Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man

Lunch With Bill Clegg: Part 1.

Yesterday I filed my review of Bill Clegg’s new book, 90 Days: A Memoir of Recovery, with my editors at Renew magazine, for which I review books and media. Clegg is a New York-based literary agent–turned crackhead–turned redemptive recovering addict, and 90 Days is a sequel to his 2010 memoir, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man. In the new book Clegg writes about his struggle to overcome the compulsion to keep using crack, how he reclaimed his life, and how he relapsed after five-and-a-half years sober.

If you want to hear this guy who beat crack talk about why he obsessed over James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces while he was in rehab (Clegg never mentions Frey’s name in his book, but it’s pretty clear he’s talking about Frey), how he stopped relapsing over and over, what makes his memoir different from the Million Little Addiction Memoirs out there, and lots of other stuff, go to Renew’s site and subscribe. It’s an awesome magazine.

Meanwhile here’s some more from our long conversation over salad and coffee in the Village. In two parts.

Bill Clegg being shy, as always, in front of the camera.

Guinevere: When you wrote how you were qualified for absolutely nothing when you got sober, not even restaurant work, I thought to myself, “This is the first book that has articulated my experience.” When I detoxed I was out of work. Mary Karr’s Lit articulated some of that desperation, but she was always teaching and working. She always had a job. On the other hand, your narrative sets it up as if, when we recover, everything will be restored to us. Do you really think that happens? For somebody like my friend Bridget, who’s coming up on 90 days—I’m thinking in concrete terms, here, actual people out there who are reading your books—she’s hoping that something good will happen for her.

Bill: I think the advice I would give anybody is the advice that was given me. That was just to let go of an expectation of what that future is or what “right” is. To let go of an expectation of what success is.

I had spent months and months and months complaining to everybody, “What am I going to do? How am I going to live? I’m not qualified to do anything.” And Jack [his sponsor] and others said, “Just get sober, and the rest of it will sort itself out. If you’re meant to be an agent, if you’re meant to be a teacher or book editor or whatever”—a psychiatrist, I thought I might go back to school for that—“whatever it is, just get sober and that will reveal itself, but let go of the worrying and trying to figure it out.” And I did, I finally did.

G: You were completely obsessed with your grief. Just sheer grief over what you’d lost. I hadn’t read early sobriety expressed in terms of “grief” before.

B: Oh yeah—I’d walk around these streets with so much self-pity and so much grief. Self-pity and grief—they hold hands. There was genuine grief; there was also a lot of self-pity. And the truth is that the only way I was ever going to move past it into a healthy, useful life was to let go of my attachment to those things I had lost and embrace what was right in front of me. And embrace the gift of life.

I had six months, and I started to feel physically healthy, and I was really connected to other people, and so much of that woe and worry had lifted, and I was just so present. Something happened that was kind of amazing: three of the writers I had represented before—individually, and not in concert with each other—within a three-week period each of them contacted me to say they had written something new, and that I had always been their first reader. And even though I wasn’t an agent anymore and I wasn’t in their lives, they wanted to know, Did I want to read their material? And in each case I said yes without even thinking about it. I was like, Sure—I have nothing else to do—

G: Except go to the gym and your home group.

B: Exactly!

G: Did they know what had happened to you?

B: Everybody knew what happened to me.

G: Your writers?

B: Everybody knew. Because they had an agent, and then they suddenly didn’t have an agent.

G: All the press around that time said, “He has personal problems.”

B: They all knew it was crack. Everybody in the publishing community—that got around very swiftly.

G: That must have been demoralizing for you.

B: [A gasping laugh] You think? I’d spent my whole entire life hiding the truth of what was going on, like scheming and putting on such a polished front—my worst nightmare was of that coming out.

G: How did they know it was crack, for chrissake?

[For the answer, and to hear what Bill Clegg is like in person, click here for Part 2.]

Bill Clegg Q&A Part 2: What I do to stay sober

Today, in Part 2 of a Q&A with Bill Clegg, author of Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, his recent memoir about his addiction, the author answers questions about what he does to stay sober five years after breaking free from crack and vodka.

