Apr 02

“The Recovering” by Leslie Jamison: Addiction Aftermath

The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison isn’t your usual addiction memoir. It’s about “literary and artistic geniuses whose lives and works were shaped by alcoholism and substance dependence,” and it’s also about non-celebs dealing with sobriety, and it’s also about the nature of our culture’s racism and classism when it comes to understanding addiction.

And last but not least, it’s also a tale of Jamison’s own addiction struggles, which lacks a bottoming out as extreme as that of most other addiction memoirists. But that doesn’t mean, of course, that she didn’t reach her own low point or decide she sorely needed a better way of living.

Publishers Weekly: “The crawl back up to sobriety is as engrossing as the downward spiral in this unsparing and luminous autobiographical study of alcoholism.”

A book excerpt from New York Times Magazine finds Jamison considering how to tell her AA drunkalog, which is generally a compellingly dramatic story:

But the truer story of my drinking is really a story about tedium, about claustrophobia and repetition. At a certain point, it started to expose itself as something that wasn’t revelry, that wasn’t about connection but isolation, that wasn’t about dark wisdom or metaphysical angst — that wasn’t about anything, really, besides the urge to get drunk, by myself, with no one watching.

“High-functioning” is an adjective that could easily fit Jamison’s alcoholism. Ruth Shalit Barrett, Vulture:

During her early-to-mid-20s, when [Jamison] was in the throes of her moderate-to-severe alcohol-use disorder, she completed her undergraduate and graduate-school coursework, scored a high-powered agent, and published an acclaimed novel. She managed to do all this while rising at 6 a.m. each morning and heading to her job at the Deluxe Bakery in Iowa City…

As to categorization of The Recovering as a book genre, Jamison tells Barrett, “(M)y story is not remarkable enough to fit into any of the sensational or marketplace-proven categories. If it were, it would probably be somewhere between Thrill of the Good-Girl Addict and Surprisingly Successful Addict.” Rather than experience crushing life failures, the main effect of her alcoholism, she adds, “was ‘a deep sense of internal shame’ and ‘years when my work felt stale and thwarted. It just didn’t have a pulse’.”

Initial attempts at recovery, sans AA, didn’t get off the ground. Kirkus Reviews: “She relapsed after desperately missing the sensation of being drunk (‘like having a candle lit inside you’), yet she also acknowledged that sobriety would be the only way to rediscover happiness and remain alive. Attending meetings, sharing her stories, and working the steps of Alcoholics Anonymous ushered the author into a new sober reality.”

Noted author Andrew Solomon offers his praise for The Recovering: “This strangely exhilarating book is about recovery, but it is more resonantly a book about desire, consciousness, kindness, self-control, and love–and hence a Tolstoyan study of the human condition.”

But actress/author Mary-Louise Parker‘s review is probably the one to beat, pointing out that this book will appeal to non-addicts as well. “[It’s] for anyone interested in a dazzlingly brilliant, uncommonly compassionate, and often hilarious study of human nature…Her writing is unexpected, profound, and perverse–in short, a thrill to read. Best of all, for a writer so gifted at locating the excruciating commonalities of isolation, Jamison manages this greatest feat of magic: when I read her words, I come away feeling less alone.”

May 09

“The Family Fang”: Based On the Novel

There’s an illuminating moment late in Jason Bateman’s richly captivating film of The Family Fang, when the unorthodox patriarch played with a sardonic glint by Christopher Walken says to his adult offspring, “You think we damaged you? So what! That’s what parents do.” That’s close enough to a key to this smart, tart adaptation of Kevin Wilson’s best-selling 2011 debut novel, which thumbs its nose at the cliches of the over-trafficked dysfunctional family genre to dissect the sometimes lifelong quest of children to understand their parents in ways that are funny and bittersweet, poignant and often bracingly dark. David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter

Kevin Wilson‘s The Family Fang was chosen a “Best Book” by Amazon when it came out, and the following is a brief plot description from their review:

For outré performance artists, Caleb and Camille Fang, everything in life is secondary to art, including their children. Annie and Buster (popularly known as Child A. and Child B.) are the unwilling stars of their parents’ chaotically subversive work. Art is truly a family affair for the Fangs. Years later, their lives in disarray, Annie and Buster reluctantly return home in search of sanctuary—only to be caught up in one last performance.

