Bill Clegg's "Portrait of and Addict as a Young Man"

by Hugh Gilmore

The statement “I would rather be an addict than love one” is based on one cold fact: Only the addict can control when he or she quits. The people who love them have no such control. To love an addict is to love a calculating, selfish, and desperate person who ultimately has no limits on what he or she will do to ease the pain of withdrawal or regain the bliss of a lost high.

To love such persons is to be at their mercy. When they’ve got enough drugs in their system they can look their mother in the eye and promise to reform while watching to see where she hides her purse. There’s never any rest. Tomorrow’s, or even this evening’s high, always needs to be arranged.

The causes of addiction remain unknown. Scientists don’t even agree on what the word “cause” means. There are sociological, psychological, anthropological, medical, biochemical, and moral aspects to every human behavior. The debate continues: With all the warnings given to people nowadays, how can anyone not be held responsible for his own decline if he begins doing drugs in the first place?

And yet, science tells us, some perplexed and bewildered people are plagued with such tortured, aching brain chemistry that drugs or alcohol give them (at first) the only relief they’ve ever known. Not everyone is strong willed. Not everyone is gifted with loving friends and family. Some people live such sad and desperate lives anyone might sympathize with their need to blur their pain.

Nonetheless, this column nods more sympathetically toward the lovers and friends of addicts. My ultimate respect always goes toward those who put on their shoes and coats and go to work. And with those who help children by seeing that they’re fed and their tears are wiped. And those who stay rock-solid no matter how much pain they’re doled.

No one escapes pain, humiliation or deprivation in this world. No one. So, my sympathies are with the dull, normal people who do their jobs and keep their word. They’re the heroes.

The stimulus for this column came from the recent tragedy that visited the family of Eagles’ football coach Andy Reid. To anyone puzzled that such a close and loving family could lose a son to drugs, I wanted to suggest some memoirs written by former addicts that might help them understand. No one writes about addiction with the clarity and honesty of an addict.

First on my list, and the best in terms of honest insight, is “Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption” by William Cope Moyers (with Katherine Ketcham, 2006). The author is the son of the highly esteemed print and television journalist, Bill Moyers, whose success and fame did not insulate his family from trouble, however.

The younger Moyers began abusing drugs and alcohol at a young age, rapidly became addicted to both, and wound up as a 35-year-old crack cocaine addict living in a filthy sub-basement crack house in an Atlanta slum. His memoir details – in gritty fashion – nearly 20 years of addiction, recovery, relapse and recovery again in a cycle of pain, broken promises, tragic losses and bitter degradation.

The book includes passages from loving letters written by his father and mother over the years as they struggled desperately against losing him forever. In 1994 he managed to quit again and, as far as I can determine, has stayed sober. Today, he is an executive with the Hazelden Foundation in Minnesota, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people recover from alcoholism and drug addiction.

I also recommend two books by the very successful New York literary agent Bill Clegg: “Portrait of the Addict as a Young Man” (2010) and its sequel, “Ninety Days” (2012). Both books are very well written – poetic in many ways, but written like intelligent thrillers.

As with Moyers, Clegg came from a family of means, received a superior education and adopted a Teflon attitude. After establishing a highly regarded boutique literary agency – with many people, including his authors and both his business partner and his life partner – depending on him, Clegg went on several long-term drug and alcohol binges that sent his life into crash and burn. He is currently (and one must always write this when referring to an addict), as far as I know, sober and working for the William Morris Agency.

In this age of confession, Mary Karr’s “Lit” (2010) is one of the best modern descriptions of a young woman’s slip into alcoholism. It is frequently advertised as “a young mother’s” addiction, but the book is all of a piece with her betrayal of her husband and friends as well. Karr’s great strength is her ability to establish the telling details that mark her descent into alcohol dependency and her shock in discovering how weak her will to quit was. Mary Karr is an admirably honest and insightful writer who knows how to tell a story.

In the same way I recommend Jack London’s “John Barleycorn” (1913) for both the pleasure of reading the old master again and the reminder that this same story of pleasure and addiction has gone on for a long time. London’s memoir, alcoholism aside, is a treasure in itself. He is a master at recollecting the lies that alcoholics tell themselves in order to keep a firm grip on their precious bottles.

That’s it for now – five books that describe the addict’s mental life in a genuinely complex and artistic way. As with all honest self-revelations, they might leave you hissing and cheering the same person.

Hugh is the author of “Malcolm’s Wine,” a noir bibliomystery that revolves around the theft of a rare book collection by a pair of redneck meth addicts. Their paths cross that of a middle-aged bereaved father when they also steal a memento of the man’s dead son.


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