Voices on Addiction: A Conversation with Andrea Jarrell

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In her debut memoir, I’m the One Who Got Away, Andrea Jarrell is on the run. Just months old, she runs even before she can walk as her mom plans and then carries out their escape from her charming but alcoholic and violent husband. They change their names and hide, becoming entangled in an unusual bond of survival that proves a burden for her mother’s happiness. After her dad re-enters their lives, Jarrell is running again, headlong into her first serious relationship with a man who drinks too much. It’s not until she’s in her thirties and meets and marries Brad that she seems happily settled into the married life she hopes she can have despite her mom’s experience. But that vision is soon destroyed when she discovers just before their first anniversary that Brad is a secret drinker. This time Jarrell doesn’t run, but stays to do the hard work of recovery.

Jarrell’s prose is fresh and engaging. Her voice is intimate and honest. Her characters, especially her own, have agency with their own motivations and flaws. Jarrell’s search for understanding ultimately arrives at authentic compassion. Recently named a 2017 Foreward Indies Finalist, don’t let I’m the One Who Got Away get away from you. There’s no one I’m not rooting for by the end of the book to have a life deserving of love.

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The Rumpus: How was your recent book tour? I always wonder how an author decides what to read from her book? Yours has so many great nuggets.

Andrea Jarrell: The book tour was fabulous. I’ve been to a dozen cities and have had other events like book clubs. In terms of how I choose what to read, I try to pick scenes that feel complete and can engage the listener. The primary scene that I’ve read a lot is the Italy travel story. It gets at some of the central themes really well in terms of the relationship between me and my mom but also the awareness of my own sexual desire and desirability. It ends with the Italian guy saying “Marry me, Ahn-dre-ah,” as the train pulls away so it’s kind of comic and people laugh quite a bit. But a funny thing happened recently. My mom came to my last reading with my daughter, who’s twenty-two, so I was not going to read sex scenes between her father and me. My mom also had friends with her. My mom’s incredibly supportive but the book’s been hard for her so I ended up reading the scene where I meet my dad for the first time. It’s all about his Hello, darlin’ charm and what good girls really want.

Rumpus: I think you did a fabulous job of portraying your mom. It’s so honest but filled with compassion, too, and she’s such a strong person except for falling for your dad’s charm and not just once.

Jarrell: Yes, so many people say, “OMG, I want to meet your mom.” She’s definitely a hero in the story and she understands or has come to understand that’s how people see her in the book. One of her friends this past weekend said this makes me love your mom more. But my mom is a very private person. It took her awhile to read the book or even to decide that she wanted to. But once she had, one of the things she said to me was “I’d forgotten how much I told you.”

Rumpus: Oh, interesting. She didn’t realize the extent of any burden you were feeling from all her sharing.

Jarrell: She didn’t. What she hoped was that she was protecting me and carrying all that herself. It’s obvious to me now that I’m a mother myself, and not only a mother, but that I’ve raised my children and am writing this from an older vantage point. I see it all differently. I see it from the perspective of being a mother not just as a child. That gives me even more respect for what my mother did.

Rumpus: What’s the most difficult question you’ve had to tackle from an audience?

Jarrell: Inevitably with a memoir, you get the question, What does your family think? It’s a little uncomfortable for me because it speaks both to that question and process. People want to know if I showed it to my parents or family before it was published. And I didn’t. I just did this reading event with Gayle Brandeis, who blurbed my book, and she talked about how she gave her family veto power. I just did not want to do that.

Rumpus: In some ways, if you had, it would have undermined the whole point of the book, which is about escaping and being on your own. You might have been sucked back into that whole dynamic.

Jarrell: Exactly. I didn’t want to be edited in that way. I needed to tell my story. What I do say is in writing memoir I try to be the hardest on myself. I’m trying not to sugarcoat anything. I want to understand my motives and I’m not trying to make myself out to be the hero. But I did have to get approval for the essay in the Modern Love column in the New York Times. Before I ever really started putting the book together, I had to go to my mom and my husband and say this is what I’m writing. That essay, “A Measure of Desire,” has the key themes in the book about my husband’s sobriety, about sexuality, about my mom and wanting a different life from hers. They gave me their blessing. The hardest thing was my dad who I did not tell about this book until it was happening. Then, also to your point about undermining the book, I couldn’t be somebody who was hiding from my dad. That was the whole point of the book, to actually come out of hiding. Then right before the book came out, I published another essay in the Times.

Rumpus: Yes. The one called “Tending to the Rituals of My Lost and Found Father.” I loved it. I thought it was a beautiful rendering of a difficult relationship and circumstances and getting to the other side. Did your father read it?

Jarrell: Thank you. I appreciate that. I ended up reading that full essay to him on the phone and then sending it to him. Probably one of the harder things I’ve done. He listened. I’ve been really, really lucky. Even when my parents don’t really like what I’m writing or are hurt by it, they’ve kept being supportive of me and proud of me and that’s just an amazing thing.

