If the trend pieces and studies are to be believed, we’re living through a new golden age of the single person. Fewer Americans than ever are getting married, and they’re waiting longer and longer to do so. Many are living by themselves, often by choice. And yet, according to pop culture, a lot of them are awfully unhappy about it. In everything from “Girls” to Carly Rae Jepsen singles, our culture is obsessed with the prospect and possibility of finding a partner and escaping the lonely purgatory of singledom. Singleness, the message seems to be, is merely an unfulfilling wind-up for the far greater thrill of a real romantic relationship. But what would happen if we stopped hating on singledom, and started loving it?
In his new book, “Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled,” Michael Cobb, a professor of English at the University of Toronto, argues that our negative attitudes toward single people aren’t just hurting singles — they’re hurting our relationships and our culture. An academic work about music, film and literature, it claims that singles in North America have become a hated sexual minority, victims of our culture’s misplaced and out-of-step priorities. Cobb believes that single life can be as fulfilling, interesting and legitimate as any romantic arrangement, and that it’s high time we gave it more respect.
Salon spoke to Cobb over the phone from Toronto about the possibility of an unmarried president, “Girls” and what it’s like to be the spokesperson for singleness.
You argue that our current culture considers singleness to be a “conundrum.” What do you mean by that?
I don’t think we even know what being single is. We live in such a couples-obsessed society that there really are no “singles” out there — everyone is pre- or post-coupled. They’re either in the wings waiting or they’re past their prime and are no longer allowed to be part of this central way people not only organize their intimate lives but attain social legitimacy. People use relationships to bind themselves to social, political and cultural realities.
I’ve been in lots of relationships and those relationships have their own interesting moments. They are fulfilling in all sorts of ways and distressing in all sorts of ways. But the loneliest I have ever felt is with this other person I am with. And that’s not supposed to be the case.
Intimacies are always kind of like that. You think, “This is supposed to alleviate me from all this sadness and loneliness, and yet it’s just intensifying these feelings — but the single must have it much worse.” I feel like a lot of that bad effect is just projected onto single people, and that condition is rendered pathetic and sad and depressing. This is why it doesn’t have a language of its own because the language of singleness is really the language of couples who are pitying single people.
Funny, I never thought of that. It’s true. We really do use the word “single” really just as a shorthand for someone who’s looking to date someone.
Exactly, or they’re tragic and sad, like old maids or widows. They’re people who just couldn’t make it into that very special status. Part of why that narrative persists is that there’s this overarching disquiet about how you create a narrative for yourself [if you're not in a relationship]. And there’s this sense that this anxiety can be alleviated if you just fall in love.
Right. That’s sort of like your experience with your grandmother, whom you write about in the book.
When my grandmother was dying, on her deathbed, I was talking to her and she put her hand onto mine and she said, “Michael I don’t want you to die alone.” It was part of an ongoing conversation we’d had about how important it was to have a partner. People talk about one of the reasons you do get involved with people is you want someone to take care of you because you don’t want to die alone. It scares you into being into a couple.
From my perspective, [my grandparents' relationship] was an excellent relationship. It was long. It was fruitful. They enjoyed each other’s company a great deal. And it was the way she mediated the whole world. She thought about her world as a shared experience with this other person, my grandfather Joe. There were all these moments throughout the 20th century that were narrated to me through her relationship, stories of WWII were really about my grandfather being on a boat in the South Pacific as a cook. A lot of people do this in their lives, think of people that are meaningful to them and attach the history that is swirling around them to that person. But nevertheless it starts to feel corseted, because there don’t appear to be that many instances in the world that allow you another way of organizing the world. How do people who are by themselves imagine themselves to belong to the world?
In the grand scheme of things, though, why is this an important issue?
If marriage and couples are supposed to be this magic bullet, and your relationship is the thing that is supposed to define and make the world for you, that’s putting an enormous amount of pressure on that relationship. This book is not against couples — it’s really against the primacy of the couple, the anxious over-importance of the couple that actually makes couples fail because you can’t by definition make a whole world out of one other person. If you try, you’re shrinking your world and your existence in the hope it’s going to cure everything. It creates a lot of distress and at the same time it’s invalidating your other experiences you had when you were by yourself, when you were dreaming up other kinds of associations you might have.
