This is not just an interview. This is not just about what Jowita Bydlowska said as she sat in the boardroom of her publisher in downtown Toronto. It is about her partner, author and journalist Russell Smith, who wasn’t there. It is about their child, Hugo. And it is about her shame, huge and palpable, which makes her tear up at one point, and it is about her steely defiance in the face of that shame.
She doesn’t want it to be about anything more than the words, the sentences, the writing, all of which are skillful, spare, lovely. But it is. Her memoir, Drunk Mom, is a terrifying journey about her relapse into alcohol abuse after her son was born. She had been sober for three and a half years. She started drinking again before he was born, then stopped during the pregnancy. To celebrate his birth, she had a glass of wine, and her addiction came back, full-grown and needy, like a long-lost, jealous child bent on taking her away from the innocent one, asleep in his crib.
This is a memoir that pushes at boundaries – what is private, what should perhaps be kept private, what we need to know, what we don’t, what is insightful or just exhibitionism. It is already one of the most talked about books of the season. Bydlowska is very honest in her writing. Let me be as well then. There’s self-harm in choosing to publish this memoir. It’s just like alcoholism: the recklessness of it; the abandonment of responsibility to her partner, to their relationship, to her child, now almost 4, and also, most painfully, to herself. And because of that, I feel both protective of her and annoyed by her – which is not what an interviewer is supposed to feel. If someone is being thrown to the wolves – even if someone is throwing herself to the wolves – it is not my job to protect them. I am a wolf, sometimes (admittedly) in sheep’s clothing, but blood is blood, and the media, well, unfortunately that can often feel like the sport.
She writes about Googling to find out how long she has to wait before the alcohol she has consumed won’t affect her breast milk. She describes a scene in Montreal, where after a night of drinking, she wakes up in her hotel room, unsure how she got there. Her bra is on, soaked with leaking breast milk. But no panties. She can’t remember anything.
Her explanation about motherhood being a trigger for her alcoholism feels too convenient a marketing ploy for a culture obsessed with parenthood. She thinks perhaps she was overwhelmed by the love it entails. “When Hugo was born, I felt godly. I felt I was the universe. And I don’t know if I used alcohol to keep on that level.”
Please. That may be poetic and true for her, but it does not make this a memoir about motherhood anxiety or a cautionary tale about what happens when Mommy needs a drink too many. It makes it a story about an alcoholic who happened to have a child.
I wonder what a therapist might have advised about her desire to write this memoir. She has written for Salon.com about being diagnosed with bipolar disorder after she recovered (the second time) from alcoholism. “I don’t have a therapist,” she says. “I like to confront my fears … I’m not saying I’m in any way brave. What I’m saying is ‘I’m owning this’ … This is a story about 11 months of my life. I’m someone completely different from that time. The story is Drunk Mom. I’m not ‘Drunk Mom.’ ”
But that Montreal scene, I say, cringing.
“These shameful stories are part of it. I’m not saying that I’m flaunting all my disasters. But I feel that making it really sanitized wouldn’t really do it justice.” Her book has a feminist angle, she says. “We live in this world where women have to be perfect. We have to look good and be a certain way … With men, there’s this macho thing to it, the romantic drunk. With women, it’s, ‘She’s a crazy girl. She’s a lush.’ ”
I nod at her, watching her, her expression as she grimaces with nervousness, her delicate, thin hands with their deep-rose nails, fidgeting with her long necklaces. She wears a cream, conservative blouse; her long, dark hair in a top knot, scraped back off her pretty, angular face. Her top half makes her seem like a librarian; her bottom half, a sexy 35-year-old woman in a leather skirt, nude fishnet stockings, black heels. It’s as if she is two parts – timid yet bold; studious but outré, too, proud of her candour, of her attraction to darkness. And I can tell that her defiance carries with it an uncharitable judgment of those she might consider too bourgeois to understand the complex reality of her particular human condition.
Did Smith, who is 15 years her senior, read the manuscript? They have been together for 11 years. They met at a launch party for one of his books. In her memoir, she writes about him: “Maybe he can go back to being a partying middle-aged bachelor, which is what he was when I met him. … Maybe he can find another stupid, naive student like me … and make her a baby and install her in this house to replace me.”
“Yes,” she says.
Did he ask for anything to be taken out? She writes about how he cheated on her with a “determined cougar.” She writes about how he treated her when she was passed out or out of control emotionally. She shouts at him. He shouts at her. He threatens to call family lawyers. Their domestic scene often reads like a social worker’s report.
“No. We are very respectful of each other’s writing. I don’t know if that’s unusual or if it is admirable or not.” Smith, who writes a column for The Globe, has also written about their relationship. In a piece for Toronto Life about his retinal detachment, he does not portray her favourably.
In the pursuit of the literary life, everything is material, one assumes. Just like F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. But she doesn’t want to discuss her relationship. “I find it very gossipy,” she says of people’s interest. But her book invites it, I point out bluntly. She’ll have to answer such questions. Practice on me, I say.
“I don’t know,” she stutters. “I don’t think it’s fair for me to comment on him or anything. What’s in the book is in the book, and I’m not going to go beyond that.”
Okay, I say, softening. I lob an easy one: Will she have more children? “What a question,” she retorts sharply.
My compassion and annoyance are two sides of a coin. I ask if she regrets having missed the first year of her son’s life. “I have a hard time looking at pictures of that time,” she confesses, tearing up suddenly.
Why does she feel compelled to write such excruciatingly personal stories? “I just find it interesting,” she replies evenhandedly. She tells me she’s proud of her book, and we look at each other, offering the polite smiles that often come with the professional game of intimacy that an interview is. She doesn’t know what she’s in for with this book I think. “For so long it was just a book I was working on, and now suddenly it’s a memoir, and it has me in it. … That’s the scary part,” she admits. Or maybe she does. Maybe she’s toying with her own two-sided coin – that of confidence and vulnerability – using herself as some kind of experiment in human emotion.
Will she write more memoir? Her answer is immediate: “I’m moving into fiction, 100 per cent if I can help it.” I look at her again, pausing in the silence, and wish her well.