By Steve Diogo
In “Drunken Angel,” author and poet Alan Kaufman digs deep into the reality of addiction, mental illness and recovery in his own life. We spoke with Kaufman at length about the appeal of the recovery memoir, the role of storytelling in recovery and the writer’s obligation to present truth in response to our culture’s obsession with “reality.”
SD: I’ve read a lot of addiction memoirs. Yours is both the most brutal and most hopeful I’ve read. How do you do that? Where do you find the courage to dig so deeply into the wreckage of your past and come out the other side?
AK: The writers I pay attention to insist on specificity of detail as the stuff of good writing. Flaubert, Tolstoy, Hemmingway, these are writers who insisted on truth and detail. My approach is through the portals of literature. On a broader scale, the purpose of the memoir has become enlarged by the present human condition. I think that the memoir today is at the vanguard of reclaiming what it means to be human. I think the human is disappearing in the current landscape; so to pay close attention to the detail of what it feels like… what exactly it was like … not to surrender to the temptation to facts, but to break it down to what exactly it is.
SD: Why memoir vs. writing a novel?
AK: A memoir carries more public trust. The public is staking its faith in you to tell the truth as far as you know it. That’s a heavy responsibility. It’s a moral burden. You also understand when you’re writing a memoir that what you write is going to impact people differently than fiction. People are going to take you at your word and see this as a possible outcome or path for their own life. You might even be steering their life in a way. In the current day, with all the emphasis on “reality” – which I believe has a lot to do with the disappearance of the human from our culture—memoir can really assert more vividly what reality is. Fiction is invention. It’s fantasy.
I think that the human experience has dramatically changed in my own lifetime. When I sit in a public place, people are not looking at each other or talking to each other; mostly they’re bent over a screen. They believe they are having a human experience and communicating because they’re posting on Facebook or emailing or whatever … but it’s my contention that that is not really human interaction. It’s interaction with a device. The artifacts of our culture, especially the book, are disappearing. The book stores are disappearing. Conversation is disappearing.
SD: Social media, despite the term, “social,” can actually be deeply narcissistic. Everyone is obsessively detailing their life, but it’s just the surface of their life. So I can see where so brutally opening your life through memoir is a way of saying, “No, this is what it means to be human; this is the level we connect on.”
AK: Yeah … that’s exactly what it means to me. A lot of the response I’m getting from readers and even other writers is that term, “brutally honest.” They ask how I could be so honest. My response is, “How could I not be?”
SD: Writers have two directions they can move: outward to comment on the stuff around them, or inward to explore themselves. That inward journey is the place where we connect.
AK: Exactly. As writers, that’s what we’re here to do.
SD: To me, one of the core tools and even values of recovery is storytelling. How did the writing process intertwine with your recovery?
AK: I would say my writing career really began with my recovery. I’ve been clean and sober for 21 years. Before I got sober, I wrote here and there: I published some short stories, journalism, had a book published, all that. But the truth was I could not really write anything of merit or substance. I had no staying power; I’d black out at the typewriter. I’d wake up with a hangover and read what I wrote and see that it was garbage. I’d throw it away and then I’d drink to deal with the pain of that.
SD: But did you fall for the BS that that was exactly what would make you a great writer?
AK: I did. I grew up among heroin addicts. I didn’t want to be like them; I wanted to be a writer. But all my heroes—Kerouac, Faulkner, Hemmingway, Miller—all of them were terrible drinkers, and I thought that’s what you had to do. Drinking was my social media. And in the beginning there was the sense of being flush and giddy when I drank, of being in the creative flow, but it didn’t really have anything but a devastating effect on my ability to work. And I had no self-discipline, I couldn’t concentrate, I was totally ADD. I couldn’t focus; I certainly couldn’t write a book.
When I came into recovery, my sponsors all insisted I had to write as part of my recovery. One of my sponsors said, “You’re a writer; that’s another kind of disease. Either you’d better devote some time every day to writing or you’re going to drink.” All I could think was, “Don’t tell me that,” because I just couldn’t imagine being able to sit there and do that. And so in order to be able to do it, and as part of my step work, I had to go out and examine different forms of meditation. I had to learn how to sit there for a long period of time and just focus. My whole approach to writing had to change; I couldn’t see it as a career path. I had to view it as something that was driven by inner necessity, and whatever happened with it was none of my business. I had to just focus on the writing. That was what I had to do. Recovery changed everything.
