Lisa Roney is the author of the memoir Sweet Invisible Body, the poetry chapbook The Best Possible Bad Luck, and the craft book Serious Daring: Creative Writing in Four Genres. Her short fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry has been published by Harper’s, Sycamore Review, storySouth, Numéro Cinq, Saw Palm, So to Speak, Ruminate, and numerous other journals. She is associate professor of English at the University of Central Florida, where she also serves as editor-in-chief of The Florida Review and Aquifer: The Florida Review Online.
Friend with an Illness
I have a friend with an illness. She calls me on the phone one afternoon mid-summer. Her husband and kids are in the Ozarks for a holiday while she gets ready for a move and a new job three states over. Her brother, she says, keeps bothering her for her husband’s cell number.
“Why is that a problem?”
“He just wants to snoop,” she says.
“Snoop about what?” I pretend that I don’t know, though we both know I do. “You mean about the new job?”
“Just snoop,” she says. “You know.”
We change the subject and talk idly for a while. She’s complained before about her family’s mistreatment, and I witnessed some of it years ago, so I’m sympathetic.
Eventually we come back to the brother. “Maybe,” I say, “he just wants to be able to reach you while you’re driving across three states. What if you lost your cell phone? Why shouldn’t he have Joseph’s number?”
“He just wants to snoop,” she says.
“You mean about the drinking?” I finally say.
“Yes. Why does he need to ask about that?”
I take a deep breath. “Emily,” I say, “maybe he needs to ask because addicts lie.”
She starts crying into the phone.
“I’m drinking now,” she says.
“I know,” I say.
I sit listening as she snuffles. Then, slurring, she says has a big presentation the next day. She shows up drunk, she’s ruined. There’s little latitude for personal failings in her field. I knew someone in the same line of work who was fired for taking medical leave for diverticulitis surgery. Emily has been fired twice before.
I ask her for Joseph’s cell number myself. “I worry about your safety. Give me Joseph’s number so he can come home and take care of you,” I beg. “Or your sponsor’s. If I called you while my blood sugar bottomed out, I’d expect you to call 911.”
“No,” she says. “I just need to go to sleep.”
“I don’t know anyone else there,” I say, “and it can’t be different if what you have is an illness.” I’m a nag, a faraway car alarm that won’t shut off.
She doesn’t know her sponsor’s number off-hand and is not going to hang up, look it up on her phone, and call me back to let me know. That’s too much trouble. She’s going to sleep.
“Will you quit drinking now?” I ask. “Is all you have gone?”
“Can I walk with you to the sink to pour it out?”
I have spoken to her while she’s drunk before, but she’s never been this terse. She says she is going to hang up.
“Please,” I say, “don’t.” I tell her that I will have to do something she won’t want me to do. I try to make her laugh by pointing out that I’m going to say “please” seven times like Hemingway in “Hills Like White Elephants,” but, though she taught me everything I know about that story, she doesn’t even snicker. She hangs up.
I compare my friend’s illness with my own. Most of my life I have had Type 1 diabetes. People blame me for it, though less than they do those who have mental illnesses and addictions. Still, I know how it hurts to be held responsible for your own illness, as if it’s not bad enough just to have it.
My friend is not someone I ever expected to be ruined by alcohol. Back in grad school, she was the star, the most magnetic, the most disciplined, the Most Likely to…. Either we saw something very real and her brilliance will always outshine her problems, or the culture of over-achievement and hipness blinded us. Maybe both.
When teaching fiction writing, I ask my students to answer a series of questions. One of them is, “Does your character believe that alcoholism is a disease or a moral failing?” Maybe this veils my own ailment, all the times that I’ve defended myself from ignorant assertions about sugar and fat. I spent years explaining to people the difference between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. And then I realized how tiresome the accusations would be even if I had Type 2, the “self-inflicted” kind.
We love to blame people for their problems. It’s easy to do from afar. At a distance, we see the motes in others’ eyes, the hubris that leads to their downfalls, the neuroses that hold them back. As we get older, I believe, we see our own flaws more clearly, too, as though our younger selves were different people living lives separate from our own.
But even my younger self thought it mattered whether a fictional character believed alcoholism is an illness or a moral failing, the answer indicating something about the character’s empathy quotient. My students assign one or the other to their characters, but the answer can, of course, be both. Alcoholism, no matter what you believe about its origins, almost always becomes a moral failing, as addicts lie to protect their addictions and take risks with their own and others’ lives. They turn their backs on their own better selves.
