Sharon Leder lost her father to a heroin overdose when she was 17 years old. For the past 30-plus years, the associate professor emerita at the State University of New York Nassau Community College has been trying to write a memoir about it. But it just wasn’t working.
Leder would go to bring drafts of the memoir to writing workshops, and fellow participants would tell her she was overanalyzing everything and telling, not showing.
“I felt as I was writing like a victim,” Leder says. “I was back in the situation.”
So, she shifted directions and invented Sara, a Jewish girl coming of age in the late 1950s and early ’60s. In The Fix: A Father's Secrets, A Daughter's Search,
Leder uses her life story as the oldest daughter of a heroin addict to help her imagine ways for her characters to survive conflict, tragedy and trauma without losing sight of the supports they need to prevail.
“I moved to fiction to release my imagination in working on the story and to take the story outside of my body so I wasn't being victimized by it anymore,” she says.
Leder sat down with Renew to talk about the addiction epidemic, the Jewish experience of addiction, the toll on the family and the value of 12 Steps for all people.
Renew: Who are you, and what do you do?
Sharon Leder: I live on Cape Cod in the town of Brewster, Massachusetts. I’ve lived here since I left teaching in 2003. Before that, I lived in New York. I was a college teacher within the State University of New York system. I taught in English literature, women’s studies and Jewish studies. I did that for 37 years. During that time, the whole fields of women’s studies and Jewish studies were blossoming — and I was part of those movements. I realized how important it was — given the area of Jewish and women’s studies — to be exploring a kind of past background that I was not opening up to myself. I decided to explore my background through writing. I discovered that there were quite a few repressed memories that came out as I was going through that journey of writing. It had to do with my having witnessed a great deal of turmoil in my household because of my father's heroin addiction.
Renew: How did your father’s addiction affect you as a child and as a young woman?
SL: As a child, I learned about my father’s problem before I really understood it. I learned about it when I was 8 years old. I was the oldest in a family of three children, and I was my mother’s confidant. It was 1955 when she got a call from one of my father’s old cronies and learned that he had been apprehended by the police for shooting up heroin in a local soda fountain bathroom. She was beside herself — and I was witness to this telephone call. She confronted my father. I could not believe that the father who I had experienced as a loving dad was also this sick man. The effect on me was to make me extremely frightened. I felt my father was two people: the dad I knew and then a monster who could lose his control at any time. I watched him lose control with my mom. I was plagued by nightmares and bad dreams where my father was King Kong.
My father had told my mother that she should never reveal the situation to his mother. But my mom felt cornered. She didn't know what to do. She felt her mother-in-law was a very important person in my father’s life and that she could help, so she did reveal that information to my grandmother. My grandmother, I think, reversed it and felt my mother must be the one to blame. Everyone was trying to figure out who was to blame. I was told by my father’s mother that because I was a smart girl and my father loved me, I should talk to him. He would listen to me. I could get him to stop. I know I wanted to heal the family. There was so much discord. There was so much fear. There was so much hiding. And I felt maybe there was something I could do, but I didn't know how to approach my father. He died of a heroin dose when I was 17, and I had never spoken to him about the problem. That was a memory I really repressed. I realized I was carrying this burden of an unfulfilled assignment that I had had. I was living with a great deal of guilt.
My commitment to social activism had to do with my feeling that I had to act. My commitment, although it has to do with fairness and justice and equality, also has to do with a personal guilt I’ve been carrying around. I couldn’t acknowledge it or let go of it until after the writing was completed.
Renew: Is the Jewish experience of addiction unique?
SL: For most of my childhood, my family lived within Jewish communities. I only learned this later when I more formally studied Jewish history and tradition, but there is a tremendous amount of denial within in the community that the problem exists. There is a Yiddish saying, “Shicker is a goy.” The saying means, “The drunkard is a Gentile.” The drunkard could substitute for any kind of dependency. There is a complete denial that addiction is a problem. If you have some kind of dependency in your personality, if you have some kind of crutch you're leaning on, it means you’re out of God's favor. There is some sin you're guilty of that you’re not acknowledging. That idea of shunning the deviant was part of the Jewish community. We lived in the upstairs apartment, and the downstairs neighbor could never know our problem. So, we didn’t invite friends to the house. I would go to the homes of my schoolmates, but we didn’t entertain much. It was kept very quiet. It would be a shanda, a tremendous shame, if people knew about my father’s issue, so it had to be kept secret.
Renew: How did you decide to write a novel instead of a memoir?
SL: I began writing this book as a memoir back in 1985. I was writing it because I was experiencing a lot of blockages in my professional work. I was a teacher, and I was trained in literature, but the field that interested me the most was women’s studies — discovering women writers who had been lost in history and learning from their writings that women had been kept silent and their voices had to come out.
