Two years ago, somewhat suddenly, Tom Sykes was not drunk and was very much out of work. The former nightlife reporter for the New York Post, younger brother to the gals-about-town named Plum and Alice and Lucy, approached an editor at Men’s Health and offered to write about anything other than getting sober.
Men’s Health asked for 10 story ideas; Mr. Sykes submitted them. His editor, Leigh Haber, said she’d rather have him write about getting sober.
“The piece came out and she really loved it,” said Mr. Sykes, now 32. “And she said, ‘Why don’t you do a book?’ And I said, ‘Uh, O.K.!’”
The publishing industry seemed to bottom out on shame and degradation when James Frey got caught faking his addiction memoir. Yet it is still thirsty. Mr. Sykes’ memoir, What Did I Do Last Night? A Drunkard’s Tale, comes out Oct. 3, public proof of his once-lush, now-dry days. William Cope Myers, a former journalist and the son of Bill Moyers, will publish his own recovery memoir Sept. 25. Earlier this year, another journalist, Jason Leopold, published his own tale of cocaine abuse and Alcoholics Anonymous. Mr. Leopold will be reading in Manhattan this week.
The alcoholics are anonymous no more.
Mr. Moyers works for the drug-treatment center Hazelden—which Mr. Frey attended—as vice president for external affairs. His book, telling of his own journey from disorder to membership in A.A., is advertised on Hazelden’s Web site.
Members of A.A. have been struggling with the significance of that second “A” for more than half a century. Within the group, members openly discuss their alcoholism; outside the group, they refrain from discussing their membership. That’s the theory.
But that theory assumes that there is a boundary between private life and public life. The confessional-memoir industry assumes the opposite.
Running with Scissors, the film adaptation of Augusten Burroughs’ best-selling first memoir, opens in October. The author himself makes an appearance at the end, his trademark baseball cap hiding whatever it is that it constantly hides; he shoves, awkwardly, the young actor who has played the young him.
Mr. Burroughs’ story—maybe even better on film than it was as a book—delves into his estranged mother’s mental illness and love life, and the screwed-up family that took him in. Including the 33-year-old adopted son who raped him as a teen. When it was time for a sequel, in 2003, Mr. Burroughs came out with Dry—another best-seller—about his addiction and recovery. After blowing through the secrets of a few families, well, what’s a little A.A.?
“What is anonymity anyhow?” wrote Bill Wilson, one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, in 1955. “Why do we think it is the greatest single protection that A.A. can ever have?”
Wilson was writing in the Grapevine, the A.A. newsletter, as a sort of fatherly send-off. Later that year, he and the other founders would formally turn the group, then 20 years old, over to its members, to become a self-guiding, self-policing institution. The article is printed in its entirety as Appendix B of the book Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age: A Brief History of A.A.
First, Wilson wrote, there had been a famous baseball player, who professed to the press that his rehabilitation on the field was due to A.A. Then came Wilson himself, speaking publicly, using his full name as a representative of A.A.
Then came others. “They said that anonymity before the general public was just for timid people; all the braver and bolder souls, like themselves, should stand right up before the flash bulbs and be counted,” Wilson wrote. “So more and more members broke their anonymity, all for the good of A.A.”
An A.A. member began a magazine devoted to Prohibition. A politician advertised himself as an A.A. member for votes. And more.
“The old files at A.A. Headquarters … tell us that we alcoholics are the biggest rationalizers in the world,” Wilson wrote, “and that, fortified with the excuse that we are doing great things for A.A., we can, through broken anonymity, resume our old and disastrous pursuit of personal power and prestige, public honors, and money—the same implacable urges that when frustrated once caused us to drink, the same forces that are today ripping the globe apart at its seams.”
Recovery is a process. Why not show people processing out in the open? On Sept. 16, the New York Times editorial page marked the death of former Texas Governor Ann Richards under the headline “Ann R., Alcoholic.” Richards, The Times said, had been a valuable role model through her openness about her alcoholism.
Three days later, a front-page story in The Times described the relationship between Representatives Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island and Jim Ramstad of Minnesota. The Midwestern Republican is publicly supporting Mr. Kennedy’s quest for sobriety. “If we could turn Congress into one big A.A. meeting … ,” Mr. Ramstad said to The Times.
The memoirists are open. They are even scrupulous, now. In the post–James Frey world, new authors spoke of having to document their lives, of meetings with publishers to discuss rigorous “standards of accuracy.”
