Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: David Foster Wallace

Renee Zellweger And The Fallacy Of “Total Abstinence.”

Ceci n'est pas Renee Zellweger.

Ceci n’est pas Renee Zellweger. And Our World Is Rocked.

So apparently we should be paying attention to the fact that Renee Zellweger has further fucked up her face. Whatever she did this time—and there are a million writers out there trying to scratch out a measly buck tracking down doctors willing to speculate about what it was—clearly it wasn’t the first time she commissioned knife and/or needle against herself. She’s been bingeing on Botox for years.

A lot of the publications that are running this shit have surprisingly venerable histories. The Atlantic, for example. I mean The Atlantic published Emerson, Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson and Mark Bleeding Twain, for godsake. What the hell are they doing? Playing vulture to the carrion of our voyeurism. We wrote snarky shit about her Lemon-Head face and that made her fuck herself up, and to top it off it makes you read what I’m writing now, because don’t you wish you had her rich-and-famous life? etc.—this is how Big Media make their money.

I used to read Time Magazine when I was a kid. It was practically the only non-religious publication, besides the Pittsburgh Press, that used to come to the house. That was back in the 1970s, when the magazine first spun People off its “lifestyle” pages, since Time, Inc. was no longer publishing Life. Way back when, for chrissake, Time used to publish James Agee. His novel A Death in the Family and his nonfiction account of southern tenant-farmers, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, were books whose language and commitment of their author (admittedly ill with alcoholism and probably more besides) shaped my idea of what it meant to be a writer: You had to do a good job, not just for yourself but also for your sources, for your readers, and for the writers who had come before you.

Now nobody owes anybody anything. It’s a free-for-all—market laissez-faire.


Let Us Now Praise Famous MenAgee had been under contract with Fortune to write a piece about cotton sharecroppers, but after spending time with the impoverished “Gudgers” he found he no longer had it in him to use these poor people as tools to produce the shiny happy piece that Madison Avenue required, so he said Fuck It: I’ll make a book instead. You know how many copies he sold?—1,000. In nine years. The publisher waited nine years before putting it out of print. Today a sales record like that wouldn’t last six months.

The 1960s civil rights movement resurrected the book, and it hasn’t been out of print since then. Because its excellent language and deep integrity speak for themselves. They teach people how to be human.

By the same token, the headline for the Time story about Zellweger’s latest cosmetic “fix” lacks integrity—”Leave Renee Zellweger’s Face Alone!” It’s a manipulative, “hurry-up-and-wait” kind of line: Hey everybody, I’m gonna set fire to myself, so DON’T look at me!

But what pisses me off so much about this Renee Zellweger “story,” if you can call it that, has nothing to do with Renee Zellweger herself but with the fact that the media perpetuate this self-destructive thing that women do to ourselves—this compulsive looking in the mirror, the constant examination of ourselves, a fixation on self. Which is one of the roots of addiction: selfishness, self-centeredness. Obsessive self-reference. My bro David Foster Wallace wrote in “This Is Water”:

And the so-called Real World will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along on the fuel of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self.

We read about Renee Zellweger but we’re really thinking about ourselves. You can bet that next week her face will be on the cover of People. We might read People in the grocery store line and go home and eat a big bowl of ice cream, because even if Renee Zellweger has fucked up her face, she’s rich-and-famous and automatically has a better life than we do. Automatically. Then sometime in the not-too-distant future we (automatically) go to the doctor and ask for Celexa so we can be not-depressed, or we steal or cop some Adderall so we can lose some weight and regain our “concentration.” Or whatever.

If you have kids in your life, and if any of the kids are American girls, you have been watching the progression of true insanity from generation to generation due to this kind of snowball effect between the media and its consumers. I mean until the 1970s, at which time society had sustained a 15- or 20-years’ barrage of Twiggy-style ad images, anorexia presented only in isolated cases. If the media produce this garbage, there will be huge audiences to eat it up; the audiences won’t stop buying it (will we?), and Time, Inc. will definitely not stop producing it if they can “brand” and sell it. The same with Kraft, Inc. If they can produce this “pasteurized processed cheese-food,” otherwise known as “American cheese,” they will create a market for it, and we will eat it up.

The same with the drug companies. If they can brand and sell this stuff—the drugs—they will create a market for it, and we will eat it up. “Got PMS? Ask your doctor for Sarafem.” Or whatever.