Other links:

Part 1 of this Q&A

Review of Portrait of an Addict

Guinevere: Your prose captivates not only because of the desperation it makes me remember in my own life in active addiction, and because of the compassion it makes me feel for an addict who finds himself alone and sick in such dire straits, but also because the language becomes elegant and evocative while portraying an enormity from the inside: the deep selfishness of active addiction, the utter concern with superficiality and appearance. What happened to this concern with appearances once you committed to recovery?

Author Bill Clegg

Bill Clegg by Ozier Muhammad/New York Times.

Bill: For the first time in my life my insides and my outsides have aligned.  When you’re managing a double-life and worried at every step about being found out, your appearance, how you come across, how people perceive you becomes an obsession. I tried at every step to manage how people thought of and reacted to me because I was terrified they’d see through me and see the fraud, the drunk, the crack-head, the mess that I was. My life was a nightmare of secrets and lies and now, with the daily help of other alcoholics and addicts in recovery, it is not. What you see is what you get now and I worked every day to keep my life and my actions transparent to those around me. So the concern with how I look, and how people perceive me, while not entirely faded, it is far from the obsession it used to be.

G: You told Vogue, “What I do now to stay sober is one of the most joyful parts of my life. Some people can’t wait to get to their yoga class like I can’t wait to dive into my routine. It’s lucky that I love it as much as I do.” What is your routine?

B: My routine is to go to a meeting every day, work with my two sponsees in recovery, stay close to my sober friends, work with my sponsor and keep connected to him, maintain a regular spiritual practice of meditation and prayer, and stay available to other alcoholics and addicts. In addition to this I work out, try and eat right, stay on top of my bills, keep connected to my family. Of course I am human and some weeks I only get to four meetings, I return my sponsees phone call the next day and the not right away, and sometimes I wake up in the night and fill a huge cereal bowl with granola and get back in bed with it and eat it in the dark like a sneaky crack fiend. So I’m far from perfect. But in general I try and be of use each day.

G: Jay McInerney, in his review in Vanity Fair, mentioned that you “tastefully skimped on the particulars of [your] redemption.” Do you believe that recovery from addiction is a narrative or subject about which people don’t want to read?

B: I’m writing a book now called 90 Days about getting sober. Portrait of an Addict was to show the experience of active addiction and alcoholism, the unmanageability and the misery of it. Getting sober for me was excruciatingly difficult. I relapsed like crazy and it took a lot for me to finally lose the obsession with drugs and alcohol. I tried involving that part of the story in Portrait found that it required a lot more than a chapter and an epilogue.

G: Amends seemed to be a subtext written in invisible ink as the narrative progressed. You say in interviews: Staying sober, being responsible, not doing drugs are the only things that can be persuasive. … I’d like to hear you say more about this. I think your interviewers shortchange you on this subject.

B: In my program of recovery there is a time when amends are made and some of them are in person, some of them are not and some are living amends where I do not repeat the behavior of the past. The bedrock of my sobriety is to stay sober, live a sober life, be truthful where I once was not, kind where I had been unkind, giving where I had been selfish, responsible where I had been irresponsible, present where I had been absent. I had many people connected to my life when I was using and there were many people affected when I disappeared. The repair of those relationships is an active, alive, ongoing process. I will for the rest of my life be involved in some way with that repair. Some relationships have not recovered, many have and many are still repairing. People I never thought would be in my life again are now very close to me, people who I never imagined a day not talking to or seeing have never returned my phone call. I can’t presume to know how my actions have impacted each of these people but I can, with the people in my life, be present, honest, responsible and loving. The rest, as many of us say in recovery, is up to God.

Bill Clegg Q&A Part 1: Why I wrote PORTRAIT OF AN ADDICT

A couple weeks ago, I reviewed Bill Clegg’s popular new memoir about addiction and recovery, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, without the benefit of contacting the author. I’d had a few questions for him after reading the book, and his people at Little, Brown didn’t get back to me…

But the morning after I filed the review, Bill himself did.

Bill Clegg, author of Portrait of an Addict

Bill Clegg, from his book jacket

He contacted me on Facebook. And while he was on vacation in upstate New York last week, we corresponded about my questions.

