In the “Monster” issue of Bitch Magazine, I have a feature called “Sobering Realities: Women Write Their Way into the Addiction Canon.” The piece puts three recent addiction memoirs written by women into conversation with each other—Quitter by Erica C. Barnett, Strung Out by Erin Khar, and Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls by Nina Renata Aron. Each book is an important addition to the canon of addiction literature, but I related especially hard to Aron’s book.
Her book touches on codependency and how alcoholism has impacted women throughout history and it’s really Jewish and it’s kind of queer. We talked about all of those things, but most of our interview couldn’t make it into the final piece. I wanted to share our conversation in full because I really loved chatting with her. We talk about the formulaic nature of addiction literature, how growing up in a Jewish home can make identifying codependent family dynamics more difficult, and letting go of the idea that heteronormative love can ever save or sustain us.
Since we talked about family dynamics, it felt fitting to release right now when we’re all thinking about the holidays and navigating our own families.
Britni: So I loved your book. I want to say I read a lot of addiction memoirs and go to a lot of AA meetings so I've heard a lot of people talk recovery stuff. I always go into these prepared to kind of know what I'm going to get. And I felt like yours was really refreshing. And so well done.
Nina: Oh, thank you!
I want to start by asking why you wanted to write this book? Like I said, there's a lot of addiction-related memoirs out there. What did you think this was bringing to the conversation that wasn't there already?
Mmhmm. I think I really wanted to write this book because I, too, read a great deal of addiction literature and I always have—even before I recognized myself as an alcoholic and got sober—I was, I think, always looking for solace or maybe some answers to the riddles of living in a family with addiction for many years, and I never really found exactly what I was looking for.
I feel like the addiction literature genre has many brilliant contributions, but it has become sort of formulaic and there's a story that we expect to hear. And at some point, I realized that the story I really wanted was not the story of the addicts, but of the people living in the periphery, living in the household of an addict. And I was one of those people.
When I was younger, it was my sister's addiction. And when I got older, I mean, obviously, the relationship that's at the center of this book [with a man named K] just altered every facet of my life. And it seemed strange to me that there wasn't a literary addiction memoir that tackled that. And so I really wanted to write it.
I also think “codependency” the word has become popular again in the Instagram wellness space/self-care space, but I think [the actual concept] has fallen out of fashion. And so I was also really interested in reinvigorating a conversation about codependency, whether it's the right rubric to even be thinking through as we're thinking about relationships with addicts and alcoholics, and what it could afford us, where it had come from, and stuff like that. So I really was following the Toni Morrison dictum that if there's a book you want to read and it doesn't exist, you have to write it. And I was really trying to just write the book that I've been wanting to read for, like 20 years.
What I really appreciate—particularly as the opioid crisis has ramped up and impacted white communities and we see a lot of white families and parents taking up the cause and sharing stories—as someone who's in recovery myself, I sometimes struggle with the way it's presented and the way the parent centers themselves. Which is fine, because they're impacted by their child's addiction or their loved one's addiction, but there's not always a lot of accountability for one's own part, in how their relationship dynamics work. But even though you were writing about people that you were in relationship with who had struggled with addiction and their impact on you, I still felt squarely like you were centering your own experiences rather than telling somebody else's story.
I'm so glad to hear you say that. I'm glad that this came through, I was very conscious of that throughout because, I mean, to me, my recovery journey in Al-Anon and codependency recovery broadly, it's really just the journey of taking greater and greater responsibility. I think I say at some point in the book, really coming into the full understanding that I was a big part of the problem.
It's incredibly painful, but it was the only way out—I realized that I was not being “done to” by an addict but that exactly 50% of the dynamic was me. That's a really rude awakening when you've constructed your identity around martyrdom and “the bad man that did all the bad things to me.” It was really hard to own that and really come into that kind of accountability. But the same is true in AA—the only freedom is by being willing to do that.
You do mention your own substance use and sobriety and I don't think you ever put a label on it or say that you identify as an alcoholic or an addict. It's sort of a side story. But I was wondering why including that piece about your own journey in AA and sobriety was so important to telling this story, one that was so much about the relationship with K.
Yeah, good question. To be totally frank, I'm pretty sure it was my younger sister who read a version of the book where I hadn't yet discussed my own sobriety. And she read a draft of it where I hadn't mentioned that and she was like, “I just have to tell you, you sound really fucked up. It sounds like you're avoiding the issue of your own drinking and drug use throughout the book. And I don't think you can end it that way since you are sober. The reader really has earned that knowledge that you also got your stuff together in that important way.”
