For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don't know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us.
— Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It
I CAN’T REMEMBER the last time I saw my brother. About 15 years ago, he started an ongoing struggle with crack, and since then, he’s lived on the streets, slept under bridges, been kicked out of more than one halfway house, and he’s never made it more than a few days before walking out of any rehab. I’ve talked to him on the phone. I’ve seen him at family gatherings, and once I even convinced myself I could save him, but the brother I used to know has disappeared.
In the title essay of If Only You People Could Follow Directions, Jessica Hendry Nelson writes:
We are in a play and rehearsing the same scene for the gazillionth time.
Mother and sister wait outside anxiously while son/brother gets high in tacky Florida motel room/mother’s unfinished attic/dimly lit McDonald’s bathroom, snow-heavy parked car/bowling alley urinal/New York City diner/empty New Jersey lifeguard station/suburban basement/family friend’s gold-trimmed bathroom/bathroom/bathroom/bathroom/small black space of empty and release.
Take gazillion and one.
Nelson’s collection, a series of linked personal essays, aptly captures the world-weariness of those of us who attend “the theater of addiction.” It begins with a prologue, a letter to her brother, Eric, in which she traces the fragile edges of their childhood troubled by the drama enacted by a self-destructive father who lived more in and out of rehab or jail than he did at home. “You and I visit our father on Saturdays between the hours of one and two,” she writes.
We visit him alongside the other children and the other fathers. The building is low and concrete, and we visit outside. We visit him wearing blue jeans and wool sweaters and new sneakers. It is 1989. It is 1991. It is 1992 and then it is 1995. It is Livengrin Foundation for Addiction Recovery or it is The Caron Foundation or it is this rehab or that.
Thus, she establishes one of the most significant and daring aspects of her literary debut: addiction in the present tense. Most contemporary memoirs about addiction — beginning with Mary Karr’s The Liars Club in 1995 and continuing with works by Augusten Burroughs, David Carr, Nick Flynn, Kelle Groom, Heather King, Caroline Knapp, and Elizabeth Wurtzel — take the reader all the way to recovery. Nelson’s, however, is a story of the immediate. It is 1990. 1998. 1989. “It is drunk-driving or petty theft or unpaid child support.” The years as a refrain are arbitrary markers in an endless recital of rehabs, hospitals, prisons, and disturbing episodes. In 2002, when Nelson is 18 and Eric is 16, they find out their father has died, and it’s the consequences of his self-destruction and death that provide the backdrop for this compelling work. His presence — for too many years inconsistent and elusive — becomes a permanent absence.
In her opening letter, Nelson writes:
He visits us when we are broke down or blacked out and beaten up [...] When we are eating pizza with pepperoni [...] playing cards or fishing [...] chewing spearmint gum or at a shoe store or a Jiffy Lube [...] When I read Steinbeck. When you watch Mash.
She reminds us it’s memory that ushers our past into our present, and that sometimes we drag what happened into what’s happening, as when Eric immediately assumes the role of the addict in the family on the afternoon of his father’s death: “You lock yourself in your room for three days. When you come out you are high as the sky and you haven’t come down yet.” Escapism abounds here, as Nelson herself begins a gypsy-like existence, moving through New Hampshire, North Carolina, New York, Connecticut, and Vermont.
In a further reversal of the chronological trajectory endemic to most of the genre, Nelson’s memoir, framed by a February, is suspended in time. The prologue is dated February 23, 2012, and ends: “And here’s to you [...] wherever you are.” Her closing essay, which includes a phone call from her mother, precedes that letter by a week, leaving the family where families of most addicts live — in the midst of the chaos, in the aftermath of another close call.
But not only does the trajectory of the whole suspend us in time, Nelson’s choice of structure for each piece does as well. These parallel, even multidimensional essays all begin in media res. From the opening, for instance:
A few days after our father is arrested near our home outside of Philadelphia, I find a Bible in the nightstand drawer. This is our third night in this New Jersey shore motel room and we are getting restless.
Others begin similarly:
Most days, Charlene and I ride our bikes [...]
A blackface ewe stumbles in a northern wind.
The motel is flamingo pink, stucco walls dripping with humidity.
