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Author’s Debut is a Tough, Lyrical Addiction Memoir

Posted Nov 14 2013 7:27pm

"If we don't change direction soon, we'll end up where we're going."
 –Prof. Irwin Corey

I’ve never made a secret of the fact that I don’t really like addiction memoirs—with notable literary exceptions, from Thomas de Quincey to William S. Burroughs, including worthy modern efforts from James Brown, Jerry Stahl, Sacha Z. Scoblic, and others. Writing well about addiction is a rare gift, and newcomer Jessica Hendry Nelson, in If Only You People Could Follow Directions: A Memoir , comes at the problem elliptically, in some cases deliberately pruned of strong emotion. This works in her favor, as she eschews over-the-top bravado for the facts of life. The book is, heartbreakingly, a book about family—about the power of substance abuse, self-destruction, grief, and remorse to tear away at every connection human beings share.
Childhood: We found his battered truck in a Shop Rite parking lot, the smashed headlights still pulsing lazily into the mist like two dying fireflies. The parking lot was empty except for the truck, a few wayward shopping carts, and the streetlight that had blocked my father’s passage. I wasn’t yet able to distinguish my waking life from my dream life, and so it all felt like fantastic fun.
Childhood’s End:  There were a couple sober years, when Eric and I were in early elementary school. Since then, he’s had at least two DUIs a year, and cycles from jail to rehab to halfway house and back again. Occasionally, he’ll manage a few sober months in a halfway house and occasionally he’ll stay with his mother in anticipation of getting his own place. During those months, there is lots of talk of the future, of our own bedrooms and weekends spent watching movies and skiing at the Pocono Mountains, but it never happens.
The father: Before talk therapy. Before asbestos removal jobs and wrecked cars. Nights so hot and black they burned like a solar eclipse through his insides. Before little league games and parent-teacher conferences. Before he fucked the three-hundred pound housewife next door for a couple of Klonopin. Before she killed herself with the rest.
The author is young, but as my friend James Brown, who wrote the powerful addiction memoir, This River , has put it: “Jessica Hendry Nelson knows the power of clean, sparse prose, and her keen eye for the small, most telling details of character show an insight into the human psyche well beyond her years. Her story is oftentimes a dark one, but Nelson holds strong, knowing that saving those we love may first begin, and end, with saving ourselves. A remarkable debut by a wonderfully talented writer.”
The brother: The first offense is theft, though many others will follow—a wildly colorful rap sheet—but the disease that makes him do such things is just an infant now, just an infant throwing its peas.
The mother: She is sad because Eric has taken to snorting Oxycontin in her bathroom, still lying and stealing and denying in that same fucking straight-faced way as the husband once did, until she feels she’s gone completely nuts. I know how she feels, and yet I am unable to change it.
The family: We are practiced in the art of pretend. We are able to convince ourselves that drinking and smoking are incidental, and not part of the fabric of our family, of the shared anxieties that causes us, each to varying degrees, to feel so dissatisfied with our own brain chemistry. We are trying to return to a place of innocence, to the time before, when Mother could still keep us safe. We keep trying, but morning light is unforgiving.
The book reads like the product of an older, more experienced writer. It's impressive, if somewhat digressive, but Nelson is undeniably talented, working in a terse, slightly distanced style, as if the truth of it all required some detachment for her own sake. Impressionistic, episodic, the book is composed of scenes weaving in and out of chronological time. We don’t get it all put together until the end, but when we do, we see an unbroken spirit standing in front of a long and dismal line of hospitals, police stations, institutions, and halfway houses.
The treatments: My mother picks Eric up from the halfway house in North- east Philly where he’s been staying. It is ten a.m. The halfway house is the right side of a narrow duplex. Houses brick and broken. Next to the halfway house is the crack house. Next to the crack house is the whorehouse. Next to the whorehouse is a family with two adorable little girls.
The cycle: That’s the disease talking, they say, and I try to believe that too. For years, I believed, but all I see, finally, is my brother’s hard familiar face and the illness that my mother continues to try and kiss away with love and money and blunt maternal strength until she, we, are all as sick as Eric—the dead father’s legacy, this disease.....
We bring the bottle. We have learned to just bring the bottle.....
Give it up, let it go, take it back, take control. Say yes. Say no. Say no, no, no. Stick to the script. Step One through Twelve. One through Twelve. Keep coming back. It works if you work it. If only you people could follow directions.
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