In the rooms of AA, recovery narratives save lives. In literature, they do something else.
It occurs daily – hourly in some places: people packed into church basements, listening to strangers telling their stories, mindful of a collective purpose and the rigid rules of the drunk’s narrative, outlined on page 58 of the big blue Alcoholics Anonymous book kept hidden in millions of nightstands, purses, and under passenger seats: “Our stories disclose in a general way what we were like, what happened, and what we are like now.” Each speaker rigorously fills his or her past into this outline, a recovery Mad Lib where the adjectives and pronouns may be different, but the stories are essentially and purposefully the same. It is the master narrative of recovery – the only means by which many believe they can be freed from their addiction. To an outsider, it may seem mundane, exhaustingly familiar, even pointless, the same story over and over and over again. But for those that frequent these rooms, who understand the protocol, who already have their dollar bill in hand well before the donation basket is passed, these stories are a matter of life or death. A necessity. These people are plagued by a disease that includes among its many symptoms a dangerously short memory that too easily allows the sufferer to slip back into their certain insanity of doing things over and over again, always expecting different results – an imagined future that never comes. It is a disease for which there is no immediate cure. For now, storytelling is their surest bet to a life of sobriety – a life of promise and potential, a life they never thought they’d be able to have when they were still staring down bottles that consumed them just as much as they consumed the various proofs inside. These stories – their form – serve a very specific function. In this world, narrative actually saves lives.
But what happens when these stories slip outside of these rooms and onto pages printed in the thousands – sometimes the millions – by publishers who hope to reach a wider audience than a trouble of drunks trying to stay sober? What happens when these stories are no longer functioning as medicine but as literature, when they’ve entered a world that values form as much as content and is constantly in search of the new, the shocking, and engrossing? Where writers are expected to push the boundary of narrative templates rather than conscientiously and transparently adhere to them?
Literary memoirs of alcoholism and recovery are nothing new, older even than the twelve-step recovery program developed to combat the disease. Authors, after all, were known as a sloshy bunch long before Wilde, Hemingway, and Hunter S. Thompson. It has always been a general rule amongst the literary set to “write what you know.” And many writers know booze, as well as the torment of being its slave. F. Scott Fitzgerald said it best in just sixteen words: “First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.” What more is there to say, really, about alcoholism in a literary framework? Enough to fill a rather substantial subgenre, apparently.
Amazon.com has a unique search for the genre, “Alcoholism Biographies and Memoirs,” which returns 413 titles. Eighteen of those titles are from 2011 alone and that list does not count among them highly anticipated works such as Kelle Groom’s I Wore The Ocean In The Shape of A Girl, due out on Simon & Schuster in June. Many in the past decade have made it onto the New York Times Best Seller List, including Smashed, Dry, Lit, and The Night of the Gun, among others.
For anyone who knows the world of AA as well as they do the art of close reading, it is obvious that almost all of these works – even the “best” among them – follow the rigid rules of the “drunkalogue,” the recovering alcoholic’s story, a compendium of war stories that qualifies one’s alcoholism, organized according to the rigid narrative formula outlined by the big book of Alcoholics Anonymous. This narrative structure (“what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now”) also tends to be the de rigueur for even the most celebrated works of the genre in question.
Still, memoirs of alcoholism aren’t condemned to the same literary prison of “genre” as, say, mystery or romance novels, even though memoirs of alcoholism are equally guilty of the same crime: being overtly formulaic (an artificial literary sin of sorts, since almost all narratives can be reduced to some sort of formula. It’s simply that some work more obviously adheres to a specific template than others). On the contrary, many works within the subset of alcoholism memoirs are deemed literary with a capital “L,” penned by highly regarded and award-winning authors.
Whenever I’m forced to cull a list of well-regarded drunkalogues, I instantly think of three titles from the past decade: Smashed, Lit, and Dry. Part of that is because of the books’ catchy, one-worded titles. The other reason is that they all sat atop the New York Times Bestseller List. When Picador released Augusten Burroughs’ Dry in 2003, Janet Maslin described it as “[a] wrenching, edifying journey” in The New York Times Book Review. Two years later, Koren Zailckas’s debut memoir, Smashed, hit shelves and Maslin also honored its released with a long review, complimenting Zailckas for being “lucid enough to model herself on Mary Karr, one of her teachers at Syracuse University.” Then, in 2009, it was Zailckas’s mentor, Karr, herself, who finally released her own drunkalogue, Lit, embraced by the same publication’s toughest critic, Michiko Kakutani, and much like Dry, regaled for its mix of humor and heaviness.
All three books certainly have their merits and Karr and Burroughs, in particular, exhibit the marks and enviable wordsmith of the era’s most excellent memoirists. But, at the end of the day, they are all built on the exact same narrative arc taught to millions of men and women in recovery: “What it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now.” Each story includes a scene of the memorable first drink, followed by a spiral downward into insanity that eventually leads to defeat and then, ultimately, rebirth and recovery.
