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Home » Culture and Criticism

TN Read-Along #17: And I Don’t Want To Live This Life Discussion Thread

Submitted by on February 26, 2013 – 3:28 PM10 Comments

Alas, I can’t do a live chat after all; so sorry! Deadlines have intruded, as they tend to do.

I did finish And I Don’t Want To Live This Life, though, and I really felt for Deborah Spungen. At times, I thought that she might have tried a different disciplinary track — send the other two kids away for a week and just spend the time absolutely ignoring any of Nancy’s destructive actions until she learned that it’s positive attention or nothing — but when she says on page 54, “Was it really worth enduring a major tantrum just because she wanted to watch a different show on TV than Suzy did? It wasn’t — believe me it wasn’t, not day in and day out,” I totally got it. Sometimes you just want everyone to STFU. And who knows if a different discipline style would have worked anyway. It seems clear that something went seriously wrong inside Nancy’s skull at some point, and behavioral techniques won’t really touch that.

Overall, I enjoyed the book as an experience; Spungen effectively wears down the reader on the subject of Nancy, makes you really feel the exhaustion and hopelessness that comes with having to manage a child like her — at a time when even those experts who understood what might be wrong had no resources to offer you. Her description of her affair is also good, properly flat; she doesn’t apologize for needing to step out of her life every now and then. The book holds up despite still taking it as gospel that Sid Vicious killed Nancy, which I believe is no longer the received wisdom here.

But Spungen herself can be a bit difficult to relate to at times. At the end of the book, when she writes so sadly about the distance between her and Suzy, I had to roll my eyes. What did she expect? Nancy’s siblings probably have PTSD, never mind resenting you and Frank for devoting 85% of your attention to Nancy, much as they may have understood intellectually that you had little choice. Suzy probably would have put you at arm’s length sooner if she weren’t so busy constantly cleaning up after the latest tornado. And some of the “my baby, my baby” upon Nancy’s death left me cold as well, not because I can’t relate to losing a child — obviously I can’t — but because the good qualities of Nancy’s that Spungen repeats more frequently at the end, almost like a mantra, we haven’t really seen. She admits at some point that she’s mourning the daughter who never was, so from a humanity standpoint, I sympathized, but from a reading standpoint, especially at that point in the narrative, I was merely exhausted.

What did you guys think? Were you annoyed at Spungen, or at Nancy, or both? Did you gasp that an apartment could be had in Chelsea for $200 a month? Did the prim references to “rock concerts” give you a snicker? Did you notice that she referred to Johnny Rotten as “Johnny Lyman”? Discuss!




  • Rachel says:

    The #1 thing that has stuck with me all these years is that Deborah more or less says that she is pretty sure Nancy ASKED Sid to kill her, yet she still starts that Parents of Murdered Children support group. That always, always struck me as incredibly odd, even though I can’t really judge how she wants to handle her grief. That was/is so so weird to me.

    I first read this when I was 15, so in 1990 sometime. At the time, I was smack in the middle of my “punk phase” and there was a certain glamour to all of this. The story of Sid and Nancy was a romance, then.

    Now… yeeeesh.

    I always wonder why the Spungens had more kids. After getting one like Nancy, why in the hell would you EVER spin that wheel again? Twice, even? I wonder if Nancy would have been better served had she been an only child. I wonder if the types of drugs we have now would have helped. I wonder so many things.

    I wonder what John Lydon thinks of all of this now. I will have to dig and see if there are interviews that touch this subject, but I’m thinking probably not. I wonder what he truly thought about it then.

    Most of all, I wonder what Nancy would be like now, if she’d managed to overcome her addictions and her… self, I guess you could say. I wonder what she’d be like if she had managed to grow up.

  • RobinP says:

    I also read this back in the day, and I really wasn’t sure I could get through it again. I’m glad I did, though. The writing definitely veers toward melodramatic and cliched at times, but overall it’s still pretty readable and holds up better than I was expecting.

    I also used to find Nancy kind of glamorous and sexy. Now she just makes me sad. I found myself trying to diagnose her the whole time I was reading, and I am totally unqualified to do so, but you can’t help but wonder what modern psychiatric treatment could have done for her.

