|Helena Fitzgerald||Oct 5, 2018|
For a long time I was an asshole because I thought if I could be the thing that had hurt me then it couldn’t hurt me anymore. Or maybe what I mean is that I just really liked booze, which I definitely did, and sometimes still do, though I’ll never really access it in the way I once did. I miss it, though, which is maybe the same thing as liking something. I once loved someone whose whole person, the sum total of whose humanity, can be gesturally summed up as a red-faced man yelling “I like beer” while crying.
A few days ago I tweeted something about how hard this news cycle has been for people impacted by being close to alcoholics and the tweet blew up a little and I felt very uncomfortable about it, unworthy of carrying this message. I was thinking of my ex who, as I said in a follow-up tweet, once when drunk smashed the window of a car to try to get in it to drive it because he “thought it was his car” (he did not own a car), who once woke up in his apartment with several large orange road work cones in the living room and no memory of how they had gotten there, who would show up to meet me in the early afternoon with his coat pockets full of airplane bottles of booze because that’s what was necessary for the walk from his job to the bar, who told me he loved me five different times before the first time he actually remembered saying it, of my relationship with whom I remember, generously, perhaps 75%. But it felt disingenuous to speak for people hurt by their families or by partners who had descended into addiction, when I had chosen this person not in spite of these qualities, but for them, rushing at the thing that was there.
How can you blame a person when you saw that they were a house on fire and thought how exciting it would be to be in a house fire, wouldn't that feel important. Imagine the kernel of relief at bottom of a crisis when you think “well at least this means I don't have to deal with everything else in my life for a few days,” and then imagine a person who was a living version of that feeling, and how you might run toward them in the hope that they would shut out everything else you were failing to fix. It’s also unfair to the person in this story, about whom I tell flippant jokes because he broke my heart, but who really was just a person struggling with an addiction. Choosing a person because they’re fucked up, knowing full well they will fuck up your life, is asking them to be a solution to a problem rather than a human being, no matter how much they hurt you afterwards.
The way we lionize and glamorize addiction in our culture is almost as ugly as the ways we demonize it. Much of the public history of literature is a history of drinking, never mind that that's ahistorical and incorrect, basing the idea of a whole field and genre on a few flashy individual stories that happened to become movies or whatever. This mythology is obviously not just gendered but racist and classist, too: The people who are allowed to be drunk - and to be proved cool, important, or geniuses by the fact of being drunk - are the same people who are allowed to be angry, which is to say, pretty much just wealthy white men. The people who are allowed to "love beer" without it standing in for their failings of morality or personal responsibility, are the same people who are allowed to be scary, and who in fact are praised for it. Something ingrained in our culture believes that men who are to be taken seriously must scare us at least a little. Perhaps this has something to do with how our culture - gun-crazy and despising weakness in almost any form, anxious to turn on the poor and the disadvantaged - believes that violence is the deepest form of truth that exists. Or maybe that’s just a belief I have long carried around and of which I still have not fully managed to rid myself.
What drinking does, maybe, when it hits us right, or what it did for me anyway, was to offer a delusion of the kind of smooth certainty to which men like Kavanaugh believe they are entitled, and in which the institutions that carry them through the world teach them to live their lives. The way someone like that is shepherded from comfort to comfort by both his circumstances and by the expectations his circumstances create for and around him, is similar to the feeling that arrives with the third or fourth or fifth drink. It is the sense that nothing can go truly wrong, that every choice will be applauded, that one deserves praise and reward simply for existing and to be denied them for a moment is a screaming injustice. Everything is permitted, and everything is forgivable. I can more than understand why many of us would want a temporary and affordable version of that feeling; I can understand, even if the compassion is more difficult to access, why someone who has lived their whole life inside that feeling would constantly seek out more of it.
A lot of personal essays follow a familiar trajectory: I was hurt, and I learned something, and now I'm better. This was done to me, and then I learned something. What a not just impoverished, but perhaps even cruel, way to ask that people approach their pain, to separate it into a neat three acts of innocence, victimhood, and wisdom. Asking that our pain be public requires our pain to be legible. But this approach is not new, nor exclusive to the world of online confessional writing. Rather, it seems to me that this has been and remains the primary mode of sociality amongst women: Take the worst thing that has ever happened to you, and spin it into an anecdote you can tell at parties to make people be your friend.
I'm not sure I'm any better than I was when I got drunk in the middle of the day with a person I had chosen to be with expressly because he was the kind of person who would convince me to get drunk in the middle of the day. I am also not sure anything was done to me, or how much it matters to talk about a story in which I used another person as a means by which to hurt myself. I do know that I wanted very very badly to put myself inside the kind of thoughtless entitlement that obliterating oneself sometimes provides, to access the level of permission with which a certain type of man enters the world. Perhaps the similarity between the temporary entitlement offered by getting drunk and the permanent entitlement offered by being born this type of man is part of the reason we so associate blackout drinking with some idea of highbrow masculinity. I know that I, too, wanted to be a monster and to get to believe that being a monster proved I should be taken seriously.
Kavanaugh yelling and crying, red-faced, about beer, in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is not everyone who drinks, or drinks a lot, or even has a problem with drinking. The vast number of people who struggle with addiction, who have nights they wholly or partially can’t remember, who have ever done things they only learned about the next day and had to regret for the rest of their lives, who have ever had a drink at the end of a bad day because they needed it, depart from his image far more than they hew to it. What Kavanaugh embodies, rather, is that a certain type of man is made more important by being abusive, and that, for him, everything from drinking too much and getting violent, to childlike public crying tantrums, is not disqualifying from public life but actively the opposite. He is a more toxic extension of the same thinking that teaches naive college kids who want to be writers that the big geniuses were geniuses because they drank, and that the way into cultural importance is to go to the bar and have a bunch of whiskies and then come home and yell at your girlfriend and tell yourself you’re just like Hemingway. It is the story that important men are supposed to be frightening, and that only the people who hurt us matter.