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The "cliches" of the addiction autobiography

Posted by Christopher Shea  July 28, 2008 12:35 PM

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Maia Szalavitz, a writer for Mother Jones and an ex-addict, has a problem with the memoir of addiction recently published by the New York Times media columnist David Carr and excerpted in the Times magazine -- and with most memoirs of addiction, period.

Her objection "is that virtually every addiction memoir -- whilst strenuously arguing otherwise or, as in this case, self-consciously highlighting the cliches -- tells the same story."

David Carr's "The Night of the Gun"

In the instance of Carr, author of "The Night of the Gun," she gives him points for highlighting his own loathsome behavior: At his lowest moments (which took place in the 1980s), he hit his wife and left his two children alone in a car for hours while he got high. And he is withering toward himself: In the Times excerpt, Carr writes that the just deserts of his behavior should have been "hepatitis C, federal prison time, HIV, a cold park bench and an early, addled death."

Carr is guilty, however, to Szalavitz, of oversimplifying the nexus between immorality and addiction. Substance abuse does not necessarily kill one's moral instinct, she argues: Many addicts are self-aware enough to keep away from people (like children) whom they might do harm.

And this matters, because if the link between drug abuse and immorality were seamless, then punitiveness would be the right response to addiction and "we're already doing what we should be": offering jail and scorn in lieu of treatment or clean needles.

The prototypical addict of the memoir also invariably checks into a clinic and gets clean through some variant of a 12-step program. In fact, the Mother Jones guest-blogger says, most addicts quit on their own. And most addicts of opiates free themselves via the substitute drug methadone. ("Ever read that one?" she snarks.) Nor does Carr give sufficient weight to the class and racial dimensions of his story, she suggests. Is it imaginable that an African American male who trod Carr's path would not be in jail, let alone at the Times?

Szalavitz weakens her argument by relying solely on the magazine excerpt, admittedly not waiting to read the full book before lighting into Carr; Carr himself has called her out on this. Still, as objections to the addiction memoir in general, her complaints are not easily dismissed.

For a far more sympathetic take on Carr -- in the form of a written Q & A -- check this out.

P.S. A curiosity. In that interview, Carr says he was very reluctant to write the book: "[M]any people told me for years that I should write about the fact that I used to be a crackhead and I consistently said I never would." Yet according to the memoir itself, he was pitching his story to the New Yorker after less than a year of being sober. He also wrote a preliminary version of the narrative, under the byline "Anonymous," while editor of the Washington City Paper in the 1990s. This sounds like more of a "gotcha" than I intend it to -- why not write your own story, whenever you feel like it? But Carr's ambivalence about, as he puts it, "commoditizing" his tale of addiction, is quite a complex thing, indeed.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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