A couple weeks ago I told my first-year students to read David Foster Wallace’s essay “This Is Water” and to write an essay exploring ways they had become enslaved by some attitude. It shouldn’t have surprised me (but it did) that so many of the women wrote about their obsession with their weight or some other aspect of their appearances. With “beauty.” The few men I have in this class wrote about their obsession with “success.”

Plus ça change, and all that.


Recovering Body_smallWhen I sat in front of an audience of 1,000 a couple weeks ago to talk about my new book and took questions about physical recovery from addiction, the first was from a woman who wanted to know how I “deal with food”: I have put into print my compulsion to eat sugar, and the questioner wanted to know how I manage to feed myself. We can quit drinking alcohol, the logic goes, but human beings can’t just starve.

In mulling this question over it has occurred to me that in fact I am not completely abstinent from all drinks—just drinks that hurt me. And that includes soda. … I can’t be completely abstinent from all food or drugs—but I can choose not to put food or drugs in my mouth if they’re going to change my reality (in other words, the truth). If a shot or a beer distorts the truth for me, then should I never drink ANYTHING, even water? If sugar screws with my head, should I not eat ANYTHING?

I can’t quit eating or drinking altogether, but I can quit putting into my body stuff that hurts me—stuff of all kinds, including the smorgasbord of “stories” that tempt me to Feed My Head, telling me how to think about the ways Renee Zellweger has fucked up her face.

I can’t abstain from the mirror. But I can choose to stop talking shit about the person I see when I look there.

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What Do You Worship?

David Foster Wallace.

I’m on a DFW kick. David Foster Wallace.

Discovered several of his pieces I hadn’t known about before. Including a short story called “Suicide as a Sort of Present,” which demonstrates to shocking effect his deep grasp of Alice Miller’s theories of fucked-up narcissistic mothering on children. Best to hear him read it himself. Only takes five minutes.

And then there’s this beautiful address called “This Is Water” that he gave to the 2005 graduates of Kenyon College, an excerpt of which was published in the Wall Street Journal just after his death.

Did you know that David Foster Wallace had been to rehab? Several times. He got sober in the early 1990s in upstate New York, where he met Mary Karr in the “rooms.” They dated for a while. I don’t think the word “dated” is really the most accurate term, but it’s the term that Wikipedia uses to describe their relationship. Read her most recent book, Lit, a memoir of her alcoholism and recovery, for her story about their 13th-stepping, including a stellar row in which Wallace destroys her coffee table.

After rehab Wallace switched from pot to cigarettes; eventually, because he was also something of an athlete and liked to run, he gave up smoking to protect his lung capacity and started sucking on smokeless tobacco, a habit he tried to quit several times. Like many addicts, he never managed to quit nicotine. He’d come to class (he was a professor of English) lugging a stack of books, a towel, a tennis racquet, and a coffee can into which he spat the juice while he was teaching.

Throughout Wallace’s writings readers can find references not only to suicide (a spooky reality: it even crops up in his address to the graduates) but also to his efforts to understand how to control one’s own mind—in other words, his attempts at mindfulness—as well as his comprehension of the divine. “God.” The “universe.” Whatever. It’s interesting to hear this prodigiously smart guy talk about how atheism doesn’t exist, how we all worship something.

Here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it J.C. or allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble truths or some intangible set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

One thing I love about Wallace (apart from his beautiful voice; not all men have beautiful voices but Wallace had one; reading his words and hearing him speak them are two different experiences, and I encourage you to take the time to click on the links above and below that will let you enjoy his voice) is his commitment to investigating the most commonplace aspects of life and finding their extraordinary qualities. It’s not the epiphanies and huge achievements and Life’s Great Orgasms that Wallace thinks offer the most important truths. The ordinary parts of our days—the grocery shopping, the endless standing in line, the fighting traffic—are the moments when we are most “ourselves,” when we bang into our intractable questions and problems. It’s in those moments, Wallace basically says, that we can learn life’s most valuable lessons.

It’s also, he says, in the interactions with the people we love. Sitting down to dinner with them, negotiating who will buy the food, who will cook, who will wipe the crumbs from the table; what to talk about, how to fight, how to resolve conflict—all that stuff most of us think of as life’s detritus. For godsake—another trip to the supermarket, another dinner to cook, another set of dishes to wash, how can I survive under the burden of all this mundane crap?—is usually how my thoughts run, anyway.

Wallace’s point is, we can choose how we think about our ordinary experience, and what meanings we assign to our experience. “Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life,” he tells the kids,

you will be totally hosed.

Exercising that choice is Real Freedom.