I tell myself that my friend called me for a reason. I’m a tough cookie, a bull dog, the one regularly called upon to clean up a mess. But I wonder now if I’m saving souls or simply a busybody? What gives me the right or the responsibility?
Whatever. I try to track down Joseph. Facebook first—nothing there. I send a message, but he hasn’t posted in months. I look up his employer, a huge corporation, and call its headquarters. I explain that I am looking for a vacationing employee, that there’s a family emergency. Would they give him a message to call me? If they do, it will take hours. I could call Emily’s current employer and innocently ask if they know Joseph’s number—but they won’t give it to me, and I don’t want to alert them to problems. So I get out a credit card and pay $20 for Intelisearch and hunt for him online. He doesn’t answer any of the seven listed numbers, but there is an address in the town where I know they’re living.
I hesitate. I call my friend’s cell number a few times without an answer. I don’t want to get her into trouble. I don’t want to make her angry. But I am terrified she will go to work drunk tomorrow, or go out for more booze and crash the car, or drown in her own vomit. Do hardcore alcoholics vomit? I once held a college boyfriend’s head up while he spewed in a dorm bathroom, partly in the toilet and partly onto me, and then passed out with his head in my lap. But he was new to drinking. Then as now, I was not the least bit drunk myself. Now as then, no choice presents itself as a good one. I do what I think I have to do.
I look up the non-emergency number for her local police department. When I call, I explain that my friend is drunk and that I’m concerned about her. “She’s a really good person,” I say to the dispatcher. “I don’t want anyone to mistreat her. I just want them to make sure she’s okay.” I tell her that the police must not brutalize my friend or arrest her. “She has done nothing illegal,” I plead. “I just want to make sure it stays that way.” Then I remember—one time my mother called the police to check on me because of low blood sugar. I wrack my brain for the term they used. “I’m requesting a well-person check,” I say. “That’s all.”
A few months earlier, my mother’d had back surgery, and I went to help out afterward. I walked around her lovely home—where she and her eighty-eight-year-old husband maintain what suddenly seemed a delicate, fragile balance—fraught with the understanding that it will not last forever, this profusion of flowers, the bird bath and regular feedings of the cardinals and blue jays and squirrels and raccoons, the paintings hanging on the walls, the shelves of books and desks covered with papers, the gatherings of neighbors at happy hour.
Unlike Emily, my mother only developed an alcohol habit later in life, but now she drinks almost every day despite taking medication for which alcohol is contraindicated. “The doctor says it’s okay if I have an occasional glass of wine with dinner,” she always says. But she drinks every day at happy hour, a habit introduced by her third husband fifteen years ago. His own habit is so ingrained that when he had cancer surgery, the doctors allowed him to take his portable suitcase bar with him to the hospital. He and my mom take this as a seal of approval from the doctors. I believe it’s just resignation on their part, but I’ve also learned that there are enablers everywhere. Or that I’m too uptight. Drinking in moderation, they say, enhances one’s health. But health claims change over the years and there are few clear conclusions. Smoking’s a clear taboo, but should we even blame the smoker? Nicotine, after all, is addictive.
The pain meds combined with the alcohol made my mother a little daffy and affected her short-term memory. One day, out for an early walk in her recovery, just a block or so down the street and back, another walker loomed on the horizon in front of us.
“I don’t know who that is,” my mother said indignantly. “I might have met her, but I can’t remember her name.”
“It won’t matter,” I said. “Just say hello.”
The woman approached and exclaimed over my mother. “How are you? Tina told me you had surgery, and I’m so glad to see you out and about!”
My mother replied, and we moved on. She whispered to me, “There’s a lesson for you.”
“Don’t be boring,” she said, “because if you’re boring no one will remember you, the way I don’t remember that woman.”
“Mom!” I said. “She was so nice to you.”
“I don’t care,” my mother said. “I don’t know who she is. She must have been really boring.”
It seems we can be addicted to almost anything in unhealthy ways—food, exercise, love, excitement, Caribbean vacations. Maybe even writing is an addiction. Certainly, trying to be a capital W Writer seems to me to be an addiction. I can’t give up writing or the hope for recognition any more than the acknowledged bad habits. Neither can Emily, and sometimes I wonder how the addictions feed each other and how sometimes they conflict. Taking care of family, for instance, gets in the way of writing, while eating chocolate makes it possible late into the night. What is the nature of addictions? I wonder this all the time.
