Recovery memoirs have become a big part of our culture, both literary and televisual.
The controversy around James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, and the popularity of reality-TV shows like HBO’s Addiction and A&E’s Intervention, have fed into the idea that the road back from substance abuse should be lined with spectators.
Ben Gwin knows a little about recovery himself. As a young adult, he had an alcohol problem. He quit drinking at 24. That was 13 years ago, but the recovery experience informs the Pittsburgh-based writer’s debut novel, Clean Time: The True Story of Ronald Reagan Middleton. It’s a satire in which the twentysomething protagonist, Middleton, goes to jail, and ends up on a reality-TV show in which contestants compete to stay in rehab.
The book pokes fun at reality TV as well as recovery culture and the pharmaceutical industry. Most of it is narrated (not always reliably) by Middleton himself, but in a postmodern touch, the book incorporates scripts for the TV show, titled Clean Time, and even commentary by a scholar who is editing Middleton’s notes.
“There are a lot of really good addiction memoirs,” said Gwin. But he was especially intrigued by A Million Little Pieces, which turned out to be heavily fictionalized. And to create the reality-TV aspect, he “combined Survivor and American Gladiators.”
The postmodern influence, he said, came by way of touchstone novels like Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. “I wanted to incorporate those ideas and different modes of storytelling because I thought it sort of reflects the different views and the different perspectives of the different characters,” he added. “And I think it also kind of reflects the difficulties of trying to get clean, the sort of scattered mosaic of the thoughts, sort of coming and going, and how difficult that can be.”
Gwin grew up in New Jersey, and studied at the University of Pittsburgh, then attended graduate school at Chatham University. He says that in early drafts of Clean Time, his anti-hero Middleton was a more “farcical” character, and he credits his editor at Burrow Press with suggesting he make his protagonist more empathetic.
His main goal with Clean Time, Gwin said, is to send up how the general public views addiction memoirs and other artifacts of recovery culture.
“That sort of like, rubbernecking, like staring-at-a-traffic-accident kind of idea,” he said. “Like, ‘Look at these people with their drug problems,’ and that sort of thing.”
Empathy for addicts should be at the heart of how we deal with addiction, he said.
“Within the recovery community, I think different ways of getting clean and getting help need to be sort of accepted, because I think what could work well for one person doesn't necessarily work for someone else, as far as things like Suboxone or methadone or whatever,” said Gwin. “You know there's a lot of different ways that people can quit drugs, and I think the more open we are the better.”