And I had really avoided talking about my own sobriety and my own struggle with substances in the book both because I didn't want it to replicate the sort of formulaic “addict’s journey,” but also because I wanted it to be focused more on relationships. But I thought she was totally right once I read it with that in mind. I was like, it is kind of important, if I'm going to end by saying that I found a greater serenity or freedom and the reader thinks that maybe I'm still drinking the way I was drinking 100 pages earlier, I think a lot of people might call bullshit on that. So I did end up including it, but it is a bit of an afterthought.
And I don't know how that plays to the reader. But I did feel like I wanted to also take accountability there.
Yeah, I obviously picked up pretty early on that this drinking seems problematic. But if you hadn't addressed it, I don't know, some people who aren't alcoholics that are in toxic situations may rely on things for coping mechanisms that aren’t necessarily healthy but are things they can stop once the stressor is removed.
That's what I thought for a long time. I was just like, “it's the relationship that is making me drink and use like this and God, if I could just get away from him…” But then I would get away from him nothing would change.
Actually, that’s why my ex-husband got sober. He sent me to rehab. And I was there for a week. We were not engaged yet. But we were living together and then I went to treatment and three weeks in I was like, “Oh, actually, I want to get sober.” And I called him and gave him this ultimatum, which was like, “I think that if I'm gonna give this a shot, I can't be in a relationship with someone who's still drinking or using, and I'm totally fine if you don't want to stop. But if that's the case, no hard feelings, but we need to break up. I'll let you decide what you want to do and you can let me know.”
And apparently in that week, he kept drinking pretty heavily. And he had been sure that I was the problem. And then he realized that I'd been gone for three weeks and nothing had changed. So he actually ended up getting sober, too. But yeah, it was like, “I thought you were the problem.”
Exactly. I know, once you remove that person and you're like, “Oh, shit, it's me.” So you must really relate to us in this book.
Oh god, yes, because I'm also Jewish.
So here, let's just talk about that part now, because I wanted to ask you about it. I appreciated how present your Jewishness and experience of being in a Jewish house is in this book.
I grew up with my dad, who is still an active alcoholic. And my mom was, like, classic co-dependent. So there was like a lot of family stuff in this book that I related to but I think specifically in Jewish families, there is this over-involvement, particularly from moms, that is a normalized part of Jewish culture that can very easily walk that line between codependency and just being really close.
I wanted to ask you about that decision to really put your Jewish identity and Jewish family in this story. Because you didn't have to mention that. But you did, and I wanted to ask them about the importance of including that.
I think I heard Taffy Akner, who wrote the novel Fleishman Is in Trouble, say on a podcast that she hadn't intended to write such a Jewish book but what came out was so Jewish, but my God, I had the same experience. I had no plans to foreground my Jewishness, but once I was writing my life, I was like, “I guess I am really fucking Jewish.” I mean, culturally, at least. I'm not from a religious family.
But it was sort of everywhere and unavoidable and part of the reason I included it was that—and this is related more broadly to my feelings about addiction literature just being so white, especially work by women. I think so much of it turns on this idea of white women's innocence, which has been, like, corrupted by drugs and exposure to “bad people “and then, like, the women come away with this glinty toughness after they have been so fragile or something, it's very formulaic there, too. There are certain “classic” addiction books, like Drinking: A Love Story, the Caroline Knapp book, and Mary Karr's [Lit] is very Catholic, but I had never really read a Jewish addiction book, or not one that was overt about it. I ended up not really meaning to but once I realized how Jewish it was, I was like “No, I'm gonna leave that in.”
But I also wanted to show some of the conflicts I had in ascertaining, exactly as you said, whether these dynamics were problematic or not. It is so hard to separate what is codependent from what is just normal levels of enmeshment in a Jewish family. There are some ways in which my recovery from codependency makes me feel guilty because it makes me less enmeshed and less available, for example, to hear every single detail of everybody's problems all the time and think that I can do anything about them. It has changed me a little bit in relation to my family and that family dynamic. And that was part of what kept me from getting better for so long was, I really felt like I had a role [I had] to play in my family. It feels like a betrayal almost to renounce that form of closeness.