He was generous enough with his answers that I’m running them in two parts.

Today in Part I he talks about how he chose the particular style for his memoir, and why he wrote the book.

In Part 2, he’ll talk about how he stays sober after five years off crack and vodka.

Q&A with Guinevere and Bill Clegg, Part 1

Guinevere: One reason I started Guinevere Gets Sober is to educate readers about addiction, a disease that’s not widely understood in the culture. Your memoir, strictly in the form of a literary narrative, shows a number of myths to be false… And yet you’re getting some critical response, from Amazon readers and elsewhere, for being the only white boy who ever smoked crack: a myth. (My sponsor is a white former crack user, now a doting grandma and successful employee for a major nonprofit. I mean, I know this could read like, “I have A LOT of friends who are white crack-heads!” I don’t mean it that way. I hope you know what I mean.)… How did you commit to the literary narrative form, and to excluding any contextualizing information about addiction and recovery that might have helped dispel more myths?

Bill: I’m not a sociologist or an expert on addiction or alcoholism.  And when I was trying to get sober there was no expert’s theory or finding, no statistic, and no context that could help me. The only things that could help me were other alcoholics and addicts and the stories they told me of how they used, what that was like, how they got sober and what that’s like now. I found myself in them and I discovered, finally, that I was not alone. And the stories I related to were from people of every race, every economic background, every gender. One does not have to look the same or come from the same place to identify.

G: Another myth is that alcoholics and addicts drink and use “for the fun of it”, to make life one big party; another is that we’re morally deranged or corrupt.  Is this why you drank and used, or did you find yourself using drugs for other reasons? I saw the narrator using to make himself smaller in his life, to thwart his own potential so he wouldn’t have to live up to it, to sabotage his blessings and achievements (a successful agency, a beautiful apartment, a reliable relationship, etc.) because the sabotage felt more familiar and safe; and to dull historical pain. Does any of this resonate?

B: My drinking and my using was, from the beginning, a lonely project.  I started drinking alone in my room at 12 years old and ended up drinking and drugging in a hotel room alone at 34. The in-between time with people and parties was lonely, too, because I knew I couldn’t drink and drug like everyone else. I would always be worried about getting more, not running out, the next day and the impact it would all have. Also, drinking for me was a way to escape the discomfort of interacting with other people. And the discomfort came because I wasn’t successful, because I was successful, because I was in love, because I wasn’t in love—the discomfort came from everything, and the need to drink and drug away that discomfort was always present.

G: How do you think this book speaks to, say, Rosie and Marcus, and “everyone still out there?” (Maybe they won’t read it, but how have you imagined it speaking to addicts—and those who care about them?)

B: My hope is that the book will illuminate how unmanageable alcoholism and drug addiction is. How horrible, lonely, destructive and deadly it is. I tried for years to just have a few drinks, not ten or twelve; to come home at midnight instead of nine in the morning; to tell the truth to the people I love. I failed at all these things and so much so that I wanted at the end only to die. If anyone recognizes themselves at any point in the story and sees the direction it went for me, sees where it will go for them and it frightens or educates or inspires them enough to step off and get help and not go where I went, then having the book in the world will have been worth it to me. I dearly hope Rosie and Marcus found their way out of the darkness of addiction and into sobriety. It is such a miserable life as an active addict and a dangerous one—and on the other side, sober, there is a life for them and all like them that is beyond their wildest dreams.

Go to Part 2


By now you may have read reviews of Bill Clegg’s new book about how in the space of two months a few years back, he burned through $70,000 worth of crack, fancy Manhattan hotels, and rent boys, also burning his business (a successful literary agency), his business partner (Sarah Burnes, known as “Kate” in the book, seven months pregnant at the time), all his clients (who remain nameless in the book, but who include many well-known authors, some of whom came back to him in the end), and his loyal long-suffering boyfriend (an art filmmaker known only as “Noah”).

Maybe you’ve seen Bill Clegg on the Today Show, where he told Meredith Vieira the reason he decided to publish this book:

… to show how at every turn that I thought that I could control it—I thought I could have two drinks and I’d end up having ten, I thought I could come home at 1 in the morning, and I’d come home at 10. And my amounts increased, the frequency increased, and it ended up where it ended up, which was doing it twenty-four hours a day and resulting in a suicide attempt, and if anybody can see that that’s where it’s going—if they think it’s manageable, it’s not.

