Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man by Bill Clegg, another addiction memoir chronicling the heartbreak of a bright young person’s fall. Do we really need to read another sad story?
Well, yes, because Portrait is something much more: it is a love story – the story of a bright and talented young man who fell in love – not so much with another human being, though that plays a role here and it is certainly part of the tragedy – as with little plastic bags of chunky, milk-colored crystals delivered at great cost (at one point, he spends $1000 each night for three “straight” weeks) by sketchy dealers/couriers with names like “Rico” and “Happy” (get that?)
Clegg’s first experience with crack came at age 25, courtesy of a respected lawyer from his hometown, a distinguished man in his mid-60s who seduces him (Clegg is no virgin, either sexually or pharmacologically, he’d already had both girls and boys as well as crystal meth at 15, coke and pot later). The first experience was intoxicating, and so is Clegg’s prose describing the moment:
A kind of peace breaks behind his eyes. It spreads down from his temples into his chest, to his hands and everywhere. It storms through him – kinetic, sexual, euphoric – like a magnificent hurricane raging at the speed of light. It is the warmest, most tender caress he has ever felt…
That introduction to crack by a man older than his father unleashes a hurricane all right, and in its wake nearly everything gets swept away – a real love affair and a successful career as well as his physical and emotional well-being. The insatiable love for crack (the memoir’s first words say it all, “I can’t leave and there isn’t enough”) leads to Clegg’s descent into the maelstrom. He careens from one place to another – behind a 7-Eleven in the shadow of an underpass near the Newark airport; suites in the Carlyle, W 60 Thompson hotels; a hospital psych ward; video booths at porn stores; bathrooms at McDonald’s – from one dealer to another, from one quick sex partner to another (cab drivers, escorts, casual street pick-ups) and becomes a wanderer in a city bleak as Dante’s Inferno lit by a crack pipe,blasted as Eliot’s London in a reefer haze. The once-familiar city becomes forbidding, threatening, alienating (“I feel as if I’m seeing a city I’ve never been to,” he notes at one point). Dislocation, distortion, delusion, hallucination become part of a numb, nomadic existence.
The costs are just terrible. Friends and family become strangers. Clegg loses forty pounds and notes that at age 34 he weighs less than he did in eighth grade (130 pounds). And here he describes his last meeting with “Noah,” his longtime lover::
It is never said, but it is clear that it is over, that our lives, bound together for so long, will now be lived apart. Everything that we were, the whole magical, horrible opera, is now over. We are only a table apart but we’re in different worlds. He seems less like a person and more like a fragment from a dream I once had, some nocturnal wonder I cannot revive after sleep, only remember.
This excerpt – and the one preceding it – illustrate what makes Portrait something more than your garden variety addiction memoir: deep, intense, real feeling conveyed with honesty in prose that is at once matter-of-fact and lyrical.
And something else raises Portrait beyond the typical confessional psycho-babble, 12-step idiocy of so many accounts. Clegg addresses the question, why did I do it? In searching to determine how he reached physical and emotional ground zero he never plays the victim, never assigns blame anywhere else other than himself – no dealer, no partner, no acquaintance, no parent, no circumstance, no star gets tagged. He tells of a number of unsuccessful sessions with several therapists; my guess is that writing this memoir did more for Clegg than all those sessions put together. Not just the physical act of writing but the very construction of the book was likely therapeutic: interspersed among the accounts of high and harrowing episodes are a number of chapters which are flashbacks to Bill at various points in his life – age 5, in third grade, in fourth grade, in eighth grade. Here and rarely elsewhere Clegg fashions a narrative in the third person, obviously detaching himself, attempting to figure how he became a man who so often felt radically inadequate and out-of-place; typical is his comment about himself at a fancy party held to celebrate the opening of his own literary agency: “I look around the table and wonder how on earth I ended up here.”
In the course of this memoir Clegg explores the longstanding feeling of being out of place with its correlative death wish gradually becoming more powerful. As a twelve-year old boy, the excitement of clandestine Scotch-drinking registered as “a place where he doesn’t have to bring himself along. What he also loves is the dark project of it.” In the same impulse he locates some of the attraction of smoking crack and the thrill spirals into a conscious death wish: in the last throes of crack addiction, he realizes full well what he seeks to do:
. . .I know I will smoke every last bit of it. I wonder if somewhere in that pile is the crumb that will bring on a heart-attack or stroke or seizure. The cardiac event that will deliver all this to an abrupt and welcome halt.
I quietly pray for one of these hits to finish me off.