Rumpus: I love the line, “The day my mother first felt me move inside her, she began plotting to leave my father.” It’s such a powerful hook, a natural opening line to the entire book, but it appears on page eight. Why did you choose instead to begin with the murder of Susannah, a single mother you didn’t know well, who was shot by her jealous boyfriend in the house across the road from yours in Maine?

Jarrell: I did that for several reasons. I’d grown up with the story of my mother leaving my father and how she knew as soon as she was pregnant that she was going to have to leave. I’d been told it over and over, so as I writer, I felt it was going over the same territory again and again, like gum that’s lost its flavor. It felt like a borrowed story, my mother’s story, and I needed to make this book my story. Another part was that I didn’t want to start as a child in a traditional way, you know, by saying I grew up in a log cabin and this is my story. I wanted to push against a predictable structure. Somewhat related to that, I wanted to be present on the page as a grown-up individual. I wanted the readers to know this is who is going to take you on this journey, a grown-up person with a grown-up perspective. If you start as an embryo, there’s a whole lot of heavy lifting you have to do to get to be a grown-up protagonist.

Rumpus: In that first chapter, “Just We Two,” the grown-up protagonist avoids befriending Susannah and her son because they are too much of a mirror to her own relationship with her single mother, something the narrator had worked hard to escape. Can you talk about the natural risk of over dependence developing between a single mother and a child and when did this narrator begin to become aware of it?

Jarrell: That’s interesting. First of all, it didn’t occur to me until I was in my thirties, had kids of my own, and was in 12-step rooms that I’d felt the burden for my mother’s happiness. I can remember clearly blurting it out in a meeting. I had never realized it before. Another part is that I wasn’t a typical teenager. You know, the reason teenagers are rebellious is that they’re differentiating from their parents. They’re becoming individuals. I didn’t do that. I did not separate myself or really question the things that I had accepted as truths until I was in my thirties. Really, not until I was married. I believed my mother was perfect. I had to believe that in some ways. So, I didn’t question what she did, and if I felt an inkling of questioning anything, it made me really uncomfortable. Then, in my twenties when I moved to New York and was living on my own and I got into this relationship with the character Wes, I never told my mother things. I just wasn’t comfortable with my own adulthood in front of her. Again, it wasn’t until I married my husband, got into the 12-step rooms, and began to do the work, that I was really growing up, a lot later than what I think of as normal. That’s when I started coming out of hiding. It’s a huge part of the book, right?

Rumpus: Yes, that makes sense. I did feel that in the chapter, “Travelling Companions”—the Italian scenes you like to read at events—the narrator begins to question the appropriateness of their mom-daughter relationship. For example, when they’re in the gondola together and the narrator wonders, Why am I here with my mom instead of either her being with a man or me being with a boy. There’s a kind of second-guessing whether their relationship is normal. Sometimes, it’s not even clear that you’re the daughter because she’s such a young mom. But we learn that you both clearly need each other because you end up sharing a single bed in one hotel rather than be separated in two different rooms.

Jarrell: You’re absolutely right. That story gets right to the heart of exactly what I’m talking about, the burden of her happiness. At that time, what I thought was if my mom would just get married again, somebody else could make her happy. Then she would be taken care of, and I could turn my attention to myself. It’s kind of how I went along with her getting back together with my dad when I was still a senior in high school.

Rumpus: Speculation is a craft tool that you employ in your writing. It’s powerfully used throughout your book. The readers are really clued in because we get I imagined or perhaps so I don’t think the reader has any doubt that you are speculating. I think more nonfiction should do speculation. It’s sometimes the only way we can explore something that we either don’t remember or we don’t know anything about. From the beginning you do it with imagining Susannah and Craig (the neighbors) and how they first met and then later on you use speculation a little differently in that wonderful essay, “A Measure of Desire,” speculating who would be a better wife than you for your husband. In these ways, we get to know the interior world of the narrator, her insecurities, her fears, her hopes. It feels very natural in this book because the narrator’s life starts off in a mystery of some sort because she has an absent father and only her mother’s stories about both his charm and violence. So can you talk a little bit about using speculation in nonfiction and whether you found that a really valuable device in your particular story?

Jarrell: A couple things, starting as a fiction writer, I was used to trying to be in somebody else’s head. But as a nonfiction writer, you can’t really be in somebody else’s head, so the only thing you can do is speculate and give some rationale of why that might be right. That it’s based on something. One of my writing teachers once said, “You don’t have to know everything.” Basically saying that you don’t know something can be just as powerful as saying that you do and dwelling in that place of speculation can inform the story, fill out the story. When you don’t know what’s going on you can still tell the reader what’s happening in the moment through speculation. It also reveals that this is a character who does this, who is nosey. [Laughing] I thought maybe you were going to also suggest that scene where I imagine my dad in front of his mirror getting ready before I meet him for the first time.

Rumpus: Yes, that’s another good one.

