DECEMBER 7, 2019
THE TITLE OF Timothy J. Hillegonds’s debut memoir, The Distance Between, aptly captures the tension that saturates the book’s narrative — the points of measurement are unstated, creating the feeling of a sentence fragment with blanks the text promises to fill in. But the title’s strategy is even deeper than that, highlighting one of the major dilemmas that almost every memoirist faces when embarking upon a project: how do you calculate the distance between two points when one or both of those points are not known? The question reveals a daunting truth — the task of the memoirist is, in this sense, in constant flux. They may be able to fix an exact time and location to examine in the past, but they cannot help doing so from a present that is always on the move. Time changes the way we tell stories.
The Distance Between reckons with absent fathers, adolescent rebellion, addiction, rage, white male privilege, and toxic masculinity. Hillegonds experiences a loss at age two that spirals into obsession as his childhood develops: Hillegonds’s biological father leaves him and his mother, making no effort to build a relationship with his son. That broken relationship forms the foundation of the book, and Hillegonds consequently views any kind of rejection or loss through the lens of his father’s departure. Hillegonds’s mother soon remarries, but he can’t shake the absence and neglect of his biological father — a man who lives minutes away but, for reasons unspecified, makes no effort to be part of his son’s life.
After being kicked out of high school, falling out with his stepfather, moving out, getting drunk and stoned almost every night, and getting a head start on his criminal record by being pulled over while under the influence, Hillegonds decides to leave Chicago for the promise of the uncomplicated life that Colorado seems to offer. What follows are four chaotic years that end Hillegonds’s teens and strike up his 20s. His reckless decisions begin to spiral when he meets and falls in love with April, a single mom who introduces him to crystal meth and whose decision-making skills are roughly as evolved as his own. What results is a story of endless arguments and makeups, the recurrent broken promise that “things will be different this time,” and compounding insecurity that becomes jealousy, then rage, then violence and crime. There’s a cyclical nature to Hillegonds’s relationship with alcohol, drugs, shame, anger, and abuse that anyone who has been or known an addict will recognize, making his story both engaging and relatable.
The need for thrill and anesthesia meet at a seemingly paradoxical nexus in Hillegonds’s life. From his early in-line skating days of doing flips over adoring fans in Chicago to his hope of becoming a professional snowboarder in Colorado, it’s clear that Hillegonds craves adrenaline. He recalls, “At the literal edge of control, one small move away from serious injury, everything felt manageable. In the margin that existed between safety and danger, between assurance and risk, I felt at home.” Though it begins innocently enough, Hillegonds’s need for adrenaline rush becomes his gateway into drugs that make him feel like he can conquer the world and reckless behavior that puts himself and those around him at risk. Along with his need for manic highs, he is also quickly and helplessly drawn to the stupor that alcohol and drugs promise. This constant oscillation creates a tumultuous and unquenchable need that regularly throws him into fits of rage and self-loathing, and the consequences can be violent and sometimes criminal.
Years later, when he finally sees himself clearly enough to recognize that he’s an addict, Hillegonds learns that he was pursuing what’s known as the geographical solution: the addict’s utopic fantasy that their internal problems can be surmounted by changing their external geography. A quick and easy tabula rasa: new city — new life. But no matter how certain this solution appears, it is about as effective as a Band-Aid over the chest of a broken heart. This idea is illustrated with devastating clarity and cruelty when Hillegonds kicks down his girlfriend’s door one night in the midst of a fight. When the violent intrusion doesn’t have the intended effect — as if breaking and entering should lead to romance and reconciliation — he turns his abuse from the door to his girlfriend.
Hillegonds examines his life with an acuity that comes from years of rehabilitation. He has faced his demons, acquired tools and vocabulary for fighting them, and found a way to step out of the once interminable cycle of rage and violence that controlled his life. Writing this book is also part of that difficult process, his memories replete with pain and remorse. As Hillegonds writes in the preface:
I am deeply ashamed, and sorry, and full of regret, and I’ve written this book, in part, to both interrogate and understand the person I was then, when I was young and angry and addicted, when I was unfamiliar with the realities of privilege and patriarchy, when I knew nothing of my own increasingly toxic masculinity.
The impetus for writing this book, then, was to remember the person he once was in unflinching detail so that he could recognize that earlier self in case he ever tries to return.
The self-awareness that has been so crucial for Hillegonds’s recovery, however, does not always serve the book. Rather than building an organic narrative toward an earned theme or moral, Hillegonds frequently disrupts the narrative action with expressions of regret or explanations of the lessons he has learned over the years. These moments stall the momentum he so effectively builds and, even worse, betray the author’s fear that the reader will somehow conflate him with the person he used to be. The strongest chapters in the book are the ones with the fewest intrusions. These sections are relatable because Hillegonds gives the reader intimate access to the emotions and thought processes of his youth, rather than simply commenting on them from a distance.
The book’s greatest triumph, on the other hand, is its refreshing authenticity. It would be easy for readers to think Hillegonds would have had a greater advantage in life if only he’d had a better father figure. But in the opening chapter, Hillegonds makes it abundantly clear that he had exactly that — a loving and dependable stepfather who was willing to raise five-year-old Hillegonds as his own. Hillegonds’s stepfather is nothing like the archetypical evil stepparent, providing the acceptance, attention, love, and (most importantly for the author) time that Hillegonds needed from a paternal figure. Hillegonds provides this comparison:
My stepfather and biological father, my only two real representations of manhood, were diametrically opposed. One had a child and then left him when things got tough, never looking back. […] The other jumped into something he didn’t need to jump into — took on a responsibility that wasn’t even his because he fell in love with a woman and it was a package deal.
Like east from west, the distance between his paternal figures is incalculable. Fortunately, the preferable figure was always the closest. But Hillegonds doesn’t see any of this in his youth. He admits from a later perspective that what he was really seeking from his father was prolonged and focused attention. However, even when Hillegonds briefly reconnects with his father, it becomes clear that his father isn’t capable of providing the kind of faithful presence that Hillegonds craves.
Biology and his father’s neglect became obsessions. Hillegonds could have gone into even greater detail about these opposing father figures to rationalize his behavior, but instead he leaves it mostly unaddressed. The reader may find this confusing at first, but this maneuver is strategic; it creates a perpetual sense of disorientation that mirrors the confusion that Hillegonds carries throughout his childhood and into young adulthood.
The resolution isn’t simple. Nor is it really the point. As a retrospective, the reader assumes that the author was able to pull his life together, so that information shouldn’t spoil anyone’s reading experience. Nor does it indicate that Hillegonds had an epiphany one day, et voilà! — he saw the light, changed his wicked ways, and never looked back. Instead, Hillegonds takes the greater risk by giving himself some moments of epiphany and even periods of momentary repentance, but then showing how he eventually reverts back to his old, erratic — albeit familiar — routine. It’s never enough to simply unlearn destructive habits; a healthy lifestyle requires cultivation and maintenance, which takes effort, patience, time, and the ability to accept responsibility for yourself and your life.
Even when Hillegonds finally returns home in the end, we learn that it took him another five years to get clean and pull his life together. Rather than using this space to congratulate himself for all the progress he has made, Hillegonds stays remarkably honest, showing restraint in his writing and eliciting wonder where he could have padded the text with quick answers and catchy one-liners. If more men were capable of this kind of humility and vulnerability, who knows what changes we might see in our definitions of masculinity?