Alex Beam

Sobering tales

New David Foster Wallace archives reveal details of author’s connection to local rehab center and hospital

By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / May 6, 2011

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It is a ghoulish subject but not an uninteresting one. As part of the ongoing archaeology of the short, eventful, and compellingly interesting life of the novelist and journalist David Foster Wallace, details are emerging about his stays in two Boston-area mental health facilities: Granada House — which morphed into the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House in Wallace’s famous novel “Infinite Jest’’ — and McLean Hospital.

Wallace committed suicide in 2008, at the age of 46.

Granada House today is a nondescript group recovery home on a residential street in Brighton just north of the Massachusetts Turnpike. When Wallace was there, the facility was about three-quarters of a mile away, on Warren Street, on the grounds of the Brighton Marine Memorial Hospital. “David had a sharp sense of humor,’’ recalls his longtime friend Mark Costello, “and he loved the fact that this ‘marine’ building was nowhere near the ocean.’’

Wallace, who was at various times addicted to drugs and alcohol, frequented halfway houses and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings during the late 1980s and early 1990s in Boston. An Amherst grad with a well-received first novel and an MFA in creative writing under his belt, he wrote, worked at odd jobs (e.g., security guard at Lotus Development Corp.), and studied philosophy at Harvard. At the University of Texas’s newly opened Wallace archive, journalist Jesse Klein unearthed a folder marked “Heard at Meetings,’’ consisting of notes taken at Boston AA meetings. It doesn’t appear that any of the quotes (“They say it’s good for the soul, but I feel nothing inside that you could call a soul’’) made it into a DFW novel.

In an interview with Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky, Wallace called the Boston halfway house scene “weird’’: “They didn’t ask you why you were there. They didn’t much care why you were there. And you could sit around, drink as much coffee as you wanted. And I got to sort of like some of these people.’’

A few years ago, Wallace’s eloquent, and anonymous, testimonial to Granada House surfaced on Matt Bucher’s “Wallace-l’’ computer mailing list, compiled for devoted DFW fans. “It was like finding a needle in a haystack,’’ Bucher says.

Wallace wrote: “I was referred to Granada House in November 1989. ‘Referred’ is a very polite way to put it. I was a patient in a rehab attached to a well-known mental hospital in Boston, and a psychiatrist in this rehab had established some credibility with me, and he opined that (1) unless I signed up for long-term treatment someplace, I wasn’t going to be able to stay off drugs and alcohol; and that (2) if I couldn’t find a way to stay off drugs and alcohol, I was going to be dead by 30. I was 27. . .’’

Also working in the University of Texas archive, Maria Bustillos traced Wallace’s gradual, grudging acceptance of the 12-step recovery methods used at Granada. “All his life Wallace was praised and admired for being exceptional,’’ Bustillos wrote in the Awl. “But in order to accept treatment he had to first accept and then embrace the idea that he was a regular person who could be helped by ‘ordinary’ means.’’

Wallace spoke about McLean several times during his interviews with Lipsky, published last year as “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace.’’ “I don’t mind having somebody know I was on suicide watch at McLean,’’ Wallace told Lipsky. “I’m concerned. I don’t want to make this into a romantic, lurid, tormented-artist thing.’’

McLean provided psychiatric intake for Harvard and MIT — that’s how MIT’s John Nash, portrayed by Russell Crowe in “A Beautiful Mind’’ got there — and Wallace was a Harvard grad student at the time. “I think I was in McLean’s for a total of eight days,’’ Wallace said. “And then, I was really there mostly because I was scared I would do something stupid.’’

In an interview posted on the Internet, Wallace’s literary agent Bonnie Nadell recalls visiting Wallace in one of McLean’s locked wards: “He looked dreadful,’’ Nadell said. “I somehow convinced one of the nurses to give me scissors so I could cut his hair. . . . I was like, he can’t be like this here.’’

On Wallace’s first day of hospitalization, he asked his roommate Costello to bring some personal items: a TV set, some Winston 100 cigarettes, and the author’s favorite, tatty bathrobe. “I looked so crazy coming onto the grounds that they thought I was an escaped person and they called security,’’ Costello says. “That story got retold a lot.’’

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is