Gay author Bill Clegg recalls his darkest days in his book ‘Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man’
Gregg Shapiro | Contributing Writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Bill Clegg, a young, gay and attractive New York literary agent with a boyfriend in the movie industry, details his struggle with the crack cocaine addiction that nearly killed him in the memoir Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man. Telling his story in unflinching detail, Clegg moves back and forth in the book from his childhood and the complicated relationship with his family to his exciting life in New York with partner “Noah,” with the momentum of a runaway train. Clegg discussed his work shortly before the publication of the book.
Dallas Voice: Living as we do in a post-James Frey memoir world, was that something you were concerned about when writing Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man?
Bill Clegg: Not at all. I didn’t think about James Frey’s book once (laughs) when I was writing this book. Part of that is that when I first started writing it, I wasn’t necessarily thinking of it as a book. It was initially a transcription of memories and it began while I was in rehab. When I arrived in rehab after that two-month period which resulted in a suicide attempt, I surfaced from that period sort of like somebody surfaces from a dream. So my memories—what I said, what I saw, what I felt—I had this feeling that those would evaporate in time, that I wouldn’t have access to them later, so I started writing them down in as much detail as I could. Part of the urgency around that was that so much of the period was confused for me. I thought that if I wrote everything down, as much as I could, I’d be able to make sense of it later and be able to distinguish the truth from the delusion once I had more distance from that period. The writing of it, initially, was as far away from imagining it as a book as it could possibly be. That experience of transcribing memories went on for a couple of years. At the point of which it occurred to me, several years later, that there might be something book-shape, book-length there, the issue of James Frey or other addiction memoirs didn’t come up mainly because I hadn’t read those memoirs. It started as an incredibly personal and private thing. I never thought outside of the demands of the project itself.
Why did you decide to keep it in the memoir format as opposed to the liberties you might have been afforded in a fictional format?
Because when other addicts and alcoholics have been candid about their experiences with me it gives me courage to be more candid and more honest. Being honest about where my addiction took me, I feel less shame around it and I feel relief. If my being candid about my experience inspires anyone else to be honest and open about what’s going on with them and in that way lifts the shame and torment of that in any way, then it’s worth it. Also, when I went back through what I had written, the hardest thing to reoccupy was how desperately lonely the experience was. Even in the period that preceded those two months, when I was, on the surface, successful and living a crowded life, I was desperately lonely because I had this secret. Through the years preceding my crack up, I tried to manage my use. I tried to have only two drinks at night, to come home at 2 in the morning as opposed to 10 in the morning, and I failed every time. That struggle was a very lonely, isolated one. It was loaded with shame. And nobody else knew, aside from my boyfriend, that I was a crack addict. I was convinced that if anybody found out that I would be banished from the life that I occupied. The whole experience was incredibly lonely. I thought I was the only person who struggled in the way that I did. I thought I was the only person who had a job like I did and was a crack addict. It all felt terribly singular. So, if anybody recognizes themselves in my struggle and feels less lonely then they might be encouraged to step up and get help and be honest and not let it go where it went with me.
There is a sense that the book is more than just a memoir, that it is intended to be a tool to aid others.
That’s the reason it exists as a published document, to be useful. And I hope that it is.
The book has cinematic quality. If there was a movie, who would be right to play you in film?
Oh, God, I would never answer that question. Because to engage in a conversation about who would play me is also to engage in a conversation that glamorizes it. I would hope that the film would be respectful and with the same intent as the book. Shy of that I really don’t have an opinion about what it would be as a movie or not.
Being in the literary world, do you think it was inevitable that you would write a book, whether it was about this experience or something else?
No. I mean, there’s certainly a novel that I’ve been struggling with for over a decade, but I don’t think I’m going to torture the world by having it rear its head (laughs). What I would say about writing, and it’s what I do say to the writers that I work with, unless you have to do it, don’t do it. I think that should be the measure for all artistic endeavors. If you have to do it, do it. Otherwise, it’s not worth it. And I had to do this. It began in the earliest hours of my struggle to get sober and it never went away and it kept on returning as this urgent thing. At a certain point I stepped out of the way of it and let it happen. It was less of a choice to write it and absolutely a choice to make it public.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 3, 2010.