Later, when she is sober, my friend and I unpack her disease. She expresses gratitude that I talk about it that way—as an illness. I can hear the shame in her voice. We talk about her DUI nearly fifteen years ago, how that happened after a birthday party at a bar. We talk about the first job she lost, when she’d worked all night on a presentation, sipping wine for fuel, and showed up for work tipsy and red-eyed. Even then, she says, it didn’t seem like a real problem. Other people might think it was a problem, but she and her husband still, when out for dinner, would always order wine.
We go over the times when she has been drunk and not told me. There were a few months one year, after her second child was born, when we didn’t talk. After I sent her a Christmas card, she called me and cried over the phone, asking why we we’d been so out of touch.
“You never called me back,” I said. “I can only call someone so many times before I give up. I hoped we’d talk again, but I wasn’t going to be a stalker.”
“I was just exhausted with the kids,” she said. “No one was there to help me. My mother came for three days and ate everything in my refrigerator. She didn’t even do a load of laundry for me.”
Now I remind her that she wrote a draft of a new novel that year. During that same year I nearly died of a sudden illness unrelated to my diabetes.
“Oh my god,” she says.
“It’s okay,” I say, “but it wasn’t just the kids. I think you were drinking. You were drunk when you called me after Christmas, weren’t you? And you drank all year, too, while you were writing. You thought you had to do it while the kids were still little. You could see what the demands of parenthood would do to your writing.”
Drinking, of course, erases memory. She can’t be sure. And, frankly, no Writer with a capital W is ever really going to be there for their friends—drinking, parenting, working, or not. We have been taught that whatever talent we have is more important than any friendship or compassion.
My “career” as a Writer has been mediocre. Some would say less than mediocre. I published one book early on and have not published another one. I got tenure at a university, I have won a few teaching awards, I have continued to publish in small ways. And though I never stop writing, in fact am only happy when I do it regularly, I have drunk too much wine made from the sour grapes of others’ expectations.
Writers have to be selfish. Most of us don’t get paid appreciably to do it, but do it nonetheless, proving punishingly to ourselves that Dr. Johnson was right when he said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” To counter that fear, we have created a mythos about the monolithic passion of artists, about our demon-driven, unstoppable need to produce, to create, about the vital necessity of art in our lives, to the entire survival of civilization. Maybe it’s all true—at least some of it is—but I’m sick of it.
The deadening nature of bureaucracy fills up commentary about the problems of academia (and other suffocating jobs) for creative people, but another problem is that every generous impulse we have, even basic responsible behavior, interferes with being a Writer, short-changes the Muse, distracts from our true purpose. The supposed good balance haunts us, but remains virtually unachievable. Last year, on the first day of classes, one student asked me when it was that I gave up on my dreams. He just assumed I had without any prior discussion, without his ever having had a conversation with me. If I’m not a best-seller, my dreams must be dead. Of course, this reflects the odd amalgamation of ignorance and arrogance of many students, but it made me think about what my dreams are. Is being a Writer really the most important one?
Does it matter whether a Writer is a good person? Does it matter whether an alcoholic is? What comes first for an alcoholic is that drink, no matter the cost. What comes first to a Writer is the Muse, the genius (whatever thread of it one has), words on the page. Neither puts other humans first.
The police call me from Emily’s phone. She is “okay,” they tell me, and they give me Joseph’s cell number. They have already called him, and he is, they say, “pretty angry.” He told them he wasn’t coming home, that it was the only vacation he had, and that his children would be disappointed. They have plans with his family in the Ozarks—canoeing, a water park, a carnival tomorrow.
“Perhaps you can convince him,” the officer says. His politeness and soft voice bring tears to my eyes, a sudden swelling-shut of my throat with grief that I hadn’t allowed myself to feel. I am relieved that someone is there checking on my friend, and, with the recent online videos of police kicking homeless women in the face and shooting unarmed black people on sunny afternoons, I am grateful that this officer is not one of those. Or that the dispatcher told him that my friend is a good person so his mind-set is not one of fear. I appreciate police, but I am also afraid that one might kill me or let me die or brutalize me, mistaking hypoglycemia for drunkenness or meth use. I know one diabetic who had his shoulder broken by the police, another who was punched repeatedly in the face during a hypoglycemic episode, another arrested for DUI while he sat in his car at a convenience store parking lot drinking juice. The police, too, I know, do what they think they have to do to keep themselves safe.
