Rowena Harper is a rich, spoiled, and emotionally disturbed young mother who can’t cope with the problems of raising her child. That’s why….
I mentioned this title in passing in the review for Willo Davis Roberts’s Don’t Hurt Laurie, but I think this was the more popular of the two treatments of the subject, released concurrently with the CBS TV-movie (Wikipedia states that this “novel” is actually a novelization of the teleplay, in disguise as an original novel).
Both books treat the then-emerging problem of child abuse, appearing within a decade of the founding of Parents Anonymous, a 12-step self-help group designed to educate and support parents in preventing abuse.
I feel like Parents Anonymous had a pretty high profile in the 80s, but we don’t really hear much about it anymore- and I had forgotten that this book is basically a Public Service Announcement for the organization.
What did I remember about reading this book as an actual YA? Mostly the streetwise, crusading young Italian-American pediatrician who makes a rude gesture at her superior when he won’t initiate a case with Child Protective Services when our titular character is brought into the ER with a broken arm.
Mary Jane’s mother, Rowena Harper, is desperate to win back the affection of her estranged husband, Bill, and is introduced desperately trying to prepare 3-year-old Mary Jane (and the house and herself) for visitation with him.
“Oh God, I left a cigarette burning. I told him I stopped. Stay right there Mary Jane.”
Bill wouldn’t suspect if he couldn’t see the evidence. Or smell it- she spritzed the room lavishly with spray deodorizer.
[The house] was spotlessly clean, thanks to Daddy. The new maid he sent to clean every day took care of the clutter of magazines and dirty glasses which offended Bill so much.
God, how she wanted him back. This separation was destroying her. Now he would see how competently she was keeping the house and how fit she was keeping herself.
But by the time Bill finally arrives, Mary Jane has slipped out into the yard in pursuit of a neighborhood cat, muddying her perfect outfit.
Mary Jane began to cry softly. Rowena looked at Bill, and she saw his face twist up into that expression she hated, that expression of accusation and disgust which he had seemed to wear more or less continually during the last six months of their marriage.
There was no mistaking the tremor of anger in Bill’s voice. “I told you what time I would be here. I told you to have her ready.”
Bill stomps out of the house, leaving Rowena staring helplessly after him.
The scene next shifts to Santa Carla General Hospital, where the latest admittance to pediatrics isn’t quite passing the smell test for Dr. Angela Buccieri, “full-blooded Italian, born and reared in Brooklyn, New York.”
Her patient, Mary Jane Harper, arrived with a broken arm, but after it has been set Dr. Buccieri gives the little girl an examination and finds a series of cigarette burns on her back and buttocks. After a narrative pause in which she contemplates all of the myths and statistics about the kind of patents who commit child abuse, she springs into action.
When she seeks a full-body x-ray to check Mary Jane for old injuries, she is met with contempt by the department head, Dr. Helgerson, who questions her training at St. Anthony’s in BROOKLYN:
“That’s a ghetto area, is it not?”
When Dr. Buccieri mentions the name of the family, it is revealed that Helgerson is a golfing buddy of Rowena’s father, and know that a young woman from such fine stock could not possibly be beating her child.
Dr. Angela Buccieri of the ghetto area of BROOKLYN, remains unmoved:
So what? He was wrong and she was right. To punctuate her feelings, she dragged her thumbnail across her front teeth- that universally crude Italian street gesture popular even in Shakespeare’s day.
Next we’re introduced to Dave Williams, the specifically Black, specifically suburban, CPS caseworker and his whole family history growing up middle class in Pasadena (um, some of his bio seems cribbed from the original incarnation of Virgil Tibbs) and how he was inspired to pursue social work after just randomly driving into the 1965 Watts riots.
But when he arrives at his office, he finds Dr. Angela “BROOKLYN” Buccieri waiting for him, on a clandestine mission. Once again, they recount the many ways the abusive parents don’t fit preconceived notions.
