The author and recovering addict Matt Rowland Hill dissects the 'addiction memoir'—its literary potential, its formal conventions and its offer of hope and catharsis—as he recommends five books that exemplify the form, from Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater to Mary Karr's bestselling Lit.
To start, perhaps we could speak a little bit about the phenomenon of addiction memoirs? When we spoke ahead of this interview, you said that you read dozens of them while undergoing rehab yourself. And now you have written your own, Original Sins. Could you tell me a little about the form?
I think it’s worth making a distinction between two kinds of books: memoirs about addiction and ‘addiction memoirs’. You can find examples of the former—autobiographical writing on what we’d now call addiction—scattered throughout literature. Augustine’s 4th-century Confessions, with its account of the author’s compulsive and tormented sexuality, is arguably an early example. What does it have in common with, say, William S. Burroughs’s 1953 Junky? Nothing much, except a theme.
Only in the last few decades has it made sense to speak of the ‘addiction memoir’ as a recognisable form, with identifiable—albeit loose and much-flouted—conventions. It began to take shape as part of the broader memoir boom of the late 1980s and 1990s, when publishers discovered a vast appetite among readers for books about the real lives of more or less ordinary people. Until then, most autobiographies were reflections on significant events by public figures, and only a few had any artistic ambition. Now there was an explosion of works by non-famous men and women that told intimate stories about the kind of everyday themes—family, coming of age, love, grief—typically associated with novels. And the best of them—like Tobias Wolff’s 1989 This Boy’s Life, Mary Karr’s 1995 The Liars’ Club and Frank McCourt’s 1996 Angela’s Ashes—had a richness and ambition that established memoir as a major literary form alongside fiction, drama and poetry.
“What does Augustine’s 4th-century Confessions have in common with William S. Burrough’s Junky?”
Although previous literary history had portrayed a number of addicts, only a very small number could be found outside fiction—although some well known examples were only fictional in a nominal sense. The eponymous hero of novel John Barleycorn (1913) is really its author, Jack London. Don Birnam in The Lost Weekend (1944) is really its creator, Charles R. Jackson. One hint that the author and protagonist of A Fan’s Notes (1968) are really the same person is that they are both called Frederick Exley. All these books might have been published as memoir in a less stigmatising age.
But in the late 1980s and the 1990s, with old taboos around mental health in retreat, writers with histories of addiction increasingly felt licensed to depict their experiences candidly, and some of the resulting books were among the most popular and interesting of the memoir boom. The various accidental similarities between these books began, before long, to harden into a blueprint, which countless books have faithfully reproduced. Most are forgettable and forgotten, but some accomplished authors—like Caroline Knapp and Sarah Hepola—have created very good books by bringing real skill to the standard formula. And James Frey’s 2003 A Million Little Pieces achieved huge success (commercially, if not artistically) without straying far from the form’s conventions—except, as it later turned out, a longstanding convention that nonfiction shouldn’t be fiction.
At least two books in this era stand out as instances of real formal originality in addiction memoir. One is David Carr’s 2008 The Night of the Gun which, premised on the author’s confession that he remembers almost nothing of his addiction years, recounts instead his painstaking attempt to reconstruct them like an investigative journalist. Another is Leslie Jamison’s superb 2018 book The Recovering, absent from this list only because it’s disqualified by its outstanding formal ambition and scope: in it, a piercing memoir of alcoholism and recovery is braided with essay, reportage, and biographical studies of great writers who explore the relationship between addiction and art.
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Only a handful of the addiction memoirs of recent decades are also, in my view, singular works of art. For me the essential works are Permanent Midnight (1995) by Jerry Stahl , The Los Angeles Diaries (2003) by James Brown, The Outrun (2015) by Amy Liptrot, Lit (2019) by Mary Karr and Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man (2010) by Bill Clegg. We’ll talk about the last two in more detail shortly.
