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Drug Lit Takes Another Hit

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I asked people what their favorite drug memoir was on Facebook, and my comments feed started to burn. "Go Ask Alice! A classic!" Junkie. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Naked Lunch. Trainspotting. The Basketball Diaries. The list, for the most part, reached back quite a few years, and went on for miles and miles, even by Facebook standards.

What is it that so endears us to such a painful genre? The voyeuristic impulse to watch the horrifying train wreck of addiction and despair, cruelty and sickness is a big motivator, followed by -- a dear reader can hope -- watching the delicate craft of him or herself putting their life back together, a veritable Humpty Dumpty of recovery. Plus, you can pick your poison: Crack head? Drunk? Pill popper? All of the above? Who doesn't want to see someone who's hit bottom crawl back out into the light?

I recently had the odd experience of reading Mike Doughty's recently off-the-press The Drug Book: A Memoir (De Capa Press, 2012). Not odd for the book itself, but odd because we'd gone to the same early college (Simon's Rock of Bard College in Western Massachusetts) in the early 1990s, and I'd since run into him over the years in New York City. Turns out that Doughty, who gained fame fronting the band Soul Coughing, was in serious straits: his addiction knew no bounds. Whether he was smoking three packs of cigarettes a day, or picking up an endless string of girls who batted their admiring eyes in the front row at shows, or sliding into the abyss of a two bundle a day heroin habit, his life was living hell. A sexy Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll kind of hell, but hell nonetheless. Despite our close proximity of neighborhoods and friend circles, our lives couldn't have been further apart. My friends and I saw many a dive bar close long into the night, but we always managed to regroup into some semblance of responsibility the next morning at our underpaid full-time jobs, cherishing the just rewards of a crappy paycheck. A book at the Strand; take out from Sammy's Noodles; an Indian buffet; not usually an 8-ball or two. Yet, we didn't have to look far beyond the cozy windows of our early 20s to get a glimpse of real trouble. Friends now distant would get strung out; old boyfriends would overdose after rumors of robbing houses had long come and gone. Perhaps stumbling into a good drug memoir helped me personally make sense of these tragedies by offering a glimpse into their inextricably romanticized worlds. I'm not alone.

"The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test introduced me to a way of living that I had never before imagined," says Katherine, a librarian in Troy, New York who wished to withhold her last name. "I was a teenager who was raised by strict parents in a small town, who attended Catholic schools, and was very innocent that any other way of life existed." Katherine's reading lead her step out of her comfort zone into experimentation. "The freedom represented by the Merry Pranksters in their social experiment on 'Further' [their rad bus] has probably inspired me to this present day. It inspired me to try LSD and 'shrooms, which have definitely influenced my life for the better. I honestly feel sorry that most people have never experienced hallucinatory drugs... they open the mind and heart and give you wisdom, spiritual experiences, and perspective that I wouldn't have missed for the world. Maybe corny, but that's how I really feel."

You won't find that kind of meditative drug praise in Doughty's book, beyond the common description of drugs taking pain away, only to of course leave more pain in their wake. Thankfully, after he spent some time holed in his apartment sucking the residue off of heroin baggies, he found "The Rooms," a new-to-me euphemism for Alcoholic's Anonymous meetings. For the reader, this provides the turning point in his drug memoir "plot" [as an aside, the editor says he intentionally let the book meander without chapters]. Enter the universal plot turn of the genre -- recovery -- which was not so much a spiritual transformation for Doughty as it was a practical way to survive. Doughty's indoctrination into the Rooms was necessary, but also entertaining to read about. He sees cute girls and has multiple run-ins with a glam rock legend. It's this potent combination of factors -- pain, sickness, redemption, or just plain survival entwined with entertainment -- that seems to keep the engine of this genre running, the genre that Doughty refers to as the JADM genre (Just Another Drug Memoir).

Doughty's book editor and longtime friend Ben Schafer, of De Capo Press, has a strong belief that the genre is an enduring and universal one. "I think just about everyone can relate to addiction on some level. Most people have known, been close to, or loved an addict. Or struggled with it themselves. It's a facet of the human condition. There's also the vicarious thrill of going to the edge without having to go there yourself. Stories of degradation have a fundamental appeal, and they are also the perfect breeding ground for a certain kind of dark humor you find in the great drug memoirs, such as Jerry Stahl's Permanent Midnight, which to my mind is the gold standard of the genre."

Doughty says he did his best to avoid reading too many JADMs leading up to his book, but made an exception for Jeannette Walls' searing memoir The Glass Castle. To me, this seems like the penultimate "JARC" -- Just Another Rotten Childhood" masterpiece rather than a JADM, but nonetheless, in this book that is now considered to be a classic, the formula is alive and well. Agony pulls no punches and the author prevails against odds that are desperately stacked against her. Call it misery lit, call it JADM, call it Schtick lit, call it beautiful.

Is the Hit-Rock-Bottom-and-Climb-Out-Again an American phenomenon? It's an interesting idea, but not really so. Other successful JADM's have emerged from across the pond, such as Mark Johnson's well-received Wasted, which is centered around his stolen childhood in England. Schafer seems to think of it more of an American pastime. "The typical drug narrative that you see on Behind the Music and the like -- rise, fall, redemption -- does seem to be an American obsession, though I'd like to temper that by adding that addiction and recovery are, of course, a lot more complicated than that," says Schafer. "Movies like Walk the Line, where June saves Johnny and everything is fine, tend to seriously oversimplify things. I think drug memoirs, since they have more time to go in-depth, are better at conveying the harsh realities and complexities of addiction than TV or film."

One thing is for certain -- as long as addiction grips hold of its victims, which it will, the drug memoir will stay put. For publishers, they may be a sure-bet. They'll always hit, at the very least, one of the seven plots: Overcoming the Monster; Voyage and Return; Rebirth -- or Tragedy.