Maureen Corrigan, NPR, adds to this:

The Fang parents aren’t faring so well, either. Historically, most of their performance pieces took place in shopping malls, where a ready audience of shocked onlookers could always be found. But these days, so many folks wall themselves off with earbuds and iPhones that the Fangs’ recent spectacles have fallen flat. As Caleb Fang laments, ‘People have become so stupid that you can’t control them.’ Camille agrees. ‘They are so resistant to any strangeness that they tune out the whole world. God, it’s so damn depressing.’

In The Family Fang film version the parents are played by Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett. And then there are the adult kids: “Baxter (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Nicole Kidman) have spent their lives in survival mode. She’s an actress and recovering alcoholic reduced to topless scenes in B flicks; he’s a failed novelist with writer’s block,” notes Rex Reed, New York Observer

Andrew Lapin, NPRrelates important developments:

A Fang reunion in their sprawling upstate New York home is quickly followed by the sudden disappearance of the parents, and the discovery of evidence pointing to a serial killer’s handiwork. Annie is too smart to fall for that trick, and starts piecing together any shred of evidence that they faked the whole thing. We’re too smart to fall for it too, and yet the mystery of the Fang parents becomes oddly engrossing, or at least more so than the soul-searching it prompts in the children. Kidman’s character succumbs to an implausible belief that she can somehow change her parents’ essential natures until they’re all a normal family, instead of a gallery piece.

The trailer helps illustrate Baxter’s and Annie’s experiences as children:

Whereas Kyle Smith, New York Post, pans The Family Fang as one “long therapy session”—as though that’s a bad thing—plenty of others are happy with the translation from book to screen. Rex Reed, New York Observer, for example: “There’s nothing predictable about any of the angles, and [David Lindsay-] Abaire’s script reveals a surprise around every corner. The message is that if you’re in control, the chaos in life will happen around you, not to you. The performances are kinetic and fascinating.”

Lindsey Bahr, Associated Press: “Smart modern literary adaptations can too often get bogged down in whimsy. ‘The Family Fang’ plays it straight, knowing that the story is peculiar enough on its own.”

Alan Scherstuhl, Village Voice: “A tense and involving dysfunction indie that starts as dark comedy but later stretches into mystery, melodrama, and arts criticism.”

Mar 30

“Krisha”: A Family-Affair Addiction Story

If Krisha’s about more than just putting its audience through one woman’s crucible of atonement, it may be about the limits of forgiveness. How many second chances does a loved one get, especially when they refuse to either change or explain their behavior? Because we share her perspective, it’s easy to feel sympathy for Krisha, fighting for the affection and respect of a family she bailed on. But that doesn’t mean we have to ultimately cave to her emotional appeals. That might be the movie’s most powerful achievement: It literally puts us on its protagonist’s side, then dares us not to abandon it for the other one. A.A. Dowd, AV Club

Indie film Krisha is a family affair in more than one way. First, of course, there’s the (somewhat fictional) family whose story it tells. Key words from various review headlines signal what lies in wait: black sheep, recovering alcoholic, dysfunctional clan, grueling reunion, emotional horror show of a family, not your ordinary family-holiday psychodrama.

Second, many of the cast are in fact family. Title character Krisha, in her 60’s, is played by the now highly lauded non-actor Krisha Fairchild, the aunt of the film’s writer/director Trey Edward ShultsAlso featured in key roles are Trey’s mother (Robyn Fairchild) as his aunt, Trey as himself, and his grandmother (Billie Fairchild).

A couple other interesting facts: Krisha’s character is based on actual kin (though presumably not anyone who’s in the film), and both Trey’s mom and dad happen to be therapists in real life. But as Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune, reassures, “…(T)his is more than a writer-director’s therapy session in the guise of a narrative.”

The setting is Robyn’s home in Austin, TX, at Thanksgiving. Sheri Linden, Hollywood Reporter: “Within the bustling home…relationships gradually come into focus. Key among them for Krisha is her strained connection with her son. Well played by the director, Trey is adamantly closed off to her, especially when she tries to bridge the gap.”