Although I think they can all be considered addiction memoirs, and share a familial resemblance with other examples of that form, none of them feel remotely imprisoned by its conventions. And yet—even though each of these books goes its own way, never hesitating to flout a trope or trample a norm to serve its story—they don’t go in terror of the conventions either. Where the story they have to tell echoes others, they let us hear that echo. One characteristic I think I discern in the best addiction memoir is a certain humility that doesn’t strive after innovation for its own sake. Serious addiction has a way of annihilating your sense of exceptionalism, stripping away your autonomy and character, and reducing you to the sum of your cravings. Meanwhile solidarity and communion are often touchstones among recovering addicts. I think a trace of that worldview finds expression—again, in the best addiction memoirs—in the form’s tendency to value the authentically commonplace over sensational performance.
What are those formal conventions you refer to?
I’ll mention some more in relation to the books I’ve chosen, but these are, I think, the four most fundamental ones.
First, addiction memoirs tend to present the author’s life as, essentially, the story of their addiction: everything preceding it is preamble, often with heavy foreshadowing; everything after is recovery. This is, in a sense, just an expression of narrative logic: if I’m trying to tell you a story about my experience of addiction, everything in it should cohere around that topic. But reading a story that works differently—like one of my choices, Tove Ditlevsen’s 1971 Dependency—helps you see what’s artificial and potentially falsifying about this convention. We’ll get to that.
Second, they contain sections describing the lurid drama and dreadful effects of addiction in unsparing detail. Unvarnished accounts of the havoc and disaster of addiction, whether played for farce or pathos, are as reliably found in the most artistically ambitious addiction memoirs as in the least. But—though it would be naïve to think this impulse was absent from even the most literary instances—the lower down the artistic scale you go, the more crudely exhibitionistic, even pornographic, is the element of self-abasement as the author’s wrongdoing and degradation is flaunted for us. Meanwhile the reader is tacitly licensed to enjoy all this mayhem and calamity with a degree of voyeuristic relish and, equally, to take a vicarious pleasure in the author’s recklessness and transgression.
“Addiction memoirs tend to present the author’s life as, essentially, the story of their addiction; everything preceding it is preamble”
(It was this convention—or one author’s over-zealous attempts to satisfy it—that led to the most famous moment in the history of addiction memoir: James Frey’s 2006 appearance on Oprah, where he tearfully apologised for not being a violent felon. When Frey’s A Million Little Pieces became an instant bestseller, some reporters to whom the story rang false did some basic fact-checking—and found numerous instances of what might generously be called exaggeration. Frey claimed, for instance, to have served three months in prison for assaulting multiple police officers; the police record showed he was in fact detained for “about five hours” after some minor traffic violations—and was, according to damning testimony from the arresting officer, “cooperative and polite.”)
Third, they often have broadly similar plot shapes: a downward spiral once addiction takes hold; a “rock bottom” moment where crisis forces a reckoning; followed by an upward curve of recovery and growth signified by unbroken abstinence. You might argue that this isn’t a formal convention so much as, quite simply, how many people’s real experience of addiction plays out. True: but it’s a formal convention because the many other people whose experience doesn’t resemble this structure would, if they tried to find a publisher and a receptive audience for their story, undeniably find this fact an obstacle.
Fourth, a convention closely connected to the one I just mentioned, but with nuances and a special significance of its own: addiction memoirs very often end on a resounding note of redemption, with lessons learned, mistakes made good, wisdom attained (and often duly imparted to the reader). I’ll have more to say on the topic of addiction memoirs and endings, which I think represent the most challenging and problematic aspect of the form.
