Erica C. Barnett doesn’t mince words—not in her debut memoir and not in her conversation with me this past July, the week that her book, Quitter: A Memoir of Drinking, Relapse, and Recovery, was published. Barnett’s is not a shy memoir, as she details a decade-long battle with alcoholism and relapse, with a masterful destigmatization of which will change the narrative of sobriety memoir forever. Barnett is not afraid to show you the ugly in her tell-all memoir; in fact, she’s not afraid of shame at all. It’s no longer a part of her life.
Barnett is a feminist, an urbanist, and an obsessive observer of politics, transportation, and the quotidian inner workings of City Hall. She has been a writer and editor since the time of electric typewriters, at publications such as PubliCola, The Stranger, Seattle Weekly, Shakesville, Austin Chronicle, and others.
I sat down with Erica via Zoom to discuss what it means to be a woman in recovery, the nature of memory, and how to be a trustworthy narrator.
The Rumpus: Quitter is your first memoir. In thinking about the title, the book seems to be more about drinking and relapsing than it is about recovery, which you saved for the last three chapters and the epilogue. What was behind that decision?
Erica C. Barnett: I’ve read a lot of recovery memoirs; it was my favorite genre when I was getting sober and they tend to fall apart a bit in the third act. The fact is my recovery is boring. The choice to focus on relapse is because that was such a huge part of my story, and also because it was something I never read about. In many recovery memoirs there’s this arc: you get sick, you hit rock bottom, you get better, and then the last third of the book is about how great life is. It was important to me to tell a story that is common, but that we don’t like to talk about because women’s memoirs are supposed to be tidy, right? The ones that I like the best are the sloppy ones. I love Cat Marnell’s book How to Murder Your Life so much. It’s so different. She’s just an absolute wreck and she kind of embraces it.
Rumpus: I’ll have to read that. Yes, I trusted you right away as a narrator because you were not interested in making yourself look good. You’re so candid about all the things that happened and all the things that relapse can involve, which I really appreciate. You were saying all the things about your drinking that I’m afraid to say about mine.
Barnett: I tried to jump right in with a terrible story, so people would know what they’re getting into. When you’re writing about yourself, I think it’s important to make yourself look as bad as you look to the person who likes you the least. Somebody told me (after I wrote the book) that if you say something smart or clever, and you want to repeat it in your book, you need to put it in somebody else’s mouth, because you just never want to seem like you’re trying to make yourself look good. I feel uncomfortable saying, “And now everything’s great and magical and my life is perfect and yours can be, too!” Because it’s not like that.
Rumpus: What do you think people who are stuck in that cycle of relapse, particularly women, need to know?
Barnett: One of the things that AA does that can be harmful is that they make you start from zero every time you relapse. So, it’s like, Oh, I had five years, but I relapsed, so now this is my first day. It can make you feel like a failure and it’s important for people to know that if you had two days sober or two years sober, whatever, you learned something in that time, you gained tools, and you don’t lose that when you relapse. When people do relapse for a long time, like when they “go back out” and are drinking for years, I think it’s in part because they feel like, Well, I’ve already screwed up. I can’t drag myself back into a meeting because it’s shameful, and I know it’s shameful because I have to go back and start at zero again. If there wasn’t so much shame associated with relapse—an incredibly common symptom of this disease—people would be able to come back and not feel like they had failed.
Rumpus: I could relate to your earlier aversion towards AA, which seems to be a common thread in several sobriety memoirs, especially those written by women. Do you think that’s simply a stubborn alcoholic thing, or is there more to it?
Barnett: I think there’s a lot more to it. First, I don’t think AA is for everybody. I really, strongly don’t. Part of the reason it was helpful for me is that I was desperate, and I said, “I will do anything.” A lot of things might have worked at that point. The thing about having a structure like what’s provided in AA is that you just do whatever you’re told. But, being a woman, I faced a lot of bullshit in my career and life and there’s a lot of stuff that’s happened to me that wasn’t my fault. I think this is especially true for women who’ve been through a lot more than I have, like abuse and other kinds of discrimination. You get into AA and one of the things that they tell you is to make amends, and I think that can be done the right way and the wrong way. For example, if somebody has hurt you and you didn’t have anything to do with it, the wrong way is saying you need to find your part in that and go apologize to that person. I think that happens often and I think that’s so damaging to people.
I lucked out in that I ended up going to an AA meeting that was accommodating to people’s beliefs no matter what they happened to be. When I was first getting sober, there were people in those meetings that had lots of bad shit happen to them that I couldn’t imagine, people who’d gone to prison, a bunch of people who’d lost their children to the system. They were mad, but in those meetings, they were told, “It’s okay to be mad.” I think AA is not a monolith; it’s done differently in different places. If you go anywhere and you feel like you are being told that you can’t be yourself and that you can’t be angry because of things that have happened to you, then that’s not likely to be a good place for you. For me, I was desperate. And I felt really, really shitty about myself. I wasn’t even at the point of feeling mad anymore. I was just like, I’m a piece of shit. I didn’t want to feel like a piece of shit.