Jarrell: That is probably the place where I go most out of the norm of nonfiction. My dad had told me about the ice bath trick he regularly did to preserve his good looks so I imagined him doing that and then I saw what he wore when we met, so I imagined him picking out his clothes that morning. I first wrote that scene in fiction, but then I needed to make it work because I felt the reader needed that sense of him. It makes him a real person that he gets up in the day and he has a process and he thinks about things. He needs to feel real in the story because he’s so unreal in my life because he’s been absent for a good portion of it.

Rumpus: By the end of the book the reader understands how sobriety can operate to heal and reclaim relationships, but even sobriety is not a quick road to complete recovery. There’s new work to be done as alcohol is removed from the dynamics. Can you talk about that with respect to the narrator’s husband and her father?

Jarrell: First of all, I had so much recovery that I needed to do that wasn’t about somebody else’s drinking. That to me was one of the main turning points in the book. You start to see that she is going to pull herself out of all of this when she really faces that she has to grow up and not think that somebody else is going to save her. And what’s interesting is that as much as I wanted to be married and have kids and everything, that it’s not until I’ve realized that I’m going to be okay on my own that I really start to get better. It’s the work that has to be done once the cloud of whatever substance is being used is gone and removed from the equation. You’re still left with the whole reason somebody is numbing themselves in the first place. What hole are they trying to fill? That’s hard work. In our society, we are all humans and we want to avoid pain and discomfort and fear and so we figure out different ways whether it’s obsessively working or social media or eating or shopping or whatever. So towards the end of the book the story is not about we don’t drink anymore but really about how my husband and I face what comes up without giving into our fears. For example, in that “Measure of Desire” chapter, it would be easy for me to just stay in that place of oh, maybe some other woman is better for him than to actually accept that whether I’ve earned this happiness or not, I’ve been given it so what am I going to do with it. How am I going to live with my eyes wide open?

Rumpus: The mother character is complex and a source of the narrator’s anxiety. She saves them by escaping Nick and their marriage, but then later remarries him despite knowing he’s an alcoholic and that he’s still possessive and manipulative. Of course, he’s still charming. Did the narrator worry that she was making the same choice when she doesn’t leave her husband after he confesses that he’s a secret alcoholic just before their first anniversary? How does she separate her mother’s story from her own in that moment? Did you want to run?

Jarrell: Hmm. No, I definitely didn’t want to run. Instead, I wanted it not to be true. I loved my husband so much and felt that he was so right that I couldn’t reconcile it. That’s what I’m trying to do in “The Proposal” chapter, too. I couldn’t reconcile the fact that he was just so not like any of the other experiences with all these alcoholics in my life, and I couldn’t figure out what to do. It’s interesting, did I want to run? Because when I think back about it, even though I was so angry, I felt like such a jerk, I felt like a dupe, that I had been tricked in some ways, not tricked by him, but tricked by life. So rather than running I felt completely immobilized, like…

Rumpus: There was nowhere to turn?

Jarrell:  Exactly. That’s really well put. So I think that sitting in that paralysis for a couple of months is how I finally moved again. I’d been to 12-step rooms before so I knew them. I was so resentful that my husband was going off to his program meetings that I had to have something to do, so I started going to my program again.

Rumpus: Recovery can be kind of a mistress at first. Would you agree?

Jarrell: Yeah, and what I say at the end of that chapter took me years to realize. I kept thinking that I should have known, and maybe at some level I did, but after I was in recovery for awhile, years as I say, I realized it’s a good thing that I didn’t know or I didn’t let myself know because if I had, I would have maybe thought that he was going to be like Wes or my dad and thank God I didn’t think that. What’s unusual in our story that I have to remind myself is that even though my husband was a secret drinker, he immediately owned it. It wasn’t like we went through all this rehab or relapse or anything like that or we had part of our marriage where he was an ugly drunk. We just didn’t have that. So that is a huge, huge thing that I don’t take lightly and recognize as very different than a lot of people’s stories. Then the next phase in the book and in my life is that we’re in recovery but here is this person who is now distant. We were so in love and now he’s distant and is this what it’s going to be like? We have to find our way back to each other in sobriety.

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Voices on Addiction is a column devoted to true personal narratives of addiction, curated by Kelly Thompson, and authored by the spectrum of individuals affected by this illness. Through these essays, interviews, and book reviews we hope—in the words of Rebecca Solnit—to break the story by breaking the status quo of addiction: the shame, stigma, and hopelessness, and the lies and myths that surround it. Sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, adult children, extended family members, spouses, friends, employers or employees, boyfriends, girlfriends, neighbors, victims of crimes, and those who’ve committed crimes as addicts, and the personnel who often serve them, nurses, doctors, social workers, therapists, prison guards, police officers, policy makers and, of course, addicts themselves: Voices on Addiction will feature your stories. Because the story of addiction impacts us all. It’s time we break it. Submit here.


Lia Woodall dabbles in the world of creative nonfiction, gravitating more and more to the experimental. Her award-winning essays have appeared in Under the Gum Tree, Literal Latte, Sonora Review, and South Loop Review. She is at work on her memoir "Leaving Twinbrook: A Memoir of Duality" about the loss of her twin brother to suicide. More from this author →