For some of us, recovery will be the most interesting and inspiring time of our lives. When the fog of withdrawal clears and the misery ebbs, we will lift our heads from the folding table in the church basement and look around, amazed, suddenly aware that we're surrounded by a host of sharp-tongued, foul-mouthed angels. Angels with stubble and tattoos. Dark angels, gay angels, church-lady angels with gold cross necklaces and needle-scarred arms. So many stories! So many characters! So much material! This is the brain of a writer in recovery. As a writer, I can testify to the fact that we are a shitty, soulless, venal species and should be barred at the door.
Mary Karr, author of several recovery memoirs, once referred to her former lover David Foster Wallace as “rather unkind” in his treatment of his fellow addicts. Much of the late Wallace’s epic doorstop of a novel Infinite Jest is said to be lifted straight from testimonies overheard in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. It's not surprising, considering DFW's lifelong search for authenticity, that he might borrow some of it from the rooms. The results are as raw and comic as one would expect from a transcript of an AA meeting.
Today's confessional culture propels half-baked dissections of the most oblique of diagnoses to the top of best-seller lists.
“Now,” he said, “You gone risk vulnerability and discomfort and hug my ass or do I gone fucking rip your head off and shit down your neck?”
These are the words Wallace attributed to a post-meeting encounter between a yuppie and a “tall heavy Afro-American fellow with a gold incisor and perfect vertical cylinder of Afro-American hairstyle.” There's no way of knowing whether or not the encounter was real, fictional, or some mixture of the two. Wallace's use of African American dialect often makes readers squirm. One wonders if the recovery-speak that permeates much of Infinite Jest was appropriated under a similar philosophy.
Addicts and alcoholics often speak of how hearing another's story can provide a sense of connection and hope. In this respect, Infinite Jest might also be a case study in the usefulness of fictionalizing recovery. Plenty of ambitious English majors with burgeoning substance abuse problems who would never come across a formal twelve-step text on their own might be eased into the idea of recovery thanks to Wallace's work.
Karr, in any case, isn't entirely free of hypocrisy when she accuses Wallace of exploiting his fellow 12 steppers and halfway house cohabitants. Her own recovery memoir, Lit, features appearances by members of Alcoholics Anonymous, including Wallace himself. (The two met in recovery and had a turbulent, ill-fated romance.) She includes an incident involving a member of the AA program who 12 stepped her while drunk. One can imagine the man's shudder of recognition upon reading her words. But maybe he had given his blessing. In the same interview in which she refers to Wallace as “unkind” she says that she talked to all of the people who appear in her memoirs and made sure they were okay with what she wanted to do. Considering the vast cast of characters that appear in her work, this process must have taken almost as long as writing the book itself.
Karr also calls James Frey, the fake alcoholic and disgraced fabricator of his own recovery memoir, a “lying sack of shit.” She's a salty dame. This may be the trait that redeems her choices as a writer: for all of her unflinching portrayals of a dysfunctional family, emotionally volatile relationships and imperfect AA angels, she is equally honest about her own shortcomings. Those in recovery might recognize this element of honesty as essential for connection with fellow sufferers, inspiring a kind of empathy and trust that Frey with his fabulized, strutting war stories could never equal.
The fact that many now choose to speak openly about addiction certainly reflects a promising future for a society that once stigmatized its sufferers into silence. For all their brawling, sprawling drunkalogues, writers such as Hemingway, Bukowski and Thompson often left the disease unnamed, and they certainly never humble-boasted about chips, chairs or amends. Today's confessional culture propels half-baked dissections of the most oblique of diagnoses to to the top of best-seller lists. But a good story doesn't always make a good writer.
The rising popularity of the redemption narrative has repercussions more profound that the state of literature. Given AA's tradition of anonymity, self-identification of an author as a member might be as unwise as identifying other members is unethical. Twelve-step literature cautions against public declarations of affiliation lest a member relapse and harm the image of the program.
Two contemporary memoirists with a great deal in common—David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs—take vastly different approaches to the topic of self-identification. Both are gay men who draw heavily on their unconventional childhoods for inspiration. Both have a strong sarcastic streak and a talent for self-effacing hyperbole. But while Burroughs wallows in the seamy details of his use, abuse and recovery, Sedaris holds the topic at arm's length
In Sedaris’s collection of essays, If You Are Engulfed In Flames, he takes a few lines out of his piece on quitting tobacco, “The Smoking Section,” to talk about why he quit drinking.
