The Sunday Rumpus Essay: An Enemy to No Man but Himself


I was still reeling from the news that my ex-boyfriend was dead when his mother told me that what had killed him, at 41, was a lethal dose of crack and alcohol.

This was not possible. Lance, an inspirational philosophy professor and one of the smartest, kindest people I ever knew, could not have died from a drug overdose. We lived together for four years, in New York, Boston, and New Jersey, and in that time he had never taken any drugs. We could only rarely afford a bottle of wine, living as we were on my newspaper reporter’s salary and the little he made as an adjunct professor. Once or twice a month we’d hit the piano bars, where Lance drank Scarlett O’Haras and sang along. But crack? Never. We never even smoked pot.

Lance was discipline incarnate. He had completed his doctorate in philosophy by 28 and published scores of philosophical articles and a book. He constantly berated himself for not doing more, not reaching more people. He didn’t have time for drugs.

Besides, wouldn’t I have known if Lance had been addicted to crack? Our breakup had been as amicable as breakups get; we remained close afterwards. We knew each other better than anyone. If he were in trouble, why didn’t he write to me? Didn’t he trust that I would care? I could have flown to New York, helped him to get better treatment. I could have reassured him that I believed in him.

But despite our best intentions, the phone calls and emails eventually petered out to a note every couple of years. I moved from New York to Yemen in 2006 and rarely made it back to the US. Lance had moved from New York to Ohio to Indiana to St. Louis to New Haven. The last time I had written him had been in November 2009, to tell him about the birth of my daughter in London.

At that time, Lance had been fighting a battle I knew nothing about—and losing.

“He was the happiest he ever was when he was with you,” his mother Jeanny said when she first called with the news. “You were the love of his life. There was no one after you.”

“No one?” I counted the years. Lance and I had broken up 11 years ago.

“No one.”

He would still be alive if you hadn’t left him. She didn’t speak the words, but I could hear them behind everything she said.

Was it true? I wondered. If I hadn’t given up on our relationship, if I hadn’t allowed our correspondence to wither, if I had been there for him, would he be alive? Surely I was not that powerful. Surely there had been other loves in Lance’s life. Surely his mother didn’t know everything.

Simultaneously, guiltily, I knew in my heart of hearts, that even were it true, it would not have changed my course.


Lance singingI flew to New York for his memorial. It was my first trip away from my small daughter, but I needed to go. I could not absorb his absence. It was also important to me to speak at the service. I knew a Lance that I worried his family and friends did not: the loving-boyfriend Lance, the deeply loyal friend, the vivacious dancer, the generous spirit, the art-lover, the spiritual seeker. A Lance before drugs. I wanted them to know this Lance.

Lance was intoxicated with his work. He would be at his desk writing philosophy papers and lectures when I left for the newspaper in the morning, and would still be there when I came home in the evening. Every time I was out late, working or with a friend, he was always scribbling when I returned. Never once, in the four years we lived together, did Lance ever go to bed before I got home.

We supported each other through the difficult transitions from our graduate student lives to our professional lives. He encouraged my writing and believed in my dreams, more than anyone else had ever had—more than I did myself. When I ran the New York Marathon, Lance got up at 4 a.m. to cook me eggs before the race. He then managed to find me in the crowd at mile 15, and ran alongside me until mile 24, even though I was too exhausted to speak. When I developed tendonitis from overtraining, Lance massaged the tortured muscles every single night for more than a year.

While Lance was a tireless worker, he also was a genius at play. Over the years we accumulated a family of stuffed animals Lance animated like a minor Jim Henson. He invented personalities and voices for each one and had them act out dramas and philosophical debates. They also offered running commentary on our lives, mocking our foibles and cheering our triumphs.

My family and friends adored Lance. After I failed to teach him how to drive a stick shift, my father asked if he could give it a try. I remember looking out the window of my parents’ house in Vermont, and seeing my dad and Lance sitting in the car for what felt like ages, just talking. Finally, they took off. When they returned, Lance could drive stick.

“How did you do it?” I asked my dad, mystified. “Why were you sitting there for so long?”

Lance Oberlin Graduation“You have to teach someone to drive in a way that they can relate to,” my dad explained. “So I first had to talk with Lance about the philosophy of driving. And then he got it.”