But most of them have decades to go before reaching Richards’ ripe old age—decades of keeping away from the bottle.
Mr. Sykes has returned to the city in which he famously and fabulously bombed. Last Thursday, he went to a book party at Elaine’s—“some book for women, like a dog-training book,” he said—and then he went to dinner with his former co-worker at Page Six, Paula Froelich, on 14th Street. (What Did I Do Last Night? is Ms. Froelich’s fifth appearance in a book this year, for those keeping track.)
After that, it was a party for soon-to-be-former Page Sixer Chris Wilson, a celebration of his escape to Maxim. “But there’s no way I’d stay at a party like that for more than half an hour,” Mr. Sykes said, so he didn’t. You know: Diet Cokes.
Mr. Sykes is writing for British GQ and has a piece in a new Men’s Vogue, and will soon be going to market with a second nonfiction book. His baby is 5 months old, and now Mr. Sykes and his wife have sublet their New York apartment and are living in Ireland, in a granite cottage with chickens and a vegetable patch.
Mr. Sykes is predisposed to writing about himself, and, with good humor, said he is kind of an egomaniac. But why a book like this—one that, with time, or perhaps even with publication, he may come to regret? “Look at the best-seller list,” he said. “Everything’s a memoir!”
But it’s not just the money. Memoirists believe on some level that they are “doing great things,” good works.
Each recovery memoir takes much the same form. An innocent acquires a taste for hooch. Degradation ensues. The white memoirist, in general, ends up associating with people poorer and darker than himself. Then comes detox, revelation—and, now, more often than not, A.A.
“It is called a fellowship, but most people know it by its two-letter acronym,” wrote Kitty Dukakis in her new book, Shock, a first- and third-person treatise on electroconvulsive therapy, co-written with Larry Tye and published last week. Ms. Dukakis did not specify what those two letters might be.
Mr. Sykes is more coded than most. “The gruff guy told me that I needed to get to a ‘meeting,’” he wrote. “The seven or so other self-professed alcoholics in the room kept falling asleep—but they got excited when I introduced myself. ‘Hi. I’m Tom. I guess I’m an alcoholic. And this is my first meeting ever.’”
Others are more explicit.
“Over the next several days,” wrote Jayson Blair in 2004, in Burning Down My Masters’ House, “I went to therapy, met with psychiatrists and attended the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings I had gotten out of the habit of visiting.”
Mr. Blair and Mr. Sykes probably only just missed crossing paths. The infamous bar Siberia appears in both of their books.
“And then the plain, almost monastic process of waking up, taking a shower, going to an A.A. meeting and then doing this again and again, day after day until an amount of time had passed and it became not a struggle, but a routine,” wrote Mr. Burroughs in Dry.
“I attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings regularly,” wrote Mr. Leopold in News Junkie.
“I went to AA hoping to make people feel sorry for me and admire me for my inner strength, my strong values, and my devotion to my family,” wrote Mr. Moyers in Broken.
Mr. Moyers would like to represent. He writes as a person, an A.A. member or a lobbyist, sometimes more than one role at a time. His memoir’s epilogue declares his intentions regarding the war on drugs, while touching on prevention programs in elementary schools, on health insurance and drug courts and, of course, on the merits of the act so frequently called “speaking out.” “Like this memoir, my public advocacy is a window into my self,” he wrote. Mr. Moyers did not respond to an e-mail, nor to a phone message left at Hazelden.
“It was a tricky thing, and I know in my heart of hearts I haven’t lived up 100 percent to the tradition of anonymity in its fullest sense,” Mr. Sykes said. “But can I sleep at night? Yeah, I can.”
Jayson Blair e-mailed in on Sept. 18. “After I was quoted,” he wrote, “in the New York Post about talking at an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting at Bellevue—which I feel comfortable mentioning since it’s on the public record—I received a letter in the mail from a volunteer in A.A.’s New York office admonishing me and saying I should not publicly disclose my affiliation with A.A. The letter was way over the top, because A.A. is not a hierarchical nanny organization and allows people to talk about their alcoholism, but the one thing that was brought home to me was what a sensitive situation I am when it comes to advocacy related to alcoholism and mental illness. Because many see me in a negative light, I have to ask myself whether I would ultimately reflect poorly on alcoholics and the mentally ill. I concluded that I am not all that bad, I’ve got an opportunity to help people and that there is no way for me to make everyone happy.”
