Propelled by sharp wit and fierce hilarity, Jamie Brickhouse’s Dangerous When Wet: A Memoir of Booze, Sex, and My Mother is a smart, deftly crafted memoir that chronicles his intimate, near-fatal journey through alcoholism, and living HIV positive. At the heart of the book is Jamie’s volatile relationship with his flamboyant, larger-than-life Texan mother Mama Jean, whose intense, complicated love for him is as narcissistic as it is selfless.
Mary Karr listed Dangerous When Wet as “required reading” in The Art of Memoir, praising the book as “a blisteringly funny, wrenching account of wrestling way too close to, and later loose from, booze, sex and drugs and his adorable, infuriating mother… It’s packed with multiple fine threads in a rich tapestry.”
Dangerous When Wet was recently released in trade paperback from St. Martin’s Press. A former publishing-house publicist, Jamie’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, Lambda Literary Review, TheFix.com, Addiction/Recovery eBulletin, the Huffington Post, and the Latin American travel magazine, Travesia. As an award-winning oral storyteller and comedian, Jamie has performed with The Moth, Literary Death Match, and recorded voice-overs for Beavis and Butthead.
I recently had the privilege of speaking with Jamie about his approach to humor, memoir writing, and overcoming addiction and stigma.
The Rumpus: Mama Jean is such a dynamic presence throughout Dangerous When Wet. How did you convey her personality so vividly on the page? Did you rely more on your memories with her or did you turn to journals or interviews with family members?
Jamie Brickhouse: I relied mostly on memory, and even though I didn’t use any of her letters to me while I was living in London during my junior in college, I referred to them for her voice. She used to claim that she couldn’t write her way out of a paper sack, but when I went and reread her letters, she came to life because she wrote the way she spoke. Dangerous When Wet came out four years after she died. As vivid as she was in those letters, she was a 4D version of them in real life. You don’t soon forget someone like that. Also, I’m also a storyteller, and I’d been dining out on Mama Jean stories for years, long before I began writing this book. I’m a good mimic and could do Mama Jean well, so her personality was already ingrained in my personality. When it was time to recreate her on the page, I’d had a lifetime of preparation.
Rumpus: Your use of humor and wit is striking. Even when reflecting upon some of the darker and more painful experiences from your life, such as the suicide attempt, there is an undercurrent of humor present. How did your work in theater and oral storytelling help you establish that narrative voice?
Brickhouse: I know for some writers that finding their voice on the page can be difficult, and certainly I had lots of other areas of writing the book that were difficult for me, but the voice part of it came naturally before I even realized I had it. I think more than anything, more than being a sometime performer and an oral storyteller, my voice is my sense of humor. The book is funny because I can’t help but find the humor in things. I’ve always been able to see the absurdity and humor in any situation no matter how dark.
Rumpus: In a conversation with Patrick Ryan for Interview Magazine, you revealed that:
Reconstructing my stories with accuracy, verisimilitude, and flair was certainly hard work, but the bigger task was making sense of my history, how those scenes connected to the meaning of my life and the story I was telling. Often the revelation was in the writing.
How did these revelations deepen your insight into the relationship with your mother, the roots of your alcohol addiction, and sexuality?
Brickhouse: In terms of “the revelation is in the writing” remark, when I wrote the story about the time Mama Jean told me that there are only two kinds of sex, oral and anal, I finally saw it from her side. I was nineteen and had recently come out to her. This was in 1987 when the AIDS crisis was in full bloom. For years, I only saw the story as a hilarious example of how audacious and inappropriate Mama Jean could be. It seems obvious now, but when wrote about it, I realized how terrified she was that I’d get AIDS. All that she cared about was the bottom line, that I was gay and that there was this killer plague going on, and she didn’t want to lose me. The “wet” in Dangerous When Wet has three connotations: drunk, sexual, and water. I have an innate fear of water. It’s just one of those fears that we all have that are ingrained in us. As I started writing about it, my fear of water grew into a symbol of my alcoholism.
Rumpus: I think of that moment at the end of the memoir when you and your partner, Michahaze, were visiting Fire Island, having a wonderful time by the ocean, and then there you are looking at the moonlit white-tipped waves, imagining them for a moment as “electrified centipedes.” You actually say aloud at one point, “the sea is hungry and it wants you.” Was that one of those moments when you were able to acknowledge that fear?
Brickhouse: Absolutely. It was then that I began to view my alcoholism as the encroaching sea, and I have to constantly dart in and out of the surf lest it take me completely. I could jump into ocean, but each time I swam in it, there was no guarantee I could make it back to shore. My fear of water, I’ve come to realize, is fear itself. Specifically fear of the unknown, which is where the bulk of fear resides. My alcoholism is always rushing toward me like the ocean, sometimes with enchanting whitecaps that shimmer in the moonlight, sometimes with terrifying black waves ten stories high, but always ready to wash away whatever I’ve created.