    As for Deborah, I feel badly for her, but man did she try my patience. I’m sure Nancy was exhausting to live with, but you just can’t parent like that. She never really set boundaries for Nancy; she just let her rule the entire family. For some reason it really bothered me when she let Nancy take Suzy’s pen. Complete lack of control. And, like Sars said, then she’s surprised that her other kids are angry and bitter? Yikes.

    Deb also seems really eager to assign blame in other quarters. This doctor failed her this way, that one failed her in another. By the time the morgue people were mean to her, I sort of saw it coming. Of course they were, Deb.

    It’s just a really sad book.

  • Lore says:

    It’s funny–a friend of mine read this when it first came out, and his recollection of it is that it was pretty focused on blaming the media and not acknowledging underlying family or mental health issues at all. Now, of course, he was a teenager himself, but I wonder if it was revised for subsequent editions at all?

    In any case–I very much agree with Robin. It’s sad, and frustrating, and exhausting. I’m not sure any parental strategy would have successfully addressed what seems to have been a genuine underlying mental illness or neurological disorder that never got treated: those fugue states, for example, and some of the more extreme rages, sound to my inexpert-but-with-a-certain-amount-of-experience-with-mentally-ill-people self more biochemical than something approachable with parental strategy. But nonetheless, the constant cycle of trying some sort of intervention, but not really following through with it or seemingly explaining to the other children how it was meant to help or how it had fallen through, seems to have produced the worst possible result.

  • Rachel says:

    Nobody else wants to talk about it? Sad face.

    Is there a modern-day analog to Nancy? Amy Winehouse, maybe. Pete Doherty, definitely except for the fact that he’s still alive because he might be an alien.

    Do groupies (of that nature) even exist anymore? I’m sure there are plenty of ‘backstage girls’ and all that, but I can’t think of another Nancy-style person off the top of my head. That’s a good thing. I can’t imagine a whole group of girls like Nancy running around – that ecosystem is not sustainable.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @Rachel, interesting question. The days of groupie as cottage industry (e.g., Des Barres) are definitely over, probably because now those women would start their own bands instead. The closest contemporary analog might be Courtney Love? Which seems too obvious, and also 1) she’s still alive, somehow and 2) she had her own thing with Hole. I don’t really know enough about music/pop history to say.

  • Shannon says:

    I liked this book because I’m fascinated with Nancy, but a lot of things about it bothered me. Deb seemed preoccupied with “keeping up with the Jones” and worrying about what other people thought. She gave Nancy absolutely no discipline. Her pubishments were ridiculous. She blames her affair on Nancy. She blames, well, everything on Nancy. I wonder if she ever sat down and really asked Nancy why she was in so much pain. I know they had to walk on eggshells around her, but I got the impression they kind of shunned/resented her for not being a typical suburban girl. She never really mentioned any positive qualities about Nancy. She seemed very bitter in her writing at the mental health system, and rightfully so. I do think they could’ve handled her behavior better, though.

  • Rachel says:

    @Shannon – I agree with all your points. However, Nancy was born in 1957, and that’s 18 years before I arrived but I’d hazard a guess that the parenting style of the early 60’s was radically different from what the babies of the 70’s experienced. And goodness knows, the way I’m raising my little maniac is nowhere near the same way my parents raised me, so.

    I just don’t think they had the tools, emotional or otherwise, to deal with this situation, and they didn’t know how to ask. There’s a bit in the beginning where Deborah talks about how she envisioned Nancy’s bat mitzvah and her wedding and how she had to mourn that those things would never come to pass and I think she held on to this ideal waaaaaay too long and tried to parent the kid she wanted instead of the kid she actually had.

    I can see how that would cause Deborah to be incredibly bitter (and she does come off as bitter, 90% of the time). She just doesn’t know how to deal.

  • Meredith says:

    Just finished the book and can’t stop thinking about it. What’s most mystifying to me (and I’m an MSW who worked in the mental health system for years) is how Nancy functioned so well at that one school for a while. From what we’re given about her, that shouldn’t have been possible. What was that nice couple trying with her that was so successful? I’d love to hear their take on it.

  • Donna says:

    Meredith, that was my thought exactly. In my mind, her success for that short time and in those circumstances shows that not all of her behavior was beyond control. It sounds like she really thrived under positive attention. I’m sure she still would have had episodes, but it seems that was the only time in her life that someone was giving her what she needed emotionally. After that, she was pretty much left to fend for herself in dirty and underfunded institutions where nobody seemed to pay attention to the kids at all.