Mmhmm. I still struggle with my own family when I try to set boundaries. It’s viewed as pulling away or shutting them out.
Yeah, exactly. Maybe gentiles are better on the whole with boundaries! I mean, that's a vast generalization, but I really struggled and still struggle with boundaries. It feels like I'm not built for that.
Speaking, relatedly to this idea that so many addiction memoirs are really white, they're also really straight. And I don't know if you're queer or not, but there is a queerness in your book, or at least a rejection of a certain heteronormativity that came through for me and I don't know if that was intentional or not.
I am and that was totally intentional. And I'm really glad to hear you say that. To me, there are ways in which the book does feel very straight, but then when I think about it differently, I think I'm questioning the heteronormative life choices I made throughout. That's a big part of the work that I wanted the book to do was, there are a lot of possible understandings of the journey that I go through in the book, but one of them is definitely a journey towards letting go of the fantasy of heterosexual love and romance. Letting go of the idea that it could ever really sustain me, that that life form was ever going to be good for me or to me. And definitely part of the freedom I experienced at the end of the book is the freedom of letting that go. And I'm glad that comes through. I thought about being even more explicit about exploring those themes, but I feel like that's another book, which I hope I will write.
I hope you will, too. Again, I related, which is probably why I picked up on it. There were little mentions of, like, noticing like a hot butch but being afraid to hit on them. I picked up on those. But also these other pieces, like the scene when you're in the car with your mom and your sister and reflecting on the idea that maybe women can only be who they are or become who they are in the absence of men. I also felt like even though it wasn't explicitly stated, some of the stuff about the codependency and emotional work being women's work is also femme’s work, or the work of femmes.
It's a great question and I love that you picked up on that. Yeah, that's definitely a part of the thinking that I'm doing in the book.
I also wanted to ask you about the reporting in this book. Because it is a hybrid memoir, and you do a really good job, I think, of weaving in a lot of the history of codependency and how alcoholism has particularly impacted women. Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to make this researched or reported book as well as a memoir?
Yeah, I did. That was something else that I always wanted more of in addiction memoirs, was just a little bit more context. I don't think I knew that I wanted to write this book until I started getting really interested in the history of Al-Anon and of the concept of codependency. I had gone back to Al-Anon in a really hardcore way and, partly because I was frustrated by some of its limitations, I got really interested in who had come up with this conceptual framework in the first place and who it was supposed to serve, and whether like women had invented this and whether it was real. And I asked all those questions in the book.
Part of the trip I wanted to go on was not just telling the story of coming into a greater understanding of my own problems and my family's problems and patterns. I really wanted to contextualize historically some of these things and it was really thrilling for me to realize that and it made me put my own shit in better perspective. To realize that these are old questions and old problems and women have been gathering in kitchens or in Al-Anon meetings or wherever for many generations to discuss these things. It was really exciting for me to go back and read the diaries of women during temperance—that is also, unfortunately, a very white history.
I would like to write something more about race and the temperance movement, which was happening at the same time as the suffrage and abolition movements. And there's a lot of really interesting history there about the relationship of white and Black women trying to deal with this common problem. A lot of that, unfortunately, didn't make it into the book because it was like running very far afield of the central story, but I would love to repurpose it and write about elsewhere.
But I think that it was really freeing for me, and also really deep for me, to commune with this long history of women suffering in relation to alcoholism and addiction, and that gave the project this whole other dimension of meaning for me because I felt at times like I was, like, journaling or something. Sometimes I was just writing about how bad my relationship was and I was like, “I just can't just dwell in this space every day.” I really, really needed there to be this other register.
We've sort of talked about this a little bit, but I also just want to explicitly ask what makes women's perspective in this genre so vital that we need to keep having more of them?
That's a great question. I think that women—especially women who are alcoholics and addicts themselves, and especially those women who are also mothers—have been so vilified. I still consider women and mothers who struggle with alcoholism and addiction to be deeply and profoundly stigmatized in this culture. I think that has started to change a little bit. And sadly, it's really only changed because the opioid epidemic has struck young, white women in the past decade, and I think it's incredibly important that we continue to work to see the full humanity of people who struggle with addiction.
I think that women also are often carrying an extra burden in romantic relationships with men, in domestic arrangements with men. And in drug culture, drug dealing, and drug-taking. Women's perspectives are vital to really understanding how addiction works.