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Whose Story Is It, Anyway?

I’ve been thinking a lot about stories lately—who writes them, who they belong to. When I spoke at Arcadia last month, one student, in hearing that LIFELINE was inspired by my family’s experience with addiction, asked, “How can you ethically write a story about someone else’s addiction?”

My answer to her was twofold: First, I told her that LIFELINE was inspired by my family’s experience, in that living the addiction story prompted the premise of the novel, but the characters and events are purely fiction. And secondly, (and perhaps a little facetiously), Anne Lamott says that if people didn’t want to be in our books, they’d behave better.

But I think if I were to address this question today, I would give a third answer: It’s my story, too.

You see, I think this is one of the primary difficulties of being the family member of an addict. Often the family’s energy gets unwittingly wrapped up in protecting the experience of the addict—after all, the addict is the person suffering, they are the person whose life and future are at risk. In times of difficulty, the family “batons down the hatches,” hunkers down to protect the addict from the outside storm. And yet often, it is the backs of the family members that gets buffeted by the wind and the rain. The addiction story tells us that this pattern is okay, normal even—that suffering and silence in the name of protecting the addict is part of what being a family is. But when you are a part of family affected by addiction, that word “normal” is similar to the word “truth”—it’s relative, depending on who’s talking.

Last week, in my Writing about Literature class, I assigned James Baldwin’s short story “Sonny’s Blues.” One of the primary questions that arises after reading this story is, “Whose story is this, anyway?” Is it Sonny’s story? The story does, after all, seem to focus primarily on Sonny’s struggle with heroin addiction, which, other than music, is his only escape from suffering. And yet, the story is told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator—Sonny’s brother, who grapples with the oppressive responsibility of being his brother’s keeper after his parents’ deaths.

My class, in general, felt like the story is Sonny’s—that the POV choice illuminates both Sonny's inability to communicate his feelings outside of music and the constant feeling of being judged by his older brother, the narrator.

As the family member of an addict, however, I felt more compelled by the brother in “Sonny’s Blues,” whose personal suffering (the death of his daughter) is glossed over in light of Sonny’s plot line—getting out of jail and returning to music (and drugs) in Harlem. It’s the narrator, the brother, who walks that murky (and often invisible) line between enabling and empathy. He lets his brother come and live with him but stays on high alert—searching Sonny’s room for the telltale signs of a relapse. But most interesting, is the idea that the narrator, the brother, is unnamed. He has the same family history of suffering that Sonny does; he is the one actively navigating the challenges of daily life with an addict. And yet, without a name, he becomes somewhat invisible—a piece of backdrop in Sonny’s story.

Here’s what being the sibling of an addict looks like: It looks like chronic secret-keeping, like being constantly aware of the giant elephant in the room, but having to look around to make sure everyone else sees it before you mention that it’s there. It looks like heart palpitations and JELLO knees every time your mom calls at a weird hour. It looks like picking up the phone on a Sunday afternoon and begging your brother to turn around, to go back to rehab, because it’s far too cold this time to be homeless.

It looks like lit candles, whispered prayers, and waiting.

With LIFELINE approaching publication in May, I’ve had to start thinking about what story I want to tell about my book—is it Eli’s story? Is it my family’s? Is it mine? These stories are inextricably tangled up together in a plot arc that keeps unfolding, and my answer changes depending on the day of the week. Because I might be unnamed, but I am a character.

It’s my story, too.

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