And even though each essay blends narratives that span decades, Nelson consistently closes by suspending us in a moment. For example, in “Fall,” she weaves the story of the stumbling blackface ewe with one about her father falling down a flight of stairs and another about him taking her and her brother skiing when they were young. It’s in this way, with this kind of layering throughout the memoir, that she emphasizes the cyclical aspect of addiction — the sharp declines, the shaky ascensions.
Nelson’s examination of the “theater of addiction” is not reserved just for her father (Jon) and her brother. Many players contribute to her themes of substance abuse, depression, and self-destruction. We learn, for instance, that Jon’s maternal grandmother was an alcoholic, and that two of his brothers died, one from a handful of Klonopin and the other in a drunk-driving accident; Nelson’s mother develops “her own pot-smoking habit,” along with a two-bottle thirst for red wine; a 300-pound neighbor kills herself; a boss of Nelson’s is a former methadone addict; Nelson’s friend, Jordan, is a drug addict; and a girlfriend of Eric’s shares his affinity for liquefied OxyContin.
The stage is crowded, yet these carefully crafted essays avoid the overwrought, or overly dramatic, or even the obvious. The best memoirists know when to stand back and allow certain events and images to speak for themselves, as Nelson does in her matter-of-fact, unadorned presentations of the most harrowing moments of her own as well as others’ lives.
I should tell you now: I’ve done a bit of theater myself. I spent the end of 2005 and the beginning of 2006 in Highland Ridge, a rehabilitation facility in Salt Lake City, Utah, after too many months of filling (and refilling) my mornings-to-the middle-of-my-nights with wine. Those weeks at the Ridge instilled in me a ready empathy for every pair of shaky hands I pretend not to notice, every fidgety stance, every shoulder huddled in shame. Just the other day, a man on the street asked me for pennies, nickels, because “they add up.” One night I rummaged through every pocket and coin jar and ashtray until I sighed with relief upon finding a fucking quarter in the cup holder of my Jeep to complete the 13-dollar climb toward a bottle of Beringer Founders’ Estate Chardonnay.
In rehab and in AA meetings, I learned that for every drunk, pill-popper, tweaker, meth head, and coke fiend, addiction is predicated by an undoing, an internal buckling of the psyche or spirit. Couple that with a disposition for obsessive behavior or a family history of addiction, and you’ve got yourself a catastrophe.
Jessica Nelson understands this; she presents the addicts in her life honestly and fairly. “My father was a smart and quiet man,” she explains, “who built [...] computers from spare parts (from nothing more, it seemed to me, than fishing wire and an old icebox). He could make anything work, except of course, his own splintered psyche.” In another essay, a cop handcuffs Eric and turns to his mother, as if in apology, to say: “Your son is very polite. They’re not usually so polite.” And in one of the more powerful moments in the memoir, Nelson reflects (about her brother): “My dread, I’d thought foolishly, could be a force much stronger than his will. I’d never considered his dread, what power that might hold.” In these moments, Nelson develops what Phillip Lopate describes as “the behavioral contradictions” necessary for the personal essayist to “present a complex portrait of a human being.”
“It is tempting to put all of these men into a box and watch them not even try to get out,” she writes. “It is tempting to impose your expectations on them and watch them not care. It is tempting not to look at your own failures, which are often so fucking ordinary.”
It’s in an essay titled “In New York,” that Nelson nods to the writers who have influenced her: “Gretel Ehrlich and Cormac McCarthy and Joy Williams [...] Chekhov and Tobias Wolff and Annie Dillard — lots of Annie Dillard.” It’s no wonder one of the early chapters includes an epigraph from Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:
The present is an invisible electron; its lightning path traced faintly on a blackened screen is fleet, and fleeing, and gone . . . No the point is that not only does time fly and do we die, but that in these reckless conditions we live at all, and are vouchsafed, for the duration of certain inexplicable moments, to know it.
This passage underscores Nelson’s choice of tense, and her allusion in her prologue to the dead, “flickering in and out of focus.” It also introduces another strong aspect of her work: nature as metaphor. In “A Second of Startling Regret” a pair of hawks stand in for her and her brother, two children who struggle in “opposite corners.” And in “Height of the Land,” when she writes “the empty sky beats back a silver sun and the dead trees draw arrows for the stars,” the description is as exquisite, private, and redemptive as any in Dillard’s “Total Eclipse.”
