Addiction Memoir, or Coming-of-Age Story?

Charting his troubled youth against the publication of notable addiction memoirs, Kenneth R. Rosen finds a map to adulthood

At first, I was worried my book about my years as an “at-risk” teenager would be “an addiction memoir.” Too many had already been written, I’d long been told. The market was over-saturated. But perhaps the story I needed to tell was less about substance abuse, per se, and more about coming of age in turmoil. Maybe the story I had to tell was a bildungsroman. Perhaps it could be both. And maybe there wasn’t much of a distinction to be drawn. 

Addiction memoirs as we know them today arose sometime in the 1930s, when a cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous developed a program we now call the Twelve Steps. The fourth step of the twelve encourages each member to construct and write a “fearless moral inventory.” For any addict, but especially for a writer, this is an opportunity to evaluate the fall into addiction and better grasp the wrongs and hurt inflicted by them onto others. It is also something we do in youth with little prompting. See: journal and diary writing, an impromptu assessment of ourselves as teens.  

If we define addiction writing as the intimate personal evaluation and inventory of struggles with any form of dependency, a close examination of a collection of addiction memoirs shows that many are nothing more than stories of adolescence in despair. In searching for a way into, or out of, my own writing trouble, I surveyed the field of contemporary memoir, my shelves bowing under the weight of dozens of addiction memoirs, written by bulimics and nymphomaniacs, alcoholics and junkies, hopeful tales and horror stories that read like guides on how to wriggle oneself free. What seemed abundantly clear was the nature of all memoirs: the writer looks backward to reflect on a life they no longer live. But many addiction memoirs cover the strange time between youth and adulthood. I’d thought I was collecting addiction memoirs, but in fact, I found I’d collected a study of writing on a certain path to becoming an adult.  

It was impossible not to note an important shift in tone. Since the early ’90s, the approach to adolescent addiction and coming-of-age in memoir has shifted drastically. Where once they were apologetic, more recently writers have cast themselves not as plot-driving protagonists, but rather as vessels. They have broadened their internal searches, making them external and adding greater context and reason, exploring impact and unfolding their lives as though in surgery, and readers who are along for the journey take notes from the overhead observation deck. In the end, and for all, addiction is a battle fought across many theaters, in different forms and at various stages of life, arguably more so in youth than during any other time. But one thing remains constant: it is never fought alone.  

I chronicled my childhood and adolescence against these books, and I found that the narrators in the examples I’ve chosen to include here were the product of homegrown worthlessness, with a predilection for despair and chronic addictive personalities. But what tied them together most was the quest to surmount the odd probation of youth, through which we all must endure.  


Susanna KaysenGirl, Interrupted 

At three years old, I do not yet understand my own narrative or that narratives are what we make of them. Straight and narrow, wide and twisty. Rabbit trails for our thoughts, cloudless skies for our dreams. In this year, Susanna Kaysen takes a somewhat humorous approach to her almost two-year stay as a teenager at McLean Hospital. Girl, Interrupted combines vignettes of her time spent in the psych ward, interstitials of heartfelt exposition, and a thorough and present narrative line from admittance to release: hallmarks of self-exploration in vivid and chilling detail. There are lists. Sometimes documents. What is so striking is to see Kaysen inventory her life before her stay in psychiatric care and then reach blunt conclusions about youth’s effect even on adults, as in this section about the doctor who arranged to have Kaysen committed:  

Take it from his point of view. It was 1967. Even in lives like his, professional lives lived out in the suburbs behind shrubbery, there was a strange undertow, a tug from the other world—the drifting, drugged-out, no-last-name youth universe—that knocked people off balance. 


Elizabeth WurtzelProzac Nation 

I turn four years old in autumn, seven months after Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Memoirs are entering their heyday. They are cautious, but rambling—conveyor belts for emotional baggage. This year, Prozac Nation is released and reviewed in The New York Times Book Review by Michiko Kakutani, who calls Elisabeth Wurtzel’s memoir—“by turns wrenching and comical, self-indulgent and self-aware”—a “bookend of sorts to Girl, Interrupted.” Wurtzel wants to craft what she calls a “case study on the changing nature of the American family in the late 20th century.” Instead, her book reads as a prolix diary, the outlet of many teens, which I believe roots itself in a natural distillation of feelings rather than a literary analysis. In Girl, Interrupted, we see Kaysen the writer; here we see Wurtzel the young girl, seemingly unfiltered.  