For now I’ll mention one more convention of addiction memoirs, although it differs slightly from the others because it’s more directly concerned with how they’re read than with how they’re written. The pleasures we expect from the form range from the edifying (empathy, inspiration) to the unseemly (voyeurism, vicarious transgression) to mention just a few. But many readers —like the one I was during my time in rehab in 2015—also come to it seeking something often considered antithetical to art. I mean help, whether in the form of identification, solace or instruction. I said this convention concerned reading more directly than writing, but—since all good writing involves deep sensitivity to the reader’s experience—the two things are ultimately inseparable. For one kind of author, helping the reader is the whole point of writing an addiction memoir; for another, even to consider doing so would be aesthetically fatal. My guess is that most addiction memoirs involve some kind of compromise between the author’s aesthetic and ethical impulses. This ethical dimension (or an aesthetic impurity) is a distinctive aspect of addiction memoir as a literary form.
Interesting. What do you feel makes for a successful addiction memoir?
It’s easier to say what makes for an unsuccessful example—and it’s what makes any writing bad: cliché, predictability, lifelessness. The conventions of the addiction memoir, like those of any form, risk becoming a straitjacket. The problem is that they’re not wholly artificial: like cliches and stereotypes, they sometimes have a basis in reality. And, superficially at least, these conventions work: they’re tried-and-tested; readers more or less consciously expect them; they are comfortingly familiar and make a story easy to understand. So writers of memoir, rather than shaping literature to feel like life, can unconsciously end up shaping their lives on the page to look like literature.
I can imagine, yes. Or feeling that their lives are somehow unsuited to the form.
Absolutely: and that’s a difficulty that’s faced so many authors in the form’s history—from Thomas De Quincey to, well, me—that it’s almost a formal convention itself. I’m referring to the phenomenon of the author relapsing at some point after seeming to meet the formal requirement of overcoming addiction. It’s happened again and again, in different contexts—and while it’s no fun for the person in question, it produces an interesting literary dilemma that’s been addressed by writers in various ways. (I presume the feeling you mention was also partly why James Frey turned his five hours in a police station into three months in prison. But to fully explain his case you would, I suspect, have to consider more than just the form’s conventions – none of which stipulate that the protagonist should undergo the torture of root canal surgery without anaesthetic, as Frey ludicrously claims he did several times so as not to compromise his sobriety.)
For the most part, addiction memoirists face the same challenge every writer faces, all the time: how to render experience in a way that doesn’t falsify but illuminate it. And unlike the reader I was in 2015, what I look for in addiction memoirs now—in the much rarer event that I read one—is pretty much exactly what I look for in other forms of literature: some hard-to-define quality through which language brings experience alive, and somehow makes me feel I’m in closer contact with reality than I usually am. However, there are two other main challenges that are particular, I think, to anyone writing an addiction memoir.
“Writers of memoir can unconsciously end up shaping their lives to look like literature”
The first is how to deal with the unusual way such books are often read – that is, by people seeking help, perhaps even in desperate need. As I’ve already said, I was precisely that kind of reader once: when, barely clinging to a life that hardly seemed worth living anyway, I landed in rehab at 31. People whose lives are in crisis are rarely the most sophisticated readers, and I had an infantile (and perfectly natural) desire to read stories about people like me that were seemingly set in the real world but were, essentially, fables—offering easy lessons and unequivocal hope. And some books I read went to great lengths to oblige me. There’s a place for such books – they were what I needed then, after all—but by the time I came to write my own, I’d become a different kind of reader. Although I did, and do, think literature can help us lead richer, happier lives, I now believed it did so by indirect and somewhat nebulous means, all premised on a willingness to deal truthfully with difficult or even painful matters.
The second major problem for anyone writing an addiction memoir—and it’s often connected to the first—is how to conclude it. When is a story over? Only in rare cases—as when the subject of a biography dies—is the answer simple. In other kinds, as in novels, endings are artifices of form, and the trick is not to let this feel true for the reader. But the challenge is particularly acute when the story is about a life that, as the reader well knows, has simply gone on and on beyond the final page. Life doesn’t provide moments of satisfying narrative resolution. How do you craft an ending that makes narrative sense but which feels complex and inconclusive in the way life so often is? Many addiction memoirs evince a desire to repay the reader for all the dark places the story has taken them with a thumpingly joyous ending. For these reasons, in many addiction memoirs the end is the weakest part.