What his essay made me realize is, in the end, my choice is Mine. It’s not about finding someone else who can endorse it for me. I get to choose my thoughts, and as Wallace notes, that’s real freedom. (Not having loads of money, or drugs, or attention, or sex, or beauty, or power.)

It’s Real Sobriety. He never used that word, but for me that’s what he means. My addiction was slavery, and my sobriety is freedom.

I think Wallace believed in community, in its most basic sense—from the Latin communis, the word means sharing: time, space, resources. Ourselves. Living with other people. I suspect Wallace was a tough person to live with, but apparently he was never happier than when he moved in with his wife. It supposedly goes against current trends (a recent Time magazine story, on “the 10 ideas that will change our worlds,” reports as the Top World-Changing Idea the trend that increasing numbers of Americans are choosing to live alone… Awesome!! Let’s measure the health effects in 15 years time). His address to the younguns comes straight from his experience of living in community.

Life is a tough thing, man. It’s a hard place to spend decades of time. And it’s even harder to do it all by oneself. I spoke at my local women’s shelter yesterday and heard stories of women being forced to have sex when they were kids, women who’d seen their sons shot up, women who don’t know how to protect their kids from the real-life physical and psychic shit that goes down in their worlds every day. “Mama,” one woman’s 11-year-old daughter asked her about her future boyfriends, “when they hit me, do I call you or Daddy?” I was speaking with my friend Lucy, and we told the women that nobody gets sober alone and nobody gets away from an abusive bastard alone (I know this from experience)—and, frankly, nobody does life alone.

Tempting to isolate, though, because then we don’t have to negotiate anything with anyone. We can, as Wallace notes, be “the lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms. … This freedom has much to recommend it,” he says.

But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.

What would happen, I wondered, if instead of paying so much attention to having enough money or achievement or security, I worshipped more consistently that real freedom?

A life experiment to try.

My choice to try it is part of the real freedom. Hmm.


Hanging Over the Gorge.

This morning I’m in Gloucestershire, near the sea. The Atlantic fog is blowing in from down the River Avon. Upriver is, of course, Stratford (upon Avon), the town where Shakespeare was born.

My hotel room looks out over the gorge cut over the centuries by this river, over which people have built a spectacular suspension bridge:

The Clifton Suspension Bridge above the Avon Gorge.

This morning I received a recovery message in my email inbox, from one of a number of services to which I subscribe. (It’s amazing how we can all be connected through this project of recovery, no matter where in the world we are. This particular guy who sends out these messages is in California, which is eight time zones away from me now, but he might as well be in the next hotel room.) It talked about denial, which seems to me a signal feature of addiction: David Foster Wallace, a famous literary guy in recovery from addiction, once said that addiction is the only illness that tells you that you don’t have an illness. The way to counter denial is to accept reality, and that’s the purpose of the 12 steps. One way to accept reality is to accept that I have expectations and that some of them are not going to be met.

They say, in recovery, that we shouldn’t even have expectations. But can I ever get rid of all my expectations? I’m not sure. I think having expectations is pretty normal. I can try to let go of my attachment to them, though.

I boarded the plane fully expecting it to be a crappy old USAirways jet with no leg-room and broken video screens. Instead I found a brand-new airbus with that new-car smell and fancy high-res touch-screens offering not only movies but also a GPS system that tracked the plane’s position and speed in three or four languages.

I boarded with only half a charge on my iPhone, expecting to be disappointed when my battery ran out, and then slept for most of the flight and didn’t listen to music anyway.

I brought my new running shoes, expecting this morning to run my 3.5 miles along the River Avon, or maybe over the bridge into the park in Somerset, but it’s “chucking it down” (as they say over here when it rains) and I’m coming down with a cold and there’s no treadmill in this hotel so I can’t run. At least not today.

And lots of other situations.

I’m spending a lot of this week with family. When you tell someone you’re going on vacation with extended family, ever hear them say, “You’ll be ready for another one when you get back”? Family vacations can be pleasant and a lot of fun but they aren’t usually real vacations because of the expectations I bring to them, and because of how difficult it is, sometimes, to let go of the outcomes of those expectations.

Today that’s my exercise: letting go of outcomes. Basically Step 11: accepting the will of another power for me today, and asking for the ability to carry it out.

Also whatever other exercise I can work in. I can meditate. I also brought a yoga mat. And there’s always the bridge, where my son and I did pull-ups yesterday:

Hanging over the Avon Gorge.

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