Alcoholism, I want to say to the officer, is a terrible disease. We hear that message, but we don’t act like it. Deep down we want to believe that everyone gets what they deserve. I know better, but even I verged on the thought when a former colleague killed herself in a car crash—a colleague who often stank of booze when I encountered her in the mail room at ten in the morning, who stormed around the department, knocking people this way and that. “Don’t you suppose she was drinking?” another colleague asked me. She had careened off a highway at a high rate of speed in an open convertible late one afternoon, seatbelt unstrapped. “Yes,” I said. “Almost certainly.” That doesn’t mean she deserved to die like that, though it seemed sadly predictable.
The police tell me that the front door was open when they arrived at my friend’s house. Emily was passed out on her bed. They have waked her up and walked her around a bit, given her some water. They tell me there is no more alcohol in the house, though I know she hides it masterfully and may yet have a stash. They will take my friend’s car keys with them to the station for her husband to pick up tomorrow. I thank them and they thank me.
I call Joseph. As soon as I identify myself, he says, “I’m packing. I’m leaving within the hour.” I can hear the children in the background, the slap of a suitcase on a bed, and the zippers hissing open. Joseph spits words into the phone. I don’t know how long it has been since I talked to him. Usually his voice is a bellow in the background when the children misbehave or need something while I’m on the phone with my friend.
I explain the call that I’d gotten, the efforts I’d made to reach him before calling the police, how helpless I felt. He says, “Welcome to my world. I can’t watch her every hour of every day.”
He says he’s got to go, get on the road. It will take him several hours to get home.
Over the past year I edited an anthology and needed to contact a number of luminaries about correcting typographical errors in their previously published work. A few I couldn’t reach directly, and their agents told me to bugger off. Writers themselves, on the other hand, treated me with courtesy and gratitude. But I note the privilege implied by a Writer not having to answer emails, not submitting to questioning of typos. Any writer needs protection, silence, aloneness. That is the thing that success pays for. The goal is always to get more if it.
Writers hide behind intermediaries, trade favors, swap positive reviews. It’s what Writers do, but I struggle with this as I do the idea of alcoholism as a disease. I struggle with the notion that all the public relations and business tasks of writing have more legitimacy than teaching or caring for the people in our lives. This seems to me simply part and parcel of the valuation of private business over all else in our world these days. I am stunned that Writers so often seem like corporate climbers to me. Aren’t Writers supposed to question the status quo? What’s the point otherwise? Yet, I know that my compatriots—the ones who push themselves, including the prideful and braggadocious ones, straining at the toilet of commerce—are just doing what they feel they have to do to survive or succeed as Writers.
The summer after I graduated from college, my roommate came home one afternoon with a proposal in hand. She’d been approached on the sidewalk by a middle-aged man who asked if she and a friend would “kidnap” him and hold him for a couple of weeks in a secret locale that he would arrange. Chris thought he was crazy, but he’d explained he was an aging rock star, a member of the Charlie Daniels Band, and that he needed to lose some weight before they went back on tour. He’d gotten chubby and wanted to “disappear for a while and let them wonder.” The next day, Chris brought home a copy of the Nightrider album, with a picture of the band on the back. It was a few years old but she thought he was recognizable.
“Why can’t he just go off by himself?” I asked her.
He’d told Chris he had more money than discipline. “He needs someone to keep him tied up in a locked room in an isolated place.” I shuddered, but Chris went on. “The thing is, he said he would pay the two of us twenty-five thousand for a two-week stint. What would you do with your share?”
We stood in our apartment beside the thirty-year-old stove and the peeling balcony banisters. I envisioned the view from the mountaintop land I would buy, Chris her siblings’ gratitude for her help with college tuition.
He came over the next afternoon to discuss the details, a roping lariat draped around his left arm, which was crooked around a bottle of rum. He even sported a cowboy hat above his sweaty, red face. His belly bulged between the pearl buttons of his plaid shirt and over the large brass belt emblazoned “CHARLIE DANIELS BAND.” Born and raised a southerner, I knew a few of their more famous songs, Chris none at all, but she had listened repeatedly to the two albums she had bought the day before and deemed them “pretty good.” She let him in.