Augusten Burroughs did not respond to an e-mail; the Dart Group, his publicists, said he was unavailable to talk.
“I definitely have received scorn from people in A.A.,” said Mr. Leopold, an independent journalist, 36, and sober now for eight years. “There were some people who were just pissed off. But I had to do it because it was part of my life story.”
He also said that people had thanked him for letting them know A.A. wasn’t just a scary thing, or a cult.
“I’m not making money off my book,” Mr. Leopold said. “It’s not selling like A Million Little Pieces, or Augusten Burroughs.”
There was the switch of a cigarette lighter over the phone. He was in Los Angeles.
Mr. Leopold had recently been in Minneapolis. While he was there, he saw a copy of The Rake, a local magazine. It had a story called, funnily enough, “News Junkie,” about New York Times reporter David Carr’s own forthcoming addiction memoir. In October 2002, Mr. Carr wrote a story in The Times about the removal of a story by Mr. Leopold from Salon, a very unhappy experience for Mr. Leopold. (That, and the interview experience with Mr. Carr, are recounted in Mr. Leopold’s book. Mr. Carr also appears in Mr. Blair’s book.)
“It’s very weird,” Mr. Leopold said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, David Carr sold a book and he’s an addict! Isn’t that cool?’ Whereas ‘Jason Leopold is a sick twisted criminal.’”
Mr. Carr has not yet begun writing his memoir, but his project is to be a work of formal reporting.
(Mr. Sykes did also go back to discuss events with friends and family and editors, even showing drafts to his family—his sister Alice took serious objection to a description of her boyfriend’s hair as “ginger.” It was light brown. Perhaps because of this vetting, there is not too much shock or dish in the book—beyond description of the amazing drinking habits of Chris Wilson and the revelation that there are yet two more younger Sykes, one in London, one now in Italy, and neither, fortunately, bound soon for Manhattan.)
So far, Mr. Carr has worked the public records on his past, resulting in 100 pages of documents, and conducted 15 interviews, many of which he has also videotaped for his own purposes.
In an interview, he did not indicate whether or not he was a member of A.A.
“I decided to do this for two reasons,” Mr. Carr said of his decision to write the memoir. He was at home on Sunday, Sept. 17, in New Jersey. “One, I have twins going to college and I needed money, and it’s a book I could do while still keeping my job, which I like a lot—that I could report on the margins of my job. And two is that, as I went through everything that I have done—and I’m pretty much kind of a white-boy misdemeanant—and as I went through that and imagined talking about it, there was nothing in that story that I haven’t at some point admitted to someone. But who knows—maybe I’ll come across something that’s too, too either shameful or stupid to own up to. And at that point, the whole conceit of the book is threatened. So I’ve been listening very closely when people talk. One of the things is that—who was it? Shakespeare, somebody; no! I don’t want to go there, I don’t want to quote Shakespeare—we’re all wardens of our own past. There is a tendency to be either the hero or antihero of your own narrative. And in that sense, all misdemeanors become felonies. And random acts of kindness become shimmering examples of the narrator’s own humanity. And I think that’s sort of embedded in people. And I think you gotta watch it. But I say that as somebody who hasn’t typed a word.”
What Mr. Carr was talking about was humility.
I concluded that I am not all that bad.
Look at the best-seller list.
I had to do it because it was part of my life story.
These would seem to be the little signs of those same forces that are still tearing the world apart at the seams.
And so is this. On Sept. 19, an addiction specialist in Beverly Hills sent out a press release arguing that Paris Hilton should be counseled on moderation as a result of her D.U.I. incident, rather than possibly being assigned to A.A. “Paris is obviously an early stage problem drinker, and an abstinence group is an overkill and inappropriate for a celebrity,” the release said.
“You never expect the media to abide by A.A. traditions, but we are grateful,” said Julio, of A.A.’s general-service office, by phone. Julio is currently the staff member who deals with requests from the media. Employees of that office, in general, rotate their positions every two years.
He also mentioned the story of the baseball player recounted by Bill Wilson in 1955.
“He was probably a good role model, and he continued in sobriety,” Julio said of the baseball player. “Nevertheless, it was felt, in retrospect, as time went by, that making someone the face of Alcoholics Anonymous was really not within the spiritual principles, or within what the fellowship tries to maintain—which is a practice of genuine humility.”
He spoke with great care. “So when, even with the best of intentions, someone may break their anonymity, it places them in a position which takes from them that opportunity of being genuinely humble.”