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The 10 Best Addiction Memoirs

Books about addiction and recovery are among the fastest growing genres in publishing. From David Carr to Mary Karr, hundreds of authors publish addiction-related memoirs each year. The Fix salutes the best of the bunch.

  • The Infinitely Wise One

    For a book called Drinking: A Love Story, Caroline Knapp’s well-loved memoir of alcoholism is far less sentimental than its title would suggest. In fact, the extent to which her book avoids sentimentality—the emotion surest to alienate a reader if a memoir should fall victim to it—is what makes Drinking: A Love Story so successful. Certainly Knapp was infatuated with alcohol, as she explains while chronicling her journey using the extended metaphor of a love affair as a framework for the narrative. But the clear, essayistic voice, which favors exposition more than scene, puts Knapp squarely in control of the storytelling, and her prose is peppered with quotable, pithy wisdoms—many of which will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in AA, but her masterfully intimate style gives them new resonance. Knapp is a clever, analytical writer; she doesn’t bother trying to grip her reader with sensational action or ornate language; there are no horrific revelations of child abuse or confessions of drunken vehicular manslaughter to be found here. But like the lure of the drink that she loved so well, Knapp’s writing is quietly, sneakily seductive. 

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  • The Charismatic One With an Inferiority Complex

    Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man was released in 2010, well after the junkie memoir boom of the prior decade had already drawn to a close, but it still made a splash—due largely to Clegg’s high-profile role in the publishing world as a successful literary agent. The praise was not undeserved: Few books have captured the frantic desperation of addiction as well as Clegg’s does. And though he remains a relatively high-bottom addict—the binge on crack cocaine that the book documents lasted only a few months, and he spent it whittling away his substantial savings in a string of boutique hotels—Clegg writes in such graphic detail that it’s easy to imagine how broken he must have felt by the time he got clean again. Yet the best elements of the book are not the scenes meticulously detailing every element of the crack-smoking experience, but the ones that explore his feelings of insecurity as a young, dynamic arriviste in the glittering landscape of the New York literati, and his tortured relationship with his partner, Noah. Though his book may be a portrait of an addict, Clegg truly shines when he turns his lens to the world that the addict is tearing down. 

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  • The Conversion Story Masquerading as Addiction Memoir

    Mary Karr has been credited with launching the spate of confessional memoirs in the ‘90s with her now-seminal memoir, The Liars’ Club. The long-awaited book of her alcoholism, recovery, and subsequent conversion to Catholicism, Lit, is easily as mesmerizing as The Liars’ Club and its equally well-received follow-up, Cherry, even as it defies the conventional thematic unity of most addiction memoirs. The anecdotes that comprise much of Lit don’t always have a direct link to her alcoholism, but Karr’s facile melding of lyrical language with candid revelations result in prose of breathtaking self-awareness. What undergirds Lit is not, in fact, the alcoholism that paralyzed Karr for so many years (which, when compared to the scabrous material of many other addiction memoirs, is actually fairly tame), but the journey to faith that her alcoholism catalyzed. 

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  • The One That Was Actually a Diary

    It’s literary lore that The Basketball Diaries is actually adapted from Jim Carroll’s real teenage diaries, and while this could just be PR invention, it wouldn’t be too surprising if it were true. In droll, plainspoken prose, Carroll details the minutest detail of his troubled adolescence in New York City during the 1960s, putting the vernacular of the day to good use. The audacious frankness with which Carroll describes his experiences of falling into an escalating heroin addiction and going to great lengths to maintain his habit creates an implicit pact of trust with the reader, making The Basketball Diaries a masterpiece of intimacy that transcends its humble language. 

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  • The Bracingly Cerebral One

    Ann Marlowe would probably take umbrage with the inclusion of How to Stop Time: Heroin From A to Z on this list—it is more a book about the drug itself than addiction as a process—but it would be unfair to exclude it when its utterly unflinching depiction of bourgeois heroin usage is so riveting. A writer for The Village Voice who spent much of the ‘90s snorting (but never shooting) heroin, Marlowe organizes her book as an encyclopedia, with brief vignettes on topics, some as mundane as “bag” and “Max Fish,” others as metaphysical as “minimalism” and “sacrifice.” The more intriguing thread in the book is the commentary on consumer culture, which, Marlowe hypothesizes, resulted in the heroin boom of the ‘90s. Marlowe was labeled a dilettante by detractors, and lambasted for glamorizing heroin when her habit was never really an addiction. And yet, it is telling the definition of addiction that she drops in the first few pages—“Addiction is a mourning for the irrecoverable glories of the first time”—is as shrewd and provocative as any in the lexicon. 

