Bill Clegg’s memoir Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man documents a two-month crack binge that saw the literary agent fleeing from hotel to hotel in a labyrinth of paranoia as his wallet—and waistline—shrank. Interrupting the narrative frame are stories from Clegg’s childhood, memories that foretell the downward spiral to come and expose a terrifying affinity for death. Below, Clegg answers a few questions about the process of preserving his experiences in print.
—Rebecca Bates for Guernica
Guernica: What makes this addiction story different from the slew of others (David Carr’s, Susan Cheever’s, Elizabeth Wurtzelthan’s, etc.) we’ve seen?
Bill Clegg: I haven’t read the books you mention so I have no idea how it differs; but to the extent that the experience of alcoholism and addiction has certain commonalities—the failed struggle to manage the progression, the decreasing pleasures, the increasing amounts, the wreckage, the resulting despair—I suspect in some ways there are similarities. But the particulars of each story, and hopefully their expression, are specific to each.
Guernica: How do you feel this book plays with the conventions of narrative, if at all? Does a story of addiction have to follow a journalistic formula? Does presenting the scenes in such a matter-of-fact way lend validity to the story? Does an addiction narrative need that to seem “real”?
Bill Clegg: I’m sure there are at least as many ways one can write a memoir as there are lives to write about—addict, catholic, strawberry farmer, hostage. I wouldn’t dare make generalizations about the genre or how one should go about writing within it. As a reader I’m much more interested in books that tell stories in new ways so I tend not to think of literature in terms of rules or parameters or generalizations.
[Death] is there. It’s fundamentally always there, not as a fixation or believed-in solution but a drift, a tendency.
Guernica: In your interview with Vogue, you said that you originally wrote down your story because you were afraid your memories were perishable. At what point did you think the pages you’d written would be valuable to others? What do you hope readers will discover?
Bill Clegg: When I surfaced, to my surprise and initial regret, from that two month period which resulted in a suicide attempt, it was like surfacing from a nightmare. I’d have these vivid and sudden recollections of things that had happened—what I heard and saw and felt—and I worried, as one does when waking from a dream, that I would not always have access to those memories. And much of it was confusing. There was still a residual paranoia and I could not tell what was real and what was delusional. I believed if I wrote it down, then, when I had access to those memories, that I’d be able to see it all clearly later, with more distance. There was period, a few years later, when, separately, I began writing about my childhood. This writing, and the thinking around it, were completely separate from the transcriptions of what I could remember from the time I did drugs. Or so I thought. A few months into this other writing I began to notice that the language used to describe the experience of having a double life as a kid and the double life I lead as an adult was similar. As well, the patterns of managing that earlier life mirrored the later one—the concealing and cleaning up, the consequence of having people knocking on doors looking for me, the terror of being found out. I kept writing both and at a certain point the shape of a book emerged and then I became obsessed with tracing not how those patterns made me more susceptible (I was an addict from my first breath) but how my childhood experiences and struggles laid out something of a blueprint for the expression of my addiction. I would have been an addict no matter what, but those experiences in my childhood and after shaped how it unfolded. So the project of creating an account of the darkest period of my using and the exploration of childhood experiences that influenced it began as separate writings. What I would hope a reader would take away would be, mainly, an identification with the powerlessness one has over drugs and alcohol, an identification with any aspect of my story that would motivate him or her to see that it’s not manageable, that there is no controlling one’s use and that if one doesn’t admit that and get help it will eventually go where it went for me—namely to a place where one decides that nothing else but drugs and alcohol matter, that no consequence is too great, even death. Everything beyond that is literary gravy: any insight, comfort, camaraderie, inspiration, escape that can be had from reading a book.
Guernica: You write in the penultimate chapter that upon getting sober you are at first “consumed with shame and guilt and regret, but slowly these feelings evolve, are still evolving, into something less self-centered.” Can you talk, please, about that evolution? What is the impetus of each “step”?
Bill Clegg: Shame and guilt and regret were so overwhelming in the first days and weeks and months of getting sober. I could see and feel little else. Which is to say I couldn’t see beyond my own feelings. But other alcoholics and addicts helped me, are still helping me, see how there is a difference between being consumed with those feelings, wallowing in them, and examining one’s role in the harm he or she has caused as a result of their using. The goal is to see past that emotional, self-involved fog to the place where one understands what they’ve done clearly enough so that one can attempt to right the wrongs and avoid repeating the harmful behavior in the future. My using went on from the age of twelve to thirty-four. Twenty-two years of addictive and alcoholic mistakes. I’ve been sober for five. I expect to be engaged in this process for a long, long time.
Guernica: In the promotional video from Hachette you say that even as a child “the experience of being me was such that I regularly wished to die.” If the wish to die was present even before becoming an addict, do you still have this fixation with death now that you are sober? If so, how do you deal with it? If not, do you think having gone through this addiction nightmare is the reason you no longer view an early death as inevitable?
Bill Clegg: It’s there. It’s fundamentally always there, not as a fixation or believed-in solution but a drift, a tendency. It may be hard to understand but in some ways I’m grateful for it, it’s a reminder of where things went, the time when I did believe that death was the only answer. I deal with it, or rather I keep it from ever again seeming like the only solution by staying sober, continuing to help and to be helped by other alcoholics and addicts, and to be grateful that I didn’t die so perhaps my experience—difficult and destructive though it was—can be of some use to others.
There was still a residual paranoia and I could not tell what was real and what was delusional.
Guernica: In your childhood flashbacks, up until the point of your first trying crack, you refer to yourself in the third person, much the way J.M. Coetzee does in his series of “memoirs.” For example, you wrote, “All through the ’80s, when he was in high school, crack made headlines for ruining neighborhoods, driving up crime, being famously addictive. A hideous, monstrous scourge, utterly taboo. Something he has always been drawn to, something he has always wanted to try.” Does observing your younger self from the distance of third person make it easier to “make sense” of your addiction, of discovering the patterns that shaped your susceptibility?
Bill Clegg: Writing in the third person happened without thinking about it. Like the transcriptions of my using, which just came out in the first person present, I didn’t question the tense, I just went with it. I think because that time is much farther away and it is more difficult to occupy the minute by minute sensations and thoughts of specific events it felt more comfortable to name what was going on from the middle distance of a closely focused third person. When I first put the two strands of writing next to each other I liked the tension that occurred between the two and so when I began to imagine it as a book I kept it. In fact it was the tension between the two that first instigated the idea that these passages, expanded and arranged alongside each other could be a book.
Rebecca Bates is Guernica‘s blog intern. Read her last recommendation of the book Literature and Cinematography “here”:https://www.guernicamag.com/blog/1826/rec_room_rebecca_bates_literat/.