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Almost Famous—Until I Got Sober

By Molly Jong-Fast 05/29/12

After growing up in the shadow of her mother, Erica Jong, whose best-seller Fear of Flying made her a household name, the author yearned for fame of her own. She almost had it too—until she stopped doing drugs.

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Early days with a famous mom

Most of my life, I wanted to be famous. The compulsion hit me when I was very young and watched my mother, the best-selling author Erica Jong, bask in the heady glow of literary fame. Her 1973 novel, Fear Of Flying, was a monster bestseller, and she was on a perpetual book tour. I grew up tagging along—at college readings, in the green room of Donahue, in the back of Town Cars navigating from one jam-packed event to the next. By the time I was old enough to conceive of having a career, I decided I wanted to follow in my mother’s footsteps and become a famous writer, even if that meant giving up my chance to have children—I couldn't imagine dragging a newborn to a green rooms—well, that was a choice I was more than willing to make. I had watched my mother navigate fame, and I knew it was about sacrificing the things that make you happy for the greater glory.

But when I was a teenager I developed a drug problem that complicated my pursuit of fame. I wanted to be a drug addict. For some people, fame and drug addiction dovetail nicely—at least for a little while. However, I wasn’t one of those high-functioning addicts. Hard drugs, which in an alternate universe might have been one component of my fame (a writerly Kurt Cobain; an American Will Self), did me no good whatsoever. Ultimately, my fixation with heavy drugs didn’t make a bit of difference, since my dubious arc toward fame was cut short the moment I got sober.

But that’s jumping ahead. I never got to be the addict I could have been, but I did get close. By the time I was nineteen I was plowing though a couple of grams of blow (do they still call it blow?) every day. I loved every species of booze: martinis, wine by the bottle (red or white, rosé or Thunderbird—I wasn’t drinking for taste), vodka cranberries, Tom Collins—anything else that found its way into my hand. There were glamorous evenings spent vomiting on the beach, vomiting on myself, vomiting on my mother. There were blackouts, brownouts, nose bleeds, screaming fits, more nose bleeds, lost days, a Valium habit that wiped out my short-term memory; there was an utter depletion of my self esteem, days spent sleeping, nights spent wandering around clubs like Wax or the old Spy bar looking for a guy named Felix who had the “stuff.” I was a mess.

Since I grew up with a vision of myself as a degenerate drug addict, it made sense to me that I would eventually end up in rehab. Plus, it seemed like a very posh thing to do. After all, Liza Minelli went, so did Elizabeth Taylor—everyone who was anyone went to rehab.

My mother finally took me to rehab. It was November 1, 1997, and we flew coach on Northwestern Airlines. I was 19 years old. On that flight I had my last drinks—two vodka cranberries and three glasses of white wine—and some Klonopin for good measure (I remember popping a handful). We landed in Minneapolis, where I poured myself into an unmarked station wagon driven by a good natured but elderly ex-nun (at least that’s how I remember her; there is no actual evidence that a former nun ever drove airport pick ups for Hazelden). My mother took the next flight home.

I had always fantasized about going to rehab. Since I grew up with a vision of myself as a fuck-up, as a degenerate drug addict, it made sense to me that I would eventually end up in rehab. Plus, it seemed like a very posh thing to do. Liza Minelli went, so did Elizabeth Taylor—everyone who was anyone went. And it turned out I was actually pretty good at rehab. At first, I had an aptitude for brown-nosing the counselors in my wing at Hazelden, which was called Lily. I was adept at telling them and the other patients what they wanted to hear. I had the vocabulary of recovery long before I had the recovery.

And then the miracle came. I hate to use the word miracle. It seems so religious, like a word people use in a Red State, but it really describes what happened to me. Anyway, the miracle happened one day when I woke up in my bed in Lily, and I just got it. I got that I had a disease and that if I wasn’t honest, and if I didn’t do everything they told me to do, I was very likely going to die, or worse, not die….

It’s been more than fourteen years since that November trip to Minneapolis. I’m still sober because I do everything that AA tells me to do. I have a sponsor. I go to a ton of meetings. I still work the steps and I still have sponsees (not so many right now). I do this because this is really the only way we have to treat the disease of alcoholism, a genetic disease that I have. 

I have gotten older. I had a sober twenty-first birthday. I had a sober wedding. And I gave birth to three children while I was sober. I didn’t do this because I’m such a great person. I was driven by necessity, not by virtue.

In early sobriety, the fame urge still lingered. I longed for the green rooms and the car services of my youth. In some ways I saw my mother’s experience at that time like the only possible solution to the spiritual sickness I felt. I wrote my first book, Normal Girl, at nineteen; I was six months sober when I sold it to publishers and just two years sober when I was promoting it. On the road at twenty-one, with just 24 months clean—talking publicly about how I didn’t drink or take drugs one day at a time. It was another miracle that I didn’t end up drunk at Oktoberfest as I found myself promoting my book, translated as Ein Ganz Normales Madchen, in Munich, a city soaked in beer. I carried my German meeting book like a bible.

When I was 23, I married into a family that didn't care to have the details of their lives dissected on the Internet. I married into a family that didn't ache for fame. I was still mystified: How could anyone not want to be famous? It seemed insane to me. Isn’t fame the whole point of life? But as I started to accumulate sober time, certain things dawned on me: For instance, writing about myself is a very lonely business. Also, contrary to what I'd always thought, people don’t necessarily love you for exposing your many neuroses for all to see. I used to think that things only mattered if they were done out loud, in the New York Post, on Donahue. Could I actually live in the "civilian" world?

I went to meetings, and therapy, and built up my self-esteem. This is not to say that I didn’t want to write. I love writing. And writing gives my life purpose, but my kids give my life more meaning than my writing, and since my kids are little, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to spend more time with them and less time staring at the computer.

I also don’t really need the world to know me. I don’t feel I have to make my mark. Maybe I have no mark to make. Maybe I’m a supporting actor. Maybe I’m "the mother of" or "the wife of." If the choice is between a struggle for fame and attention, and being home with my charming twins and my older boy through the fleeting years of their childhood, it's not much of a choice.

Did I get too sober to be famous? Who knows if I ever would have been famous even if I had had the drive? Odds say no. There are many more talented people than I who have not achieved the fame they have worked so hard for. But I am glad that I have been staying home with my kids. Selfishly, if nothing else, these years that I have spent focusing on them have been the happiest of my life. There is no way that reading to ten people in a dimly lit bookstore in Ohio can complete with the joy of watching my little girl master a ballet move or my little boy build his first death ray. I’m kidding about the death ray. Sort of.

Molly Jong-Fast's most recent book is The Social Climber's Handbook. She lives in New York City.

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Molly Jong-Fast is a writer and editor living in New York City. She is the author of, The Social Climber's Handbook. You can find Molly on Linkedin and Twitter.

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