What Grieving People Wish You Knew by Nancy Guthrie, Free for CAPC Members
Nancy Guthrie’s overwhelming message in What Grieving People Wish You Knew is to enter into the awkwardness and difficulty of loving grieving people.
Eve Tushnet’s Amends probably should have been a comic book, but as a novel, it is the funniest I have ever read. Set in a rehab center, where six addicts have agreed to participate in a Reality TV show exploring their recovery, the story fires one metaphor after another at the reader as it bounces between all six perspectives (with an occasional sidebar for their producers) like a pinball machine that has let six balls loose at once while the reader keeps maniacally flipping the levers. It works beautifully, though, as each character reveals the various defenses that addicts build and how to tear them down even as they are helping others.It is commonplace among enlightened practitioners to think of addiction as just another disease like diabetes or lupus, but no illness is simply an imbalance of chemicals–our bodies interact with our souls in ways that require discipline in both.
When the characters are first introduced in a sequence of narratives that explain, one-by-one, how they got to the show–generally on the reference of a friend or employer who still cares about them–it feels a bit like a Pixar trailer. The “talent” (as the producers refer to them) are all cartoonish when initially revealed and I found myself wondering how I would come to like or relate to any of them. Starting in the sorts of embarrassing situations where addicts near the bottom find themselves, the severe dearth of insight each character displays makes such outlandish characterizations work. Similarly, the Reality TV setup creates a narrative structure in which each addict’s journey through recovery is reflected in their disparate responses to the various exercises their counselor puts them through. It feels like a superhero team origin story at times, bringing together a ragtag bunch of misfits assaulted by the same villain into a secret headquarters where they must train to do battle with their own self-satisfied wits, all in front of a camera.
The jokes–mostly similes–fly by relentlessly; no sooner did I stop laughing from the last page when the next one made me chuckle. The metaphors are best when spat from the mouths of her characters, not when the narrator speaks them ex cathedra– hence, my opening suggestion about a comic book that might have helped cut down some of the dead weight. Still, some observations simply had to make it to the page for our reading pleasure; a cruel contrivance of the TV producers that humiliates a participant is explained by saying “decadent late capitalism called to decadent late capitalism, like auto-tuned mermaids lip-synching each to each.” Tushnet throws witticism after witticism like a basketball player who keeps making shot after shot on the rebound. Even when she misses, she never loses control of the ball.
As you laugh along with each character’s acerbic self-justification for their destructive behavior, you start to see them open up to the possibility that they might be wrong and try to make amends for their behavior. The forced drama of the Reality TV show makes these self-aware people reject the performances and scripts that have trapped them in addiction as they learn to love one another. The story is peppered with online comments from viewers discussing the show that actually help to ground the critique of Reality TV, reminding us that addiction treatment doesn’t have to take place in front of a camera to be exploitative and ugly. As ever-present as the foibles of our modern media culture are in the story, though, what’s always more important in every scene is how the heroes find ways to adapt to their circumstances.
This theme of adaptation gently emerge past the jokes that occasionally wink and nudge a little too hard: one does not have to figure it all out or set all things to right in order to submit to a Higher Power and get better and no external factor can ever be an excuse to reject treatment and healing indefinitely. The comical talent reveal their heroism by choosing to participate in the asinine exercises of rehab and trading the vicious barbs they’ve heretofore protected themselves for constructive criticism. Few actually manage to untangle the traumas they’ve experienced and experience healing revelations that end their drinking careers, what they do instead is far more real-to-life: taking baby steps of love and mutuality in faith that they can do them over and over once they leave rehab.
The narrative loses its ra-ta-tat pace when the characters leave the center and the TV show ends; the book falters a bit here in what feels like an extended epilogue; there is no real final battle with the arch-villain like in a comic book and the characters who do succeed in remaining sober don’t get their struggles dissected like those who relapse. For example, one woman’s folly is turned into a vicious and obscene viral meme, but her final struggle is the most understated even as her final sermonette encapsulates the book’s themes in a speech that brushes off her fame while unearthing the truths she’s gleaned from recovery.
The interaction of these truths and themes makes Amends more than just a funny book– it’s a book that addresses the power we have to cut through the excuses and circumstances that keep us from change. It is commonplace among enlightened practitioners to think of addiction as just another disease like diabetes or lupus, but no illness is simply an imbalance of chemicals–our bodies interact with our souls in ways that require discipline in both. Furthermore, such a schema of addiction-as-illness brings with it the assumptions we have about illness in individual bodies– . while traditional addiction treatment, for all of its flaws, understands that while every individual is responsible for their own decisions, we cannot heal or be healed in isolation. Tushnet demonstrates through the hilarity of her protagonists how self-destruction and disregard for our neighbors are inextricable, but also through their stumbling apologies how choosing to love is a critical step in escaping addiction as we learn make amends.
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