Issue #69, Intoxication
A Priest Walks into a Bar
The case for including more humor in addiction memoirs
A Priest Walks into a Bar
I read a lot about junkies. I read a lot about drunks and tweakers and stoners and cokeheads. It’s part of my job because I teach creative writing in jails, prisons, and drug treatment centers. The writers I work with often want to document their lives, and it’s my job to help shape their stories. My own work also explores addiction, so between my students’ work and my own, I’m basically addicted to reading about addiction. I can’t get enough.
On the first night of my most recent class, a writing workshop for women in recovery from substance abuse disorders, we took a few moments to discuss the clichés we hoped to avoid when telling our stories. I’m so sick of being called brave for telling my story, one woman said. The room erupted in familiar laughter. For real, someone else said. Why do we always have to be brave or broken in order to be seen as writers? I took the opportunity to ask what they might rather be, if not brave or broken. What about funny? someone offered. I want people to know that I’m funny.
The addiction memoir is a long-standing literary tradition, a subgenre of memoir dating at least as far back as the 1820s, when Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater laid the foundation for literary representations of addiction. De Quincey was an upper-crust Brit born to a troubled but successful family, and his memoir established norms for the genre that we still see today. He describes the pleasurable sensations of opium in great detail, followed by the devastation of addiction in even more painstaking detail. It’s a Very Serious Book, told by a writer with all the social capital to be taken very seriously.
Fast forward to the 1920s and ’30s, with their boozy excess and moral judgment. There’s probably no book that celebrates and critiques the era more famously than The Great Gatsby. Of course, it’s not a memoir, but it captured the dichotomous cultural beliefs about intoxication: on one hand, the mark of high times, independence, and the American success story; on the other, a weakness of will and the demonstration of personal failure.
In 1939, perhaps the most influential addiction text of all time was published, though for many years it would remain overlooked. Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism was written by Bill W., a successful Wall Street businessman whose life had unraveled because of hard drinking. Along with his friend, surgeon Dr. Bob, he laid out a prescription for the plague of alcoholism—a moral and spiritual program built on self-assessment, service, and fellowship with others. Since its publication, the book has profoundly shaped cultural norms; there is no other personal story that’s so deeply shaped both personal and medical narratives around alcoholism and addiction.
With more than 30 million copies sold, Alcoholics Anonymous (sometimes also called “The Big Book”) is ubiquitous. Beyond its influence on cultural attitudes, the book has also left its mark on the addiction genre. If you were writing a memoir about bullfighting, it would be near impossible to ignore Ernest Hemingway; in the same way, writers exploring addiction can’t avoid writing about their relationship to twelve-step programs. Mary Karr has to do it. Augusten Burroughs has to do it. Nick Flynn, Leslie Jamison, Ann Marlowe, James Frey (literary villain James Frey!)—they all must do it. That’s how influential the text is.
I’ve read the book several times, and there’s one thing I can say for sure: it’s not funny. It is brave and it is broken, but it is not funny. When the women in my class yearn to be seen as more than a monolithic narrative, it is in part because of this book. The irony, of course, is that the dominant story of Alcoholics Anonymous has generally had a positive impact on these women; the vast majority of them are members of the fellowship. But that same dominant narrative has also become a challenge to overcome when writing their own stories. It has become a cliché. A very unfunny cliché.
In the 1950s, the Beat Generation took to the page to defend the use of hallucinogens, heroin, and booze as proof of an enlightened mind and free spirit. Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs eschewed regret and moralizing, marking a turn in the way writers tell stories of intoxication. The Beats rejected the conventions of religion, morality, and heteronormativity, and drugs were one more way to transgress these very serious political norms. For the Beats, even revelry was serious business, a political act that established a countercultural aesthetic. They complicated intoxication, but they didn’t make it any less serious.
Things got even less funny when Nixon declared the War on Drugs in 1971. That same year, the bestselling Go Ask Alice was published, the “real-life diary” of a runaway teenager whose descent into addiction is brutally and graphically described. This, too, is not a funny book. I first read Go Ask Alice in a public library during the Just Say No 1980s, when I was earning gold stars in the summer reading challenge. I distinctly remember the library’s book display, a terrifying but strangely alluring collection of morality tales that promised if the reader followed these writers into the dark underbelly of drugs, there would be no happy endings.
In 1978, former First Lady Betty Ford went public with her struggles with addiction and alcoholism. Her public statements and willingness to demystify drug treatment ushered in a new attitude toward addiction. Since Ford, the country has gone through a series of drug epidemics: cocaine and crack in the ’80s, heroin chic and its corresponding celebrity overdoses in the ’90s, prescription pills and opioids today. Each wave has brought with it a new crop of memoirs chronicling the personal stories of a political and cultural problem. The addiction memoir has grown, too, since Ford went public, and today’s writers continue to move the genre forward. Like most segments in literary publishing, the addiction memoir still isn’t nearly as representative as it should be. We still privilege the voices of those who risk the least to tell their stories, but there has been progress. More people tell more complicated stories, which benefits all of us as readers and literary citizens; and while the genre has become more nuanced, it is still Very Serious. There are exceptions, but the stories are still overwhelmingly sold as brave and broken.
