turned 12 and started acting a bit different than before, as all preteens seem to. The mother noticed the changes but didn't want to overreact.

The book is written from the mother's point of view: simple, stark words that detail each new shock as the precious child turns into . . . what? It was impossible to know, to handle it, to even discuss it with other adults. Or to figure out when it really started.

Was it when Augusta began going to her room more frequently and closing the door? When she stopped conversing intimately with her mom, as they had done for years? Was it the first time she answered back, or smelled of smoke, or when her grades slipped the first time at school? And what was the cause of all this? The mother writes she hadn't a clue.

"You don't know if it's because [you] work too much or because your daughter's too smart for her classes or because she has maybe a learning disability you never caught or because her teacher has a learning disability and isn't smart enough to teach your daughter. Or maybe . . . she is becoming a teenager and this is how they act?"

That was the most likely scenario, the mother thought. Puberty causes all sorts of stresses and strains. So Dudman tried everything to keep her daughter on track. But Augusta's rebellion escalated.

She started skipping school, lying, avoiding eye contact and changing friends. By 14, Augusta was sneaking out at night, doing and dealing drugs, stealing cars, hitchhiking to Boston, disappearing for days at a time, screaming, shouting, raising a knife to her mother and telling her exactly what she she'd like to do with it. Dudman ended up roaming the streets at night, searching for her child, dragging her home.

By then Dudman was isolated from the parents of other kids with whom she used to have so much in common. Their children's problems were missed homework, poor hygiene, what to wear to the school dance. Dudman's daughter's problems were too embarrassing to discuss.

It was a swift and steep descent into parental hell. She tried to cope, going to the teachers' conferences, the therapists, increasing her daughter's activities. Dudman had been no angel herself when she was a teenager at the elite Madeira school in Virginia, where she was once expelled for smoking pot. She'd had some wild times at Antioch College in Ohio in the early '70s. So she tried to cut her daughter some slack.

Her daughter didn't need any. She was on her own binge, and nothing her mother said or did made any difference. Meanwhile, Dudman was working longer days and some weekends, trying to run the three local radio stations owned by her parents, who had suddenly retired and left her in charge. But "I was always accessible. I always knew where the children were, what each moment's activities were," she said in an interview the other day. Daughter Augusta nodded in agreement. Of course, by now both realize that the mother knew little of what her daughter was doing.

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