Study Guide

The Rules of Survival Freedom and Confinement

By Nancy Werlin

Freedom and Confinement

However, it was a date night for our mother—Saturday—so we'd been locked in.

"I want my kiddies safe," Nikki had said.

Not that they key mattered. Once Callie and I heart you snoring—a soft little sound that was almost like a sigh—we slipped out a window onto the back deck, climbed down the fire escape, and went one block over to the Cumberland Farms store. (1.3-5)

Living with Nikki isn't like your typical parental situation. Instead of making sure that her kids have a babysitter on her nights out, she just locks them in and tells them not to leave. Is it that she trusts them, or that she just doesn't care?

[…] I was thinking that in a year—year and a half—I could maybe go out by myself and trust Callie with you. Even if I could only do that once in a while, it would really help. (1.13)

Even though Nikki is gone for stretches at a time, Matthew can't go off and do fun things like other teenagers. Instead, he's chained to the house because of his two younger siblings, staying behind to make sure that they're safe.

And all at once, we were on the wrong side of the road, heading directly into oncoming traffic. Headlights glared straight into my eyes.

"Tell me you love me best," our mother said. Her voice was once more calm, and her hands on the wheel of the car were steady. "Convince me, Matthew." (12.37-38)

Talk about holding someone hostage. Instead of simply asking her kids if they love her, Nikki puts them directly in danger's way so that they'll profess their undying love to her… or die.

There had barely been time to scramble into the clothes Nikki had picked out for us before we felt her hands at our backs, literally pushing. And then the apartment door slammed behind us, the dead bolt clicked audibly into place on the other side, and we were left on the inner stairs, with nothing to do but step down, down, down. (21.5)

When Nikki doesn't want her kids around, she simply pushes them outside and locks them out of their own home. She doesn't care where they go or what they do; she just wants the whole place to herself.

Property. My mind lingered on that word. Property. Yes, that was the truth: We were Nikki's property. We were—I looked down at my book about the Civil War—we were like her slaves. She owned us. The whip could come smashing down at any time, and there was nothing we could do about it except try to dodge; try to take care of each other. (26.12)

Nikki doesn't treat her kids like they are autonomous human beings, but instead like they all belong to her. If they do something that she doesn't like, she can punish them in any way she sees fit. That doesn't seem like real love.

Some slaves had run away. If I'd been on my own, I realized, I might have done that. (26.13)

Poor Matthew is trapped in his life and in this apartment with his crazy mother. Even though he's old enough to run away and perhaps make it on his own, he just can't. He has his siblings to think of.

"That's right," I said. "I have nowhere else to go."

There was a long, long pause. Then Nikki said, "Make sure you understand that, Matthew. Make sure you really understand it." (30.42-43)

Nikki doesn't want her kids to feel like they're free and have choices in life. Instead, she prefers that they feel as boxed in as possible. That way, they'll fully understand that it's her way or the highway.

Maybe someday… maybe soon… what a luxury it would be, I thought, to be able to focus on flirting with a girl. (34.2)

Matthew just wants the freedom to do normal high school student things, instead of worrying about surviving all the time. He'd like to hang out with friends and flirt with girls. Is that too much to ask?

The college kids who rented the first-floor apartment had all left for the holidays, and so we felt completely free in that house in a way we never had before. There was lots of running up and down the stairs, and lots of shouting up and down, too. (35.3)

Ironically, the kids feel at their most free whenever Nikki is locked up in jail. They can run around the house with Aunt Bobbie and Ben—who are actually nice adults—and just act like kids.

The rest of the winter passed. You and Callie and I lived like hostages in enemy territory. Aunt Bobbie and Ben plotted strategy with Murdoch, and kept watch. And Murdoch was literally besieged—followed, watched, and randomly attacked. (37.1)

Living with Nikki after he's already betrayed her—by providing Murdoch with an alibi—is basically like living in a war zone. She is their violent, punitive captor, and the kids have to do everything they can to stay out of her way.