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Since its release last month, Bill Clegg’s memoir Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man has been on a lot of people’s minds. It’s shockingly eloquent (although we should expect no less from a successful literary agent), an Orphean account of Clegg’s descent into the compulsive, shattering world of crack addiction. His career, personal life, boyfriend, and family all fall by the wayside. In a parallel history, Clegg details his childhood, the formative years during which he inexplicably could not urinate (at least, not as easily as most others). We asked Clegg a few (perhaps nagging?) questions about the two stories, their relationship to each other, and how the book came to be.
In recent years, the literary landscape of drug-memoirs, a classic genre, has been somewhat defiled by frauds—A Million Little Pieces comes to mind—taking advantage of our assumption that if an author says something dark about himself, it must be true. Is there any anxiety in releasing Portrait of an Addictinto that landscape?
I didn’t think about other addiction memoirs when I was writing the book, mainly because when I began the writing I didn’t think of any of it as a book. It began in rehab as a process of remembering. I’d just surfaced from a suicidal two month, 24/7 drug binge at the end of which I tried to kill myself. When I arrived in rehab after being in the hospital for several weeks it was like surfacing from a nightmare. And in that way that one fears that they will forget the details of a dream upon waking, so too did I worry that if I didn’t write down what I remembered I’d never have access to the specifics of that dark time again. The reason it mattered so much to remember had to do with the fact that so much of that period was clouded by drug-induced paranoia and there was much that I could not distinguish between truth and delusion. I thought if I recorded everything I remembered – what I saw, what people said, what I felt – that later, with more distance from the events, I’d be able to see it all more clearly and be able to tell what was imagined and what was real. This process went on for years.
At what point in your descent and recovery did you realize that there might be a book in the experience? Were you informed by your experience as a literary agent, who needs to know a good book when he sees one?
After I’d been sober for almost two years and had filled a number of notebooks about that time, I started, separately, writing about my childhood – again, nothing longer or more involved than a memory, an impression, and after a few months of that I started to see parallels between my struggles as a kid and the patterns of behavior in and around my drinking and drug use. Some time later I looked at the two discrete writings together and the relationship between them interested me. It was at that point that it occurred to me that something book shape, book length was possible. But it would be another year before I decided to show the pages to anyone.
A related question: At what point, as you lived the story of the memoir, did you find the connection, or resonance, with your childhood problem? Was it as soon as you remembered it, while in therapy, or only later, when it came time to craft a narrative?
I had made the connection between the two when I was in rehab the first time. But the connection I made had to do with shame and how my crack use was – like my struggles peeing as a kid and, later, my sexuality – this shameful secret I had that separated me from others. The other stuff came later, in the writing, namely the patterns around those two struggles and the possibility that both projects, while on the surface flights from the life and the people around me were also both a way of signaling for help, to be chased, followed. The last image in the book hopefully suggests the link between the two and also how much is wrapped up in the project of oblivion – the release, the consequences, someone running after.
The book insists on a relationship between the two problems, the inability to urinate and the crack addiction—that these are compulsive psychological and physiological issues that are incomprehensible to anybody who hasn’t lived through this kind of thing. Has going through crack addiction and recovery as an adult shed any light for you on your childhood problem?
I’d use the word” suggests” and not “insists.” I don’t think the book insists on anything – it is merely an account of my drinking and drug use and a glimpse at childhood experiences that likely had a hand in shaping the expression of my behavior around my addiction. One was not the cause of the other but the experiences have enough in common that I felt it was worth exploring. Yes, my recovery has helped me look at my childhood through a different lens. One that includes compassion for my parents who had no clue how to handle what was such a delicate and troubling affliction. And, sure, I’ve speculated more as to the root cause, sought advice from people who might know more about such things –but the how and why of the problem still remains somewhat of a mystery.
There is a conspicuous moment in the memoir when the narrative of your life, which begins at early childhood, switches from the third person to the first person perspective—it happens right when you go off to college. Why the switch?
The third person sections all have to do with the landscape of childhood and adolescence – the shaping time, the period when the primary influences were familial. The incubating run-up to the time when began to make my way in the world, away from home.
It’s been suggested by a few critics that the memoir, with its determinedly casual way of describing your repetitive drug use, is justifies itself because you were young, and successful, and attractive (NY Times review: “No one wants to read one of these things by a grizzled or potato-shaped or even middle-aged writer.”), which is a strange inversion of the anxiety you discuss about being found out as “not nearly as bright or well-read or business-savvy or connected as I think people imagine me to be.” How do you respond to that reading of the book?
If the reviewers or critics who level that critique read the book carefully they’d perhaps recognize that attractive and successful were never two things I felt during the period described. Fleeting instances of sexiness through the warped and self- justifying lens of heavy drug use perhaps, but never any genuine feeling of aesthetic or professional worth in the world. And about that line from the Times review about no one wanting to read ‘one of these things’ by unattractive or middle-aged writers: it’s an absurd, shabby-minded and lazy statement and one that I’m still shocked found its way into a book review in the New York Times. Removing the subjective judgment of what is or is not ‘attractive’, one doesn’t have to look far to see how inaccurate the assertion is. Mary Karr, Caroline Knapp, David Carr, Augusten Burroughs, William Kittredge, and many other middle-aged writers have written about addiction and alcoholism and ‘these things’ (as the Times critic puts it) have been read widely and to great acclaim.
An obligatory gay question: I think a lot of gay people know the anxious feeling of entering a new, potentially dangerous situation, and worrying about being outed, being found out. Were there moments in the “crack world” where you felt that anxiety, or was everything replaced by the need for drugs?
Everything – including caution and anxiety around my sexuality – was obliterated by the desire to get high. I hit on many straight dealers and fellow addicts in the thrall of the drug. I look back on some of those moments, and hundreds of others, and can hardly believe I survived any of it.