Rumpus: What was the process of drafting and structuring the memoir like for you? After you had completed the different sections, did you then go back and reorder them in any particular way? I think of that fascinating moment during the intervention scene after your hospital release from detox. You arrive home to find Mama Jean waiting, along with two of your oldest girlfriends, including Janine, a psychiatrist who specializes in addiction. As she explains the different stages of alcoholism, you also inform the reader how specific chapters of the book align with those stages. I found this added a smart, compelling aspect to the shape of the memoir. Did you make this decision at some point during the revision?
Brickhouse: That’s an astute observation. When I got to that point in the story, I realized I had been writing about the five stages of alcoholism, and it was a good idea to tell the reader about those stages, while pointing to those previous stories that served as illustrative examples of each stage. When I go out for a couple of drinks after work and then end up getting drunk and doing coke, and then getting a brand-new Persian lamb coat stolen, that’s stage two. The structure of the book is chronological with short, episodic chapters that can almost stand alone. I sold the book on proposal with about four sample chapters, and the structure that I had in that proposal, though some chapters changed, the overall structure of dividing the book into four stages stayed the same. I didn’t think of this until now, but in a way it is kind of the four stages of alcoholism, including the fifth stage, relapse, in the fourth part. As far as the number of drafts, I turned in the first chunk of the book and I knew it was way too long. A difficult aspect of memoir is that you have the burden of too much information, so you really have to decide what serves the story. In that early chunk that I sent my editor, he said that it was way too long and there were a lot of cases in which I had three stories that illustrated the same point. I had to choose the strongest one. That helped a lot early on, and I continued writing with that in mind to avoid too much fatty tissue.
Rumpus: Throughout the period of recovery from your alcoholism, you had a rich network of support, from family to childhood friends, along with the enduring loyalty and love of Michahaze. There is this very poignant moment in the book when Dave, your rehab counselor, asks if Michahaze is “your emotional home.” How significant was having a solid emotional home in your recovery as you healed and reclaimed your life and sense of self?
Brickhouse: The “emotional home,” as Dave, my therapist in rehab, said so well and so beautifully, I have with Michahaze is priceless. I can’t say enough about how important that was and has been for my recovery. Mama Jean set me up, for better and for worse, to need that kind of unconditional love. In the memoir, I describe this Czechoslovakian glass bowl, which I call the rehab bowl, that I have in my home, which is very much a symbol of both my sobriety and that emotional home that I have with Michahaze. When I was in rehab in Palm Springs, we were given a few hours each week to go out on the town on our own, and I visited this antique store, saw the bowl and fell in love with it. I called Michahaze because I knew he would love it too, and he was like, “Oh you should get it,” but I couldn’t buy it because the rehabilitation center didn’t allow us to carry any credit cards or anything more than forty dollars. So he called the store and bought it. It has sat on our dining room table ever since. When I was in my third relapse after rehab, a drinks date I had was cancelled. I was at work and thought of that rehab bowl sitting at home and how it was a symbol of my sobriety, and of Michahaze’s love for me. I looked up at the ceiling and said, “Uncle.” I haven’t had a drink since.
Rumpus: When we met at a PEN America event earlier in the year, you mentioned the powerful response that some readers have had to Dangerous When Wet, particularly mothers of gay sons that you met during the book tour for the memoir’s hardcopy edition. Could you elaborate on these responses? Was this different from how you originally thought readers might connect to Dangerous When Wet?
Brickhouse: I always said from the beginning that the main audience for the book, in addition to the recovery crowd, is the Will & Grace crowd, gay men and straight women. I’ve heard from beaucoup gay men who love the story and think it’s funny, but most of them don’t express how they felt about the book’s darker side, the sad and moving parts. This is not to say that they weren’t moved, which I think is a typical male reaction, gay or straight. But the women I’ve heard from and spoken to connected more to the emotional aspects. There’s a maternal pull that speaks to them. They love the mother-son relationship, and I’ve heard from some mothers whose sons are addicts, some of whom are in recovery and others in the throes of the disease. Some of these mothers said, which was very touching to me, that the memoir helped them understand the disease of alcoholism and grapple with what they’re going through with their own sons. Then there were a couple of mothers who felt that their sons may be headed in that direction, and they’ve given the book to their sons to read.
Rumpus: You don’t talk about being stigmatized for being HIV positive throughout the memoir, though that is a very significant part of the story. Could you describe your thoughts in revealing that aspect of your life?