And half of me thought, I’ve really fucked up this time, and the other half was a little angry at my mother for going through all this trouble for me when I hadn’t asked her to and yet again putting me in a position where I could only be the ungrateful child.  


Mary Karr, The Liars’ Club 

What is form? What is tonal inflection? If a writer of memoir does away with both, what is left? While I stumble into pre-K, Karr is my parents’ age when her lyrical memoir, reaching back into early childhood and dredging the seabed of her youth, is released. For many reasons, this is a beloved and precious book. Although, at times, a bit overwrought, Karr’s memoir deftly establishes a girlhood bending toward disaster. Delivered in poetic narrative form, her tragic wallflower repose begins shedding light on addiction, its effects reaching beyond the addict herself. What is form when you can’t break free, but must? 

Still, no matter how bland a gaze you try to put on remembering an ugly illness, to protect yourself from the sheer tedium of it, if you spend any time at all speaking about it to some nodding psychiatrist, you will eventually stumble into a deep silence. . . . Those are only rumors of suffering. Real suffering has a face and a smell. It lasts in its most intense form no matter what you drape over it. And it knows your name.  

1996 and 1998  

Caroline Knapp, Drinking: A Love Story 

Marya HornbacherWasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia 

These are awkward years, during which addiction memoirs come into their own. Acceptance happens here; accountability is taken. Memoirs become both precious   and clinical. Unlike Girl, Interrupted, these are written with the self-deprecation and confessional tones of responses to an AA handbook questionnaire—straightforward, seemingly unrevised, and raw. Both Drinking and Wasted feel like confessionals, apologies to parents and close family. A desperation can be heard, a cry for help, an appeal to some higher power. Both also honestly address the disease of alcoholism and eating disorders, a sign of mature awareness, a way to explain why the authors’ adolescent minds developed as they did. Knapp writes:  

The knowledge that some people can have enough while you never can is the single most compelling piece of evidence for a drinker to suggest that alcoholism is, in fact, a disease, that it has powerful physiological roots, that the alcoholic’s body simply responds differently to liquor than a nonalcoholic’s.  


J. R. MoehringerThe Tender Bar 

In the wake of terrorist attacks, the nation falls into an economic recession. At age thirteen, I smoke a Camel Turkish Royal, inspiring a decade-long pack-a-day habit. The nation’s anxiety informs the bestsellers of both J. R. Moehringer and James Frey. (The former, of course, outlasts the latter.) Moehringer strips his addiction in The Tender Bar to leave no room for fawning. He drinks, then drinks too much, then he stops—there is no AA. It is something he once did and now does not. Sentimentality has no place here: a boy, recognizing his accountability, taking strides to accept responsibility, becomes a man.  

Regardless of the score, they never stopped laughing, they couldn’t stop laughing, and the fans in the stands couldn’t either. I laughed harder than anyone, though I didn’t get the joke. I laughed at the sound of the men’s laughter, and at their comic timing, as fluid and quicksilver as their turning of a double play. 

“Why do those men act so silly?” I asked my mother. 

“They’re just—happy.” 

“About what”’ 

She looked at the men, thinking. 

“Beer, sweetheart. They’re happy about beer.”  


David Carr, The Night of the Gun 

If all’s been said, where can we go? Now eighteen, I am working and writing and drinking a pint of whiskey each day. Time eludes me—I think too much, worried about myself and whether what I thought was just a childhood of struggles has followed me into early adulthood. Many things happen, or don’t. Of course, what I end up remembering from this time isn’t exactly what happened—the premise of Carr’s self-reported memoir. In interviews with friends and family, Carr traces his fall from grace, which begins early and follows him for much of his adult life. His approach reveals what happens when addiction overtakes adolescence and carries someone into adulthood. The reporter is hailed as brave because surviving hell is one thing, but no one should have to go back to get Satan on the record. 