Tricia Olszewski, The Wrap:

…(H)er extended family is huge, including a few 20-something guys, two brothers-in-law, an infant, and her Alzheimer’s-afflicted [for real] mom…

Despite telling herself to ‘chill,’ Krisha, a clearly deeply wounded woman who claims to be a former alcoholic, becomes increasingly anxious and returns to her guest bathroom frequently to pop pills and eventually chug some wine. ‘She’s a little jumpy,’ someone explains. ‘She lives by herself.’

David Fear, Rolling Stone: “Those days of binge-drinking and demonic behavior are behind her, she promises. Everything will be perfect from now on. Still, as her brother-in-law reminds Krisha, ‘…You are heartbreak incarnate, lady.’ Disaster is just one dropped-on-the-floor turkey away.”

Alan Scherstuhl, Village Voice: “You know, watching, that Krisha — nerve-racked, heavily medicated, aware she’s on eggshells — will eventually be at the center of a disaster…And you know that when it all goes down it’s going to hurt.”

On Krisha Succeeding As a Family Drama and Not Being a “Therapy Session”

Sheri Linden, Hollywood Reporter: “…Shults never indulges in therapy-speak; whether angry, sorrowful, deceitful or confessional, each word is alive, not designed to deliver a message.”

Justin Chang, Variety: “Remarkably…the film sustains its intense commitment to emotional and psychological realism even as everything goes to hell.”

A.A. Dowd, AV Club: “Such aversion to easy psychoanalysis is one way that the film avoids becoming a generic recovery drama, even after an element of addiction is introduced. Intangible cast chemistry is another.”

The trailer’s below:

Jun 29

“Blackout” Drinker: Sarah Hepola’s Memoir About Recovery

As I inched into my 30s, I found myself in that precarious place where I knew I drank too much, but I believed I could manage it somehow. I was seeing a therapist, and when I talked to her about my blackouts, she gasped. I bristled at her concern.
“Everyone has blackouts,” I told her.
She locked eyes with me. “No, they don’t.” Sarah Hepola, Blackout

Why this particular quote from Sarah Hepola‘s recently published Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget? Because as a therapist I recognize it as a fairly common scenario—the denial that precedes an altogether different discovery about one’s drinking and its effects.

As Julia Felsenthal, Vogue, comments about the perceived normalcy of certain patterns of drinking:

Blackouts aside, Hepola’s brand of alcoholism tracks with a way of drinking that’s familiar to many of us: the wine-soaked book club, the cocktails with friends, the after-work drinks…
But what’s cute in college and socially acceptable in your twenties turns ugly in your thirties. There are those who drink the book club wine, then go happily home to bed. And there are those, like Hepola, who follow it up with a six pack or two of beer…

Hepola, now 40 and a Salon editor, has a lot to say about her history of blackout drinking. The quote at the top and the next couple are from a book excerpt in The Guardian.

What is a blackout? Contrary to popular belief, an alcohol-related blackout is not the same as passing out. Rather, it’s when you forget what’s happened to you: “the thunderbolt of waking up to discover a blank space where pivotal scenes should be. My evenings come with trapdoors.”

Behind the scenes of a blackout: 

The blood reaches a certain alcohol saturation point and shuts down the hippocampus, part of the brain responsible for making long-term memories. You drink enough, and that’s it. Shutdown. No more memories.

Your short-term memory still works, but short-term memory lasts less than two minutes, which explains why wasted people can follow a conversation from point to point, but they will repeat themselves after some time has passed – what a friend of mine calls ‘getting caught in the drunkard’s loop’. The tendency to repeat what you just said is a classic sign of a blackout, although there are others. ‘Your eyes go dead, like a zombie,’ a boyfriend once told me. ‘It’s like you’re not there at all.’ People in a blackout often get a vacant, glazed-over look, as though their brain is unplugged. And, well, it kind of is.

Blackouts, by the way, come in different sizes, as it were. There are, for instance, “brownouts”—a fragmentary type; there are en bloc ones, a full-scale loss of memory for a significant period.

