The Substance Abuser’s Wife

In choosing her subject, it’s not a bad idea for the memoirist to imagine that many others in her audience have undergone the same or a similar experience, and to write with that in mind. Any assumption to the contrary may prove fatal.

Here, the subject is living with a substance abuser, and the substance is cocaine. Assuming no shortage of coke addicts in the world, one may also assume a proximate number of used and abused significant others to go with them. The theme, in other words, is familiar, so much so that there are even organizations like Al-alon and Cocaine Anonymous devoted to it. True, not all spouses, lovers, and other co-victims of substance abuse have written or intend to write their memoirs. But for better or worse more than a few of them have, or will.

And there’ve been very good books about drug abuse, both from the point of view of the abuser, and from that of someone emotionally attached to him or her. Alexander Trocchi’s Cain’s Book plunges us into the mind—and even the philosophy—or a heroin junkie living on a gravel scow in New York harbor. Presented to us as a novel in the form of a journal, it begins:

My scow is tied up in the canal at Flushing, N.Y., alongside the landing stage of the Mac Asphalt and Construction Corporation. It is now just after five in the afternoon. Today at this time it is still afternoon, and the sun, striking the cinderblocks of the main building of the works, has turned them pink. The motor cranes and the decks of the other scows tied up round about are deserted.

Half an hour ago I gave myself a fix.

Turning from heroin to its older cousin, opium, there have been memoirs going all the way back to De Quincy, whose Confessions of an English Opium Eater is the first and most famous. Novel with Cocaine, set in Moscow on the eve of the Russian revolution, does for that time and place about what Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City did for Manhattan and cocaine in the late 1980’s. As for narratives about or by people living with abusive family members, there’s been no shortage of those, either. Jeanette Wall’s Glass Castle is a recent example. In it she chronicles (among many other things) growing up with an eccentric mother and alcoholic father. It opens:

I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a dumpster. It was just after dark. A blustery March wind whipped the steam coming out of the manholes, and people hurried along the sidewalks with their collars turned up. I was stuck in traffic two blocks from the party where I was heading.

Right from the start each of the books I’ve quoted offers to us something above or beyond substance abuse or its direct or collateral consequences. Trocchi gives us the atmosphere of the New York waterfront, with its deserted motor cranes and sun-spackled cinderblocks, while Wall juxtaposes, to heartbreaking effect, party-going yuppie with dumpster-diving Mom.

Which leads to the next good question for the memoirist to ask herself: What can I bring to my familiar subject that no one has brought to it before? How will it be different not only in its particulars, but essentially—substantially, stylistically, and/or structurally, so that readers won’t have read anything quite like it?

The first page under discussion here calls no attention to its style, nor does it break any formal ground. And yet by means of her italicized opening paragraph the author does answer, or tries to, the question: what can I bring to my familiar subject that no one has brought to it before? She does so by front-loading her story with a nod to the recent Bosnian war where, we are told, she met her future, coke-snorting husband. Like many an italicized opening, this one is meant to grab our attention, and does. But it’s the war in Sarajevo that grabs it, not the husband, or cocaine abuse, and the scene in Roman type that follows it (and that is itself a teaser—the author plunging us in media res into the ostensible heart of her story), comes as a let-down. We start with a Balkan war, and end up—or rather begin again—sitting on a stateside toilet rifling a man’s wallet, one that, incidentally, has nothing special in or about it.

In other respects the italicized first paragraph is distracting. For one thing it lacks focus, wanting at once to be “in a war zone” in Sarajevo and in a “pretty Connecticut suburb”; to be married and divorced; to plunge us into a dark past but also to revel in the “precious peace” of the present tense. The author wants it all ways, in few words. Or she’s not sure what she wants. Nor is the reader.

Like the italicized paragraph preceding it, the scene, though quite well written beyond the first stuttering paragraph, is a red herring. So we return again to the thorny question: what does this memoir really have to offer? What will it be about other than living with a drug addict? Because just as most of us are better off not having to live with drug addicts, we can also live without more memoirs about doing—or having done—so.

About Peter Selgin

Peter Selgin is the author of Drowning Lessons, winner of the 2007 Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction, Life Goes to the Movies, a novel, two books on the craft of fiction, and several children’s books. His memoir, Confessions of a Left-Handed Man, was short-listed for the William Saroyan International Prize. His latest novel, The Water Master, won the William Faulkner Society Prize, selected by Random House Senior Editor Will Murphy. His work has won the Missouri Review Editors’ Prize, the Dana Award, six Best American Essay notable essay citations, and two selections for the Best American series. A second memoir, The Inventors, is forthcoming from Hawthorne Books in April of 2016. He teaches at Antioch University’s MFA program and is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia College & State University.
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3 Responses to The Substance Abuser’s Wife

  1. Ryan Godard says:

    Something that I think we should know as a reader in this first page is where we are in the world at the most ‘recent’ point in the story — our imaginations are taken to Bosnia, Connecticut, and the location in which the ‘real’ story takes place. Is it the real setting of the story, though? What I’m assuming is that the war in Bosnia has had some sort of effect on the drug addict in this story, and that it perhaps is partially responsible for his addiction. In what way does the setting manipulate the narrator’s interactions with her husband? The relationship between domestic life and cocaine is clear in the way that the latter harms the former, but there is no specification as to how the former generates the latter, and I feel like you need to explore that very early on.

  2. Tom Timpone says:

    Something that I was curious about while I was reading along was why the narrator thought her husband was a cocaine addict in the first place. If it was out of suspicion, suspicion had to stem from some kind of incident in which I was curious to know what that incident was. In the beginning of this first page the narrator seemed sure that her husband was a cocaine addict, but then later on she felt bad that she was thumbing through his wallet, which means she is now unsure. I think I just wanted to know what sparked her suspicion in the first place.

  3. Christina Sportiello says:

    She seems to be aware of her husband’s addiction, but one thing that her memoir could offer is if she confronted him about it. Most likely depending on the drug, the abuser would probably have a different reaction therefore varying the repetion of drug memoir…for a while. It could only last for a little while until all the reactions have been used up. Another variation could be incorporating others around the author’s perspective. For example, if the author had any children or were close with their parents or their spouses parents or a complete stranger that the author spills their life to, someone outside of the immediate abuser and observer. That situation can lead to some interesting conclusions and resolve some problems.

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