If you’re not famous already, your contemporary memoir had better feature a good dose of fringe activity. Forget about the struggles you had growing up in rural Pennsylvania, or your unrequited obsession with your high school English teacher, or that spring break you got drunk and caroused Mexico. In a memoirist, we want someone whose story is high on the Richter scale of pain, or else the earthquake doesn’t register.
No one would argue that Rob Roberge, author of the compelling new memoir Liar, hasn’t spiked the scale here and there. A sufferer of bipolar and psychotic episodes from an early age, Roberge self-medicated with alcohol and opiates to the point of severe addiction. He writes of his college days:
You’ve been up for almost a week, and you don’t remember any of what a friend later tells you that you said and did the last two or three days you were awake. It’s like a drunken blackout, but longer and worse, since apparently you were acting “pretty full-blown crazy,” according to your friend. He’s a few years older than you and his ex-wife is a schizophrenic.
For most of us, the world holds plenty of mystery. Roberge’s greatest mystery is his own brain, which leads to a lifetime of looking for answers, for solace. You wouldn’t wish this on anyone.
One place where Roberge looks for answers is in music. A guitarist and songwriter, he migrates through many bands over the years, searching for something between a purpose and a good time. He writes of the aftermath of a gig in which he posed as a female member in an all-girl band, a ruse that resulted in him getting punched:
At Melissa’s apartment, you are still dressed up while she gently puts ice on your broken nose. She buys more liquor than you would have needed on a normal night, but you are in pain. Your nose is broken. This is the fifth time—you know what a broken nose feels like and you have learned to fix them yourself in front of a mirror, which is what you do that night in her bathroom, your mascara raccooning around your eyes like Alice Cooper.
Melissa is one of many women who discover a mothering instinct when confronted with Roberge’s needs. It is a gift he can’t afford to refuse.
Roberge’s wife Gayle seems to catalyze his ability to wean himself from addiction—his sobriety lasts for more than a decade—but as Gayle’s ability to be there for him recedes, not even their deep connection can save him. After a serious betrayal of her, he writes:
You are going to kill yourself. You’re a year into your relapse, after nearly fifteen years clean, and you’re a liar—you’ve lied to almost everyone you know. You are, yet again, the person you used to be. The man you despised. It comes down to two choices: You can either be a junkie or you can clean up and be the person you were for fifteen years. Cleaning up seems impossible. The thought of walking into an AA meeting and taking a newcomer chip makes you sick with shame.
For Roberge, the path to salvation is as perilous as it is unending, with a new rock bottom always just one bad turn away.
The book consists of countless short bits, never more than a few pages, and they’re all over the place in the chronology of Roberge’s life. Some are random items related to death, extinction, and suicide. One example: “1988: Chet Baker, trumpet player and singer, dies from a fall from an Amsterdam balcony while under the influence of heroin and cocaine.” Another: “2011: The eastern cougar, native to eastern Canada and New England, is declared extinct.” The author’s own potential self-extinction hovers over every word. Are the confusion, addiction, psychosis, and assaults on those he loves worth it? It’s debatable, and he debates.
After a half century’s glorification of, shall we say, creative mindsets, it seems the least we can ask of a work loosely dubbed an “addiction memoir” is that no one reading it will want to switch places with the author. Liar succeeds in many ways, but especially in this one. There’s little pleasant about the experience of being bipolar, or being addicted to painkillers, or not knowing the moment when either will reduce your life to a nightmare. Still, the reader’s relationship with Roberge propels this story. I couldn’t help but remember my own (far less dramatic) blackouts, when everything could’ve gone wrong but didn’t. You survived, both you and Roberge are still here. That counts for something. Maybe it even means something.