Felsenthal summarizes some details regarding Hepola’s drinking episodes:

She might tumble down staircases, expose herself publically, hijack a dinner party with emotional histrionics—but she wouldn’t find out until annoyed friends reported back to her in the morning. Why did she once wake up in a dog’s bed at someone else’s house? Why did she regularly wake up in the beds of strangers?

On Hepola Quitting Drinking

Jul 21

“Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me”–The Final Documentation of Her Life

Award-winning and beloved actress Elaine Stritch died last week at the age of 89—soon after the DVD release of Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, a highly acclaimed new documentary.


Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times:

Chiemi Karasawa’s documentary ‘Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me’ follows the Broadway legend through a year or so in her life, letting us see her tartly field phone calls in the hotel suite she calls home, march through Central Park in her trademark fur coat and black tights, shoot a few scenes for ’30 Rock’ (with the man she calls “Alec ‘Joan Crawford’ Baldwin”) and reminisce about her eventful life and career. And, throughout, she rehearses and performs her one-woman show of Stephen Sondheim songs — getting frustrated and petulant in rehearsal when she struggles to remember lyrics, and transforming in front of an audience. (Her delivery, in performance, of the lyric ‘It’s alarming how charming I feel,’ is worth the ticket price right there.)

Scott Foundas, Variety: “‘She’s still here … but not for much longer’ is the subtext…”

The Elaine Stritch trailer reveals a good deal of what she was all about:


Elizabeth Weitzman, New York Daily News: “…fully possessed of that odd combination of narcissism and self-doubt that is peculiar to performers. She has reached the age when she refuses to waste her time on fools. (One suspects she may have reached that age by her mid-teens.)”

Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times: “Formidable, indomitable, irascible…”

Rex Reed, New York Observer: “…sharp, funny, brittle, caustic, demanding, exaggerated, critical (especially of herself) and infuriating. She is also elaborately unique and awesomely brilliant.”


Stephen Holden, New York Times: “She admits that the kind of love an audience gives her is what she needs the most and couldn’t get any other way. She recalls her happy marriage to the actor John Bay, who died of brain cancer in 1982. She loved being married and in love, she says, but never found it again.”


Substance.com: “…(T)he most surprising revelation is that during the filming she began drinking again after 20 years in recovery, about which she was characteristically open. She says that she will allow herself only one cocktail a day (she favors Cosmopolitans.) ‘It relaxes me,’ she says in a moment fraught with quiet desperation.”

Stephen Holden, New York Times: “She seems to be abiding by her [new] rule, though it can’t be easy.”


Keith Uhlich, Time Out:

Lyrics don’t come as quickly to mind, she’s still frequently paralyzed by stage fright (which requires a stiff drink to combat), and her relentless rehearsal schedule is aggravating her diabetic condition.

Longtime accompanist Rob Bowman is there to offer as much assistance as possible, and one of the most upsetting moments comes when he has to talk his professional partner through a ministroke that leaves her unable to speak. But with the bad comes plenty of good, and it’s gratifying beyond words to witness this consummate performer as she feeds off an audience’s energy, turning flubs and forgetfulness continually to her advantage. This is a life lived, perhaps not always well, but certainly to the fullest.

Scott Foundas, Variety“There are hospital stays (as her diabetes worsens), followed by more anxiety attacks, and one truly frightening episode — a medical emergency during a visit to the Hamptons — that plays like an outtake from ‘Amour’.”

Stephen Holden, New York Times: “The disparity between the blazing stage performer with the glare of a lion on the prowl and the frail, fearful old woman seen in the hospital after a medical crisis could hardly be greater.”


Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times: “…(A)n undercurrent throughout the film is a painful question: How do you know when it’s time to dim the lights and leave the stage? Stritch talks about retirement but for most of the film dismisses it. ‘I feel better when I work,’ she says.”

Tom Long, Detroit News:

‘How is the end of pretend going to be?’ she wonders while talking to the actor John Turturro, one of many famous faces in the film dropping by to praise Stritch.

‘There’s something exciting about being afraid,’ she tells him.


Soon after the film wrapped last year, Stritch headed to Birmingham, Michigan (near her home town of Detroit), to at least “semi”-retire (Vulture.com).