At the end of 1989, David Foster Wallace was admitted to McLean Hospital, the psychiatric hospital associated with Harvard University, for substance addiction. He was twenty-seven years old and increasingly desperate for help. He had already experienced literary fame with his college novel, “The Broom of the System,” and sunk into obscurity with his postmodern short-story cabinet of wonders, “Girl with Curious Hair” (twenty-two hundred copies sold in hardcover). His most recent stop, as a graduate student in philosophy at Harvard, had lasted only a few weeks. His private life was hardly less uneven. He had attempted suicide the year before, in his family home, and had also gone from being a marijuana addict to an alcoholic, mostly drinking alone and in front of the television. Most dreadfully, he felt that he could no longer write well. He was unsure whether the problem was lack of focus, lack of material, or a lack of ambition. Granada House was to be the improbable solution to this problem, altering his approach to his work and putting him on the road to producing, in remarkably short order, his masterpiece, “Infinite Jest.”
The four weeks Wallace spent at McLean in November 1989 changed his life. This was not his first or most serious crisis, but he felt now as if he had hit a new bottom or a different kind of bottom. From the ashes to which he had reduced postmodernism a new sort of fiction was meant to arise, as he’d recently laid out in the essay “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young.” How else to understand the love note to the reader at the end of “Westward,” the last story he’d successfully written? But instead of rebirth, a prolonged dying had followed, and for the past year the corpse had moldered. Wallace hadn’t even been able to finish a nonfiction piece without help since 1987. Never before had he worked so hard with so little to show for it.
Wallace was placed in a facility for alcoholics and depressives, with a large room for twelve-step meetings. The medical staff interviewed Wallace and told him that he was a hard-core alcohol and drug user and that if he didn’t stop abusing both he would be dead by thirty. Wallace in turn reported the news to his college roommate and close friend Mark Costello, who came the next day. “I’m a depressive, and guess what?” Wallace said. “Alcohol is a depressant!” He smiled through his tears, as if, Costello remembers, he “was unveiling a fun surprise to a five-year-old.” It was of course information Wallace knew already.
The program was meant to shake up the addict, and, with Wallace, it succeeded. Pulling him out of his old life and keeping him away from its temptations and habits helped. In the end, though, what mattered most was probably that the intoxicated Wallace was no longer writing successfully, which left open the hope that a sober one might. Wallace saw a therapist and went to meetings. He detoxed from the alcohol. Bonnie Nadell, his longtime literary agent, who was back in the Northeast to be with her family for Thanksgiving, came by to see her author a few weeks after his admission. Wallace was already calmer by then. He met Nadell and a couple of other friends in a brightly lit room full of other patients, all smoking and drinking black coffee. Wallace looked so ragged that Nadell borrowed a pair of scissors from the staff and cut his hair. But she was happy to see he was writing in a notebook. McLean was the storied holding tank for many literary depressives, from Sylvia Plath to Robert Lowell, and it occurred to Wallace’s friends that this gave him at least some comfort, that he thought of himself as at a mental-health Yaddo.
It was Wallace’s expectation that he would go back to Harvard after his stay at McLean. He was, after all, still enrolled in the graduate program. But the psychiatric staff kept advising him against it. He did not recognize himself in their phrase “hard-core recidivist,” but as the weeks went by he felt farther and farther away from his old self and must have begun, amid his anxiety about writing, to concede the point that survival had to come first. In any event, he chose to go to a halfway house in Brighton run by a woman who had worked in a psychology lab funded by NASA before she herself went into rehab. He hoped she would understand what he saw as the particular problems of a person as intelligent and educated as himself and provide support. It would be the next best thing to McLean, which Wallace was—Costello noted—sorry to have to leave. He had gotten used to the routines—the meetings, the therapy, the order, the prepared meals—not entirely unlike home. Brighton was a world away from Cambridge, and he did not know what to expect. Despite having written a book on rap, his knowledge of anything other than middle-class academic life was minimal. He wrote Nadell at the end of November, “I am getting booted out of here and transferred to a halfway house…. It is a grim place, and I am grimly resolved to go there.”
Granada House was on the grounds of the Brighton Marine hospital near the Massachusetts Turnpike. Wallace found it funny that a “marine hospital” should be nowhere near water. He gives a good picture of its fictional counterpart in “Infinite Jest”:
Unit #6, right up against the ravine on the end of the rutted road’s east side, is Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, three stories of whitewashed New England brick with the brick showing in patches through the whitewash, a mansard roof that sheds green shingles, a scabrous fire escape at each upper window and a back door no resident is allowed to use and a front office around on the south side with huge protruding bay windows that yield a view of ravine-weeds and the unpleasant stretch of Commonwealth Ave.