Meanwhile successful writing always surprises and challenges us, perhaps by defying the conventions of the form to which it belongs or simply by refreshing them in some way. I’ve chosen these books partly because they’re all excellent, but partly too because through them we can see the conventions of the form being established and refined—and, sometimes, refreshed, defied or undermined.
They all succeed in doing what superb writing does—they jolt us into a sense of intimate contact with whatever they’re describing, making the world new for us.
Your first recommendation is Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, which is considered one of the first books of this kind. Can you tell me about it, and why we should still read it today?
To be honest, if I could go back and give my younger self some books to pass the time in rehab, this wouldn’t be among them. Published in 1821, Confessions of an English Opium Eater tells the tale of De Quincey’s unhappy childhood, his years spent destitute in Wales and London, and his growing dependency on opium. It’s a strange, flawed book, but for anyone curious to understand how the addiction memoir form came to exist, it’s essential—because it’s unquestionably the prototype. Although in 1821 there were no other books of quite this kind, it’s interesting to note how many later conventions of the addiction memoir are already here in embryo. Present here are all the main ones I identified earlier, as well as several other tropes and common features of what we now call addiction memoirs. For instance, De Quincey invents—and defines—the form’s quintessential protagonist: “the hero of the piece or (if you choose) the criminal at the bar”. And he will not be the last writer whose warnings about drugs’ evil are somewhat offset by gorgeous descriptions of their effects elsewhere.
Finally, De Quincey began a long and remarkably durable tradition among memoirists: upstaging their books’ hopeful conclusions with later drug use. “These troubles are past”, he declared of his addiction, “and thou wilt read these records… as the records of some hideous dream that can return no more.” In fact, although he lived another 37 industrious years after the Confessions were published—revising and expanding it several times, and writing two sequels among other works—one thing he never succeeded in doing was quitting opium. Although his case was extreme—he died at 74, still an addict—it was far from unusual.
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Despite these striking similarities between the Confessions and later addiction memoirs, readers today are likely to be struck by one major difference in De Quincey: his concept of addiction, insofar as he had one. In a sense, this is hardly surprising: although there have always been addicts, it was long after the Confessions that addiction began to be conceptualised as a condition or illness, and only in recent decades has scientific research led to a satisfactory (if still incomplete) account of its aetiology. As a result, most educated readers now think of addicts as having a psychological condition whereby they compulsively numb emotional pain, often with origins in past trauma. From this perspective De Quincey’s tale makes perfect sense. Orphaned as a young child and raised by uncaring strangers, he was so miserable as a teenager that he fled his situation, considering homelessness an escape. In other words, he was primed for addiction long before he encountered his “celestial drug”. But he doesn’t make this connection, and his various explanations (or, as we might say, rationalisations) for his difficulties can seem bizarre: he seems to trace his adolescent unhappiness to being mistaught Classics at school—and, later, he blames his abuse of opium on stomach pain and tooth ache. Only occasionally does he show flashes of deeper insight: “What was it that did in reality make me an opium eater? Misery, blank desolation, abiding darkness.”
In summary, the Confessions is an oddity, both uncannily familiar and bewilderingly alien. But at just 100 pages in its original edition—I would avoid De Quincey’s increasingly verbose revisions—it’s well worth reading for anyone interested in the development of the addiction memoir form. Or, indeed, memoir in general: although De Quincey didn’t invent autobiography in English, he greatly elevated our sense of its artistic potential. The baroque, rhapsodic passages on his opium-induced dreams show him as a master of English prose, and are worth the cover price alone.
Next you’ve chosen to recommend Tove Ditlevsen’s Dependency, the third book in her Copenhagen Trilogy. It was first published in Danish in the 1970s, but has only recently been translated into English by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favela Goldman. Please tell us about this book.
Dependency is startlingly unlike any other memoir about addiction—that I know of, at least.