We poured drinks, though I knew that even rum without the Coke is sugar-laden and barely brought mine to my tongue. Mr. Charlie Daniels Band slugged his back and, after about half an hour of getting-to-know-you questions and comments about how sweet we girls were, brought out his wallet, ostensibly to show us his Nashville ID. Mainly what he showed was several hundred dollars in cash. Chris was trying to talk about contracts that would protect us from liability should we enact the false kidnapping, but I already knew that he had another plan entirely.
As Mr. CDB got tipsier, he began to sling his rope around the room, and then tried to fling it over Chris’ head, my head, her entire torso, mine. My friendly cats ran into my bedroom and hid behind the dresser. Chris finally gave me the look, and we edged Mr. CDB out the door with promises to call him the next day. We listened as he grumbled in the hallway and clumped down the stairs.
“Oh my god, thank god,” I said.
We laughed the laugh of the just saved. “How stupid was I?” she asked. “Just a little S&M with a couple of young women, after which he might throw down a few hundred bucks.”
We laughed, too, because Chris was a lesbian and spending most of her time that summer with her girlfriend on the other side of town.
But we also hooted out of a sense of luck and superiority. We lived in what they called a “transitional” neighborhood, and we knew that some young women on our street would need those few hundred dollars for an afternoon and evening of mildly kinky sex. Though broke in that college-student way, we could pass up Mr. CBD’s stack of bills.
“We’re lucky,” Chris said, “that we don’t have to do that kind of thing to survive.”
Indeed we were, but we had entertained an even stranger and potentially more dangerous idea for a bit more money, had been tempted to stage a fake kidnapping. I tell myself I never would have actually done it, but I let the idea hang in the air for twenty-four long hours.
I have contemplated even sillier things as a writer, hoping they would make me a Writer. So has Emily, so have all the writers I know.
Over the next few weeks, Emily and I talk frequently, Joseph and I a few times. Emily has sworn him to secrecy—he only has one friend who knows what is going on in his marriage, in his life—not his family, not a therapist, not a minister, no one else. He works alone from home and has made no meaningful friends in years. I suggest Al-Anon meetings, and we trace the history of the problem. He says that he has a drinking problem, too, that last New Year’s it was Emily who had to deal with his passing out. But he notes that my friend has been drinking since her father let her sip beer when she sat on his knee as a child. He’s not sure when it crossed the threshold to life-ruin. “We didn’t realize how bad it was getting,” he says.
Emily and I talk about the falling of the angel-illusions of meritocracy, about our disappointments, especially as writers. We recall how a premier magazine gave a column to an asshole with family connections, a guy who’d mistreated her in college. We mull over some awful work that’s been well reviewed. The “best,” we have learned, doesn’t necessarily deserve the designation. We should have known this before; it shouldn’t bother us. But it does. The whole situation calls into question even our own modest successes.
Writers never know where the next meal is coming from. Or the next idea, the next acceptance, the next contract, the next hour in which to do the writing itself, the next sale, the next positive review. No matter how established, Writers remain proto-poor. We are snobs, every one of us, in one way or another, but we must grovel and live in fear. We remind me of British royalty who have lost their fortunes.
I have dealt with it by withdrawing, quitting, writing in private; she has dealt with it by drinking. Neither of these works well.
After Emily’s last week at her old job, she takes her children on a make-up vacation to visit friends at the Outer Banks. Joseph stays home to pack up the household for the forthcoming move. They will meet again in a new city, both sobered with fear and hope. “The people there will love her,” Joseph tells me. “That’s all she needs—to get out of that negative place and into a new place where everyone will see how wonderful she is again.” They think she is safe heading to the Outer Banks alone since her friends there know all there is to know; one of them is a retired therapist.
It doesn’t work. Strangely, the couple sets up the children to sleep on a fold-out sofa in an alcove of their master bedroom, away from their mother, who gets the guest room down the hall. But then the retired therapist decides that the children are spoiled and rude, and his tidy world can’t stand the chaos of two small children. What did he expect? I think when Emily tells me about this some days later. What the fuck did he expect? The kids have been moved around several times over the past two years, and their mother has been absent, distracted, and guilt-saturated.
