Fifteen years ago, before tell-alls were in vogue, I was a young mom taking a memoir course. Skeptical and scared, I remember scanning the table of would-be life writers. I wondered what possessed us to want to expose our pasts, why our lives would be in any way interesting to the public, and what would happen if we told the truth.
Then the teacher spoke.
“To write memoir, what you’ll need more than anything else is courage, and lots of it. First, you need the courage to tell your truth. Then, you need the courage to be OK with the fact that you told it. To write a memoir, you need thick skin. Because no matter how interesting your story is, or how talented a writer you are, not everyone will like your honesty. I can promise you this: You will be judged for telling it the way you saw it. You have been warned.”
Prepare yourself to be sobered by Jowita’s courage. She had the guts to reveal the cracks in her life in all their ugly humanity, knowing she would be condemned for doing so – as a writer, as a person, and above all, as a mom. She saw the backlash coming but she felt the fear and told all anyway. No holds barred.
Here’s what you already know from the title: Jowita is a drunk. And she is somebody’s mom.
To make matters more controversial, she relapses into the hell of addiction right after the most heavenly Mommy moment – the birth of her first child.
Not surprisingly, the dichotomy between the responsibility of motherhood and the desperation of addiction makes it easy to finger wag. But let’s be clear: This is not a memoir about motherhood. It’s about drinking. And despite what some consider cringeworthy bits, it’s a story that can’t be told halfway.
If you’ve never been bruised by addiction, or you’re someone who believes a mother’s job is to “protect” her kids from pain at all costs, you may get indignant, firing questions as you read. As in why would a mother choose to capitalize on her alcoholism? How could she let the addict eclipse the mom? How could she risk her child ever learning the sad facts about his earliest, most helpless year?
The answer: Coming clean is Jowita’s salvation.
She has to do so – not because modern mom culture is finally exposing parenting’s dark side or because today’s moms have claimed drinking as their right – but because she is not a mom first. She is a raging alcoholic. And that fact won’t change whether her child learns to make sense of it in the world or lives with it buried in the dysfunctional fabric of his family.
What matters most, though, is that Jowita is a memoirist and she’s a fine one, high on courage, talent and unflinching honesty. Using language that is itself intoxicating, she has uncanny power to draw you into the sweaty skin of an addict who happens to be a new mom.
Writing Drunk Mom must have been like slicing open a boil that if left alone, just might have killed her. Shocking, aching, a tremendous relief.
As a writer myself and a mom who has found that honesty about your humanness deepens your relationship with your children, I relate. No good comes from family secrets, particularly those as serious as addiction. Openness is not only instructive for your kids who will face their own challenges soon enough but also helps them understand reasons for neglect and suffering they may otherwise internalize.
But whether you relate to or are helped by or disgusted with what comes out in Jowita’s story is your own personal takeaway and very much beside the point.
What’s clear is that once she got started, Jowita the writer had no choice but to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but, just like the addict in her had no choice but to drink into oblivion. Judge all you want but great writers let us see their pain – the pain they cause, the pain they fight, the pain they may never escape.
That’s not over-sharing. That’s courage. It’s what readers deserve.
It’s also what memoirists, and addicts and mothers and humans, have to do to heal.