The first way in which Dependency differs from conventional addiction memoirs may seem simple, but it’s astonishingly effective: it doesn’t telegraph from the start that it’s a story about addiction. In an addiction memoir, there’s nothing less surprising than the protagonist developing an addiction. But in a person’s real life, addiction always arrives as a horrific shock, a jarring and outrageous disruption of narrative order. Dependency is the only book I’ve read that captures that experience. For two-and-a-half volumes the Copenhagen Trilogy seems to be the story of Ditlevsen’s unlikely escape from her suffocatingly poor and unhappy origins. A few poems published in a Danish newspaper while she is a teenager provide an entrée to the literary world, and in time she is one of the most celebrated writers in her country.
Then, one day, after having an illegal abortion, a doctor gives her a dose of the heroin-like painkiller Demetrol—and her life changes irrevocably: ‘I decide never to let go of a man who can give me such an indescribable blissful feeling.’ She leaves her husband for the doctor, a virtual stranger, and invents an ear infection to finagle more and more of the drug out of him, eventually undergoing dangerous surgery on a perfectly healthy ear to maintain the fiction. When I first came across this book, having barely survived my own experience with drugs, I doubted anything I read on the subject could shock me. But nothing could have prepared me for this astonishing story and the way it conjures the insanity of the addict: a person in utter misery who will do virtually anything, however ruinous or degrading, to exacerbate it. And taking care to leave the reader unprepared is one way in which Ditlevsen’s writing succeeds in being so gripping and moving.
The other main thing that sets Ditlevsen apart from most authors of addiction memoir is in her use of narrative point of view. Such books typically have a kind of dual narrator: sometimes caught up in events perceived through the author’s shortsighted younger eyes; at other times dispensing commentary or insight from the loftier perspective of—we presume—the author’s current self.
“In real life, addiction always arrives as a horrific shock, a jarring and outrageous disruption of narrative order”
Ditlevsen’s trilogy, by contrast, plunges us into the perspective of a succession of her former selves. When she’s a child, we’re presented with the world as a child might see it. When she’s hooked on Demetrol, we perceive events through the distorted viewpoint of an addict. This is the kind of myopic or unreliable narrator we encounter frequently in novels – conspicuously naïve or self-delusive, and unchaperoned by a consolingly wise authorial presence—but almost never in memoir. Told in the present tense (another rarity in autobiography), the result is a stunningly immersive and intimate story. We seem to experience Ditlevsen’s life with her, moment by vivid moment.
I revere this book, but there is one false note in it: the final page or so, where Ditlevsen rather abruptly tries to persuade us she’s found salvation in love—and therefore that, in De Quincey’s words, “these troubles are past”. For the first time in the trilogy, we see the author seduced by her narrator’s fantasy. The convention that addiction memoirs should conclude on a definite note of redemption often produces endings that are psychologically or aesthetically trite—and, relatedly, that are belied by the subsequent facts of the author’s life. In both respects, this is particularly true here: five years after Dependency was published, Ditlevsen died by suicide.
Ditlevsen’s failure of nerve, causing her to wrap up three volumes of the most trenchant and unillusioned autobiography ever written with a feeble daydream, is easily explained. She surely felt the reader (and perhaps the author) had endured too much pain in the preceding story to be sent away without solace. The fact that, in so doing, she effectively obeyed a formal convention of addiction memoir helps explain how many of those conventions arose. It was not due to some kind of lineage of influence reaching back to De Quincey, but the inevitable result of applying the simplifying dictates of storytelling and lowest-common-denominator audience needs to roughly similar experiences. The fact that even a great artist like Ditlevsen can capitulate to such dictates, if only once, demonstrates how powerful they are.
