“I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth, the pink kind you get at Dairy Queen.”
Adversity as Environment
Tales of an Inland Empire Girl is a memoir told in a series of snapshots of growing up in the IE in Southern California, an area that wealthier, coastal Californians often deride. It’s the story of loving but dysfunctional parents, of being one of a pair of ‘Wonder Twins’ who use their superpowers to defeat the forces of disruption and poverty. However, the author’s journey to successful lawyer and finally to punk rock deputy public defender progresses along a convoluted path, one that backtracks in her high school years.
Much of Mantz’s memoir focuses on the obstacles she has to overcome as a child and then adolescent, so it’s a positive book for teen readers, some of whom may be contending with similar issues. Her love of punk rock helps her to get through some of her worst moments and encourages her to restart her life when it seems she will be little more than a high school dropout.
Mantz grows up in the IE city of Ontario, in the poorer south side, with an identical twin and a younger sister. Of this she says, “Ontario is known as the apex of the Inland Empire (“the IE”), which is like being called King Shit on Turd Island.”
Love and Dysfunction
Her parents are hardworking, but deeply stressed. “Mom is like two different characters. If this were a fairy tale, she would play both roles, the wicked stepmother and the fairy godmother.” Her mom is frequently screaming at her kids or her husband, whom she sometimes threatens to leave. None of this is without cause. Her husband is an alcoholic. Her oldest child, a boy who was deaf, was hit by a car and killed years earlier. She works two jobs, is a waitress who is always on her feet. When she is gone, her kids, particularly the twins, create havoc. During one unsupervised afternoon, Mantz’ twin Jackie starts a fire, destroying the family’s best chair and the curtains their mother had saved for months to buy.
The poverty in their family is intergenerational. As a child, Mantz’s father lived in an orphanage for a few years because his parents didn’t have the money to raise him. And while her parents have their own house early on, they lose it when her father makes a bad investment in a dive bar. They move into a condo from which they are later evicted.
Even in kindergarten, Mantz wants to be called Lynda, after the actress Lynda Carter, who plays Wonder Woman and is half Mexican and half white, just as Mantz is. Both she and her twin sister roleplay ‘Wonder Twins.’ As they grow into adolescence, the twin Jackie will become the fighter. And while Jackie graduates from high school, Mantz sits under the bleachers and cries. Though she had been a very good student for most of her high school career, she lost interest.
By the time Mantz is a high school upperclassmen, she has come to the conclusion that ”what Mom doesn’t understand, and will never understand, is that if life means working and fighting and hating each other and then waking up every day to do it again, I don’t want any of it. I just want to dance and listen to music and have fun. … If a ‘life’ is what my parents have, I would rather be dead.” She ditches school, goes to keg parties, throws her own keger and causes her family to be evicted again. “The worst part is I never made a conscious decision to drop out. Instead, it was just one small decision after another that added up to me becoming a dropout. … I remember Mom saying there was no money for college. I had no idea about student loans. I just gave up. … It was easier to sleep all day than trying to make my way through the darkness.”
Love and Clarity
Fortunately, life is not all sad or depressing. There are good times in the Mantz family including a vacation to Flintstones Land, trips to Huntington Beach, lots of music and good books. There are also many of the kind of stories that aren’t funny at the time, but that the family can look back on and laugh about. And finally, there is Mantz’ realization that her own adult success and happiness are possible.
High School Housekeeping: Mantz went to high school at a campus where I was the teacher librarian in two stints totaling twenty-five years, so I was interested in her story. (She did not go to the school at the same time I worked there.) While this is an adult memoir (not classified as YA), so much of it is about a childhood in a loving but very dysfunctional family that it is a very good fit for teens. It’s hopeful and shows that even when one feels like a failure as a teen, a brighter future is entirely possible. I recently reviewed a chapbook Mantz wrote here. It details how she found her calling in life as a public defender and advocate for the mentally ill.