David Foster Wallace's Real-Life Rehab Experience
After hitting bottom in Boston, the author checked into a famed psychiatric hospital and then a gritty halfway house.
It’s long been an open secret that David Foster Wallace, the literary prodigy who hanged himself at his home in California four years ago, had been in rehab—the descriptions of life in treatment, as seen in his thousand-page novel, Infinite Jest, were that vivid. There was also the anonymous (yet highly Wallace-ian) testimonial posted on the website of a Boston halfway house called Granada House.
Now, with the release of D.T. Max’s new biography of Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, the rumors have been confirmed: Wallace did indeed live at Granada, after a month at Harvard’s psychiatric hospital, McLean (where the poets Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell also spent time). It was here that Wallace got the inspiration for the denizens of Infinite Jest’s fictionalized Ennet House, where one of the book’s two main characters, the small-time yet physically massive ex-con Don Gately, lives and works. Gately was modeled on “Big Craig,” a young halfway house supervisor who had a run-in with Wallace on his first day at Granada.
But it wasn’t all inspiration and revelation at the bare-bones, un-luxe sober-living facility, where chain-smoked cigarettes and endless cups of black coffee were the order of the day. Max relates that, while at Granada, Wallace wrote to his former AA sponsor, Rich C., telling him that his fellow residents were “a rough crowd, and sometimes I’m scared or feel superior or both.” Max continues:
“Yet a piece of [Wallace] was beginning to adjust to the new situation. He remembered his last failed attempt to get sober and how he was no longer writing and asked himself what he had to lose. He came to understand that the key this time was modesty. ‘My best thinking got me here’ was a recovery adage that hit home, or, as he translated it in Infinite Jest, ‘logical validity is not a guarantee of truth.’ He knew it was imperative to abandon the sense of himself as the smartest person in the room, a person too smart to be like one of the people in the room, because he was one of the people in the room.”