I was teaching in a women’s studies program, and I was always in conflict because I was part of a new field that was thought of as a radical field. I conflicted with administrators who didn’t want the changes that the activists who were women wanted to make such as higher salaries or more female faculty. They wanted to be in control of what women’s studies was doing. I found myself in conflictual situations with my employers. I noticed when I was a spokesperson or an advocate for women's studies and something would be said that my program didn’t support, there was a part of me that went blank. I couldn’t find the words.
In writing my memoir, I realized that’s what always happened with my dad. I couldn’t ever confront him with what the problem was. There was something stopping me. I learned I didn’t want my dad’s disapproval. I wanted his love. I think I had a very profound and ambivalent relationship to men in positions of authority. I felt that understanding this about myself would help me in my development.
As I was writing my memoir, I was trying to figure out a mystery, which is why my father got hooked on heroin and why couldn't he stop. I was getting really lost in the facts. I was evaluating and examining. I would bring the drafts to writing workshops. People would tell me that I was telling and not showing. I was overanalyzing. I felt as I was writing like a victim. I was back in the situation. I learned from my own teaching of other literary figures that to have a believable character, you needed to show positive and not-so-positive qualities. It couldn't all be negative. What was coming out in my writing was a great deal of repressed anger and rage at my dad. He was becoming a cartoon villain. It realized it wouldn't be a good story. So, I was able to say, “What if I make not an “I” voice, as if I'm telling the story, but a persona and I call her Sara?” I could put her outside of myself, and I could evaluate her actions. By doing that, I could imagine positive things that happened between us — my dad and me. I could understand why I wanted him to love me. I really understood — and with much more compassion by creating characters — how he could have gotten hooked.
I have one scene where Sara imagines she's with him the first night he tried heroin. She’s trying to talk him out of it. That relieved me a great deal of regret for never having spoken to him. I moved to fiction to release my imagination in working on the story and to take the story outside of my body so I wasn't being victimized by it anymore.
Renew: Is there anything about yourself you don’t usually share?
SL: Over the 30 years I’ve been writing this, I’ve lost 40 pounds. Most of my life, I was very chubby. I faced the world as a person with an overweight problem. During the writing of the book, it’s as if I took the weight outside and let it go. I’m amazed that it happened. It wasn’t through dieting; it was through writing.
Renew: Can you talk about the value of the 12 steps for all people?
SL: I’ve been working on this book and working on my own personal problems, I’ve gone through a great deal of psychotherapy, but I’ve never been very public about my problems or my past. Anytime I did try to go public, such as with colleagues at work, I was told, like in my family, to just keep it to myself. It bothered me because I felt I was still living with unresolved issues.
It just so happened that I finished writing this book in the novel form while living on the Cape, and the Cape is one of the centers of the current opioid epidemic. It has two times the national average of heroin overdoses. I’ve been very involved in the issue.
I had just finished writing my book, and there was going to be a preview screening of Heroin: Cape Cod, USA
at the local community college. I felt I had to go. That film traced the lives of seven young people who were willing to let the camera follow them as they had just begun their heroin habits and how it ruined their lives. Three or four of the people featured in the film were on a panel; some of the others died after the film came out. They were saying addiction is such a problem that they didn’t think it could be solved unless the public knew about this problem. It couldn’t be addressed because there’s such a stigma attached to it. I felt, wow, history is repeating itself. I felt I needed to tell the story of how a family can be ruined and the ripple effects to a person's professional, personal and emotional life.
I have two siblings. My younger sister, who was 7 when my father died, didn’t really know he was a heroin addict until much later. She has been involved in 12 steps for maybe 25 years, and she encouraged me to consider the 12 steps.
I found that it was a community of people who were not going to stigmatize me because of what I was talking about. It was such an affirming group who believed coming out was a positive thing. One of the precepts is that the addict who is doomed to be forever in the cycle of addiction is the one who cannot reach out for help, who believes he is in control. I was imposing that on myself: I wasn’t coming out of it. I was reproducing the same problem my father had. I was keeping it private and thinking it was the best thing for me. But it wasn’t. I needed a community, and I found that with 12 steps.
Renew: What’s next for you?
SL: Right now, I’m trying to spread the message. The aspect of denial is still very prevalent in Jewish communities. Awareness is growing, but the awareness is with the people who are following the issues, not necessarily on the part of communities at large. There is a great stigma within Jewish communities. Why don't we see addiction the way we view other disabilities such as mental illness, blindness? I'm on a crusade to try to start the conversation.