Well, I suppose Bill W. felt the same way when he published “Bill’s Story” in the Big Book 70 years ago. Bill C.’s saying the same thing? OK, we got it: Addiction’s unmanageable.

Or maybe you were one of the many readers who saw the Vogue spread with a sweet picture of Mr. Clegg in jeans, blue blazer and baseball cap, standing in some cobbled, corrugated downtown alley: No way could this pretty white boy have been a crack head, right?—is the message all the pictures send, the one by Brigitte Lacombe in the Vanity Fair review and the one by Brigitte Lacombe on the book’s back flap.

He Looks Great!

I read Portrait of an Addict on the plane to Manchester last month. It’s a quick read. Which isn’t to say it’s not substantial or well-written. I mean that the narrative is braided together in such a manner as to make turning the pages compulsive. The prose elicits the extreme self-absorbed distortion of reality common to those mired in addiction, as well as the paranoia that apparently (a good friend assures me) particularly besets those deep into crack use. Here is the moment when the author realizes he’s “really” an addict (he’s known all along, but he’s been rationalizing heavily), the moment he hits his so-called “bottom”—he’s for the first time been denied a room in an upscale downtown hotel, his cash can’t get him what he wants, and he has nowhere to go to fire up:

Out on Mercer Street I’m terrified. I have somehow, without seeing it happen, tripped over some boundary, from the place where one can’t tell that I’m a crack addict to the place where it is sufficiently obvious to turn me away. . . . Suddenly, for the first time, I feel as if I might look and act and sound in a way that I am not able to see. Like body odor or bad breath that is only detectable to other people, my movements and my whole bearing could be invisible to me. . . . Though I have been doing drugs, drinking liters of vodka a day, not sleeping, and running from hotel to hotel for a month, it dawns on me like a great shock that I might actually look like a junkie.

This prose is captivating not only because of the desperation it makes me remember in my own life, and because of the compassion it makes me feel for an addict who finds himself alone and sick in such dire straits, but also because the language is elegant and evocative while portraying an enormity: the deep selfishness of active addiction, the utter concern with superficiality and appearance. The narrator is all about: What do I look like? How do people see me? Doesn’t my cashmere sweater/designer jeans/$3,000 suit look good enough? Why can’t I get what I want?

(He Looks great!)

Keep in mind that, just before he started hotel-hopping, this narrator left his pregnant business partner in the lurch via an email, and summarily dumped all his clients. Not to mention the boyfriend who’s constantly texting him, wondering if he’s dead yet. And he’s worried about What He Looks Like.

I understand this. … Which is why the atmosphere of amends is written heavily in subtext throughout this book. It can’t be helped. The reader wonders, when these people simply disappear in the book, what he does about the harm he’s caused them. Because the harm is felt like a kind of nauseating gas throughout the book. The questions may or may not be unfair, but they cannot be skirted: they’re part of the narrative, and they go unanswered:

How did you make it right with them?

Did you let go of your preoccupation with appearances?

The book’s redemptive ending leads the reader to believe that no lasting damage has been sustained—you have an even better job, your top-dollar clients have come back, you will be OK no matter what. Yet so many lose so much with this disease. How do you imagine your book speaks to them?—the Rosies [Rosie bought some crack for him and let him fire up in her room when he was turned out of the hotel], the Marcuses [Marcus—well, I’ll let readers enjoy the book to find out who Marcus was], the many other nameless addicts that drift in and out of the narrative—”everyone still out there,” as you say in your dedication?

These are some of the questions I’ve wanted to ask Bill C. I tried contacting him several times, but his people ignored my emails.

The Vogue spread had one comment from Mr. Clegg that has stuck with me.

Entering what he calls “a fellowship of recovery,” he attended meetings two or three times a day. “That piece of my life is still the most important thing, actually. . . . Everything else after that—my job, the book, relationships, even my family—is kind of the gravy that I get for staying sober. And what I do now to stay sober is also one of the most joyful parts of my life. Some people can’t wait to get to their yoga class like I can’t wait to dive into my routine. It’s lucky that I love it as much as I do.

