Memoir details a path toward destruction, turned around

God, science and the natural world infuse the poetry of Lucille Lang Day, whose memoir, “Married at Fourteen,” is a finalist for a Northern California Book Award in creative nonfiction.

Poet Richard Silberg praises the “gorgeous, moving global lyric” of her poetry. But her memoir offers a sharp contrast. Beginning with a spurt of defiance at age 12, she details a rugged journey, including an early marriage propelled by her desire to escape an abusive home.

Growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Piedmont in the late 1950s and early ’60s, she confounded school officials, who praised her intellectual potential. She flouted the school dress code, one day peeling off her school uniform and stuffing it into a Dumpster, revealing a black blouse and tight skirt. She ran away with a boyfriend in a stolen car, shoplifted from Capwell’s and Kahn’s department stores, swapped a promise to go steady for a switchblade knife.

She was enamored with love and marriage, pining for a lasting, passionate romance with a dream husband.

Lang Day was only 14 when she and her boyfriend Mark exchanged vows in Reno, flanked by her willing parents.

At 15 she was a mother. At 16 she filed for divorce, sobered by the realities of an immature husband, a scant income and a child to care for.

But the party continued, now with boyfriends on Harleys. A turning point came with a Hell’s Angels party that descended into a violent melee. A friend died.

“I thought, ‘This isn’t what I want to be involved in,’ ” she said in a phone interview from her Oakland home.

She returned to school, making up high school credits, and was accepted into U.C. Berkeley, where she gorged on math and science classes.

Lang Day earned master’s degrees in English and creative writing, and a Ph.D. in science and education. She traveled to Israel to study Hebrew at Tel Aviv University, with plenty of boyfriends and three marriages along the way.

She had converted to Judaism to marry the first of two Jewish husbands, the second of whom proved her lasting love. But long before, she had fallen in love with the faith, she said. “I’ve always been drawn to Judaism, from way before I converted,” she said. “Now it is an integral part of my life. It’s given a spiritual core to our family.”

It has also infused her writing — especially her poetry.

Lang Day’s poems are included in such anthologies as Voices Within the Ark: The Modern Jewish Poets (1980), From the Well of Living Waters: Voices of a 21st Century Synagogue (Kehilla Community Synagogue, 2011), and The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry (forthcoming this year).

Winners of the 32nd annual Northern California Book Awards will be announced at an event 1 p.m. Sunday, May 19, at the San Francisco Main Library.

She wrote her memoir in part to smash negative stereotypes — “that juvenile delinquents have no future, young criminals become adult criminals.” She had no qualms about baring the sorry facts of her early adolescence.

Colleagues have praised her courage in doing so, which she shrugged off.

“I didn’t understand what was courageous about it,” she said. “We all make mistakes. We all do things we wish we could do over differently.”

She was stung by a string of angry posts, blasting her poor judgments as a teen.

“They have confused me as a 12-year-old juvenile delinquent with who I am today,” she said. “Some of it, yes, has been very hurtful.”

Once she was hell-bent on chasing after self-defeating decisions, there was not much her parents could have done to stop her, she said. “They would have to have started earlier.”

In retrospect, Lang Day thinks outside activities — dance, music or art lessons, or sports — could have bolstered her confidence and provided an outlet. “The arts offer a great opportunity to be rebellious,” she said.

Other advice for  troubled young souls? “It helps to have adults who are not their parents who they can talk to,” she said. “Someone to whom they can say ‘I hate my mother,’ and who instead of saying, ‘That’s awful!’ will say ‘Hmm, tell me more’ or ‘I used to hate my mother, too.’ ”

 

“Married at Fourteen” by Lucille Lang Day (336 pages, Heyday, $16.95)

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.