Remember the exemplary narrative arc your high school English lit teacher drew on the board, a line of tension pulled upward by intensifying conflict to a peak representing that conflict’s climax, and then descending once resolution has been achieved? The typical addiction/recovery memoir has a different, inverse shape: a U whose line plunges, plateaus and climbs arduously up and out of substance abuse. Given the adhesive nature of addiction and the human tendency to backslide, some of these stories are a series of ups and downs. “Gone to the Crazies,” by Alison Weaver, has two U’s — deep and, after a brief intermission, deeper.
GONE TO THE CRAZIES
By Alison Weaver.
Illustrated. 245 pp. HC/HarperCollins Publishers. $24.95.
Weaver begins at the beginning, before the first dive; her parents are wealthy and unsympathetic, if not exactly monstrous. In fact, part of the teenage Weaver’s torment is that she can’t take the damage they’ve done her quite seriously enough. She’s wounded, but a life “largely deficient of harrowing events” has left her suspicious of wounds she considers possibly fraudulent. Weaver’s therapists, she reports, conclude that her father, 28 years older than her mother, his third wife, is “offensively critical, degrading and a complete narcissist.” Affectionate when his daughter is very young, he’s too old to relate to her effectively by the time she’s a troubled teenager and leaves discipline to her mother, who, it emerges, is an alcoholic who drinks to the point of sometimes engaging in physical fights with Weaver, the two of them “yanking at each other’s hair, scratching or squeezing each other’s arms.”
After she was expelled from Spence following the eighth grade, Weaver rejected a diagnosis of atypical manic-depression, with “prevailing wild behavior” infrequently interrupted by hysterical, self-destructive lows. “I wasn’t even a little bit sad,” she insists. “None of it, I wanted none of it. And I made what I thought to be a rational decision to block it all out, shut it up, numb it, dilute it, deny it, mask it; call it what you will.”
Whatever one calls it, the impulse to flee from introspection is part of what disables “Gone to the Crazies.” Not only is addiction a poor catalyst for creativity — the sometimes brilliant works of drug addicts and alcoholics are achieved in spite of their demons — but it turns out to be a less-than-satisfying subject. Unless an addict is unusually self-aware, determined to cast a clinical and intelligent eye on the genesis of his or her own illness, an account of abuse and recovery cannot transcend the narrative trough of the U. So where’s the dramatic tension? The surrogate for plot-driven suspense is, of course — and here’s the guilty draw of addiction/recovery memoirs — voyeurism. And it’s enhanced here by photographs, many of which add a note of braggadocio familiar from James Frey’s “Million Little Pieces.” For all the readers who don’t have Weaver’s experience of drinking themselves unconscious, hoovering up lines of coke, mixing speedballs or shooting ketamine, books like “Gone to the Crazies” provide a window onto the kind of sordid scenes about which they are curious but haven’t the information necessary to imagine for themselves.
Too, just as Frey offered a peek at an upscale Hazeltonesque treatment facility, Weaver reports on another setting most of her readers won’t see, if only because they’ve aged out of the opportunity: the tough-love residential school of last resort. After her expulsion from Spence and a subsequent spell at the Berkshire Boarding School, where Weaver and her friends do an astonishing amount of drugs and live in purposeful, shameful inconsideration of their unfortunate dorm mates, she’s packed off to the Cascade School in California.
Isolated in the mountains, Cascade (which closed in 2004) offered a 24-month immersion in a cultlike program that marched students through levels of emotional growth curricula with a veneer of academics and mandatory group therapies. Comprising a series of eight “therapeutic workshops: The Truth, The Youth, The Friends, The Sisters/Brothers, The Heroes, The Imagine, The I and Me, and The Symposium,” Cascade was an experience Weaver summarizes as “recantation, self-criticism, public humiliation and public apology,” the essential requirement being volcanic displays of emotion. As rendered in “Gone to the Crazies,” each “forum,” or encounter group, demanded that students weep themselves blind, scream until they were hoarse and do an exercise called the “Pillow Pound” while wearing socks on their hands to absorb the blood that flowed from the frenzy of their rage. Students with burst blood vessels and bloody noses were so ubiquitous at Cascade that readers may find themselves wondering if the place’s high altitude was affecting them. Or maybe they’d all just snorted too much cocaine.
Weaver graduates a convert to the system she initially found sinister and fascistic, but the peace, or exhaustion, she reaches through the Cascade program dissipates soon after she leaves. Having climbed out of the first pit of her story, she stays sober for only a few weeks before diving into a second, more dangerous abyss. At Pitzer College in California, she joins the ’90s rave scene, dresses in “little boys’ Transformer underwear,” discovers self-love through Ecstasy and descends into crystal-meth addiction. After two years at Pitzer, she transfers to the New School back home in New York, having lost whatever insight she achieved in the protected and controlled community of Cascade, where it was impossible to fall off the wagon. Living in the East Village, playing hostess to a stream of ambitiously dysfunctional addicts and poseurs, Weaver discovers a still deeper bottom, which lands her in jail, the point at which she “knew things had to change.”
But she can’t tell us how, not any more than she can translate Cascade’s “therapeutic garble” into an explanation of her flight into addiction, or examine the truth behind her rage at her parents. “I’ve never been sure how to go about discussing my recovery,” Weaver admits. But it doesn’t really matter, as her readers won’t be looking for insight. They’ll just be looking.
Kathryn Harrison writes fiction and nonfiction. She is the author of the memoirs “The Kiss” and “The Mother Knot.”