My last question for Bill C.: What do you do to stay sober? I would wager there are some readers who would like to know. This site—which attracts people who are “still out there”—gets a ton of hits for “Bill Clegg.” Maybe not as many as for “Eminem,” but still.

Why hasn’t anyone asked him? Perhaps because none of the interviewers have been addicts themselves.

Or maybe we have to wait for the next book… Bill Clegg is now writing the sequel, called 90 Days.

In the news: Bill Clegg and Russell Brand

Burning up the search engines today: Bill Clegg and Russell Brand.

[Note: see updates at bottom.]

You might have heard of Russell Brand. British former radio-host, stand-up comedian, new movie called Get Him to the Greek, sober off heroin for six or seven years but struggling apparently to keep his clothes on in public and remain faithful to his fiancée despite a bit of a compulsion to fondle female flesh.

If he’s not groping the girls he likes to dress in their clothes.

Came across a piece of evidence about Brand’s character that has stayed with me. When a year or two back Brand hosted the NME music awards (the UK’s version of the MTV music awards), he had to bring Bob Geldof onstage for an award. And Brand being Brand, he made some cheeky nasty jibe about Geldof. And Geldof—Sir Bob, founder of Live 8, Live Aid, Band Aid, consultant to Bono’s ONE Campaign, recipient of the Man of Peace Prize—in other words, a Guy Who Does Things For Other People—came up onstage and said, in all seriousness, “That Russell Brand—what a cunt.” Brand did not receive Geldof’s comment graciously: he retorted, “It’s no wonder Bob Geldof knows so much about famine—he’s been dining out on ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ for thirty years.”

People often arrive on this blog after Googling, say, “how does Robert Downey stay sober?” I wonder if anyone is wondering how Russell Brand stays sober?

Brand was on the cover of Rolling Stone a couple weeks after Robert Downey Jr. appeared there. For me it was a startling juxtaposition; I was on Memorial Day holiday in the country, the chicken was on the grill, the kids were in the creek, my host had left his copy of RS on the deck, I saw the picture of Brand pulling his pants down and brushing his naked belly with his hands and I was just like, Why can’t this fool just go away. Splashed across the cover after someone like Downey, whose work is about performance, an actor’s work of character, psychological insight, and use of the body and speech to achieve a persona different from oneself—

Brand is all about Being Russell Brand. It’s the same reason Madonna has usually failed at film—as a performer, she’s so self-involved that she can’t get away from the character of Madonna. So it might not be fair to compare Brand and Downey. They’re different kinds of entertainers, they’re different people, they’re bound to go about getting sober differently and using their lives differently.

Bill Clegg's Portrait of an Addict as a Young ManI hope Brand’s sobriety lasts for him. Because I look at people like Downey and Bill Clegg, a literary agent who has a new memoir about his addiction, and I see people for whom being sober is about being motivated to do something for purposes outside themselves. Clegg had his own NYC literary agency with a client list that must have been quite enjoyable for him, but he disappeared into a crack pipe and lost everything: Washington Square apartment; $70K savings; boyfriend; agency; clients.

Losing Everything is quite often the voyeuristic drive of addiction narratives. One reason I love Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story. She doesn’t Lose Everything. Many people don’t. But Clegg did, apparently… Then he went to rehab, found the 12 steps, and now he’s back in town and fostering a flourishing roster of writers, helping turn publishing around in hard times. Stay tuned for a review …

EDIT: In the last day (5 June) a few people have landed here by Googling “Russell Brand sobriety”… cool! Interested in hearing from these people.

UPDATE 25 October 2010: Russell Brand has married Katie Perry, after holding what was called “the world’s most sober stag party” (well done) and has also published his second memoir, “My Booky Wook 2,” for which he has “stripped off,” as the British say, in order to promote the book. More of Russell Brand The Exhibitionist—the photo he posted to his Twitter account:

Russell Brand Twitter pic

Russell Brand, promoting his book (imo, too bad he waxed his chest)

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