Sure, the details of the narratives set them apart. Zailckas’s story, for instance, is very much about a young woman coming of age through her drinking problem, dressed with statistical information to place her tale in a greater cultural context and growing epidemic. Burroughs’ story is much more of a sardonic and wry tale about one’s man awkward journey through the steps of recovery and the culture of rehab. Karr’s is somewhere between the two, sprinkled with loads of literary escapades to boot. Still, all three works have indistinguishable emotional arcs and major plot points – the hallmarks of the classic drunkalogue: they take a drink, the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes them. More importantly, the ways in which each writer processes his or her battle with booze is exactly the same. In Lit, after a series of failed attempts at sobriety, Karr sits outside of a hospital after an AA meeting, when the realization finally sinks in that she is, in fact, an alcoholic and can’t ever drink again. “On those cold concrete steps,” she writes. “Some black river is rushing through me down to my fingertips…it’s dawning on me that liquor will never again salve my aches or loosen the knots that bind me so graciously, as it once did…and so it hits me: I have to kiss alcohol goodbye—no half measures, no quibbling, no champagne at the wedding, no valium at the dentist, no codeine for the cough.”
In Dry, Burroughs makes a similar observation after a stint of stubbornness in his requisite rehab center. “I sit quietly,” he writes. “And a strange and unfamiliar feeling comes to me. It is almost a feeling of relief, ears popping, pressure released. But it’s something else, too. I think for the first time I can see, right up there on the board, that I do drink much more than normal. And the pills I have to swallow to drink. Like my body is allergic to alcohol and is telling me I shouldn’t be drinking, but I do anyway.”
Furthermore, Karr and Burroughs frequently borrow from the lexicon of the twelve-step recovery that has designed their narratives. Karr mentions that she can’t take any “half measures” in abstaining from alcohol – a phrase taken directly from Chapter Five of Alcoholics Anonymous, where it states, “half measures availed us nothing.” Just two pages earlier, Karr also writes, “how cunning, baffling, and powerful my own logic can be.” Again, Karr borrows directly from the same section of the “Big Book” – referred to as such by members of AA – where it states “Remember that we deal with alcohol—cunning, baffling, powerful!” Even earlier in Lit, before Karr enters recovery, she references her affection for “geographic cures,” an AA term that refers to the empty effort of alcoholics to fix their problems by moving from town to town, but entirely unable to escape themselves, of course. While it’s a term that may be new to many, it is little more than a cliché for those who regularly toss around phrases like “one day at a time.” Still, does a writer of such esteem as Karr really have to rely on the buzzwords of recovery to tell her tale? Similarly, Burroughs’ refers to his alcoholism as an actual “allergy,” but fails to mention that such a concept is not new or hardly his – it is handed down in the very first chapter of the Big Book, known as “The Doctor’s Opinion,” where, in 1939, Dr. William Silkworth wrote that “We believe, and so suggested a few years ago, that the action of alcohol on these chronic alcoholics is a manifestation of an allergy.” In the end, Karr and Burroughes have simply filled out the same Mad Lib as millions of other recovering alcoholics. The only problem is that – they aren’t standing at podiums in rooms where their stories are serving a specific function for a specific group of people, as such recovery narratives have been designed to do, but they are putting their stories onto the page and hocking it as literature. And that new context makes such a narrative form entirely problematic and dubious.
So what is the point of all this decoding of such highly regarded literary works? To humiliate Karr, Burroughs, or their lauding critics for sinking to the level of clichés and storytelling templates? Or to accuse such authors of shamefully scooping up royalties for stories that they have not designed, but have been designed for them as a part of a greater process of collective recovery? Not at all. These critically acclaimed works pose a very important and worthwhile question that hasn’t been posed before: Is there a way to write a memoir of alcoholism outside the strict perimeters of the recovery narrative set forth by AA? And furthermore: Is there even another way to talk about or think about alcoholism, period?
I would argue that there is. One great example of how to push the literary drunkalogue beyond AA, to make it work just a bit harder, is David Carr’s 2008 memoir, The Night of The Gun. Despite having the same storytelling tools, Carr does not depend on the recovery narrative like the previously mentioned authors. In fact, he doubts it, picks it apart, examines every pore, and refuses to accept such a narrative as his truth the way the others do.
In the first chapter, “Gun Play,” Carr offers us memories – memories of an intervention, memories of wild nights, and most specifically, the memory of what he dubs “the night of the gun.” Like Burroughes and Karr, he also sprinkles his prose with a bit of AA-speak, stating that “every hangover begins with an inventory,” which immediately calls to mind the “personal inventory” that one must make during an AA fourth step, when the recovering alcoholic is ordered to write down every resentment he’s held against the world, as well as all the people, places, and things he’s violated throughout his miserable drinking history. Such an inventory is meant as a realization to keep one from drinking – a reminder of how vile and empty such an existence can be. It is often considered the most brutal part of the 12-step recovery process. However, Carr plays with this terminology. Instead, his “inventory” is little more than the drunken check up where one submits himself to a quick physical exam in the bathroom mirror the morning after to see if his eyes, ears, and nose are intact after a night when the majority of hours are passed in a black out. It’s the moment when Carr discovers broken glass lodged in his skull. He remembers he’d lost his job. Still, he’s alive. The inventory is complete. Time to score. And, in many ways, it is the truest inventory any drunk has ever conducted.