I made a pact with my spirit, myself, my higher power, that I would sit in a specific place every day for three hours with a pen and a notebook—because I write by hand—and just sit there. If something happens, great. If not, well, that’s still great. That’s been my practice. I suit up and show up. At some point, maybe I just get bored and start to write. The challenge isn’t the writing so much as the just staying at the writing place. Whatever comes is none of my business.
SD: So there’s discipline, practice, digging up the truth about ourselves, sharing our stories—all components of recovery work.
AK: I don’t know that everyone needs to go burrowing deep down into that place as a writer, but for me, in recovery we share about what is was like, what happened and what it’s like now. That’s pretty much been the narrative structure of all of my books. That recounting, again and again, the details of my life, has been essential to my recovery. I already do that. I already go to that dark place; but I revisit it from a different point of view now. When I was growing up in this crazy household, it was really lonely and scary in there. I always hoped that some kind stranger would come to the door and say, “Dear people, what’s going on in here?” But no one ever did. So when I grew up, in recovery, I had to become that kind stranger and ask that question. My books are the answer.
SD: What does the title mean?
AK: I think people in recovery become crazy angels. We’re broken, but we have light in us. We’re freaks. We live with death perched on our shoulder. Most people don’t, but we do. At any point we could pick up a drink and die. We live with that and that makes us different. I also wanted to juxtapose the drunkenness and the angelic that I think characterize the alcoholic experience.
SD: Do you that that explains the public’s fascination with addiction memoirs: that we are people at the spear point, the ones who dance up to death and then come back to talk about it?
AK: I guess there might be a morbid curiosity, but mostly I believe its popularity is based on the fact that so many people are affected by alcoholism and addiction in our society. Many readers are not alcoholics or addicts, but they have family members or loved ones who are. They’re baffled by the disease; they don’t understand what their loved ones are going through so they appreciate that these memoirs can give them an insight, a glimpse, into what’s going on with this person I love. They read in the hope that there is an answer. That’s why there is a responsibility on the part of the recovery memoirist to accurately portray the experience unstintingly so the person who’s not an alcoholic can read it and see, wow … this person is in hell.
SD: I’m struck that you refer to your book as a recovery memoir, not an addiction memoir, yet the genre in the popular press is called addiction memoir. There’s a section for it in Barnes & Noble. Of course, there’s also a section called “Teen Paranormal Romance,” so …
AK: Well, I mean, they’re selling my book in Target. You can go pick up some body mist and my book. And they’ve got it categorized under psychopathology, so I don’t know. I don’t put a lot of weight in publishing genres. To me the book is about recovery. If the book is me dying of my addiction, the end … well, that’s a pretty horrible story to tell. I wouldn’t want to read that. So the heart of the recovery memoir is this philosophical purpose to describe the condition but then to show the path out. It has a purpose. It’s not to horrify or glorify the terror.
In the commercial media, there is by and large an emphasis on the lurid and the disgraceful. But we’re looking at a human being. When I walk down the street and see the alcoholic lying on the sidewalk passed out, people just walking around him, well that was me. That was you. That was us. I don’t feel any separation from that person; but our commercial culture is all about separation.
SD: As a recovering person, I often feel that the greatest gift I’ve been given is that insight to look at a suffering person, a homeless drunk, and know, that’s me … that sense of connectedness. If I can experience that, if I can communicate that to someone else … now we’re talking about bringing the human back.
AK: Certainly if the other person’s an addict. No question about it. But also I think alcoholism and addiction are diseases of loneliness and isolation. We live in a time of deep loneliness and isolation, so accounts of that experience hold a lot of appeal to people who live in a lonely age. Reading that and reading how someone finds connection in that world is going to be appealing to people, even if they are not addicts. As a memoirist, I have a moral obligation to point the way, at least the way I took.
To read an excerpt of “Drunken Angel” and more about Alan Kaufman, subscribe to Renew and pick up the May/June 2012 issue.