A couple of months ago I experienced my first heckler. I was doing a reading from my new novel, The Empty Room, at a library in Toronto. The Empty Room is a speculative look at what a day in my life might look like, had I not quit drinking 18+ years ago. I figured there’d be a few of my ‘tribe’ in the audience, and sure enough there was a couple in the back, nodding at me in a way I recognize, and several people came up to me before the reading to talk about people in their families who were alcoholics. And then this woman came in, or should I stay stomped in. From the moment she plopped herself down in a front-row center seat I knew I was going to have an issue. She just had that look. I know it well, having had it a time or two myself years ago: a little sweaty, a little bleary, a good deal belligerent.
I had barely finished my reading before her hand was up with a question. She demanded to know why I hadn’t written a memoir, since this was clearly about my own life, and so, she said, I was really nothing more than a liar, wasn’t I?
Okay, I thought, here we go.
So I talked about being a fiction writer and how sometimes the facts get in the way of the truth, particularly if the details of the last day of my own drinking probably wouldn’t interest anyone and how some folks write fiction and others write memoir and well, I’m a fiction writer. So some of the stuff in the book is about me (yes, my mother did draw a knife on my father one night, and then threatened me with it, but no, I never puked in the Chick ‘n Deli) but most of it isn’t. My first row friend calmed down for a few minutes, and other people asked questions and we chatted and then someone said she wondered whether I thought this book would help First Nations people, particularly since part of my background is First Nations. Before I could get an answer out, my first row friend said she could answer, that this book would help no one because I thought addiction was a joke, something to entertain people with and besides, the book wasn’t worth the paper it was written on, and a few other things I won’t repeat.
Everyone in the room held their breath and I think some were genuinely concerned my front row friend might get violent. She did seem a little unhinged. Now, I have no idea if she has an ‘issue’ with alcohol or not, but I will say she didn’t seem terribly rational. I pointed out that the good news was there were lots of books in the world, and if this one wasn’t for her she might consider reading something else. I also mentioned we were in a library and they would give her a copy of this book, for free, so she could read the whole things and then decide, but she was certainly under no obligation to do so. No one was forcing her to read my book. She said she had no intention of reading such trash and if I wanted to help people I had to do more than write a crappy book but that she didn’t expect I would because it was clear what sort of person I was.
No one else — not my publicist nor the person who organized the reading seemed inclined to get involve here, and other people in the audience were clearly nervous. I don’t blame them. My heart was beating a bit fast, too. It felt like an assault. Still, I figured someone had to regain control of the room, and I guessed it was going to be me.
I stepped away from the podium and up to the edge of the stage, close to my front row friend. I reminded her she didn’t know me any more than I knew her, and although she certainly didn’t have to like my book, she didn’t have the right to tell me whether I was a good person or not. She said, “Well, what are you going to do, tell me to just ‘go to meetings?'” She threw her hands up in the air in wild frustration.
Ah, and there it was.
“That would be entirely up to you,” I said. “But it sure has worked for me.” I suggested we leave it there, and slightly to my surprise, she did. Then other folks started talking again and the conversation moved on into much more pleasant territory.
It did rattle me, though. It stayed on my mind for several hours after the event. That could have been me, I thought. Right there, right in front of me, for all the world to see, was a person exhibiting exactly the kind of behavior I might have engaged in (heck that I DID engage in), back in my drinking days: defiant, aggressive, telling everyone exactly what was wrong with them, and all the while desperate for help.
And I thought about her question: Are you going to tell me to just ‘go to meetings’? Had the question been sincere, I would certainly have suggested meetings, but not JUST meetings. I have a sneaking suspicion (I might be wrong) that she had gone to a few of those church basement meetings, but alas, armed with the attitude she exhibited with me, she might not have benefited too much. They are, after all, not for people who need them, but for people who want them. Besides, meetings alone are a start, but they won’t keep you sober. Step work keeps you sober. And helping others. And a spiritual life. And a sponsor. And changing a bunch of stuff. And hey, perhaps those meetings in church basements aren’t for you. Fair enough. Find something else then. But what I would have told her, had she sincerely asked me, was that if you’re drinking in spite of the consequences, you might just have a problem. And, if you drink too much, drink less. If you can’t drink less, don’t drink. And if you can’t stop drinking, get help. Get whatever help works for you. If you want to know what worked for me, I’d be happy to share that with you, and to tell you what I do every day to stay sober. But this much is true, you don’t want to end up like Colleen Kerrigan, the protagonist in The Empty Room. You don’t want to live through that day, if you’re lucky enough to live through it. I’ve known far too many people who didn’t manage to live, my two brothers among them.
So, if you happen to be my front row friend and you’re reading this — who cares about the book? Really. Doesn’t matter in the least. If you don’t want to live the way you’ve been living, if you don’t want to keep feeling that despair and shame and rage and loneliness , this is all that matters: that you get help. That’s my prayer for you.