Shulgan’s memoir about his drug-addicted parenthood is a confrontation with destructive ideas of masculinity. But not all of it rings true.
There’s a scene in The Big Chill—the early ’80s comedy starring Tom Berenger, Glenn Close, and Jeff Goldblum—where Goldblum’s character makes an observation that has since been repeated in so many dinner party conversations, boardroom meetings, and intro psych classes, it’s become something of a cliché: “I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. Ever gone a week without?”
It’s a cliché, of course, because it rings painfully true to all but the most self-deluded: rationalization is, in a very meaningful sense, the only thing that keeps us sane. Sneak a brownie despite your diet? Don’t worry, it would have gotten thrown out otherwise. Or stick to your diet and get rid of the brownie, wasting precious food? It’s better off thrown away; the hungry should be eating healthier snacks anyway. See? Rationalization is a vital tool for making us feel we’re living life correctly.
Like the Force though—and you’ll see why the Star Wars metaphor is relevant in a moment—that redemptive, positive power of rationalization can all too easily become a destructive one. If you’ve ever convinced yourself that one more beer won’t hurt, one more cigarette isn’t such a bad idea, or five more minutes of sleep will give you the energy to face the day—well, you know exactly what I mean.
But the people most familiar with the dangers of rationalization are the ones who’ve suffered from addiction—and that’s the backdrop for Christopher Shulgan’s new memoir, Superdad: A Memoir of Rebellion, Drugs and Fatherhood (Key Porter Books, CAD$29.95).
Shulgan is a 30-something Canadian magazine writer who finds himself, in the middle of the last decade, expecting the birth of his first son and simultaneously developing an ever-escalating crack habit (yes, crack). Even at the start of his book, before the growing horror of so many holy-shit-this-guy-is-out-of-control chapters, we can see his rationalization faculties kicking into overdrive. “Recall that drug problem I mentioned?” he says, in chapter one:
Recall I thought it solved? Well, I considered it so solved that having a few beers was fine. Also fine was having a lot of beers. My drug problem was so long in the past that on the fourth night after I learned we were going to have a baby, on an evening out that fell on New Year’s Eve, at a party where the stuff was around, I thought it was okay for cocaine to get me to 6 a.m. on that holiday of fresh beginnings and renewal. … I chalked up that New Year’s as a one-time thing.
Except, of course, it ends up not being a one-time thing: soon it’s is a five-time thing—each lapse more elaborately rationalized than the last—and before we know it Shulgan has spiralled from a few lines at a party every now and then to trawling Toronto’s parks until 5 a.m. scoring rocks and getting high. Then he’s doing it at home. Then he’s doing it at home while his wife is at work and he’s in charge of their one-year-old son. Then he’s considering leaving his son unsupervised to go score, telling himself it will only take 20 minutes. It’s no small mercy, for the reader as much as for his family, when finally he comes to his senses and gets himself some help.
If we can witness Shulgan’s delicate ballet of rationalization while he’s in the throes of addiction, however, that’s nothing compared to the Olympic-level backflips he performs as an on-the-wagon memoirist. Because the ultimate culprit behind his crack addiction, he tells us, straight-faced—and here’s where the Star Wars trope returns—is Harrison Ford:
Movies formed some of the best times of my youth. They also contributed to the formation of my masculine ideal. Think of the heroes who populated the movies of the ’80s. This was an era when Hollywood celebrated the lone wolf, the outlaw anti-hero, the troubled, the tragic, the flawed individual nevertheless working on the side of the right and the good. James Bond, Rambo, and most of all, the vulnerable anti-heroes played by Harrison Ford … The apex of Ford’s career was perfectly timed to encourage his archetypes to resonate in my young mind.
Harrison Ford’s masculine ideals were, he says, only part of a much more insidious brainwashing by contemporary Western culture, which also constructs an image of “good fathers” as bumbling Mr. Nice Guys who are diametrically opposed to “real” men. So when Shulgan’s own fatherhood looms, he suddenly feels as if he has to give up his entire manhood—and crack becomes a way for him to reassert some sense of that fleeting independence and identity. The struggle he shares with us in this book, in fact, is less with drug addiction than with masculinity itself.
That argument is well taken, and I suspect it rings true to several of today’s sensitive young dads—but you’ll excuse me if I call bullshit on it all the same. BoingBoing’s Cory Doctorow calls Superdad a “brave” memoir that “humanizes” crack addiction, but I don’t buy it. There are plenty of other middle-class intellectual white guys out there who struggle with their masculinity without resorting to crack cocaine, and there are plenty of low-income high-school-dropout black guys who freebase constantly, and seldom does either group suggest the blame lies with “our culture” and Hollywood.
I don’t mean to dump on a recovering addict, and I think it’s great that Shulgan is finally trying to take responsibility for his poor choices. (He first tried crack as research for a novel, he tells us, so let’s not pretend he didn’t bring this on himself.) I really do hope his recovery is permanent. He sounds like a loving father these days, and he’s certainly an excellent writer. But taking responsibility means taking responsibility—saying, “Yup, I messed up.” It means doing so without also trying to rationalize away one’s past mistakes. For all his soul-searching, Shulgan’s defense rings hollow and insincere.
Of course, that’s not to say there aren’t systemic cultural patterns that can place certain people at a higher risk of developing drug problems. For precisely that reason, though, it strikes me as deeply troubling and deeply hypocritical that a privileged Toronto man gets to pick up his addiction on a lark, write a memoir about his journey of personal epiphany, and still drive away in his Volkswagon—while at the same time plenty of other addicts are born into a world where they’re surrounded by drugs from the get-go, are instantly demonized if they start using, and more often than not end up exploited or dead because of it.
In that light, Shulgan’s book isn’t valuable so much for its explicit analysis of modern attitudes surrounding fatherhood as for the implicit assumptions it reveals in contemporary attitudes surrounding drugs. When minorities and the poor are addicted to crack, they’re the scourges of society—but a rich white guy can leverage the same into a book deal. I wonder how we’ll ever rationalize that.
—Read Andrew Ladd’s earlier reviews here.