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Reading for Recovery: Alcohol Memoirs

cover artNote: we are reposting a series of pieces written to accompany the ALA-funded Reading for Recovery Project. The following was originally published in the December 2015 issue of the Information Services News, Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies

The therapeutic process for alcohol addiction has a rich and longstanding relationship with narrative. Even the uninitiated know that AA meetings involve members sharing stories with one another, urged not to compare but to connect. Addiction narratives are tragic in the everyday sense, but for the purposes of recovery they operate by a logic somewhat different from the traditional definition of tragedy. For Aristotle the audience reacts to tragedy with pity and fear, a sense of “there but for the grace of God go I.” According to this model of tragedy, the way in which the audience sympathetically identifies with the narrative paradoxically involves holding it at arm’s length, feeling in some way spared from the catastrophe on stage. The therapeutic ideal, on the other hand, involves a fundamentally different relationship. In this situation, instead of fearing whether they will undergo the ravages of addiction as well, the audience recognizes that they already have; and instead of pitying the protagonist or themselves by comparing scars, they recognize their stories as more alike than different and look for the resources of recovery.

The Reading for Recovery project is looking for books that might provide those resources. We have been reading through autobiographies of addiction to get a sense of how the genre works and what titles might be useful for people in recovery. Some of this work involves sketching the outline of each story so that readers can be matched up with the narratives they can relate to, stories they can see themselves in. Perhaps the most striking lesson of the project so far is that in some ways these autobiographies already dramatize this process: the process of addiction and recovery is in some way fundamentally narrative already.

Pete Hamill’s A Drinking Life is the modern classic of the genre, and it lives up to its title. Hamill does not just narrate a drinking career in the clinician’s sense, from first sip to last: this is the entirety of a life, from birth into a poor Irish immigrant family in Brooklyn to the rebirth of recovery. In the long story of his youth, drinking seldom comes to the fore as a great and defining antagonist, looming on the horizon; instead, it steadily and organically emerges as a recurrent supporting character, the common denominator in his relationships with his father, his lovers, his neighborhood, his work, and himself.

Hamill’s is a work about a lifetime, and it’s also in some sense the work of a lifetime. One gets the sense that Hamill lived much of his life as a sort of autobiography in action, narrating himself and his world as he went along. Alcohol was bound up with this double consciousness from the beginning. An avid reader of comics, Hamill recalls how the fantastic transformation from mortal life to the heightened world of the superhero almost always involved a mask, a costume, and a secret serum; later in his youth he was drawn to Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, imagining himself distributed among parallel identities (by sixteen, he was “at least six people”). Not only did his earliest reading thematize splittings of the self and out-of-body experiences, but Hamill writes of understanding himself and his world by seeing them as if on the page: a Don Quixote of the Marvel era. Alcohol, the secret serum, was the price of admission to this fantasy. “From Hemingway,” Hamill writes, “I stole the guise of the stoic drinker” — drinking was part of the process of fictionalizing his own life, of assuming another identity. Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, it was his relationship with actress Shirley MacLaine that made Hamill realize he was using alcohol to cultivate a kind of narrative distance from his own life. “I began to feel oddly detached,” he writes of one fateful night at a party. “I was there; but I was also looking at myself being there… That night, for the first time, I began to feel that I was performing my life instead of living it.” He stopped drinking cold within a month. His recovery, in other words, involved recognizing himself in his own narrative, closing the gap between his own consciousness and the life he performed.

Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story relates a similar experience of drinking as a sort of internal distance. “Many of us drink in order to take that flight,” she observes, “in order to pour ourselves, literally, into new personalities: uncap the bottle, pop the cork, slide into someone else’s skin. A liquid makeover, from the inside out.” Knapp suggests that the motive for this self-fictionalization is, according to AA wisdom, a “fear of life.” Interestingly, Knapp acknowledges Hamill’s autobiography as a milestone in her recovery and an inspiration for her book. It’s hard to imagine a stronger endorsement of the Reading for Recovery project than these lines of influence among addiction narratives themselves. If part of the process of addiction involves relating to oneself as a person or set of persons who can be held at a narrative remove, then it seems logical that recovery should involve encountering someone else’s story and recognizing one’s own.

In a sense, the goal of the Reading for Recovery project is to curate and facilitate this recognition. If reading can provide the sort of “guise” that Hamill borrows from Hemingway, it can also offer ways to work through the long process of seeing those masks for what they are and taking them off. We look forward to putting the resources of the Library towards this invaluable project, and hope that it provides as many insights to people in need as it has to us already.

Author’s note: Hamill died in 2020. His obituary can be found here.