Study Guide

The Rules of Survival Family

By Nancy Werlin


As I write this, you are nine years old, too young to be told the full and true story of our family's past, let alone be exposed to my philosophizing about what it all meant. (P.1)

Even though Emmy has lived through the same events as her older siblings, she doesn't really know what their family life was like when she was a tiny tot. Matthew's writing it all down… perhaps so that she'll never get nostalgic and miss their mother.

And frankly, we kids were trying hard, too. We covered up for her, and we also did our best to surround Murdoch with appreciation and, well, love. We wanted him to want to be with us. We wanted him to want us. (9.3)

Murdoch is just some guy off the street, but the Walsh kids have pinned all their hopes and dreams on him. If they can just get him to be a part of their family, maybe everything will be okay.

I had never asked him directly before to take us all away. To keep that $1,800 and use it so we could all be together, away from Nikki. I could help a lot, I thought. It wouldn't be like I was asking Ben to take care of three small children by himself. (13.21)

Ben may dutifully send in his child support check every month, but he hasn't been a very active father in the kids' lives. Maybe he should step it up and start protecting them… or at least seeing them occasionally.

And if one day I meet a girl, I will take her home to meet Aunt Bobbie. I will explain how Aunt Bobbie took us in and sort of saved our lives. And Aunt Bobbie will glow, the way she does when you introduce her casually to your friends from school: Aunt Bobbie's my aunt, but she's also my mother. (22.2)

All of the kids have pretty much disowned Nikki as their maternal figure. Now Aunt Bobbie is the one that they refer to as their "real" mother because she actually acts the part.

He shrugged. "No. I am. Matthew, I haven't been much of a father to you. Or Callie. Don't think I don't know it. I just—I didn't know what to do." (33.33)

At least Ben realizes that he's been a no-show of a father. It's a little late in the game (after all, his two kids are teenagers now), but it's good that he's stepping up and taking responsibility. It's the least he could do.

It was Ben, hauling a Christmas tree, a five-footer. "Hi Matt." He smiled, even though behind the smile he looked a little nervous. "Bobbie told me it was okay to come over." (35.4)

Christmastime is for families, and all the Walsh kids are thrilled that Nikki won't be around this Christmas—because it's not like she's a kind and loving family member. It's better to just have her far, far away from them during this special time of year.

And I watched Aunt Bobbie smooth your hair from time to time.

All at once there were possibilities in our little world, and they were near enough to smell and touch. (35.22-23)

Emmy's never grown up with a healthy attachment to her mother, Nikki, but now it looks like she'll have a chance to bond with a real maternal figure. Aunt Bobbie seems suddenly willing to step into that role and to protect the kids like a strong mama bear.

I had not known Ben could sing, but he had a nice voice. Aunt Bobbie croaked like a frog. We all laughed at her, and she said, "I can't help it!" and sang even louder, to punish us.

This was our real family, at Christmastime. (25.25-26)

When Matthew thinks back on charming family memories, he doesn't allow Nikki to be a part of it. She may be his biological mother, but she isn't a part of his "real" family—that family is made up of the people who actually care about his best interests.

While Nikki served her time, Aunt Bobbie and Ben were busy making plans for us, figuring things out for the future. It felt odd to have these two adults taking charge, when always before I had been so alone. (40.1)

All this time, Matthew has had to take on the role of the adult protector for his younger siblings, even though he's still a kid. It's weird to suddenly relinquish his parental role to adults who are more suited to taking care of a bunch of kids.

I am leaving Callie behind too, of course. In some ways this feels less important than leaving you, because Callie has made her home with Ben these past years. But in others, it's huge, because she is still Callie, still my partner. We spent all those years knowing, at a glance, what the other was thinking or feeling. (52.5)

Callie and Matthew don't even live in the same house anymore, but that doesn't mean that they're not partners in crime and close siblings. They went through some super bad times together, and they'll never forget that.