Recovery's New Poster Boy: A Famous Addict Shares His Bumpy Road to Sobriety
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Two years ago, Bill Clegg’s first memoir dropped like a bombshell on the New York media world. “Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man” chronicled the handsome and hugely successful book agent’s descent into a harrowing crack addiction that cost him his career, his boyfriend and his savings — and left him broke and in rehab. In one harrowing part of the book ( excerpted in New York magazine) Clegg decides to blow off a first-class flight to Berlin after a week without sleep for a crack binge and sex with the cabbie driving him to his airport hotel. Staring at his pile of drugs, he wrote, “I wonder if somewhere in that pile is the crumb that will bring on a heart attack or stroke or seizure. The cardiac event that will deliver all this to an abrupt and welcome halt.”
In the years since the events of the first book, Clegg has rebuilt his career as an agent and become one of the best-known faces of addiction recovery. (He is also the rumored muse for “Left-handed,” a recent book of poetry by Jonathan Galassi, and the supposed inspiration for one of the lead characters in “Keep the Lights On,” Ira Sachs’ well-reviewed new film about a troubled gay relationship).
Now Clegg has written a follow-up, “Ninety Days,” a tumultuous chronicle of his early sobriety. The book begins with Clegg’s release from rehab and follows him as he struggles to keep clean for 90 days, a milestone for those in recovery. Over the following weeks, he tries to rebuild his shattered life — befriending other recovering addicts, searching for a new apartment and shuttling from meeting to meeting — but before long, he is once again drinking, smoking crack and having anonymous drug-fueled sex. Thus begins a dramatic series of relapses.
The book, which is written in straightforward, readable prose, is an often-vivid testament to the difficulties of overcoming addiction and the value of companionship. Despite occasional moments of cattiness (Clegg can be ungenerous in his description of other meeting attendees), Clegg comes across as a deeply troubled but a perceptive and sympathetic man, learning lessons about addiction in some very difficult ways.
Salon spoke to Clegg over the phone from Manhattan about the fallout from his first book, the unique appeal of recovery memoirs and why he won’t be writing another book.
It’s been a long time since the events of this book happened, and now you’re doing interviews and publicity about them. Does it feel strange to be rehashing all this stuff?
I wouldn’t say it’s strange, because one of the ways I’ve stayed sober is to stay very close to the things that happened, both when I was using and also in early recovery. I can’t talk enough about those early days of getting sober, because it’s the things I did and the lessons I learned — and the things suggested to me in those early days — that keep me sober today. The more comfortable I get and the more I forget it, the more vulnerable I am to relapse. And it’s pretty simple. Those experiences in those first 90 days are ones I never want to get away from and never want to forget.
Your first book was about your descent into drug addiction and alcoholism. This book is about your recovery. Why did you write it?
It came from a sense of not being finished when I completed the writing of “Portrait of an Addict.” During the three years it took to write that, I felt tethered to this live thing that needed my care and attention. I had this expectation that when I was done I would feel severed from that and I didn’t. So I just kind of didn’t stop writing. But I don’t feel connected to it, or any writing, at this point. I feel completely done.