Can you imagine a presidential candidate being unmarried? The only people who can get into high political office while unmarried are basically Supreme Court justices and that creates an enormous amount of anxiety, gossip and innuendo.
Well, there were actually two single presidents, James Buchanan and Grover Cleveland, though he got married shortly after being elected. These days, though, I think you’re right — it’s almost impossible to imagine a single president. What do you think has changed?
Over time, love, marriage and romance just became less and less about property and the exchange of property and more of a personal choice. That had a lot to do with the industrial revolution and the rise of commodity culture and finance capital. And this is a hunch, but I think because it’s a personal choice and people are not moved to be married in the way they used to be, they have to be coerced. You have to convince people to be involved in this set of assumptions, traditions and rituals they think they most want to be involved in.
People get very angry when I say things like this. When I was in college most of my friends weren’t going to get married or take their partners’ names or have children; they weren’t going to take the typical route to mature adulthood that requires marriage and a baby. And all of them — all of them — have done that except for one, my friend Kate Bolick, who recently wrote “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” It showed off that you can be single and interesting and buy expensive clothing and go to great parties in New York for a little while but eventually you are going to grow up. Eventually, you’re going to wisen up, put a ring on it and go forward and be coupled and move to Connecticut. We aren’t going to pathologize you for playing around for a protracted amount of time, but eventually you’re going to have to settle. And the marker of success, the end of the romantic story, is riding off into the sunset with that person. But you don’t get to see the next 30 years of boredom, or anxiety, or terror or concern.
“Girls,” which has been positioned as a new, updated “Sex and the City,” has a lot of the same concerns. All of the main characters are grappling with the idea of finding a boyfriend.
I’ve only seen the first episode, but the “Girls” age group is in a tricky place — they aren’t ready to grow up, but they’re thinking about the moment when they are going to. They’re dreaming of being in a couple but still dwelling in this unattached world. One character is involved with that boyfriend who is awful because he loves her too much. He’s awful because he’s potentially the future she’s going to have. The young are terrified of this thing they’re going to have to become.
We’re both queer, and, as such, I think, part of the one subgroup in North America where singleness is still fairly acceptable. Given the push for marriage, though, that may be changing.
Singles are more tolerated in the queer community, at least before there was this voluminous and understandable but overly focused push for marriage equality, but I think the [LGBT] narrative of singleness has been about the narrative of unlimited sexual partners — and I don’t think that’s produced a cherishing of singleness. It still hasn’t gotten to the point where we’re thinking what does it mean to have no sexual relations or to interrupt the inevitability of sexual relations. I have this moment in my book where I talk about how I started attaching “S” to “LGBTQ” partly because being single does feel like a sexual minority category.
Of course, from a practical standpoint, one of the advantages of being in a couple is that when we’re older we’ll have people around to help us do things like, I don’t know, move boxes across the floor. I feel that anxiety.
This is why I started the whole book with the anecdote about my grandma. I don’t think of singleness as an easy condition. It’s very very hard. “30 Rock” had a joke that Liz Lemon would be by herself in her apartment choking on some piece of food and have to self-administer the Heimlich. If I don’t have someone here to help me if I’m having a medical emergency, well then I’m dead. That’s awful and upsetting, but on the other hand, that’s you trying to predict the future, and you could be living with someone who’s blocking your happiness that’s not letting you flourish. People think, “I can endure an awful relationship for a number of years as long as they can help me move the box across the floor.” But think about how often do you really move boxes that require that much assistance.
I was in a six-year relationship that wasn’t the happiest relationship. There were great moments and then it stopped being great and it took me a long time to wrap my head around being by myself. Ending that relationship was better for both of us, and to get to that place is really hard because singleness is a scary place where you’re going to die or you’re not going to be able to move that box. But that fear is probably much greater than the actual experience of it. I was just with a friend who was helping his great-aunt go to his grandma’s house. She lived in this two-story house by herself, and she was able to move around and do stuff in her 90s and seemed happy.
Does it make you anxious that you’re becoming the spokesperson for singledom? That’s a lot of pressure.