By the time we reach the tenth page, shortly after receiving these vignettes of his past – including the one about the night when Carr is sure his friend held him at gunpoint – Carr is already warning us: his memory sucks and we should not take him at his word. “Even if I had amazing recall, and I don’t, recollection is often just self-fashioning,” he writes. “Some of it is reflexive, designed to bury truths that cannot be swallowed, but other ‘memories’ are just redemption myths writ small.” To prove his point, Carr ends his chapter with another quick vignette. It is 2006, twenty years after the “night of the gun,” and he is sitting down with his friend, who he is sure was armed that night. His friend affirms that the entire story is true, with the exception, of course, of the gun. “I never owned a gun,” his friend says. “I think you might have had it.” Before launching us into the rest of his book, Carr tells us “this is a story about who had the gun.”
For the following 375 pages, Carr uses the tools of reportage — sixty videotaped interviews, legal and medical records, and countless interviews with relatives, friends, and witnesses – to deconstruct his personal drunkalogue. Throughout, Carr delivers brief vignettes from what could be parts of his own recovery narrative. However, he breaks up these sections with portions that include the evidence provided by his investigatory work – information and facts culled from other people and record searches that call these stories into question. In one part, Carr remembers the last time he smoked crack was the night before he checked himself into rehab. He is sure that it was a cold night and that he had his two newborn daughters, stuffed into their tiny snowsuits, in the backseat of his car. After returning, he writes, “I could see their breath. God had looked after the twins, and by proxy me, but I realized at that moment that I had made a mistake He could not easily forgive. I made a decision at that instant never to be that man again.”
Carr’s realization of his trespasses – his entry into recovery – isn’t unlike those made in Lit or Dry. But where Carr’s diverges is in the following section, when he interrupts the emotional charge of his recovery narrative to go over the sedate facts of that evening: the make, model and mileage of the car he thought he was driving, but which he’d actually lost on the streets of Minneapolis months earlier. And then, the day when his baby girls were born: April 15, 1988. What these facts reveal to Carr is that he’s written “a Joseph Campbell monomyth in which our hero embraces his road of trials, begins to attain his new goals, and hotfoots it back to the normal world. In that paradigm, my recovery was not just an act of self-indulgence followed by self-realization, but a kind of mitzvah to the world. Nice story if you can live it. Or prove it…That part about me straightening out right after they were born? A fantasy. Total bullshit, a myth, but not the kind Joseph Campbell had in mind.”
By poking and prodding at the recovery narrative, Carr’s book achieves something more, something greater than the typical drunkalogue. It is not simply a book about a man suffering from a disease, but about the greater question of how memory does and does not serve us – all of us, drunks or not. It is about the stories we tell ourselves so that we can continue to live with ourselves, rather than in spite of ourselves. And it is about how these stories are constructed, and how the contrived parts actually reveal the most about our humanity, particularly when we finally acknowledge them as such. In many ways, our fictions are our greatest truths. And is that not the greatest aim of literature?
Of course, a heavily investigated deconstruction of the recovery narrative is only one way to suggest a method that diverges from the norm, and not one that all memoirists can achieve or should be expected to write. But it is a start – an example of how one writer found a way to challenge the template that tends to plague the genre. And, ultimately, as writers, it is our job to be pushing the boundaries of narrative form.
One reason why we may not be doing so may have to do with the program of AA itself. In a recent New York Times article, “Challenging the second ‘A’ in A.A.,” David Coleman uses the slew of recently released drunkalogues, including Lit and Dry, as an example of how the anonymity of AA is eroding. His article ultimately asks the question: is this a good thing? For the world of literary drunkalogues, I’d argue that it is. Maybe part of the reason that we’ve withheld any real criticism of these works has largely been due to the strict rules of anonymity that AA demands. We aren’t supposed to talk about the workings of AA outside of the rooms. But as soon as these narratives end up on the printed page, the game has changed and authors should not be protected by the sanctity of a program whose rules they’ve already broken. Why should the critic be held to rules the writer has managed to so easily escape? Thanks to such an erosion, maybe we can finally start talking about memoirs of alcoholism in a smart fashion.
Memoir, generally, finds itself under attack as it dominates the literary marketplace. Some of these attacks are unfair, slightly tinged with jealousy on the part of the critic who hurls terms like “narcissism” and cold, elitist questions like “why should we care about what you have to say” at memoirists who don’t hold the same status as say, Winston Churchill or Bill Clinton. Still, these critics are right to remind writers that it is the job of the memoirist to do more than emotionally vomit onto the page. A good memoirist challenges her memory, is fully aware of the narrative she is constructing around her life, and is careful not to essentialize her experience. Furthermore, for the memoirist who feels compelled to write about her history of alcoholism, it is important to remember that what may work in the rooms of recovery isn’t necessarily right for the page. And it’s our job to find new and better ways to deliver such potentially rich tales.