The beginning of the 21st century will always mark the point in time when our walls became invisible. “Thanks for sharing!” – the quintessential response to the Internet-enabled outpouring of stories of broken marriages, sexual fetishes, abuse, parenting travails – has been worn down, through use, to the abbreviation “TFS.” We can’t stop divulging, despite – or maybe because of – our unthinkably large potential audience.
The result is something of a confession-based cultural economy. Talk shows, reality shows, blog posts, memoirs – the market is glutted with admissions whose shock value has plummeted.
We have, as humans always have had, an appetite for the most salacious details, the most extreme lifestyles. (The title of the first of the memoir genre, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, published in 1782, indicates how little has changed.) The difference is that now, we can choose from an endless, all-you-can-eat buffet of shames and scandals. How, in this competitive environment, can any self-disrespecting writer get noticed?
A memoir can earn its readership in a couple of ways: An unexceptional life can be rendered in exceptional prose, or an exceptional event can be rendered in unexceptional prose. (The heavy hitters do both.) The ones that cut through the static, though, have the simplest appeal: David Carr, Christopher Shulgan, Elizabeth Wurtzel and Augusten Burroughs have written successful, unflattering portraits of themselves as addicts. Shocking confessions may not have artistic elegance, but they grab the reader by the gut. Addiction memoirs are especially riveting: They drag us through depravity, while their existence reassures us that we’re not spectators to a death, but instead are witnessing a life-affirming transformation.
Now, we can add to this collection Jowita Bydlowska’s Drunk Mom. The title says it all, and frankly, as titles go, it pulls rank.
It is, in many ways, a troubling read. Bydlowska, a disaffected artist and alcoholic-in-denial, got pregnant, stopped drinking just long enough to give birth and fell stunningly off the wagon. Now she’s got the bruises to prove it, and what lurid bruises they are.
Not a “functioning alcoholic,” Bydlowska is a sloppy, kamikaze drunk – but one with a baby in tow. She loves her son, but she cannot leave the house without giving into the temptation of drinking, and she cannot drink without doing it to excess – to the point of blacking out, often. She awakes one morning with the baby in her sole care and has no recollection of the previous night. The baby is in his crib. “Bottles of formula spill milk onto the mattress,” she sees. “He’s got enough formula in there to drown in. What a responsible mother I am.”
This is tragic, yes, but it’s also infuriating. The nature of addicts is they are both victim and perpetrator. When they do terrible things, how much are they to blame? Does the blame lie with their habit? Where do you draw the line between the two, or do you? Bydlowska’s descriptions of the feeling of addiction, of her all-consuming need to drink, make you understand that alcoholism is a mean and unrelenting master to which your body and mind are servants.
But, whether sober or drunk, she does so very many crappy things – lies to her sister and boyfriend repeatedly, hooks up with a stranger while in a seemingly monogamous relationship, and passes out with her kid in her care more than once – that my pity is swiftly depleted and replaced by a kind of fascinated horror.
I was riveted by what I was reading, unable to stop flipping the pages, and unsure exactly why. Everything was so miserable – perhaps this was exactly why. I was cast as a voyeur, and found myself uncomfortably comfortable with that role.
Part of what kept me reading was to see if Bydlowska would ever solve the mystery of why she allowed herself to look so ugly, if indeed she was even aware of appearing that way. Would we discover at the end that she disowned this terrible person she used to be? Would her revelation lead to an unforeseen, amazing insight? Was it all just a cautionary tale?
Drunk Mom often seems driven by a masochistic impulse. How else to explain the author’s nasty descriptions of the people who try to help her – who run support groups or attend them? One guy looks like “a middle-aged woman,” with a “strangely lumpy body and fat ass.” A counsellor has “eyelashless eyes, the face of a stunned bird.” Her roommate in rehab is rendered as nothing more than hyperactive form of entertainment. Perhaps Bydlowska’s intimacy with alcohol takes the place of friendship, or perhaps she has always had trouble making connections. Either way, the end result is that she often sounds as if she is daring the reader to hate her. Which may indeed be what she thinks she deserves.
In many addiction memoirs, the subject presents herself as troubled but basically likeable, the better part of her buried under her addiction, only to surface at the end of the book – her redemption the payoff for the reader. Usually there’s a revelation about some terrible thing in her past that is puked up and examined in the light and then buried. Evil vanquished, order restored, etc. Bydlowska seems to deliberately shun this narrative; she is vehemently unsentimental.
It feels like there should be something laudable about this subversion, and in principle, yes. Particularly for women, who, for a long time, were never meant to show ugliness of any kind, physical or otherwise – while men drank and swore and slept around and gambled and otherwise lightly wore the label of “rogue.”
The problem is, Drunk Mom isn’t so much about freeing oneself from societal shackles as it is a chronicle of sometimes frightening neglect and broken trust. The book, which in the dedication, is “not ‘to’ or ‘for’ [her son] Hugo, but because I’m sorry, Hugo,” puts Bydlowska in the role of penitent. She both confesses and then pillories herself, explicitly cataloguing her sins for as large an audience as possible.
To simply call her “brave,” an oft-employed adjective for confessional writers, is to only tell half the story. Brave to put a new face on alcoholic motherhood, yes. But how brave the act seems will also be tied up with a given reader’s life experience; anyone who has ever had to clean up other people’s messes on any regular basis will find it hard to refrain from a harsher judgment.
Still, Bydlowska, unlike many confessional writers, doesn’t seem to need the reader to find her likeable or relatable. It’s both refreshing and challenging. At the same time, in a culture whose narcissistic impulses are at an all-time high, it’s hard not to see this as an inversion of narcissism that nonetheless assures all eyes are on her: I am a mother unlike any other; I am the most extreme mother; I am the worst person in this room, the worst person on this bookshelf.
In the days before she goes to rehab, Bydlowska spends hours watching the TV program Intervention and drinking. She has a bottomless appetite for the show, which she watches telling herself she is not the meth addict, the coke addict with collapsed veins. Eventually, she concludes, “This is it about addiction: You can film it and talk and write about it, but there’s no way to capture it. It’s a black hole.” But it can be made into entertainment, which we can use to fill the hole while we wait for the world to go our way.
Lisan Jutras is the deputy editor of Globe Books.