But Ditlevsen’s single conventional moment also, I think, underlines her originality. The reason Dependency doesn’t look anything like an ordinary addiction memoir isn’t primarily that the form and its conventions didn’t exist when she wrote it; it’s that Ditlevsen understood exactly how readers would expect her to tell her story, and she that staying true to it would mean finding another way. The result was a tale whose bracing darkness is ultimately redeemed not by its perfunctorily hopeful ending but by the extraordinary force and beauty of its telling.
Thank you. Next you’ve chosen to recommend Caroline Knapp’s memoir Drinking: A Love Story, which was first published in 1997. Why do you like it?
Although I’m a fan of this book, if I’d based my selection purely on literary merit, in all honesty I’d have chosen instead Jerry Stahl’s Permanent Midnight or Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, both of which are more verbally and formally original. But I think Knapp deserves a place in any overall consideration of addiction memoir as a form, for a number of reasons. It’s not only a landmark in the history of addiction memoir, but pretty much its Platonic ideal. Before her book was published in 1997, the memoir boom had produced a number of accounts of addiction with strikingly similar features. You could argue that Drinking: A Love Story played a key role in turning those accidental similarities into formal conventions by drawing them together, executing them flawlessly and, as a major bestseller, making them familiar to many readers. If you wanted to play the slightly arbitrary game of identifying the moment the addiction memoir came into being as a form, I think you could plausibly claim that it was with this book.
And there’s another reason why, in a sense, Knapp’s book can be seen as a “better” addiction memoir than other, more artistically original, ones. As I’ve said, addiction memoirs serve a utilitarian purpose for many readers, who come to them for encouragement or instruction. A writer like Tove Ditlevsen would undoubtedly have considered the idea of providing therapy for the reader pure sacrilege, an abandonment of art’s unqualified commitment to the truth—and you’d never give Dependency to someone in their early days of rehab, desperate for hope. Meanwhile Knapp’s book—as well as being very good—could benefit anyone attempting to make sense of their relationship with substances. And without being dogmatic, she’s not above dispensing hopeful little maxims:
Early recovery has the quality of vigorous exercise, as though each repetition of a painful moment… serves to build up emotional muscle.
The book tells the story of how Knapp—a successful magazine journalist and author—hid her alcoholism, and its devastating consequences, for many years. “I fell in love,” she says, “and then, because the love was ruining everything I cared about, I had to fall out.” It’s as intelligent and articulate about the insidious nature of addiction as it is, later, about the trials and joys of recovery. Knapp relates her story in a prose that’s a model of lucidity and understated style. In a way, the book isn’t unlike how she describes her life as a high-functioning alcoholic: “Smooth and ordered” on the outside; “roiling and chaotic” underneath. There are no literary fireworks here: just a finely crafted story told by someone whose insight is all the more worth hearing for the high price she had to pay for it.
In her memoir, she describes an addict as “someone who seeks physical solutions to emotional or spiritual problems.” How far would you agree with that?
In short, I do agree. I know it’s true from introspection, and from spending time around other addicts, whether using or in recovery. And, compared with the people of Thomas De Quincey’s era, we know quite a lot about the aetiology of addiction: we can read books on the psychology of addiction like Gabor Mate’s superb In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts (2010), which elucidates the now conclusive scientific evidence for its connection with childhood trauma.
But before science caught up, literature had shown a profound understanding of the psychology of addiction. Acute portrayals of the condition appear in Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler, Jean Rhys’s novels and Raymond Carver’s stories, to name just a few. But it’s depictions of the full life cycle of addiction–often in serial works like Ditlevsen’s, Mary Karr’s and Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose books–that most clearly reveal the truth: that it’s not a moral defect or a random miswiring of the brain, but an individual’s compulsive attempt to blot out suffering carried over from the past.
If calling addiction a ‘spiritual’ problem is supposed to prescribe submission to a supernatural ‘higher power’ as a formula for recovery, it’s not for me – though I know the 12-step philosophy works for many people. But, more broadly defined, don’t mind the word ‘spiritual’: my own story, where heroin addiction follows close on the heels of a teenage loss of faith, seems to illustrate how addiction can be a kind of spiritual search, a seeking after meaning or transcendence. And it’s interesting that the Latin root of the word ‘addict’ is related to the word ‘devotion.’