    I also agree that Deborah seemed like a drama queen who wanted to make sure everybody knew this wasn’t her fault.

  • reader says:

    This is a really old post so I’m not sure if you’ll still read comments, but, here’s some tl;dr…

    Just finished this book and in response to Rachel, I don’t see anything odd about Debbie starting a chapter for Parents of Murdered Children in Philly, whether Nancy was asking for it or not. Just because she was suicidal already, doesn’t mean Sid Vicious didn’t kill her kid.

    I think, having read the comments here, that the sentiments against Deborah are out of line and are probably stemming from people who are fans of the music (Hell, I know I am) and are letting that bias affect the way they view Deborah. Yeah, she does seem judgmental, bitter, old fashioned, and a little selfish. But…you can’t really blame her either. I grew up with a bipolar sibling. While my sister didn’t have shark nightmares, the way she acted was very similar to Nancy at times, especially in the way she tried to have influence over the rest of us. I know what it’s like when someone who is super toxic can try to manipulate the family environment in their favor. I even know what it’s like when they leave or move out and you kind of rejoice in that fact.

    Yes, the writing was a little bit informal and emotional. But that’s kind of to be expected. I don’t think Deborah was necessarily a drama queen, though I definitely agree that when she blamed her kid for the affair, that was messed up and I didn’t understand it (She seems to take ownership later on). But that doesn’t mean Nancy wasn’t manipulative when she wanted to be. Or that, in her defense, the system wasn’t screwed up and that psychiatry wasn’t screwed up at the time either. Medicine has come a loooooong way, people. On that note, completely understood her comments about the media. They spun the story in the most misogynistic way possible that also blamed the victim. You wouldn’t imagine anyone getting away with that now, but the idea of Nancy being seen as a promiscuous druggie was so openly accepted by everyone as a valid reason for her dying. That is kind of sick and speaks a lot about societal values back then. A woman’s life clearly mattered less than the career of a rock star with no talent.

    For what’s it worth, Suzy did kind of piss me off when she got mad at Deborah for wanting to move out of “the palace”. Her reasoning made no sense to me, given that Suzy didn’t live there and in Nancy’s last months, neither did Nancy. Why would anyone care what Nancy wanted if she was dead?

    @Donna, while I get what you’re saying, the bigger problem here was that no one wanted to acknowledge what was really wrong with her. Not the doctors, nor the institutes where Nancy went to school. I don’t know if that multivitamin treatment that that Doctor was peddling would have helped, but he was the only one who was ever blunt with her family with what was up, and he never promised them a cure all. It seemed like he really could have helped them but the system definitely screwed her up, and at times, for seemingly intentional, financial reasons that only benefited them and not Nancy’s well being. It really blew my mind how badly the medical community failed Nancy and yet, no one wanted to acknowledge the real problem. It was easier to say it was the parents who were at fault (very freudian of them to do so, anyway) then to acknowledge that they had no way of treating her daughter. They basically took her money like a blind fool. I was left wondering at times why Deborah didn’t pursue a lawsuit against that psychologist for malpractice. She had ample opportunities but it was the ignorance of the time period, I guess…

    Reading this book, the biggest revelation to me was that over the years, I’ve heard that Nancy was very bright and had a super high IQ and while I’m not doubting that now, it seems like those were statements that were also made by doctors to Deborah so that they could to blow smoke up her ass and send her on her way. They knew her kid had schizophrenia but denied telling her for years. Part of me wondered if they knew even earlier on and could detect it when Nancy talked about her hallucinations at the age of 4, but basically couldn’t save her because medicine at the time wasn’t advanced enough. So they just told her to take her home and “love her”. Even Nancy graduating High School early was the system’s way of copping out on her early because she was deemed more trouble than she was worth. It was so heartbreaking how everyone in her life wanted to be clean of her and just send her on her way packing so that she can go give someone else a headache.

    Even though Nancy was clearly disturbed, I felt a lot of compassion for Nancy, especially towards later chapters. That last conversation she had with her mother sent chills down my spine. I wish Debbie had it in her to call on her during her last moments. In Nancy’s time gone from the house, she seemed like she became soft, protective of her family. She was broken, but she definitely didn’t get that way on her own.

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