Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: Renew Magazine

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.]

Step 11 in New York.

Just back from New York, where I talked with Bill Clegg about his new memoir, 90 DAYS: A MEMOIR OF RECOVERY.

Bill Clegg in the West Village, April 3, 2012.

Getting messages from readers who may have seen the Newsweek excerpt, asking what I think about the book, and whether Clegg is “for real.” “Is he sober?” one reader asked.

Check back to find out. I’m splitting the goods between this site and Renew Magazine, for which I review books. Check your bookstore or better yet subscribe—May’s issue will have a review of Kaylie Jones’s LIES MY MOTHER NEVER TOLD ME and a Q&A with the author.

I like going to New York. I’ve decided to go as often as I can. I used to think I had to have a special reason for going anywhere: a meeting, a conference, a bunch of appointments with important people, Something To Do. My new special reason for going to New York:

Because I want to.

This time, when I wasn’t working, I went to a couple of Al-Anon meetings. One was a Step 11 meeting at Blessed Sacrament church on the Upper West Side. I got there half an hour late because of subway delays; when I opened the door to the meeting place in the rectory at 11:30, there were about 20 people sitting in chairs around the edge of the room. The blinds were drawn, the lights of the huge crystal chandelier were off, and they were meditating. I sat down and joined them.

Afterward I sat in the church to be quiet and look at the candles. It was Wednesday of Holy Week; a homeless guy was lying in a back pew, sleeping; I expected half an hour of quiet time, but suddenly everyone else in the nave stood up and I saw that the priest had walked in and was getting ready to say Mass. So I stayed. I hadn’t been to Mass in—gosh, 25 years? but just like the good Catholic girl I was (and somehow, somewhere inside of me, still am), I knew all the responses; I listened to myself saying them as though it were another person standing inside my skin, talking through my mouth.

Later that day I went to another meeting at Caron in midtown. The weekly topic of this meeting is “intimacy.” It was one of the best meetings I’ve ever been to in my life. They talked frankly about all kinds of ways of being intimate, including sex. I wrote a piece about this experience for another publication and will let you know if and when it’s out… I’m thinking of starting a similar group in my town.

In New York, I stay way downtown. This is my subway stop:

It’s a challenge to maintain my patience in New York because the subway system drives me crazy. Most of the stations are invisible above ground. In London, where I learned to ride subways, the Underground stops are all marked by the ubiquitous and brilliantly designed Tube logo:

In New York you have to morph into a rat to know where the subway stops are. You have to have a nose for holes in the ground. You have to sniff out which stops are uptown-only and which are downtown, and you have to memorize the information in order not to waste time. But once you get inside the stations, you’re likely to see some good art while you’re waiting for the trains.

Just pausing to look at the mosaics is part of recovery for me. It requires me to slow down, be present in my body, be aware. I can appreciate the handiwork of a dedicated artist.

Then just before I left I went to St. Patrick’s and lit a candle for my parents.

The rose window and organ, St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York.

When do you pause to look around you at beauty you take for granted? How do you manage to do it during a busy day?

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