Good Morning, Blackout:  On Writing Against the Recovery Narrative

“Today I must be very careful. Today I have left my armour at home.” — Jean Rhys, Good Morning, Midnight

“Overthinkers are the most exhausting alcoholics.” — Sarah Hepola, Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget

In starting this blog, I have dived back into book on alcoholism and the inevitable recovery narratives. As someone who has struggled with alcohol abuse for the last 15 years or so, I have read these recovery stories with relish. Mary Karr’s Lit, Caroline Knapp’s Drinking, A Love Story, and David Carr’s The Night of the Gun are some of my favorites. I identified with parts of all of these stories, despite rarely being being fully sober myself. This week I downloaded Sarah Hepola’s Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget onto my Kindle, having read all kinds of good press, and it’s release was well-timed for my own foray into addiction/recovery blogging. I read it with relish in the course of an evening, and it hold’s it own with any of the aforementioned titles. Writing with a snarky, popular tone that’s not unfamiliar to anyone who reads popular blogs (I was not surprised to learn she is an editor at Salon), she makes references to Elliott Smith songs and Marc Maron podcasts, and talkes frankly about sex, childhood and sobriety.

Hepola’s story opens in a Paris hotel, where she wakes up with a random guy and very nearly loses her passport. Upon reading the opening, after a bit of internal one-upmanship (I did a similar thing once in Hong Kong, only I did actually did lose my passport), I immediately thought of Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight, which also opens in a Paris hotel. Jean Rhys is best known for writing Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), which re-imagines Jane Eyre from the perspective of Mr. Rochester’s first wife, Bertha. The lesser known Good Morning, Midnight, written in 1939, tells the story of a woman named Sasha Jensen, who returns to Paris after losing a lover and a child there many years before. Good Morning, Midnight, is a difficult novel, because instead of watching Sasha recover from her past, we watch her painfully re-live traumatic moments from her life in Paris, while trying (and failing) to manage her drinking. Rhys’s novel contains no arc of redemption, it only has artful, heartbreakingly-described pain.

Sometime in the past (and I hope someday in the course of blogging to be able to pinpoint where) the only valuable narrative of alcoholism and drug addiction became the recovery narrative. This is particularly true for women writers– we don’t have a Bukowski, a Hunter S. Thompson, or a Hemingway. Kate Zambreno wrote in Heroines about the pushback she received teaching Good Morning, Midnight at a continuing education class in Boston: “Well she was obviously an alcoholic,” one woman in the group says about the protagonist. Zambreno attributes her students dismissiveness towards Rhys to her gender, but to me this is comment is also indicative our modern attachment to a certain type of recovery narrative– because Sasha Jensen is an alcoholic, we already know all we need to know about her story. All alcoholics, according to the sobriety paradigm presented by Alcoholics Anonymous, must be somewhere on the path towards hitting bottom, admitting powerlessness, and submitting to recovery. Anyone who who dares to question or complicate that storyline is “in denial” or “intellectualizing”. Storytelling is incredibly important in recovery culture (just visit an AA or NA meeting), and it’s certainly helpful to many people and inspired some great literature. However, at some the sobriety narrative began to dominate even outside the rooms. There are so many narratives that don’t fit into this structure– of people who grow out of their addictions, who learn to moderate, or and those who struggle in and out of addiction their whole lives (like the author Jean Rhys herself). I’m not claiming those of us who don’t fit the narrative are unique (terminally or otherwise)– if statistics about AA are to be believed, these stories are the norm and not the exception. But where are they in contemporary literature and popular culture?

The recovery narrative is comforting, but it’s also intrinsically othering– an alcoholic, according to AA, is a certain kind of person with a certain pathology, one whose narrative is already written for them. In this sense, describing an alcoholic is like describing the customs and tribes of a colonized foreign culture– we, as outsiders, can settle into a certain superiority based in the fact that we can understand them from a distance and know their stories better than they know themselves. This is part of why I suspect sobriety stories are so popular, even among people who haven’t struggled with addiction, but it’s also intensely frustrating for people trying to tell stories outside of the dominant recovery narrative.

Somewhere in the middle of her book, as she makes the decision to get sober, Hepola defensively jokes about how sobriety narratives are boring, the same way overweight people sometimes joke about their weight as a means of self-defense– “I know this thing is true, but if I point out this thing in advance, then people will be less likely to mock me for it.” It’s understandable, but completely transparent. The sobriety part of her tale is indeed the most dull. She makes banal points about learning guitar (it’s hard) and online dating (it’s hard, too). Late in the book she says the line that most irked me: “Over-thinkers are the most exhausting alcoholics.” In re-reading this line, I realize she’s talking about herself much as anyone else, but I take offense as a (self-described) first-rate over-thinker. I always bristled, both at Sunday school and rehab, when people told me not to think so much and chided me for asking questions. To me the complicated bits of recovery are the most interesting, not the most exhausting. The parts of Hepola’s story that I find myself wondering the most about– the period of sobriety she enters in her twenties, and the struggles with binge eating she deals with after she gives up booze, are dealt with with just a few pages. They don’t fit the story she wants to tell (and that’s fine, it’s her story), but why to the messy parts need to be excised from a sobriety narrative?

So while I enjoy reading stories like Hepola’s (it’s really a wonderful book, despite the bit of criticism I level here), I couldn’t stop comparing it, fairly or unfairly, to Good Morning, Midnight. At the end of Blackout, Hepola goes back the the same Paris hotel and she makes peace with herself. The reader of Good Morning, Midnight get’s no such reprieve.   Both stories are valid, but I wish Western literary culture could make space for more stories like that latter, those that don’t fit the dominant narrative of addiction and recovery, even if they cause us discomfort. In her book, Hepola makes the oft-made point that drunks and drinking are boring overly-romanticized. I don’t dispute this at all, but the same is true for sober folk and sobriety– I would argue that the romanticization of sobriety would not occur without the romanticization of inebriety. The stories that need more attention are the ones that don’t fit the dominant narrative, where people skirt the lines of sobriety and live lives that do not conform to the story of “addict hits bottom and gets sober.” There’s so much happening in the grey areas in between. We may be “exhausting”, but we’re here and we’re writing.

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