By my recollection, when the twins went into temporary foster care, I handed them to some faceless county bureaucrat. Besieged by unseen forces within, the father, with the gentle encouragement of his parents, admits that he is worthless and that strangers must step unto the breach and pry the children from his hands. Never happened, at least not that way.  

When I called Pat and Zelda, Erin and Meagan’s temporary foster parents, in the summer of 2007, they explained there was no faceless bureaucrat, that my mother and I had dropped them off just before I went to Eden House. They loved those babies from the minute they saw them. Their father? Not so much.  


Marc Lewis, Memoirs of an Addicted Brain 

I turn twenty-two this year. I move and drink between Georgia, New York, and Alaska. Marc Lewis, a neuroscientist, releases Memoirs of an Addicted Brain, an approach to viewing ravaging struggles from the inside—perhaps, as in the work of Oliver Sacks, even a case study disguised as creative nonfiction. Youth is no longer in revolt. For anyone still grappling with addiction into adulthood, the child is hardly considered. That boy or girl has long since been trounced. Youth is no longer the culprit:  

Dopamine surges: I have to get there. Dopamine gushes along overextended axons, fattened gutters of chemical enhancement, diverging from the VTA to its three main targets: the ventral striatum, where behaviour is charged, focused, and released; the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), where it infuses cells devoted to the value of this drug; and the amygdala, whose synapses provide a meeting place for the two most important components of associative memory, imagery and emotion. Thanks to the neural reconstruction brought on by addiction, the power of dopamine, the power to convert sensation and memory to value and thrust, is now joined by glutamate, released from the OFC, a messenger of meaning. Those orbitofrontal neurons know how good that opium is going to feel.  

2015—and beyond 

Plotlines unfold like origami. Sometimes, there are no happy endings. This year, I finished a draft of my memoir and sat down to write this essay. I see more addiction stories that shed the three-act fairy-tale form, that are instead blunt depictions of harrowing sorrow. They don’t always end in redemption. Sometimes, they are stories of atypical addiction. Sometimes, they are tweets or blog posts, given the space they need and nothing more. Perhaps they are more common. Perhaps, over the last quarter-century, we’ve become less afraid to admit we are addicted and to what. Prescription pills, pornography, video games, our mobile devices. Everything has allure; everything demands mediation. Yet writers have begun again to show a semblance of self-awareness and are furnished with odes to youth. By acknowledging that something went wrong way back when, writers of today’s addiction stories cater to adolescents the same way they cater to adults: through retrospection. I think of long-form stories—Kevin Heldman’s “My Rehab: Coming of Age in Purgatory”; Ruben Castaneda’s “I Was a Washington Post Reporter. And a Crack Addict”; Kenny Porpora’s “My Relationship Was a Different Kind of Addiction”; or Lisa Whittemore’s essay titled (in an echo of Knapp’s memoir) “Heroin: A Love Story.” 

My parents divorced when I was nine. In yellowed wedding photos a telltale bump could be discerned beneath the cream colored and beaded wedding gown. They were nineteen and twenty-one when I was born, so the relationship was never mature. And often violent. They were children raising a child.  

Blame-shifting aside, it’s hard to shed what someone may inherit from his or her surroundings and youth. 

As this issue goes to print, I’m still working on the book—it comes and goes, and at times makes sense. Other times, it seems completely incoherent, as though I’m writing about someone I’ve never met. Thing is: for readers and writers, adolescent addiction memoirs tend to feel both subtly relatable and entirely otherworldly. This is a sign of growth, or so I would like to posit here. To feel a connection to something you no longer are or ever were means inherently that you’ve grown. To feel distance from that same subject means, whether you’ve been there or not, it is not a place you’d ever like to be. 

The reams of adolescent and boyhood and youth-in-revolt memoirs continue accumulating on my shelves. I’m not sure why. Because I found my way out of adolescence as I’ve defined it here, or at the very least as I experienced those salad days, this does not mean that today I am somewhere more fortunate or that I’ve become more wise, a product of the turmoil I lived through during those teenaged years. Not at all. And I would hope not. Life is a draft I’ll never find complete, my story just one of many revisions. 

About the Author

Kenneth R. Rosen

Kenneth R. Rosen works and writes for the New York Times. Find him at and on Twitter @kenneth_rosen. 

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