Like many of its subgenre siblings, the addiction memoir is, at its best, an illumination of shared humanity, an invitation to empathy, and a gesture of solidarity. It can cast a light on broad cultural phenomena, weaving together the personal and political, the micro-details of individual experience and the wide lens view of political systems. At its worst, it can reinforce old clichés and harmful, reductive stereotypes. It can narrow, rather than expand, readers’ understanding of an experience—or of a whole group of people.
Which is why we need more jokes.
The phenomenon of substance abuse is widely known—sometimes glamorized (as when it happens to the rich and famous), but more often villainized and stigmatized (as when it happens to the rest of us). Either way, the experience of addiction begs to be illuminated because it is necessarily paradoxical and irrational. It is pleasure sought with an endless appetite for pain; a satisfaction equaled only by its self-destruction. This kind of inexplicable odyssey—survival despite tragedy—is what literature is made of. And yet, as complicated and inexplicable as addiction is, too often we see its portrayal as a one-note samba: pain + pain + pain + pain = suffering.
The truth of addiction is much more complicated, of course. The best memoirs show us what all great literature shows us: a whole person, living in the complexity of what it means to be human.
Part of being human is struggle and pain; another part is joy and humor.
Bottles of champagne are popped at weddings not because we think of marriage as the beginning of sorrow (ha!), but because we are celebrating love and joy. We do not have dance parties to wallow in the vodka martinis but rather to revel in them. Marijuana is known to make us giggle, cocaine to make us confident, and booze to imbue us with its famous courage. Heroin is so dangerous because it’s so good at producing euphoria. Those realities shouldn’t be ignored in favor of simple pain.
One of the most surprising things about teaching creative writing in jails and prisons and rehab centers and homeless shelters is how much laughter there is in my classrooms. Take, for instance, a woman I’ll call Laura, who wrote about her grandmother’s trailer during a class focused on writing rich and evocative settings. As she described the karaoke sing-alongs that starred her drunk grandmother as the pop singer Meat Loaf, several people were laughing so hard they cried. Before she finished reading, we also heard the devastating story of how her grandmother died in the trailer, her body left undiscovered for days and eventually gnawed on by her dogs. The stories were laid back to back: first, a portrait of the bawdy, good-time grandma and, then, her eventual end—the brutal death of an isolated alcoholic. This is the good stuff: humor and heartbreak together, each making the other richer.
Laughter is one of our most profound teachers because it is involuntary; when we’re laughing, it’s very difficult to remain self-righteous, moralistic, or judgmental. My favorite moment in any classroom is the first time we all laugh together. That single act of shared community bonds a group of writers, which allows them to take risks and bring vulnerability to the page. Vulnerability and risk are crucial for a productive classroom, but they’re also crucial for a successful memoir. Humor is one of the quickest and most foolproof ways to facilitate that bond, whether between writers in workshop or the writer and her reader on the page.
Too many memoirists (and readers) skip the intoxicating beginning of the addiction tale—the good times, the party. In part, this is because we’ve become sensitive to the idea of over-glamorizing something we know is dangerous. We often avoid writing the glorious high for fear that it diminishes the pain of the terrible low, that it somehow makes light of a Serious Topic, but by portraying addiction stories as simple horror shows, we leave out so much. It’s so often humor that saves us, and when we edit it off the page, we lose a crucial part of making our stories fully human. It’s not making light of people’s problems to allow their stories levity; rather, it is making light of people’s humanity to disallow it. The truth is that sometimes there is hilarity in the heartbreak; addiction is made of absurdity.
Memoirists like David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs, Mary Karr, and Jerry Stahl manage to bring the full reality of addiction and recovery to the page, which is a huge part of their success. All of these writers render the pain of addiction with precision and elegance, but all of them are also really funny.
Jerry Stahl, author of the memoir Permanent Midnight, was a humor writer for Hustler before writing for television shows, including Alf. His memoir is ferociously funny. Alf, the unclassifiable alien-puppet makes an appearance, which makes it difficult to read with a straight face; Stahl mocks the phony, know-nothing Hollywood producers he works for; and most importantly, he renders himself with equal parts regret and self-deprecating humor. He points out the cultural absurdities of paying people six-figure salaries to write sitcoms about aliens and, in doing so, builds metaphors about the absurdity of addiction. It’s not all desperation and self-destruction. It’s also a comedy of errors, one in which the ego is skewered mercilessly. Stahl’s book explores a serious topic, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Mary Karr famously takes a similar approach in her trilogy of memoirs, The Liars’ Club, Cherry, and Lit. She deftly paints terrifying scenes of childhood fright, but the brightness and wit of her prose remind the reader that Karr isn’t in this for self-pity or lyrical self-indulgence. She’s able to bring a snappy quip to her harrowing story. While Stahl’s humor is built on absurdity, Karr’s is built on irreverence: “A dysfunctional family,” she writes, “is any family with more than one person in it.” That dysfunction is something she explores with great compassion. In The Liars’ Club, she describes her father, a deeply flawed alcoholic, with humor: “Daddy said a Republican was somebody who couldn’t enjoy eating unless he knew somebody else was hungry.” Karr’s voice never forgets its roots, as when she’s describing her journey toward spiritual awakening in Lit:
Faith is a choice like any other. If you’re picking a career or a husband—or deciding whether to have a baby—there are feelings and reasons pro and con out the wazoo. But thinking it through is—at the final hour—horse dookey. You can only try out.
