Inside Olivia Laing’s childhood home, alcoholism was a “slow contaminating flood that seeped under doors and around window seams.” Laing remembers the barometric pressure changes and the ensuing blow-ups that drove all but the co-dependent to take cover whenever her mother’s partner made “the switch.”
Though these terrifying episodes were lodged in Laing’s psyche, they were not talked about. And so it was with great surprise when, at age 17, the Englishwoman discovered Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” The simmering tensions, buried secrets, bottled emotions, and easy-to-light fuses that define the play’s family dynamics were all too familiar to Laing. But the idea that someone – anyone – could articulate her experience so accurately came as a taboo-busting relief to her. And as she matured, she began to realize that those writers who most vividly portrayed alcoholism were themselves alcoholic.
“From then on, I was fascinated by what writers had to say about alcoholism,” she said during an interview last week. “After all it’s they who, by their very nature, describe the affliction best.”
Over time, Laing added other literary legends to her list: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Cheever, John Berryman and Raymond Carver. And in the spring of 2011, she made a cross-country trek across America to sleep where they slept (or tried to), swim where they swam, and occasionally have one drink where they would drink to oblivion.
‘The Trip to Echo Spring’
Her odyssey – part memoir, part travelogue, part literary history and cultural anthropology – is recounted in “The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking” (Picador). We spoke by phone just as Laing was beginning a U.S. book tour that, for the first time, was to have brought her to Minnesota, the birthplace of Fitzgerald and longtime home of Berryman. But the tour, unfortunately, was canceled because of health reasons, her publicists said.
Laing bypassed the Twin Cities during her initial voyage, she said, because she was wary of “making pilgrimages to places where people commit suicide.” She was referring to the Pulitzer-Prize winning poet John Berryman, a longtime University of Minnesota professor who, after many attempts at getting sober, ended his life in 1972 by jumping off the Washington Avenue Bridge. Paradoxically (or maybe not) it is Berryman who calls forth Laing’s greatest compassion and deepest appreciation.
Waiting for the click
“The Trip to Echo Spring” takes its title from a line in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” the story of disintegrating plantation family in the Mississippi Delta. In this scene, Big Daddy is trying to confront his son, Brick, a sexually repressed failed football player who drinks until he feels “the click in my head that makes me feel peaceful.” Echo Spring bourbon is his “drug of no choice.”
BIG DADDY: Where you goin’?
BRICK: I’m takin’ a little short trip to Echo Spring.
BIG DADDY: To where?
BRICK: Liquor cabinet. …
All of Laing’s subjects spent their lives “waiting for the click.” Two of them (Cheever and Carver) found freedom in recovery. The others died early (Hemingway and Berryman by their own hand).
Why Americans, when there was no shortage of alcoholic British authors (male or female) from which to choose?
“The story of writing and drinking is really an American story, and the myth of the writer and drinker an American myth,” Laing said. One that “has to do with masculinity” and one that has been “intensely glamorized” – in part because of the beautiful ways in which the writers have written about drinking, she said, citing for example Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” with its lush party scenes, and Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast,” awash in warm rum, cold white wine, and distilled liqueurs.
Laing, a journalist and author in her mid-30s, is clear-eyed about the myth and the devastating consequences of the disease. She notes that, in addition to family histories of alcoholism, her subjects had much in common, including early childhood trauma and hellish bouts of anxiety, depression, and insomnia – all of which they tried to medicate with alcohol, which, because of its effects on the brain, only compounded the issues.
Disease of isolation
The artistic life made recovery especially elusive, Laing said. “You work in isolation for long periods of time, you are exposed to all kinds of criticism, you are under intense pressure – all of those things,” she said.
Also crippling was the authors’ isolating belief in their own uniqueness. “It’s very hard for them to level, and just say, ‘I’m like these other guys in the room. I’m a drunk.’ That really is hard – especially if someone is artistic and extraordinary.”
In his unfinished novel, “Recovery,” Berryman created a loosely fictionalized protagonist who is much-loved and popular among his fellow travelers at treatment centers and recovery circles. But the truth for Berryman, who sought treatment at Hazelden and St. Mary’s (among many other places), was quite the opposite. Laing quotes this observation from a woman who had been in group therapy with Berryman (taken from John Haffenden’s biography):
When he tried to relate to other people, he did make friends, but he couldn’t ever be wholehearted about belonging with the rest of us; he was constantly retreating into his uniqueness, but he really thought it was all he had that made him worth anything. So he stayed shut out, and he couldn’t make it alone.
It was, Laing said, “one of the saddest statements I have ever read. The ability [for Berryman] to humble himself did not come naturally. And part of that is because his whole sense of self was built on such shaky ground – his father killed himself when he was a very young boy, he was sent away to boarding school, he had all these experiences of separation and loss. And it left him with a profoundly damaged psychological structure.”
Of all her six authors’ biographies, Berryman’s was the most difficult, Laing said. “The whole story is incredibly distressing and moving because he tried very, very hard to get sober.”
At times, she said, she had to abandon the details of her subjects’ personal lives and return to their writing. “Coming back to their work was always a relief,” she said. “I could encounter their better selves.”
Breaking the silence
It’s tricky territory to examine art through the lens of personal biography, and Laing’s book has been criticized for its “pop psychology,” “pseudoscience” and “narcissism.” One critic said he prefers his “literary criticism neat.” But those with the disease and any who love them might find themselves appreciated in a new way in these pages.
“What I wanted to discover was how each of these men – and along the way, some of the many others who’d suffered from the disease – experienced and thought about their addiction,” she writes in the book. “If anything, it was an expression of my faith in literature, and its power to map the more difficult regions of human experience and knowledge.”
The process helped heal her own family, she said, allowing her mother and sister to finally talk about what happened in their family.
“It’s made a huge difference, because this whole period in which my mother’s partner was drinking … was really awful. Afterwards, as is common in many alcoholic families, we didn’t talk about it. We just kind of buried it in silence. So when I came to write this book and ran it by my family, they were wary but positive. As we started having conversations … I think that was a very healing process. And sometimes quite painful. But I think it has been good for all of us. I’m so impressed that my sister and mother would allow me to write about something that was so personal and private. I really hope it helps others who either have [the disease] or been damaged by somebody’s drinking.
“The silence around alcoholism is really one of the most toxic things about it.”