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  • The Hipster Classic

    William Burroughs’ Junky was a revelation: A brazenly honest recounting of heroin addiction by a Harvard graduate from a Social Register family, released in the conservative publishing world of the 1950s. By the standards of the modern memoir, Junky is a rougher, less refined text; like Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries, it feels more aligned with the unfiltered style of a diary than with the structured self-reflexivity of a memoir. So is Junky still relevant in a post-“heroin chic” media culture where a trip to rehab has become a routine form of celebrity apologia? Absolutely: Not only as a document of drug addiction during a historical moment of radical dissimilarity to the current one, but as a universal story of wayward boyhood and a redemptive ending that is no less rewarding for its inevitability.

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  • The Horrifying and Hysterical One

    Stylish, savvy, and subversive, Jerry Stahl’s Permanent Midnight grabbed headlines upon its release for its willingness to plumb the true depths of addicted despair—like the infamous scene in which Stahl injects heroin directly into his neck. But more than just another grueling story of heroin addiction, he also exposes the weird and dirty underbelly of Hollywood drug culture, where Stahl—a successful screenwriter with a $6000-a-week habit—was enabled at every turn due to his continued ability to produce quality work while drug-addled. The 1998 film adaptation starring Ben Stiller doesn’t do the book justice — laugh-out-loud funny and searingly well-rendered, Stahl’s exploits cement Permanent Midnight as a classic. 

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  • The Great Work of Investigative Journalism

    The gimmick was so obvious, it was remarkable that nobody had done it already: In writing the memoir of his addiction to alcohol and cocaine, David Carr utilized the same investigative techniques that he’d developed in his career as a journalist for The New York Times. It was a clever gambit, pointing at a flaw in the very notion of the junkie memoir: Memory is universally unreliable, and given that addicts are notorious liars with a knack for selective memory, expecting one to remember his history with any accuracy in the first place is ludicrous. Carr sets out to recall the lost years he spent as a crack addict before the birth of his children convinced him to finally clean up. The resulting book, The Night of the Gun, is a haunting and harrowing read, hard-boiled as any crime novel. To his credit, Carr doesn't ignore the toll that his addiction took on his basic values. His book depicts him not just as a hopeless addict, but also as an abusive husband, a negligent parent, and a deeply flawed man. But The Night of the Gun is notable for it's honesty and its courage: Carr explores the darkness of his past with an unflinching eye, eschewing the predictable path to saving face practiced by so many memoirists.

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  • The Charmingly Unpretentious One

    Heather King’s Parched is quietly affecting: The NPR commentator and columnist’s alcoholism, as sharply described through well-chosen anecdotes, never took her to a deplorable bottom like many more famous addiction memoirs. (Admittedly, her recounting of scooping cockroaches out of glasses of beer and then drinking does turn the stomach.) But it’s not just war stories that make Parched such a genuinely enjoyable read: King’s clear introspection, wisdom and unassuming prose, peppered with the distinctly New England flavor of her days in Boston, makes it one of the most relatable memoirs in recent memory. Many addiction memoirs are necessarily exclusive, full of in-jokes and 12-step clichés that only other addicts would appreciate, but King’s egalitarian style makes Parched a superb example of a taste of the alcoholic mind for a non-alcoholic reader. 

  • The Exquisitely Written Heartbreaker

    The best addiction memoirs reflect on the running and gunning with just the right amount of thoughtful remove, which is exactly what makes James Brown’s The Los Angeles Diaries so important. The title is deceptive in that there’s nothing diary-like about it: No diary could be this elegantly crafted and tightly woven. Structured as a series of standalone vignettes, the book has more than enough material to justify a woe-is-me stance—an arsonist mother and suicidal siblings, to start with—but a clear-headed voice that mines the subject matter of regret while refusing to ever wallow keeps the narrator out of self-pity. Underread and underrated, Brown’s vibrant imagery and nimble storytelling elevates The Los Angeles Diaries into a league all its own. 

    Sam Lansky is an editor at Wetpaint and a regular contributor to The Fix who also wrote about his sobriety in relation to Britney Spears, among many other topics. Follow him on Twitter at 

    Courtesy of CounterPoint

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By Sam Lansky 08/23/11

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