Karr may be one of the most celebrated literary writers of our time, but she can still drop a horse dookey with an irreverent shrug when describing her religious conversion.
Sedaris, arguably the best-known of the bunch, isn’t generally thought of as an “addiction memoirist,” even though there are harrowing stories of alcohol, speed, and suicide in his repertoire. In “Why Aren’t You Laughing?” published in the New Yorker in 2017, he explores the tension between avoidance and humor when it comes to addiction—a tension that is honest and heartbreaking, and manages to stay true to his signature laugh-out-loud observations, like this one, where he’s describing the television show Intervention:
In it, real-life alcoholics and drug addicts are seen going about their business. Most are too far gone to hold down jobs, so mainly we see them starting fights, crying on unmade beds, and shooting up in hard-to-spot places like the valleys between their toes. Amazing, to me, is that anyone would allow him or herself to be filmed in this condition. “Did you catch me on TV?” I imagine them saying to their friends. “Wasn’t it incredible when I shit on that car!”
As Sedaris points out, if you’re shitting on a car on television, you’ve eclipsed sad and moved into wild absurdity. It’s not a confession as much as it is a cultural spectacle, a wacky performance art of pain that veers into comedy at a certain, very sad moment.
In part, Sedaris is not seen as an addiction memoirist because of his vast breadth of material, but I’d also argue it’s because his writing is too funny. Once a person admits substance abuse, it’s required that they become repentant. Our thinking about addiction is binary: drugs, bad; sobriety, good. Culturally, we prefer our addicts to remain in the confessional. Too often, memoirists get stuck there, too.
It’s our responsibility as writers to resist simple binaries. They’re the poison that colors our prose purple, the lies that reduce us all to outlines and clichés rather than complicated people whose lives are defined by contradiction and paradox. Simple binary choices—bad/good, funny/sad, now/then—are dangerous ways to depict already marginalized groups of people. They also make for poor writing. Fortunately, humor is a sure way to disrupt simple thinking.
This year, I wrote an anonymous piece for a local news outlet, advocating the use of medically assisted treatment in addiction services. In it, I discuss a landmark study about rats and cocaine addiction. One of the designers in the newsroom created an animated cartoon of rats doing cocaine and dancing. I thought it was hilarious, adorable, and completely in the spirit of my piece.
My editor frantically texted me days before the story would run:
Have you seen the illustration yet? I want to know your reaction. The newsroom is split.
Love it! Especially the mouse with glasses!
We’re going to pull it. Everyone’s afraid it is making light of the situation.
A sense of humor is the most important part of my recovery. (I was typing with fury at this point.)
You just singlehandedly turned the newsroom on its head with that comment.
Rather than use their own designer’s illustrations, the editors decided to go with a somber photo of my back as I stared out onto a bleak river underneath a dead tree.
This is what my students mean when they complain about being seen as only brave and broken. Give me the mouse illustration, for the love of God! I’m so sick of my story being So Very Serious.
I understand the conflict in the newsroom. One obstacle to humor in writing about addiction is criminality. Because we’ve criminalized drug use, any time a writer is discussing their addiction, they’re also necessarily discussing crimes they’ve committed. While addiction is a complicated and nuanced experience, it’s become simplified because of the laws that govern it, and writers get put under the microscope not only of morality but also legality when they write about drugs. I’m sure news outlets want to remain responsible and sensitive to such things. This criminality is also, in large part, why a more diverse group of voices hasn’t been represented in addiction memoirs. It makes sense that the addiction memoir has previously been the purview of the privileged: they’re the least likely to be criminalized for their vices. It’s very difficult to write a memoir while you’re in prison. I see that each week when I teach in classrooms full of people who have been imprisoned for the same things I encourage them to write about. It gets complicated in our classrooms.
This criminality and lack of nuance in the press is a major reason it falls to memoirists to democratize the stories of addiction. Newsrooms aren’t going to do it. Traditional outlets of nonfiction are not going to tell the complicated personal stories. Narrative journalism is busy uncovering the complicated stories of Big Pharma, narco-traffickers, and the new neuroscience of addiction. Which are all vitally important. But memoirists and publishers need to do their part, too. In order to move past the propaganda, monolithically sad stories, and brave salvation clichés, we need writers like the ones I meet in my classrooms who are unwilling to be simply sad, who instead want to bring the wholeness of themselves to the page and to the forefront of memoir, making sure the jokes don’t always get cut for the sake of the deep dark symbol. The truth is every line of cocaine is not a symbol; every drink is not a metaphor. Sometimes a good bar joke is enough to humanize an otherwise terrible father. Sometimes the simple act of laughing rather than crying is profound enough.
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