The compound consisted of seven buildings—“seven moons orbiting a dead planet,” as it is described in “Infinite Jest”—all leased to various substance-abuse and mental-health assistance groups. Wallace met Deb Larson, the director, at his new temporary home. Tall and blonde, she walked with a limp: drunk, she had fallen down in her kitchen, hitting her head, causing a partial paralysis. Even then she hadn’t stopped drinking. Wallace respected her. She was pretty and smart and gave him a link to an old life that was still his present—you could almost see Harvard from the top floor of the building. Recovery facilities tried to control the stress levels of their participants, and one activity they generally prohibited was school. Wallace had no choice but to call the philosophy department at Harvard and ask for a leave of absence. He was too humiliated to go back to get the vegetable juicer, a gift from his mother, that he had left behind in the graduate office.
Wallace was expected to find low-level work. The writer, whose only real skill was teaching and writing, cast around and was able—probably thanks to the presence on his resume of the head of Amherst College security as a reference—to get hired as a guard at Lotus Development, a large software company. Granada House rules stipulated a forty-hour workweek, so Wallace got up at 4:30 in the morning to take the Green Line subway and worked until 2 P.M., walking to a vast disk-packaging plant in Lechmere, clocking in his whereabouts every ten minutes and twirling his baton (or so he later said). He would tear pages out of his notebook and send letters to his friends, maintaining contact with the small group of editors and writers who were vital to him. The Lotus experience, he recalled in a later interview, reminded him of “every bad ’60s novel about meaningless authority,” but at the time he bore it well. “Give me a little time to get used to no recreational materials and wearing a polyester uniform and living with 4 tatooed ex-cons and I’ll be right as rain,” he wrote the editor and literary critic Steven Moore with ironic brio shortly after starting. Even inside Granada House, he managed to attend to the business of being a writer—following up on submissions to magazines and reading pages of stories he had coming out. He could see the strange side of his situation. When the galleys of his story “Order and Flux in Northampton” arrived from Conjunctions with a page missing, he told his editor Brad Morrow he could send it at his convenience. “I’m not going anywhere for Xmas,” he wrote.
But in his heart he was stunned with what had happened to him. “I am,” he wrote his former professor at Amherst Dale Peterson, “OK, though very humiliated and confused.” He was sharing a barracks-like room in Granada House with four men, one of whom, he wrote Rich C., who had been his twelve-step program sponsor the year before, had had a stroke while on cocaine and had a withered right side. “Mr. Howard,” he told his Norton editor, Gerry Howard, “everyone here has a tattoo or a criminal record or both!” To Peterson he reported, “Most of the guys in the house are inmates on release, and while they’re basically decent folk it’s just not a crowd I’m much at home with—Heavy metal music, black t-shirts & Harleys, vivid tattoos, discussion of hard-vs.-soft-time, parole boards, gunshot wounds and Walpole—” Massachusetts’s toughest prison. Wallace continued at his security job for more than two months, and then, unable to bear getting up so early, he quit. He went to work as a front desk attendant at the Mount Auburn Club, a health club in Watertown. His job was to check members in—he called himself a glorified towel boy—but one day Michael Ryan, a poet who had received a Whiting Award alongside him two years before, came to exercise. Wallace dove below the reception desk and quit that day.
Wallace’s friends were accustomed to his exaggerations and inventions over the years—they came with his clownish, hyperbolic persona—but when they visited him at the halfway house, they found that what he said was true: he had stepped through the looking glass. His friend Debra Spark, a fiction writer, remembers sitting in on a group therapy session with Wallace one day and being amazed to hear someone recount killing someone while drunk. All the same, Wallace found his place; order, no matter how foreign the context, was always easier for him than the unstructured world. He met with a counselor, as required, and nearly every evening he drove to different parts of the city with other Granada House members for substance-abuse meetings. His sponsor was named Jimmy, “a motorhead from the South Shore,” as he called him to the novelist David Markson, with whom he had begun a correspondence. Wallace read the Big Book and enjoyed making fun of its cheesy 1930s adman vocabulary to his friends: “tosspot,” “Dave Sheen heels,” “boiled as an owl.” “He laughed at them, but he also knew he needed them or he would die,” Mark Costello, who visited him at Granada House, remembers.