He agrees to pay a visit to the Harper home, where he explains he’s just following up on Mary Jane’s accident, and finding everything apparently fine, leaves a card with contact info for Parents Anonymous.
Dave’s next stop is to find Bill his place of employment, a prosperous dry-cleaning chain owned by his father. The Harpers hate their daughter-in-law, who they think Bojo’d their son out of a football scholarship and his entire future.
Mr. Harper directs Dave to the local high school, where Dave apparently goes for lunch everyday to relive his days as a sports star. Even Dave is taken aback by how little Bill seems to care about his daughter’s welfare, sneering that he’s only “maybe” her father.
Meanwhile. Rowena is shaken up that CPS is onto her, and hastily leaves Mary Jane with the maid, fleeing back to her family mansion, ice-cold mother and overly indulgent father.
She tells him about her visit with CPS and that Dave suggested Parents Anonymous, and saying that she wants to talk to someone, (she still feels the need to get permission from her father to do anything) but her father waves away the very suggestion, letting complete strangers in on their personal business? Instead, he promises to take her on vacation to Florida, just the two of them, and makes a call to his buddy Dr. Helgerson to get this all cleared up.
More and more Rowena is emerging as a genuinely tragic character, including a flashback to when her 10th birthday was cancelled so her father could dedicate a statue of Santa Carla’s Pioneer Families in his own honor.
Helgerson has figured out that it was BROOKLYN that reported the case to CPS and announces her contract won’t be renewed at Santa Carla General. But Dave continues to pursue the case, attempting to interview Rowena’s maid and neighbors, to no avail.
Meanwhile, Rowena is coming apart, including drinking more and more. When she calls Bill and finds him entertaining a date at his new place, she is finally desperate enough to flee to the address on the card Dave gave her. Unfortunately, she leaves Mary Jane alone in her crib and a cigarette burning in the ashtray:
It took exactly two minutes and forty-nine seconds for Rowena’s 120-millimeter cigarette to burn halfway. Then the center of gravity shifted, and the cigarette titled the other way, onto the tabletop.
Of course, Rowena has to pay for seeking help for herself, and the house practically burns to the ground around Mary Jane, who ends up in Brooklyn Buccieri’s ward yet again. Rowena is arrested for leaving her child alone, and Dr. Helgerson is finally convinced to order those x-rays, BUT, in a very weird scene the radiologist is on the phone with his bookie when the images come in and there is this whole mix up with the files.
Through her father’s influence, (and the x-rays going missing) the judge at Rowena’s family court hearing orders a continuance and returns custody of Mary Jane to Rowena, who is now seeing the best psychiatrist money can buy. Bill, of course, has taken an open-ended vacation to Mexico until the whole things blows over.
The psychiatrist is pretty awful, shoving Rowena out the door when she emotionally recounts how her mother locked her in a rat-filled closet after walking in on her father molesting her as a child.
Meanwhile Mary Jane’s missing x-rays have been located and Dr. Helgerson is shocked to see evidence of a number of old injuries.
Clearly in the midst of a psychotic break, Rowena decides to take Mary Jane and go off in search of Bill, but only gets as far as a motel an hour out of town, where she manages to get a call through to the Parents Anonymous group leader, who recognizes a crisis when she hears one.
With the help of a concerned citizen who reported Rowena’s reckless driving to the Highway Patrol, Dave races to the scene, only to find…
Cut to the family court judge, as he prepares to dismiss the case against Rowena when his secretary gets a call and informs him:
“Mary Jane Harper died last night.”
While I remember seeing this title on Suggested Reading Lists and my high school library had stacks of copies 20 years after it was published… there’s not much that is actually YA-y about it, including no teenage characters.
The accompanying TV movie featured Susan Dey (Laurie Partridge herself!) as Rowena, and the formidable pairing of Kevin McCarthy and Priscilla Pointer as her terrible parents, plus Rhea Perlman as the Parents Anonymous group leader.