In the title essay, Nelson watches Shark Week:
He can’t stop moving or he’ll drown [...] The shark makes a quick dart to the left and then dives headlong into the body of the shadow, propelled by the infinitesimal pulse of an electrical charge that can be, the narrator tells us, as faint as a human heart.
This passage is followed by a detailed anecdote about Eric, darting and diving headlong into the shadow of another episode, “wailing and flailing his body against the walls” like a trapped predator. And then there’s her father. Early on Nelson tells us:
I hold my breath every time we pass a bar because I do not yet understand that addiction has nothing to do with neon signs, which I imagine blinking on and off inside his chest like an electric heart.
Moreover, confesses Nelson: “I can’t stop moving either.” And: “I like going, leaving, moving,” she writes. At one point, she counts seven homes in eight years that she and her boyfriend, Nick, have shared, and she makes it clear — it’s her restlessness the two of them fear: “I’ve run away before. Believe me, I will do it again. Believe me, I will not want to.” Nelson’s addiction seems to be distance — what she can put between herself and her self.
We are an imperfect people, full of contradictions. Do as I say, not as I do — that sort of thing. Outsiders see me as the most put together, but I harbor a secret: I am just better at faking it. I make it through the day.
Sometimes the greatest threat to our stability is someone else’s instability. I think of my own brother: how, a few years ago, I lived within a four-hour radius of his rotating acts. It was too close, living in such proximity to what I feared might easily become me if I were to allow it. So I moved seven states away, free from the phone calls, the episodes, the it-wasn’t-my-fault anecdotes. That’s why I underlined and starred and pointed an arrow to a moment in Nelson’s memoir, when she writes what I’ve never been able to admit: “I miss my brother. I love my brother, but I can’t be near him. I pack my bags and keep my eyes on the ground, only glancing back.”
So it goes: when we write about someone else, we’re ultimately writing about ourselves. At one point Nelson admits that her father is only a representation of the “incompleteness” she feels, “[her] own wretchedness.” It’s this incompleteness that inspires her search for stability, for individuals who serve, albeit briefly, as surrogate families. In “She Feeds Them,” Nelson finds a surrogate family in a café run by a woman and her two sons. In “In New York,” the Italian couple upstairs treats her like a daughter. In “The Present,” the memory of a moment with her maternal grandfather sustains her. And in “The Dollhouse,” one of the most complex and powerful pieces in the book, her paternal grandmother helps her to understand the patterns and problems within her family.
But finally it’s Nick who offers the most stable presence in her life, at once comforting and encouraging.
For years now, I’ve been rummaging through the lives of drunks — Truman Capote, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, and Tennessee Williams — reading their letters, their diaries, the biographies, the confessions they gave over only in the most private of correspondence or through their characters. Their writing, the thin veil they kept between themselves and their characters, makes me feel less alone.
When I read their work, I imagine a stage with the curtains closed, the writer behind it, the characters out front acting the role the writer knows how to play so well. Here’s a character from a Williams story: “A man that drinks,” he says, “is two people, one grabbing the bottle, the other one fighting him off it, not one but two people fighting each other to get control of a bottle.” I am reminded of that photograph of Hemingway in the mirror, his fists poised for a fight against himself. And I can’t help but think of my own battles during the years I gripped the handle of the refrigerator door, willing myself not to pull the heavy bottle of Chardonnay from the bottom shelf and pour until I passed out.
In that sense, it’s the fiction writers and the playwrights who usually offer the more immediate portrayals of addiction, like Fitzgerald’s Charlie Wales, who tries to keep himself to one afternoon whiskey, or Williams’s Blanche DuBois, who insists she never touches alcohol after we’ve watched her, center stage, knock back more than a few. This is one of the reasons I appreciate Nelson’s memoir. She admits the ongoing — which any addict, active or recovering, understands — and she offers readers what Fitzgerald believed to be part of the beauty of all literature: “You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”
In If Only You People Could Follow Directions, Nelson extends a message to all of us who beat on, boats against the currents that roil within ourselves and those we love.
So, here’s to the big-bellied men in flannel [...] to the choked-up, spit-out [...] to the name givers and the frozen-pie makers [...] to the jokesters and the dream-crashers [...] to the housebuilders and the homewreckers.
And here’s to brothers, wherever they are.
Jill Talbot is the author of Loaded: Women and Addiction, and is the Elma Stuckey Writer-in-Residence in Creative Nonfiction at Columbia College, Chicago.