Without a Net a tale of homelessness, with kids

“Without a Net: Middle Class and Homeless (With Kids) in America: My Story,” by Michelle Kennedy; Viking; 212 pages; $23.95.

Michelle Kennedy tells a sad tale about living in her car, with her kids, for three months in the late 1990s. She worked nights as a waitress and, on her break, climbed into the back of her dilapidated Subaru wagon to read bedtime stories to Matt, Lydia and Alex, all under 5. Then, she tucked them in and asked the cooks, who could see the car from the kitchen door, to keep an eye on them.

No matter how much Kennedy saved – usually half her tips and meager salary each week – it often wasn’t enough for first and last months’ rent plus a security deposit. And when she did find a place she could afford in the tiny coastal town of Stone Harbor, Maine, landlords usually took one look at the brood and decided that four people – more specifically, three kids – were just too much for a one-bedroom apartment.

Kennedy’s book grew out of a narrative she wrote for Salon.com. People were outraged that a middle-class woman, who had been a student at American University, a U.S. Senate page and came from a solid family, could end up like this. And if she did, couldn’t anyone?

Well, maybe, if you make the kinds of decisions she did.

It starts after her freshman year in college. Her parents couldn’t afford private school tuition anymore. One of Kennedy’s options for getting financial aid was to be a married student. So she and her boyfriend, Tom, did just that. They lived in a Washington, D.C.-area apartment and she got pregnant quickly. And dropped out of school.

She writes of what she came to see as a suffocating life with her husband and the alternating joyous role as the mother of, soon, two children. After the third child arrived, Tom, longing for the simple life, moved the family to a cabin in the far north woods of Maine – a one-room home without running water or electricity.

She makes it through a brutal winter, and the 300 stitches Lydia needs after one of the family dogs attacked her while Tom was supposed to be watching her. That was it for Kennedy. She leaves him, packing the kids and a few belongings in a beat-up car to chase the dream of the life she’s put on hold. She lands about 40 miles from her parents’ home, on the southern coast of Maine.

Reality hits quickly. She can’t support herself and three kids. Tom’s no help. But her parents could be, if she told them she and the kids were homeless. But she doesn’t want to look like a failure to her dad again, can’t ask her mother for any more money, doesn’t want to move back in with her family, including two teenage sisters, because life would just be too hard on everyone. She acknowledges being too proud, worries that she’s being selfish. And as she recounts the days and nights she – and her children – endure, you don’t argue with her.

No question, Kennedy’s story is a look at life in homeless families, the goodness of all those who helped her, a social service system that worked against her, and triumph over the odds.

She was middle class and homeless, with kids, in America. But she did have a net and three little children who counted on her to put their needs before hers.

– Jane Clifford

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“My Life in Orange: Growing Up With the Guru,” by Tim Guest; Harcourt; 301 pages; $14.

In the Ben Affleck movie “Surviving Christmas,” a hurried therapist trying to get through an airport security line tells a whiny Affleck to write down his grievances with his family and then burn them.

I wish somebody had given Tim Guest the same advice.

Guest’s new book, “My Life in Orange,” is a fascinating concept: English writer tells all about growing up in a bizarre cultic group led by an Indian mystic who preached free love from a dentist’s chair and drove around his communes in a collection of Rolls-Royces.

Americans should be particularly intrigued, since this is the same guru whose clan nearly took over The Dalles, Ore., in the 1980s, leaving a legacy of bioterrorism that still gives townspeople the creeps.

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and thousands of his orange-clad followers moved into a ranch outside of the small community about 80 miles east of Portland and began to build their own city – complete with police, a cache of weapons and bused-in homeless people. Tense relations between the townspeople and the Rajneeshpuram came to a head in 1984, when followers poisoned salad bars at 10 restaurants with salmonella and sickened 750 residents. Apparently, the swamis and mas, as the men and women of the commune were known, wanted to keep voters from going to the polls in hopes that their own candidates would win in the county elections.

In 1985, the ranch collapsed, and most of the followers fled back to Europe and India. The Bhagwan died in India in 1990.

With that backdrop, the allure of “My Life in Orange” is a strong one. But the book doesn’t deliver. The jacket tells us that “Tim Guest chronicles the heartbreaking experience of being left alone on earth while his mother hunted heaven.”

Well, not exactly.

Instead of a meaningful documentary of the theology and the attraction of this eccentric, ad hoc religious movement, Guest’s pages sound too much like a whining anthology of a lonely little boy. At the risk of sounding harsh, the revelation of having to share your toys with other children does not exactly make a captivating read.

The children were generally segregated in their own dormitory in the guru’s communes in India, Europe and Oregon, yet his mother was, for the most part, still around. The children apparently didn’t go hungry, weren’t physically abused and pretty much did as they pleased. I couldn’t help but compare it to a boarding school experience.

There is no denying Guest’s loneliness. Readers will certainly feel sympathy for a child whose parents were too self-absorbed to realize that they were the adults, he was their son and family was more than just a hug and wave goodbye now and then.

“As time went by, we kids settled on each other as the source of the comfort we needed,” Guest writes in one of his more poignant passages. “In the dormitories at night we borrowed each other’s blankets; there was a lively trade in stolen soft toys. The older girls tucked the younger kids into bed. Some of the older boys started to get girlfriends, and their beds were swapped in the middle of the night.”

But the book never quite gets beyond his own struggles. It reads too much like a list of personal grievances that ought to have been burned, rather than an insider’s perspective about spirituality that became twisted and criminal.

What did they believe in? Who was behind the poisonings? What made the Bhagwan tick? That’s the real meat. But this book serves up mostly sour grapes.

Granted, Guest nibbles around the edges, especially in recounting his mother’s history. But when he tries to dig deeper, it’s as if he’s getting the information from the same news clippings that you or I could read on our own.

Perhaps he was simply too young when all this happened to him – plus he only got to see the guru a couple times from afar, which isn’t exactly “growing up” with him. His mother joined when Guest was 4 years old and he left on his own when he was 10.

As he tells it, he simply decided he’d had enough of group living and went to stay with his father in San Jose, Calif. That anticlimactic departure is a metaphor for the book.

Eventually, he and his mother reunited, but by then you probably won’t really care.

“Surviving Christmas” wasn’t a particularly good movie. “Growing Up Orange” isn’t a particularly interesting book. But the advice works for both. It’s not all about you. And when you make it to be, you leave your audience wanting a whole lot more.