The reasons we broke up were complicated and mundane, and did not negate the love and respect we had for each other. I worried about him. He hadn’t yet found the tenure-track professorship he desired and deserved. He was bad with money and often in debt. He spent more time focused on the meaning of life than on life’s practicalities. But I hadn’t realized there were bigger problems.


After Lance’s service, his mother gave me thirty-something pages from his journals. I didn’t look through them right away; it was too painful. But a few weeks later, desperate for an explanation, I began reading.

In these pages, many written while Lance was living in a Salvation Army Rehab Unit, he details his struggle with addiction, often in philosophical terms. There are many misconceptions about addiction, he writes. First, it is not necessarily true that people turn to drugs to fill a void in their lives. The experience of the drug may be a positive experience in its own right, and one the brain wants to repeat. Second, addiction is not purely chemical, but psychological as well. Lance wrote that he never used drugs except as part of a sexual experience. Were that sexual component not present, he wrote, he would have no interest in the drug. Rather than being addicted to the drug, he was addicted to the experience the drug allowed him to have, an experience “so infinitely rich that it can be seen to be worth all the consequent pain and misery.”

Given this, he asked himself, what is the best way to make recovery attractive to a user? Appealing to personal happiness is useless in the face of such a powerful drug. “These highs are so intense that all else pales in comparison—even the highest aesthetic, erotic, and religious experiences are rejected by the addict as qualitatively inferior.”

This landed on me like a punch. That includes our relationship, I thought. That includes those entire four years. It pales in comparison with the drug. But I read on. And as I read, it was impossible to keep from rooting for him, hoping that the story would have a different ending from the one I knew it had.

If the happiness of a sober life fails to appeal to an addict, perhaps its values would, Lance continues. That would be the Kantian model. Does anyone want to be defined by the words “drug addict?” (No.) Did Lance want to be seen as a selfish hedonist? (No.) Could he do the right thing with his life even if it meant sacrificing personal happiness? (Maybe.) Giving up drugs would free him from internal conflict; his actions would be in line with his ideals and values. We should always be acting to perfect ourselves, he writes, which means eliminating drug use from our lives.

He had perfect self-awareness. He knew he was an addict, he acknowledged his weaknesses, and he knew which treatments were doomed to fail him. He embraced then eventually discarded AA doctrine as intellectually lazy and encouraging passivity. And on he forged, desperately seeking a shred of hope.

It struck me that Lance’s writing was entirely preoccupied not with the practicalities of life and his situation—getting out of rehab, finding a job, a love, a home, paying bills—but with the meaning of life, his life in particular. This is what he reaches for, time and again, with philosophy, with religion, even with theater (he included an intriguing interpretation of Hamlet). Had he only managed to find a reason for human existence that satisfied him both intellectually and spiritually, perhaps he could have overcome the drug. But he never found a satisfying answer.

Lance and Jennifer 2When I was writing his eulogy, I came across a journal entry I wrote in December 2008 about a dream I had about Lance. In the dream, Lance and I were struggling to get across a railroad crossing and a river. He was frightened and I had to help him, encouraging him verbally and then physically carrying him to shore. I felt enormous responsibility for his life.

It was prescient. After Lance died I could not stop trying to figure out how I could have saved him. Only now, years later and after several more readings of his journals, do I begin to realize how foolish it was to believe I could have. His investigations into the meaning of life, morals, behavior, and addiction were far more profound than I could ever achieve. If he couldn’t save himself with the whole of his philosophical arsenal, perhaps no one could.

As Lance himself concludes:

“How fortunate are those who have never tried this drug, who have never tasted the bittersweet ecstasy that makes everything else in life seem squalid by comparison…. Every sensory nerve I have longs to feel that rush one more time, to take me away from this wretched normality, this robot-like existence. Can I fight these cells and win? It does not seem possible…. Left to my own devices, I will use again and again and again. The beast within is greater than my will and intellect. It has all the fire and the blood while my mind contains only vapid thoughts.”

Jennifer Steil is the author of the memoir The Woman Who Fell From the Sky and the forthcoming novel The Ambassador’s Wife (July 28, 2015). More from this author →