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Typical addiction memoirs tend to follow a similar trajectory: they begin with a snapshot of the addict during the darkest moments of active substance abuse, present a flashback of childhood memories or times of trauma, and then move through the struggle to get clean and begin a new life. This narrative structure is no accident. The “war story” or “drunkalogue” that addicts share as part of the 12-step recovery process is presented in the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book as a chronology of two (or more accurately, three) separate lives, understood and arranged as a particular kind of story, one which narrativizes “what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now.” The purpose of this structure is, in part, to urge the addict—and by extension, readers of the memoir—to understand what life was like before addiction, and to recall specific instances of damaging behavior that occurred in the midst of addiction. In other words, addicts must compartmentalize the identity they once held (“what we used to be like,”) their reasons for becoming addicted and subsequent behaviors as an addict (“what happened,”) and the current state of their lives in recovery (“what we are like now.”) According to 12-step logic, it is only after conducting and arranging this “personal inventory” through narrative and consequently identifying oneself as an addict that the process of rehabilitation and redemption can begin.
Patrick O’Neil’s recent memoir, Gun, Needle, Spoon, follows these well-worn narrative tracks but also manages to push out of them in ways that are surprising and significant. O’Neil, a heroin addict for eighteen years, lived a remarkable life even before he became a full-blown junkie and (eventually) an armed robber. As a roadie for and friend of legendary punk bands like T. S. O. L., Flipper, and Subhumans, O’Neil was part of the early punk rock scene explosion in California and then the world [End Page 25] over. Throughout his story, we meet many of the usual suspects: distraught and in-denial mothers, best friends turned fiends, abusive cops, a string of much-younger girlfriends who might never have picked up the needle if not for the narrator—rotating casts of “strippers, roadies, transvestites, speed freaks, underage runaways, groupie girls, and hangers on.” It’s a fun and tragic and raucous ride all the way through, but Gun, Needle, Spoon strikes its most unique chords when O’Neil discusses the appearance of ghosts in his life: the phantoms of these same friends, acquaintances, and lovers who overdosed or died in other violent ways. O’Neil doesn’t express much conscious concern for the dead in the midst of his addiction; he is, in fact, brutally honest about his selfishness and indifference to anything but his next fix. As he puts it when one of his friends, Mikey, loses his girlfriend to an overdose, “I really don’t need to think about anything like that while I’m trying to get high…Hell, Mikey’s better off without her. With Darleen gone, it’s one less arm to feed.” Despite this callousness, though, something nags O’Neil below the surface, a sense of care and profound loss that no amount of opiates can erase. And this is where the phantoms appear, haunting the corners, convenience stores, and fast food restaurants O’Neil frequents. He calls out to the dead, literally at times, only to realize halfway through speaking that the person he’s trying to talk to is long gone, that it can’t possibly be who he thinks it is. In most drug memoirs, we hear about the deaths of loved ones as a consequence of addiction, but we never meet them in quite this way—as ghosts of grief and guilt that bring the confluence of past, present, and future sharply into focus.
Another significant element that sets Gun, Needle, Spoon apart from other addiction memoirs is O’Neil’s frank discussions of his body image disorder, which presents itself...