Toward the end of the vacation, the tension explodes into arguing and accusations, and Emily leaves with the children for a hotel. The airplane reservations are two days away, and she drinks the entire time. She doesn’t remember the flight, getting back to her car in the airport back home, or the first leg of the drive to her new city. When she calls me, her voice comes alternating thick and thin, a wavering mirage. She could have killed herself and her children. In the documentary There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane, a young mother runs her mini-van off the Taconic Parkway, killing herself, one of her children, three nieces, and three others in another car. Though not known as a heavy drinker, Diane Schuler had a blood alcohol level of .19, roughly ten shots of liquor in her body. Diane Schuler was also a very good person by all accounts.
Being a very good person guarantees nothing.
My friend and I gasp with each other on the phone, astounded, terrified. She is further scared about telling me.
“I can forgive a lot,” I said, “and I believe that you have an illness like my diabetes is an illness—only with much more dire and immediate consequences should you not take care of it. I can have the occasional cookie, and, though it may hurt me in the long run, I’m not going to drive into oncoming traffic or fail at my job.”
“Yes,” she says. “Yes. Even if you have ten cookies, you can stop without disaster. But if I have that first cheat, I can’t stop. I can’t have that first one.”
“It’s hard sometimes,” I say, “but I can forgive you for your illness. I can hope that you can quit, try to help you stop. But…” and I wait until I can say this as kindly as possible, “but, you know how I am about lying. I don’t know if I can keep forgiving that.”
I’m a person who is more honest than most people can stand. People think I am undiplomatic, even confrontational. Maybe they have a point, though I am not generally cruel, and I have recently been on a mission to master euphemism and respect for authority and ass-kissing of all sorts. It holds the fabric of societies together. But fundamentally I am with Adrienne Rich on this. In her essay “Some Notes on Lying,” Rich says that lying corrupts any close relationship. Love and closeness entail that we be able to tell each other our truths.
Emily understands this, so this time when she fails she tells me. She is in a hotel half-way to her new city and doesn’t remember arriving there. One of the desk clerks happens to be a recovering heroin addict, and she has coached my friend back to sobriety. We laugh at how fortunate it is to find a recovering addict in the right place. Fortunate that they usually treat each other with kindness, just as though they are ill and in need of assistance. I don’t know why it is so hard for non-addicts to comprehend this in the deep-down depths of our beliefs. It’s not the same, but I tell her about the ice cream bar that I ate this week, about my struggle to lose five pounds over the summer. Still, that she drove this way fills us both with ice. We almost choke on it. But we don’t. We swallow it and go on. We are in a Beckett story. We can’t but we do.
Drunk people demand more than they should—they wreck more than cars—they behave abominably—they damage everything around them. Yet, as with anyone who is ill, I think they need care not punishment. Employers, on the other hand, think what they are paying for is labor, not care, not community, not the benefit of the whole. In the U.S., health insurance keeps workers working, rather than providing a personal and public good. The difference matters.
If my friend didn’t have to be afraid of judgment and punishment, perhaps she could be more honest. Tell the truth, and you lose your job. Tell the truth, and you lose your friend. Tell the truth, and your colleagues resent you for getting by with something. Tell the truth, and you’re out of the game.
Lie, and you and your children may die. But you are in the habit of shame, and you are in fear for your livelihood, and your self-respect is gone. So, you lie.
Lying isn’t all bad. For one thing, it makes you more like other people in this constant stream of up-beat posts about the vacation in the Bahamas and the Thankful Thursday bromides and the professional accolades we have received, even if they all have exactly zero meaning. They are signs that all of us want to be loved, that all of us are afraid.
I never accepted that “bravery” or “honesty” justified a memoir. It seemed to me those labels apply most often when the prose drags or the artistry fails, as when students argue that “that’s how it really happened, so I can’t change it.” Not that I bought the old assertions that the made-up nature of fiction makes it automatically more artistic somehow, either. The debates about the superiority of one genre over another have always struck me as silly.
Now, though, I edge up closer to the idea that an attempt at truth—not that there exists such a thing in any pure form, of course—does have value in itself. This is a way in which, perhaps, it can matter whether a writer is a good person and whether an addict can find some safe place to be honest. A great novel and a great memoir run nose to nose, neck and neck. But even a bad memoir can reach toward the intimacy of sharing hard things, saying things no one wants to face. This provides reasons beyond ego to seek readers.
“I can’t tell this story, ever,” my friend says to me. “But you can.”