Talking about addiction, recovery, and writing with David Carr, Mary Karr, Alan Kaufman, and Elizabeth Wurtzel
12:16 pm Jan. 19, 20124
What an addict means when they talk about hitting bottom is indicative; it's the worst part standing in for a lousy whole. And so it was appropriate that the first thing professor and journalist Susan Shapiro asked the four authors at last night's Housing Works event—which centered on memoirs of addiction and recovery and was, perhaps cheekily, titled "New Year New You"—to describe, was his or her own personal bottom. Shapiro, who has written several books on addiction—both tell-alls about her own vices, and how-tos for readers looking to kick—was moderating a panel of illustrious ex-users: people who had experienced many dark nights of the soul and lived to tell their tales.
On a raised stage in front of a packed house—it was sitting-on-the-floor-room only—sat New York Times media columnist and former crack addict David Carr; Mary Karr, author of a number of memoirs, including Lit; Elizabeth Wurtzel, of Prozac Nation fame; and Alan Kaufman, whose Drunken Angel chronicles his struggles with alcoholism.
Carr told of bundling his small twin daughters into the car, driving over to his dealer's house, and leaving the girls in their car seats for what he was sure would be only a few moments. Hours later, when he returned, he was filled with dread and horror. He saw the girls' breath fogging the air in the freezing car. In a raspy voice that seemed to be fighting its way out of the back of his throat, Carr said he knew that although both were unharmed, he had "done something that God would not forgive." One of those daughters, Erin, was at the event, and spoke of her father's memoir as "beautiful."
Children were key in most of the recovery narratives discussed; endangering them was one very clear way to tell you'd hit bottom. Mary Karr spoke of going home to her impossibly attractive husband—he "looked like something you win at a raffle"—having sex with him "so he would go to sleep," putting their baby down to sleep, and going out on the porch with the baby monitor where she could, at last, "drink like [she] wanted to drink." It was, she said, the highlight of her day. Realizing how much she resented her child every time he cried for taking her away from her whiskey and her Marlboros and her Walkman, was what made her understand that she had to get sober.
Alan Kaufman’s description of hitting bottom began with him waking up in a New York establishment called the Hotel California next to a woman with a British accent who turned out to be his new wife; it ended in the kitchen of a house he had once been proud to live in and now only returned to occasionally, taking a break from a bender to drop off some money. Kaufman described staring into the eyes of his daughter as she clung to his leg and begged him not to go. He told her “Your daddy loves you,” put her to sleep, and went to Billy's Topless anyway.
Wurtzel's story of hitting bottom didn't involve children, though it did involve childish behavior. She was walking around New York barefoot in December; she had basically moved into her publisher's office, where she was blowing endless lines of coke off an editor's desk because she'd "mistaken [herself] not for a writer but for a rock star.” A stint in rehab didn't break the cycle. Finally, after a thirty-six-hour shopping binge in the duty-free area at the Copenhagen airport, during which she completely missed the event she had flown to Sweden for in the first place, people stopped having sympathy for her; "Everyone hated me," she said. This focus on the self was indicative. The title Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America was chosen by her publisher to paper over the fact that the book was a memoir; Wurtzel would have preferred to call it, a la Nirvana, "I Hate Myself and I Want to Die."
If the authors were united by something besides the cycle of addiction and recovery, it was by their love-hate relationship with the writing process. Mostly hate, actually. "I would rather take an ass whipping than write," was Karr's formulation. "I like having written." For Carr, writing is "something that happens alone in a room and it's fucking hard." In general, he urged people to "shut up about the books they're working on, and actually work on them." All agreed that writing isn't done—or at least not done well at all—while high or drunk.
There were moments when the panel took on aspects of an AA meeting. Karr congratulated Kaufman on his 21 years sober, and then crowed: "I've been sober 22 years! I beat you!" And that dynamic perhaps explains why the Q&A session, near the end of the evening, was so flat, and then, suddenly, when it seemed that an audience member might be implying that all writers were on drugs, fraught.
The addiction narrative is a monologue; it's a story you tell to an audience—readers, or a room of alcoholics clutching styrofoam cups of coffee. People may offer their own stories in response, but there probably shouldn't be any questions.
Shapiro finally called time on the Q&A session and asked a final question of her own, about the authors' influences. Wurtzel mentioned Speak, Memory, and then Carr talked about reading Infinite Jest, but said he'd not read the footnotes. "Who does?" asked Karr. "I'm supposed to be in it and I never read it." Wurtzel made it clear that she had read all of Infinite Jest.
At the end of the evening, as Housing Works employees hastily removed chairs and replaced coffee tables, the writers milled about. Carr talked to a woman who introduced herself by saying, "I follow you on Twitter"; Kaufman talked hometown travel tips to a young man about to visit San Francisco; Wurtzel sat on the edge of the stage to sign copies of her books for a young blonde woman; Karr walked over to a man seated in the audience (not the Handsome Husband of her memoir, from whom she is divorced, but another handsome man), and walked into the cold night with him.
Earlier Karr had said: "Every book I've ever written is: 'I'm sad, the end, by Mary Karr.'" That certainly didn't seem true anymore, for her or her fellow speakers. But the utility of their work, of course, is that it is for those, in the audience, perhaps, who are still stuck in the middle of some version of that story.
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