I’m putting myself out there as fodder, partly because I do think arguments are more convincing if you personalize them and stand behind them. People attack me for being bitter or not being mature enough to truly commit or being an ivory tower elitist because I’m a professor. It’s incredibly antagonistic because people are fighting for the legitimacy of this thing that they see as so important and they see me critiquing them specifically. But what I’m actually doing is critiquing the institutions and the hierarchy and the prominence of it, not necessarily the actual experience of being someone who’s being involved or not involved.
I was in this relationship for most of the time I was writing this book and it drove people crazy because I was supposed to be this thing I was writing about. They wanted to invalidate me because I wasn’t practicing what I preach. And again, even since the book has been to press I’ve had heartbreaks and relationships and also long periods and long stretches of being on my own, and I’m finding neither condition to be the cure-all. But by asserting “I’m single right now and I’m happy and I have all sorts of fulfilling relationships, interests and activities” I’m creating a conversation about this thing, singleness, that has no official language or culture or history.
I was very happily single for most of the first five years I lived in New York, and almost all of my group of friends were single too. Now I’m in a relationship, which was a little awkward at first, mostly because it involved renegotiating my relationships with my happily single friends, and I was paranoid about creating resentments by, for example, talking too much about my boyfriend.
That probably comes from the fact that couples culture wins every time, so the resentment is that now you’ve become “legitimate.” So the perception is [that you're going to say], “I’m still going to be your friend and I’m going to try to be respectful that you’re in this damned condition even though you’re happy about it.” Hopefully you’ve determined that your relationship doesn’t invalidate the earlier [single] history you had, and they’re simply different moments in your life. You’re most likely the same person you were.
I think that’s very true.
What I’m saying is: You’re still a mess.
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.
In what sense?
Finishing this book, the process definitely stopped. I was reading the audio book a couple weeks ago and I hadn’t seen the text in a while. Reading from beginning to end, I almost couldn’t identify with the person who wrote the book. I identified with the person who lived the experiences, but I couldn’t really identify with somebody who would sit for six hours at a time and see that [book] to completion. I just don’t have it in me right now; it’s beyond my imagination that I’d be able to write anything longer than an email. Which is a relief, let me tell you. These books just sort of bullied their way into existence. I have a pretty busy day job as an agent, so I’m kind of amazed that they exist, these things.
What do you think is the overall message of this book?
I thought that once I got out of rehab that if I just stayed away from drugs and alcohol and followed a few simple suggestions there would be a clean narrative of getting sober, that there’d be a before and after that would be clearly defined. And that process for me was a lot messier than that. So if there’s a message in there, it’s that the only way that, in my experience, I’ve gotten sober and seen other people get sober is by asking for help and getting involved deeply in a community of addicts and alcoholics in recovery.
The first book was such a huge success. How did you deal with the sudden fame that came with it? The book included some pretty shocking scenes.
I guess I dealt with that in the same way I dealt with every difficult or wonderful thing, which is one day at a time. If I step back and regard any aspect of my life, whether that be my relationship with my family, or my job, or that publication, or this one, I will probably get overwhelmed and driven to my knees in exhaustion and despair. I was busy at that time doing my job so I just did everything that I always do but maybe with a little bit more desperation. I didn’t stop and look around and try and make meaning of any of it. I just kind of showed up to what I needed to show up to — whether it was an interview or working on the copy-edited manuscripts or whatever — and then moved on to the things that crowd my life.
Do you think your disclosures from “Portrait of an Addict” have changed the way people interact with you?
Because my collapse and the revelations of my alcoholism and drug addiction were so known to people in the book publishing world, it sort of mediated or affected every interaction I had professionally when I came back to work, whether that was with prospective new clients or colleagues. I think because that history was informing so many of my interactions and relationships, I got used to it as a kind of third person in the room. In terms of people outside the sphere of book publishing, it was challenging. I’m a self-conscious person by nature, and there were certainly uncomfortable moments.
Is there one big moment is “Ninety Days” that stands out to you as being particularly meaningful?
