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Disenabling Fame: Rock ‘n’ Recovery Autobiographies and Disability Narrative

From: a/b: Auto/Biography Studies
Volume 26, Number 2, Winter 2011
pp. 297-322 | 10.1353/abs.2011.0011

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Recent rockn’ recovery autobiographies of addiction reveal a meditation on the pathology of fame. The writers’ addictions inevitably belong to what has become a celebrity career trajectory of conspicuous excess leading to illness, rehab, and often relapse and then dramatic recovery, a trajectory that both valorizes artistic integrity and distracts from the muse. Increasingly, the autobiography of recovery is part of the celebrity cycle, though one of the most famous former addicts, Keith Richards—a former adman who turns on and off his wasted persona at will—has been notoriously contemptuous of recovery confessions. His hyperbolic aphorisms about drugs and health have been collected in Stone Me: The Wit and Wisdom of Keith Richards; now his own autobiography has just appeared.1 Recent autobiographies by Eric Clapton, Marianne Faithfull, Ronnie Wood, Anthony Kiedis, and Slash, as well as the autobiographical works of Nikki Sixx and Kurt Cobain, among others, are predicated on a romantic myth of the artist, which is conspicuous for describing extreme excess that morphs into a shadow dance with death. The ideal image of the heroic rock star—exploited in energy drinks, video games, and even presidential campaigns—is fit, youthful, and supremely abled, perhaps most famously exemplified in Joel Brodsky’s “young lion” photograph of Jim Morrison. This stance of usually testosterone-driven virility is the equivalent of normalcy in illness narratives. To be a rock star is to live with blinding intensity as the object of universal envy, and perhaps especially for those like John Lennon and Kurt Cobain with a fascinated dread of the physically disabled. The lust for life and passion for anarchy that celebrates the body electric, however, is an industry-driven and socially-sanctioned pose, partly accepted, like ubiquitous celebrity culture itself, as a social cure for postmodern malaise.

These celebrity autobiographies of addiction, many appearing just as disability studies entered the mainstream, have an uncomfortable location within the “unstable” category of disability (Davis 23) and also auto/biography studies. In the light of a consideration of addiction’s cultural contexts this essay argues that, given the complexity of altruistic and self-serving motives lying behind their creation, their hybrid genre, their construction of self, and perhaps most importantly, their highly ambivalent relationship to fame, the quantity and distinctive qualities of these rock ‘n’ recovery autobiographies suggest a separate subgenre of the celebrity autobiography. These autobiographies attempt to reclaim their writers’ lives from addiction and from the illness of fame.

I. Addiction as Disability

Addiction has an uneasy location within disability studies, itself perhaps defined by instability and indeterminacy (Bérubé 338) and a close connection to narrative (Garland-Thomson 77). Like illnesses such as HIV/AIDS that are stigmatized as being acquired through sexual behavior, addiction—perhaps particularly celebrity addiction—is widely dismissed as “a calamity one brings on oneself” through a perverse lifestyle (Sontag, Illness 114). Drug addiction itself, however, is a fairly recent category of illness. The “invention” of drug addiction at the turn of the century—the first usage of “addiction” relating to drugs in the OED appeared in 1906—was concurrent with the rise of widespread anxieties about various “others”: the deviant, the foreign, and the homosexual (Brodie and Redfield 3–6). Addiction has from the early twentieth century been associated with vice and criminality, and Nazi eugenicists grouped alcoholism with a vast range of “‘defective’ conditions” in their euthanasia campaigns (Muzak 256–57; Synder and Mitchell 102, 122). The “pathologization and criminalization of habit” (Brodie and Redfield 4) grew out of the Victorian medicalization of private life, a process that Virginia Berridge has traced in Opium and the People, making habitual drug use into a disease. The psychiatric disease model of addiction as deviance, itself a liberation from earlier demonizations of addiction, gave way in the 1960s and 1970s in the face of “recreational” drug-using behavior and especially the reality of returning drug-dependent Vietnam vets in America. However, this disease model of addiction, which roots normative addictive behavior in the brain, liver, DNA, or personality type, has come at a cost. The creation of a stable addict identity demands the radical reconstruction of the individual’s life story in terms of...



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