Brickhouse: I’ve been HIV positive since 2002. I was semi-closeted about my status. Michahaze knew and a few close friends. I didn’t tell anyone in my family or anyone I worked with. When I started writing this book, I asked myself, am I going to tell that? I didn’t really want anyone to know. I was ashamed of it. Even though I didn’t judge anyone else who was HIV positive. Logically, I knew that there should be no shame or stigma around it simply because of how it’s contracted, through sex or sharing needles. A big part of the reason that I was so closeted about that secret was because I didn’t want Mama Jean to know. That was her biggest fear, going back to that earlier scene in the book when she tells me that there are two kinds of sex, oral and anal. She asked me at least once, maybe twice, if I were positive, and if I were, would I tell her? I lied, and said no. But like my alcoholism, if I had to face her with it, then I’d have to face it. Even though I was taking care of myself in taking the HIV medications, I wasn’t really owning it. She died not knowing. When I met with an established writer after she read the book proposal, which didn’t contain my HIV status, I told her that I’m positive. She said, “you’ve got to put that in there.” She was right. I could’ve told the story without revealing it, but it’s a richer, more honest story with that part of my story included. It’s been liberating because I don’t care who knows anymore. I’ve been lucky. When I was diagnosed there were already good drugs, so I’ve never been sick. I take one pill a day, and I’ve never had side effects. Sometimes I forget I have it. These days it’s a manageable condition. Chances are I won’t die from it. Yet I know tons of people who are semi-closeted and won’t tell their family because they don’t want them to worry, but I think it’s more about shame than anything else. If they had another disease, they’d tell their parents and people close to them. There are various shades. It’s everyone’s personal decision. I’m not saying that everyone should be as open as I am, but I think that the more people who are open about it, the stigma will dissipate. Along with the fear of it. There’s still this gasp factor, like it’s the worst thing, but it isn’t. There’s still a judgmental factor, I think also because of the way that it’s contracted, a “well, you didn’t have to get that.”
Rumpus: In an article for POZ, you wrote that you contracted HIV for “being human,” which I really appreciated reading because it’s comments like those which help break through that shame and that judgement. Although you never told Mama Jean your status, you did tell your father. Your father is an important part of the memoir, but he doesn’t have much of a dramatic presence throughout the book. How did he influence your alcoholism and life?
Brickhouse: My father is somewhat peripheral throughout Dangerous When Wet, because Mama Jean definitely takes center stage, as she did in real life. He certainly had a big personality as well, and a great sense of humor. I do allude in the book that a bone of contention throughout their marriage was his drinking. It’s there, everything I wrote about in the book is honest, but I didn’t focus too heavily on his drinking because he was still alive when I wrote the memoir. When Mama Jean caught me during my first blackout, she said, “you better watch it, because it’s on your father’s side.” Both he and his father liked to drink way too much. He was always supportive of me and loved me unconditionally as well, but he let Mama Jean take the lead, especially with the whole alcoholism thing. My dad was always in her shadow. The day my rehab counselor saw the long shadow that Mama Jean cast, he said “you need a daddy.” He wanted him to come alone for a rehab visit, and I flat out said no because I knew that she would never stand for that. I didn’t even bother to ask him. A few months after she died, I wrote him that her love for me sometimes left little room for him and me, but now that she was gone, I hoped we would grow closer. That happened during those last five years of his life that I got to spend with him. Ironically, it was Mama Jean who always wanted to know everything. She wanted the absolute truth, and she wanted me to tell her everything whether I was ready or not. She died not knowing many of my secrets revealed in the book. Although it came out after my father died, he read the full manuscript. Ironically, he died knowing everything about me.
Rumpus: So you have another memoir in the works now. What can you reveal about it at this stage? Do you have other projects going on?
Brickhouse: It’s about my relationship with my father. Right now the working title is I Favor My Daddy. We’ll see if that sticks or not, but it’s a fun title for now. I’m definitely a combination of both of my parents, but I’m more like my father than Mama Jean. I’m more of a full-blown version of him, for better and for worse. I became all of the things he didn’t become. It’s about my relationship with him in the last years after she died, with some flashbacks to the past, and it’s about their marriage, which I didn’t dwell on in Dangerous When Wet, but will be center stage in parts of the new book. It’s also about the end of their era. There are no grandchildren so when he died it was the end of the line. Also, the house that they built with her money was their dream house. He remained there after she died even though it was too big and too expensive. He didn’t want to let go of it, so it became a living memorial to her. The house itself is a character in the memoir. Each chapter in the first section of the book takes place in a different room of the house, focusing on the events that happened in each of those rooms, as well as the meaning of the objects and furniture in those rooms.
I’ve also been performing stories from Dangerous When Wet at the Moth and several other storytelling venues. I’m a two-time Moth StorySLAM winner, and did the Literary Death Match in the San Antonio festival and won that. On June 1st, I hosted a storytelling show at the Duplex called “Dangerous When Wet: Hilarious & Heartbreaking Stories of the Lush Life,” where I performed tales adapted from the book along with six other storytellers telling booze-themed stories. I’m also working on turning these stories into a one-man show, along with a script for a film adaptation.