Next we have Mary Karr’s Lit, which is also the third book in a trilogy; it followed The Liars’ Cluband Cherry. It’s a memoir of her addiction to alcohol, and her subsequent recovery, and her conversion to Catholicism. Tell us more.
Whereas my progress was from religion to addiction, Mary Karr’s was the other way around. She’s a practising Catholic and I’m an atheist. But though our world-views are in some ways profoundly different, few books have enriched me as a reader and a person more than hers.
She’s one of the living masters of the memoir form. 1995’s The Liars’ Club, which describes her extraordinary and troubled family—her mother would sometimes joke about the time she left bullet holes in the kitchen wall by trying to shoot her daughters—is a stone-cold classic of autobiographical writing. Karr arrived with a unique literary voice that combined rich Texan and burst of lyricism. And she had an almost miraculous ability to portray her broken family with wit and love, without ever flinching from pain. 2000’s Cherry picked up the story by showing Karr as an adolescent, already dabbling with drugs and profoundly lacking any sense of belonging.
2009’s Lit is the volume that deals with Karr’s alcoholism and desperate search for recovery. It can be read alone, but why would you want to miss out on reading all three in order? Although the first two volumes aren’t overtly about Karr’s addiction, they show its makings in her traumatic home life and a lost adolescence.
“People whose lives are in crisis are rarely the most sophisticated readers”
Lit opens with Karr on the cusp of adulthood. Although she makes faltering progress in building a simulacrum of grown-up life, her relationship with alcohol—“I had an appetite for drink, a taste for it, a talent”—steadily overtakes everything. By the end of her drinking she is reduced to crouching on a stairwell outside her apartment, glugging whisky with her one-year-old son and failing marriage inside. But even more than how it captures the bleakness of alcoholism, what I most value in this book is how she narrates her recovery with such brutal honesty. This is no joyful, linear skip towards sobriety and redemption. Karr gets sober and relapses, again and again. She spends time on a psych ward. She keeps showing up to 12-step meetings, even when they do nothing for her. Her breakthrough arrives as much through exhaustion as some kind of epiphany. She discovers in Catholicism a spirituality that makes sense to her and seems to keep her sober, but she doesn’t proselytise or become too holy for irony. Instead she presents herself as a kind of Godly schmuck, chronically slow on the spiritual uptake. For readers who’ve followed her over three searingly honest books, where survival let alone redemption often seemed unlikely, her final discovery of a bruised and hard-won peace feels like an instance of what can only be called grace.
Finally we have Bill Clegg’s Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man. He was a literary agent who hid an addiction to crack cocaine. What did you admire about his book?
It’s not easy to evoke on the page what is, to most people, the profoundly alien experience of a hard drugs binge. But where others fall short, Bill Clegg’s Portrait of an Addict as Young Man succeeds brilliantly, capturing the minute-by-minute horror of a near-lethal chemical spiral. A slim book whose main action covers just a few weeks, the short crack and vodka binge it describes is enough to destroy Clegg’s life, and very nearly end it. It makes for bracing reading, and spares us no detail at all: we’re immersed in the protagonist’s mind as he stalks from hotel to hotel, the money in his bank account rapidly draining away, his life becoming increasingly unreal and death beginning to seem attractive, if not inescapable. We see him on his knees when the drugs runs out and the dealers’ phones are off, desperately scrambling for one more shard of crack. We see him getting an extra hole punched in his belt as he rapidly loses weight, and then another a few days later. We watch him lie to, and hide from, his loved ones as, helpless, they are reduced to blind panic at his predicament.
