Susan Sheehan, Life For Me Ain't Been No Crystal Stair: One Family's Passage Through the Child Welfare System (Pantheon, 1993)
Reissued in paperback by Vintage in 1994.
Susan Sheehan woke up one morning with the idea of writing about foster care. Several years later, she published this poignant and harrowing portrait of a problematic system that is the last hope for many. Using spare, dignified language, she guides her readers through one family's experience with this bureaucracy that counter-intuitively saves the lives of both parent and child by tearing them apart.
Sheehan observes the life of Crystal Taylor, a young mother caught in the second of three generations of foster children. Taylor's big smile and bigger story illuminates the broad picture of a system that has the potential to give both children and parents a chance for survival where there once was none.
When Life for Me Ain't Been No Crystal Stair was published, several critics took issue with Sheehan's bare-bones writing style and her hesitation to level criticism at the faulty system. Both The New York Times and the Washington Post thought her prose sounds more like a social worker's case study than advocacy through a narrative. In the Post, Richard Rodriguez pilloried the book's "implicit moral failure, the author's refusal of a point of view." In response to this criticism, Sheehan said, "I do have a point of view and most readers will not fail to see it."
Sheehan's style is to let her subjects speak for themselves; she chooses key quotes from her cast of characters to illustrate her points rather than writing passages to advocate her own opinions. In the foreword for A Welfare Mother, published in 1988, Michael Harrington wrote, "Her subject matter speaks volumes for itself, and without a single word of editorializing she communicates a basic message." Later, he says, "I am profoundly impressed in this case by the tactic of letting the lives of the poor preach the sermon."
Sheehan won the 1983 Pulitzer for her book about schizophrenia, Is There No Place on Earth for Me?, and most recently co-authored a book about distinctive personalities, The Banana Sculptor, the Purple Lady, and the All-Night Swimmer: Hobbies, Collecting, and Other Passionate Pursuits. She is a staff reporter at the New Yorker, where portions of Life for Me Ain't No Crystal Stair first appeared.
Citizens' Committee for Children of New York
Child Welfare League of America
New York City Administration for Children's Services