“As far as getting wasted was concerned,” he writes, “I was definitely minor league. All I know is that I drank to get drunk, and I succeeded every night for over twenty years.” He goes on to describe the acceleration of his habit, from one nightly beer at the age of 22, to, at age 42, a nightly five beers and two tall scotches “all on an empty stomach and within a period of 90 minutes.”
Sedaris is known for massaging the truth a little in his work, and it’s possible that his description exaggerates his level of use. He certainly never refers to himself as an alcoholic, or admits to going to AA meetings. In an interview with NPR he said he decided to get sober after seeing a look of pity fill his sister's eyes as he fell slowly over onto her washing machine. He expresses an abhorrence of 12 steps (“I might have to hold hands with strangers!”) and describes his transition to abstinence as simple and anticlimactic.
Burrough's memoir Dry, by contrast, heaves with the kind of hyper-sincerity and over-sharing that Sedaris often lampoons. Dry is the story of Burroughs' use, abuse, recovery, relapse and re-entry into Alcoholics Anonymous, and, yes, he includes a lot of identifying details. Lovers, colleagues, family members, counselors, sponsors and fellow AA members all get their chance for a starring role in the saga of Burroughs' dysfunction. Burroughs was careful to preface the book with the following disclaimer: Names have been changed, characters combined, and events compressed. Certain episodes are imaginative re-creation, and those episodes are not intended to portray actual events.
As with previous authors, at least we can be thankful that Burroughs is a talented writer who doesn't rely solely on the careening nature of the disease to write his story for him. The question that remains is why the story needs to be written at all. The disease of alcoholism has been explored in literature, to appropriate a line from AA text, “since man first crushed grapes.” And recovery has been explored, well, since the first AA text. Surely everything that could possibly be said about the subject has been said. Why, then, do those of us with that sadly common co-affliction of word-filled brains and gin-soaked livers feel compelled to drag the reading world into our navel-gazing, and to prop our stories up with reputations of our fellow sufferers?
One might as well ask why people don't stop writing songs about love. Love is a subject that has been explored across mediums from the time that boy first met girl. Surely everything that could possibly be said about love has been said by now. But every day teenagers examine their zits in the mirror, sigh, and go off to write bad poetry about their unrequited emotions as though they're the first person in the world that has ever experienced them. When asked to explain the phenomenon that is addiction to non-addicts, love is the metaphor I use. It's obsession. You find a thing that makes you feel good. Soon you can't stop thinking about it. Then it controls your life. Then you're miserable until you let go. And even after all of the pain, you rehash the first feelings of happiness and daydream about getting back there somehow—to your first high, your first date, your first hit, your first kiss, those first days when this thing that went on to destroy your life worked really, really well. Who doesn't want to hear that story? Every addiction story is, at its heart, a love story.
And just as redemption memoirs have continued their staggering, maudlin march into airport bookstores, one would be hard-pressed to open a literary magazine and not find a meandering, maudlin account of an affluent but diffident couple's dissolving marriage. Divorce is a luxury more readily accessible since the latter half of the 20th century, and its survivors have chronicled it apace. Recovery is an equally modern phenomenon, and its popularity as an inspiration for artists has followed a similar arc. Perhaps every recovery story is, at its heart, a divorce story.
Recently I wrote an article about children and addiction. In it I included an interview with a friend whose daughter had relapsed. After the article was published she reacted with justifiable shock to some of the things I had chosen to publish. She was right to be upset. When I spoke with her she was in a vulnerable place, and I should have sat with her as a friend, not a writer. This is my reprisal of my earlier statement that writers are a shitty, soulless, venal species. The truth is that it's a career path that calls for a large degree of self-absorption and willingness to exploit other people for our own self-interest. Sedaris himself has written eloquently about how his cutting observations often offend people he loves. It's difficult to hear your words said by someone else, especially if the words in question were uttered in a situation you thought was confidential and protected.
The next time you read one of those maudlin stories of a dissolving marriage, spend a few minutes thinking about the characters that appear besides the narrator. Do they seem to be well rounded, or are they just props to the central character's suffering? People going through the emotional wringer tend to be self-centered. Combine that with a class of artists already notoriously self-absorbed, and you have your average addiction memoir, one that doesn't care how many loosely fictionalized fellow “anonymous” sufferers it exploits in its ascent to the best-seller list. One can say that it's a poor comment on the state of the genre that writers can't work a little harder to produce original material, or one can say huzzah that addiction is finally stepping out from the shadows.
All I have to say is I'm sorry to my friend the grieving mother, and that I just finished my first novel. Not a single alcoholic was harmed in the process.
Linda Stansberry is a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about gambling addiction.