Book review: RUNAWAY GIRL by Carissa Phelps with Larkin Warren
“No one ever said, ‘We love you, and it matters to us that you’re safe. Please stay home.’” This line from Carissa Phelps book RUNAWAY GIRL (with Larkin Warren) is heartbreaking for many reasons, most specifically because 1) it’s true and 2) its aftermath is devastating throughout Carissa’s young life.
RUNAWAY GIRL is a memoir of young girl who tried to escape her crowded, hungry household and her stepfather’s wrath through sleepovers with friends, which grew into stays that extended until she was told to go home. Desperate, she began to run away, avoiding her home for as long as she possibly could. Then her mother left her at Fresno’s Juvenile Hall. Carissa was only 12.
By the time she was 14, Carissa was a juvenile hall escapee who found herself sold for sex and drugs by a violent pimp and his girlfriend. Life starts to look up for her when enters a last-chance rehab facility for young people and meets a counselor who was patient and determined enough to reach Carissa through her pain.
As she discovers her love—and gift—for math and begins to reconnect with the world around her, it seems as though she’s on her way to a safer, less tumultuous life.
But it’s not that easy for her. In several searing, heartbreaking scenes, Carissa is invited by caring adults to live with them. Even though it’s clear she longs for the comfortable, giving homes they can provide, she can’t bring herself to say yes. The fear of being trapped by rules sends her running again and again. Her only “home” is the house with her mother and stepfather—and it’s clear that’s not an option for Carissa.
The book’s jacket copy informs readers that Carissa obtained her law degree and an MBA. Her journey from the street to the UCLA classroom is hard-fought and gut wrenching. But it’s her discovery of how her story can help other people that is so compelling—not because she realizes she can help people but because it never occurred to her.
“Looking for sympathy is ‘poor me,’” she writes. “Learning empathy is ‘We’re all in this together.’” She also writes, “As I realize the value of my suffering, I see that others feel pain and that they have found ways to muddle through it. The suffering we have in common makes me feel less alone, less singled out.”
Carissa shares her struggle with forgiving her mother as well and her approach to it as “putting out her own fire” is mind opening. So many memoirs end with a tearful reunion scene, a daughter forgiving a mother and forging a new relationship. Carissa’s is not so straightforward, which makes it all the more relatable.
RUNAWAY GIRL should be required reading for anyone with kids, especially girls, in their lives. In addition to sharing her story of strength and survival, she also educates with statistics such as this one: “One in seven American children will run away from home, and within forty-eight hours, one out of three will be asked, as I was, to ‘take care’ of someone.” Carissa’s book is not easy to get through, but it is a must read.