Clegg’s manic spiral is related in a relentless present tense, in a prose that’s sparse and detached—and lit up by little flares of lyricism to conjure each hit. Horrified and enthralled, we see the world through Clegg’s increasingly despairing gaze—and a part of us longs as much as he does for another fix to provide some relief from the horror. Portrait is often collected with its sequel, Ninety Days, which portrays the period after Clegg’s release release from the rehab that saved him (and ends by explaining how life complicated the book’s redemptive ending – as with De Quincey and Ditlevsen). Although both are worth reading, it’s the first I find myself returning to, marvelling at its ability to conjure the insanity of addiction from inside its diabolical reality.
What do you think you have taken from these books, and how does that come through in your own work?
Well, of course I tried my best to steal from them whatever I could. I very consciously looked to Karr for inspiration in how to write candidly yet lovingly about an imperfect family. I learned a lot from Clegg—or I hope I did—about how to convey the terrifying experience of a runaway binge. I tried to be as brutally unsparing of my faults as both those writers. I’d like to think Jerry Stahl’s Permanent Midnight influenced me, too, particularly by encouraging me to try and be harrowing and funny at once.
But naturally I wanted to write something original, so I hope my reading—as much as helping me imitate the virtues of good addiction memoirs—showed me how to avoid the form’s worst foibles. Instead of telling the story from the viewpoint of an enlightened paragon of recovery—which would have made it fiction, anyway—I decided to do something I hadn’t seen in addiction memoir: fashion an unreliable, often ignorant, sometimes even deranged narrator, who seems to have no idea how much he’s betraying his hypocrisies and self-deceptions. (Towards the end of the project, I read Ditlevsen and—although slightly disappointed to discover I hadn’t been as innovative as I thought—the success of her experiment encouraged me to think I was on the right track.) Then there’s my book’s ending and its ambivalent relationship with redemption—which I won’t say any more about, in case anyone’s interested enough to read it and find out what I mean, but which I think makes it a little different from other addiction memoirs.
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Although I don’t mind if the book’s called an addiction memoir, in the course of writing it I came to think that wasn’t quite right. I drew as much on another tradition: memoirs about loss of faith, like Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son and Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal? And, in fact, drugs are absent from most of the book’s action, which is about my sometimes difficult childhood as the son of an evangelical preacher, growing up (or failing to), the catastrophe of losing my faith in my teens—and then my desperate search for salvation elsewhere. Drugs were just the most destructive of the several wrong places I looked; others were literature and women, or the fantasies I projected onto them. Ultimately I think my book’s about or relationship with the past that shaped us: how hard it is to move on, and how hard to return. And in that sense my story’s the usual one: we all grow up in what you could think of as more or less benign cults, indoctrinated in the worldview of the people who raise us. Then we leave, and we all have to try and learn how to see with our own eyes, and to decide what to try and keep and what to try and leave behind.
Is it harrowing, as a recovering addict, to read other writers’ addiction memoirs, or do you find comfort or catharsis in it?
If I have any faith now, it’s in literature’s ability to help us redeem even life’s darkest realities by bringing them into the light. I don’t like books that offer false optimism or glib solutions; give me authentic stories in which, as Blake says, “joy and woe are woven fine.” So my frequent experience while rereading these five wonderful books—as well as others by Stahl, Jamison and Liptrot—before this conversation was gratitude for their authors’ courage, honesty and skill.
Having said that, I did—while reading Ditlevsen’s Dependency—occasionally need to put the book down and take a few deep breaths. Even the second time around I found it so viscerally powerful that at times I was overwhelmed. It was every bit as gruelling and heartbreaking as the truth required it to be. And I can’t think of a better compliment to a writer of addiction memoir – or, indeed, any writer – than that.
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Matt Rowland Hill was born in 1984 in Pontypridd, South Wales, and grew up in Wales and England. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, New Statesman, the Telegraph and other outlets. He now lives in London. Original Sins is his first book.
Matt Rowland Hill was born in 1984 in Pontypridd, South Wales, and grew up in Wales and England. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, New Statesman, the Telegraph and other outlets. He now lives in London. Original Sins is his first book.
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