Rumpus: I completely relate to that. Writing memoir requires a certain willingness to expose oneself and one’s mishaps and mistakes. Writing an addiction memoir seems to take it a step further, requiring a willingness to reveal some of the darkest parts of what it means to be human. Addicts in recovery are often used to the vulnerability of exposing deep, dark secrets, but I think to put it out there in the world in a memoir, for everyone and anyone to read, takes a different kind of courage. Were you fearful about it at all?
Barnett: I started off feeling a little weird about it. Part of the process of writing the book was trying to make it as plainspoken as possible about those things and not to try to cover them up. A lot of it was reclaiming my story, because I’m a minor public figure in Seattle, so people really did try to tell my story. In the book, I talk about a rival newspaper taking my shoplifting bust and humiliating me for it. The fact is, if you have a story that happened in any way in public, somebody’s going to tell on you and it’s best that it be yourself. My goal was basically to be as honest as possible and tell on myself as much as possible in the hope that, first of all, I could reclaim the parts of my story that might seem shameful from the outside, but also to sort of show people that this stuff isn’t shameful. There’s nothing shameful about anything that I did, or that happened to me—I honestly believe that. There’s a lot that I personally find embarrassing, but I’m not ashamed of any of it.
Rumpus: So, what do you think is the difference between embarrassing and shameful?
Barnett: People would read some of these incidents in my book and find them shameful, because they don’t understand the disease of addiction and what it can do to you, and what it can cause you to do. I’m embarrassed by the fact that I got fired; I wish that hadn’t happened. But I’m not ashamed of it. It happened because I behaved a certain way, and the reason I behaved that way is because I had this disease that caused me to act in irrational and self-destructive ways. I have reckoned with that and I interacted with it before I even started writing the book, which helped, too. I had gone to the boss that fired me; I sat down with him and said, “I’m really sorry for what I did.” It was not a great conversation and I didn’t walk away feeling absolved. But I also didn’t feel ashamed anymore.
Rumpus: That’s amazing.
Barnett: I just am not a person who, since I got sober at least, feels a lot of shame about anything.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about the narrative arc of your memoir. You give us little of the earlier years and then tend to stay in the present narrative without flashing back too much. How did you decide what needed to be in and what could be out?
Barnett: I sort of mapped out the hundred highlights and lowlights of the earlier years in my life. In a general sense, I feel like my early years are kind of boring. I was a dirt bag high school kid who just did good at testing. It doesn’t seem that atypical to me. Then my editor said, “You need to tell a little bit more about your early life, be a little more detailed about it.” I thought, Oh, people will hate that. They’re just going to want to jump forward to the last ten years. I felt strongly that the last ten-year period where I was drinking heavily was the most interesting and relevant to the topic. So, I focused on the earlier things that would end up being relevant later, adverse childhood experiences. Writing about yourself as a young kid is hard, everything is bigger, and your memories are idealized.
Rumpus: Right? I’ve let some of my family members read my memoir manuscript and it’s tough. You find out the stuff that was so big and meaningful to you, they don’t even remember. That’s one of the things about memory. But you have a long and rich history as a journalist. I’m curious, how did your work as a journalist inform your process for writing memoir?
Barnett: My friend Josh, thank god, kept a blog that was basically a diary through everything, an amazing record. That was incredibly painful to read, one of the hardest parts but also one of the most useful things in reconstructing the past. I did have blackouts quite a lot, but it’s kind of a myth that you forget everything that happens. I remembered a lot of stuff super vividly but being able to ask him, “Hey, how did this happen?” or to see it on the blog was helpful. I had a lot of journals that I’ve kept at various times, so that was also helpful. I wanted to recreate it a little bit as if I was reporting on it. Not quite so much as David Carr did in his book, The Night of the Gun, which is very much structured like a reporting assignment. I got my records from the two rehabs I went to and one of the detoxes, which was fascinating. It made me want to read all my medical records. I found it so interesting.
Rumpus: So then how was crafting a memoir different than writing a journalistic piece?
Barnett: I put my opinions about things out there in the memoir, which I wouldn’t do as an objective journalist who writes for a newspaper. But your opinion and your feelings about something are two different things. That was the biggest challenge, writing about my subjective experience. Sometimes just saying “here’s what happened” is enough when I’m describing a horrifying thing like falling on my face in the rain and having a split lip, right? But talking about how much I hated the women that I went to rehab with, for example, that was a subjective experience. Talking about feeling like I failed my entire family and talking about my granddad, who has the book now. All subjective. I’m terrified because I know he’s going to read it.
Rumpus: I think he’ll be very proud.
Barnett: I think he will, too.
Photograph of Erica C. Barnett by Alex Garland.
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.