When I look back and try and locate some moment where a great shift occurred, it was the feeling [at one point during the recovery period covered in the book] when I was walking toward a place where I did drugs all the time. I was walking towards the door and thought of Polly (this woman I got sober with who is still very close to me) who was not sober at the time. She was, at that point in her recovery, pretty dire — like life or death. I felt like if I went in and got high and went down that rabbit hole, she might show up to a meeting and find out that I had relapsed and that that would keep her out of there.
My involvement in her recovery and connection to her was the thing that stopped me from walking through that door. Somehow the pull of my feeling of usefulness and responsibility to Polly was greater than my desire to use. That was the first time anything stood between me and a drink or a drug. And I turned around and walked away. Very soon after that, the obsession to use and to drink lifted, which was something that hadn’t happened in all of the time that I had tried to get sober.
To me that reminds me how important it is to stay connected to other people in recovery. To me recovery is sort of moving from the first-person singular to the first-person plural. For me as an addict, I can get very consumed with my own anxieties and worries and struggles and ambitions. And if I get too wrapped up in those thing and lift away from my usefulness to other addicts, I’m most vulnerable to relapsing.
In the book, you enter a lot of spaces in which people are meant to be anonymous. There must have been tension between describing the people and wanting to preserve their privacy.
I felt very comfortable talking about my experience getting sober without naming the program of recovery that I’m involved in. And in the instances where there are people in the program that I got sober with and who are still in my life, I spoke to them about the fact that I was going to describe our experience and went to lengths to protect their anonymity and their privacy and followed their lead in terms of what they were comfortable with and what they weren’t. The main point is to transcribe my struggle to get a toehold in sobriety and maintain it. I didn’t feel that the focus of the book is on anyone else’s recovery necessarily, outside a handful of relationships that I had and still have.
One person in the book about whom this question arises is the character of Asa, whom you describe extensively as he helps you during your early sobriety. I’m assuming you weren’t able to get his permission to write about him.
I didn’t think so. He was, he made it clear at a certain point that he didn’t want to have any contact with me because he was no longer sober. But I’m very happy to report that he’s come back into recovery and is sober. He knows that he is in the book, and that he is well masked. I went to great lengths to protect his privacy.
You’ve been the rumored “muse” of a few projects that have gotten coverage in the media in the last few months. How does it feel to be the subject of that kind of attention?
I don’t really have anything to say about that.
One of those projects, the film “Keep the Lights On,” recently got a distribution deal. Did you have any participation in that?
I guess I can’t really speak to any books or films that any other people wrote that I may or may not be connected to by speculation in magazines and elsewhere. It’s not my place.
Fair enough. Going back to your book, the most famous recovery memoir in recent years is the controversial “A Million Little Pieces,” by James Frey, which you allude to in the book. Did other recovery memoirs affect your way of thinking about this book?
You know I haven’t read, probably very consciously, other books of addicts and recovery — but particularly in the last seven years, when I’ve been involved in working on these two books. People I got sober with would use this phrase, “compare and despair.” I probably internalized that while getting sober and set out not to read other books about addiction and recovery when I was writing these. I would probably think they were better writers than me, or be affected by it so I just felt like in the writing of these books, I just had to follow my own instincts.
What do you think is the appeal of the addiction and recovery memoir for readers?
I think there are a lot of alcoholics and addicts in this world. And they touch a lot of people. It’s a disease that cuts through all class and age and race, and affects many, many people. I certainly myself felt very lost when I was first trying to get sober, and other people in my life felt incredibly lost. Both experiences are very isolating, so when reading an account of somebody getting sober — or in the case of David Sheff’s book “Beautiful Boy,” reading an account of a parent whose kid is an addict — I think identification is a powerful thing. It makes the struggle feel less singular, and it shows at least one particular path which one may choose to take or not take in any of those circumstances, whether you’re an addict yourself, or the father of an addict, or the daughter or son. I think people look to books to find answers, separate from addiction and alcoholism, they look to stories to illuminate their lives more clearly, to more clearly find their way.
I think there’s also the appeal of witnessing someone’s downfall and redemption.
Perhaps. People tend to make mistakes, and the reading of how someone may prevail against those mistakes may be encouraging to some people. If it is, that’s one use of those books.