If Wallace found himself in unfamiliar territory, the residents didn’t know what to make of him either. One remembers wondering, “This guy can probably go to Betty Ford. Why’s he here with us welfare babies?” No one really cared for his cleverness. He was to them a type they’d seen before, someone who, like the character Geoffrey Day in “Infinite Jest,” tries to “erect Denial-type fortifications with some kind of intellectualish showing-off.” Wallace was back in high school, trying to figure out his place in the pack. “It’s a rough crowd,” he wrote Rich C., “and sometimes I’m scared or feel superior or both.” Yet a piece of him was beginning to adjust to the new situation. He remembered his last failed attempt to get sober and how he was no longer writing and asked himself what he had to lose. He came to understand that the key this time was modesty. “My best thinking got me here” was a recovery adage that hit home, or, as he translated it in “Infinite Jest,” “logical validity is not a guarantee of truth.” He knew it was imperative to abandon the sense of himself as the smartest person in the room, a person too smart to be like one of the people in the room, because he was one of the people in the room. “I try hard to listen and do what [they say],” he wrote Rich C., “I’m trying to do it easy … this time,” not “get an A+…. I just don’t have enough gas right now to do anything fast or well. I’m trying to accept this.”
Not that things came easily. The simple aphorisms of the program seemed ridiculous to him. And if he objected to them, someone inevitably told him to do what was in front of him to do, driving him even crazier. He was astonished to find people talking about “a higher power” without any evidence beyond their wish that there were one. They got down on their knees and said the Thankfulness prayer. Wallace tried once at Granada House, he told Costello, but it felt hypocritical. (All the same, Wallace liked to quote one of the veteran recovery members, the group known in “Infinite Jest” as “the crocodiles,” who told him, “It’s not about whether or not you believe, asshole, it’s about getting down and asking.”)
There were many times when he was sure he would start drinking again. “I’m scared,” he wrote Rich C. “I still don’t know what’s going to happen.” He asked his friend for some words of encouragement, and just when he thought he would give up, a letter arrived in which his former sponsor recounted the last time he had been in detox. “They gave me Librium,” he wrote Wallace, “and I threw them over my left shoulder for luck, and I’ve had good luck ever since.” The image, Wallace told his sponsor years later, was just the “good MFA-calibertrope” he’d needed.
Stunned as he was, Wallace understood from the beginning that his fall from grace was a literary opportunity. So in the midst of his misery, he was alive to the new information he was getting. The communal house, he would later write, “reeks of passing time. It is the humidity of early sobriety, hanging and palpable.” Wallace was known for sitting quietly, listening as residents talked for hours about their lives and their addictions. (Later, residents would often be surprised to find that though he had heard their stories they had not heard his.) The explanations people gave for their behavior startled him with their simplicity, but their voices—always his way in to composition—were unforgettable, and their stories had a clarity his lacked. This was the sort of access to interior lives a novelist could not get elsewhere. He was finding, as he later told an interviewer, that “nobody is as gregarious as someone who has recently stopped using drugs.” Where else could a writer find, as Wallace wrote in “Infinite Jest,” in a passage that sounds as if Lester Bangs had written it,
twenty-one other newly detoxed housebreakers, hoods, whores, fired execs, Avon ladies, subway musicians, beer-bloated construction workers, vagrants, indignant car salesmen, bulimic trauma-mamas, bunko artists, mincing pillow-biters, North End hard guys,pimply kids with electric nose-rings, denial-ridden housewives and etc., all jonesing and head-gaming and mokus and grieving and basically whacked out and producing nonstopping output 24-7-365.
Wallace and his notebook were a familiar sight in the communal rooms and recovery meetings, trapping little inspirations before they could get away.
Within a few months of arriving, Wallace had already drafted a scene centered on one of the most intriguing residents at Granada House, Big Craig. Big Craig—Don Gately in the novel—was one of the Granada House supervisors and sometimes the house cook. He had first met Wallace when he found the new resident’s stuff on his bunk and threw Wallace’s bag on the ground. Craig was in his mid-twenties, “sober and just huge,” as Wallace would later write in “Infinite Jest,” looking “less built than poured, the smooth immovability of an Easter Island statue.” Wallace quickly chose a different bed. (Craig didn’t trust Wallace when he first met him. “My suspicions were that he was just looking for material for a book,” he remembers.) Craig had grown up on the North Shore and been a burglar and Demerol addict. Friends closed elevator doors on his head for fun when he was a teenager, a detail Wallace would put into “Infinite Jest” too.
But he turned out not only to come from a different world but also to be quite sensitive. And it did not take Wallace long to see the possibilities in a lug with an interior life. There was a sort of Dostoevskian gloss to him, the redeemed criminal, and Dostoevsky was on Wallace’s mind. He wrote to Dale Peterson shortly after arriving that “going from Harvard to here” was like “House of the Dead… with my weeks in drug treatment composing the staged execution and last minute reprieve from same.” The reprieve, he hoped, would spur the same creative surge it did in the Russian.
[h/t: The New Yorker]