by Jerry Waxler
This is the second part of my interview with memoir author Tim Elhajj about his memoir, “Dopefiend: A Father’s Journey from Addiction to Redemption,” in which he portrays his recovery from heroin addiction in the Twelve Step program. Dopefiend provides a fresh, authentic look at this subject, which has been written about in many other books. It’s a question that arises for many memoir writers: “How do I portray my own individual perspective on a topic that has already received wide coverage?”
In the first part of the interview, we discuss shame, self-acceptance, and anonymity. In the third part, we will talk about writing and publishing. In the third part of the interview, Elhajj talks about writing the book and publishing it.
Jerry Waxler: Dope Fiend is a wonderful insight into the Twelve Steps, for several reasons. Probably at the top of my list is your relationship with your sponsor. He seems to be like a guardian angel. I am fascinated by the great relationship you developed with him. The way I read this relationship, the man himself was somewhat distant and insc`-rutable. I guess that’s a good thing, because it wasn’t about him. His main act seemed to be to ask you if your actions matched your basic principles. Perfect.
I wonder if you could comment on the way you included your sponsor, who was clearly made a crucial contribution to your journey. What decisions did you make about portraying him? Did you feel you needed to protect him, or hide him, because of his privacy and anonymity? Any light you can shed on your portrayal of his character would be interesting.
Tim Elhajj: My sponsor was a huge factor in my success. I wanted to show the reader how that relationship worked for me, but I didn’t want to lose sight of the bigger story, the story about my relationship with my son. I think in some ways my relationship with my sponsor echoes the parental relationship I was trying to build with my son. My sponsor’s willingness to express his love for me is a nice foil for those first few hesitant steps I took reaching out to my son, offering him small praise or just the time required to pass a baseball back and forth. My sponsor was an important and necessary part of the story, but I also wanted him to be somewhat anonymous, to fall out of the story after his appearance on stage. This is what twelve step fellowships are about–part of the wonder of how these programs work is that people from all different walks are thrust together in common cause, recovery. It’s transitory by nature. To protect his privacy, I changed my sponsor’s name, as I did with most everyone’s name. Only my wife and I have our real names used in the book.
Jerry Waxler: The Higher Power often presents a big obstacle for people who first try to embrace the Twelve Steps. And yet, it is a fundamental part of the program. In her memoir, “Lit’ Mary Karr spends a lot of time worrying about whether to accept a Higher Power. “Is there really a God? Am I really praying?” In your memoir, you did not express or seem to feel any reluctance about this aspect of the Twelve Steps, and if you fretted about it at all, it was so brief and mild, I missed it. Your acceptance of these principles turned the book, into a subtle, understated ode to spirituality.
That’s my perception. Tell me about your intentions. Did you intentionally downplay your internal debate about Higher Power, or did you simply absorb and accept that part of the teaching? During the creation of the memoir, what sort of decisions did you make about how to portray this aspect?
Tim Elhajj: I have always believed in God, but I have also always been somewhat cynical about the practical value of this belief. I am especially skeptical about religion. Spirituality, though, seems a bit different to me. At least, the type of spirituality I have learned by practicing the steps. If I can develop enough faith in myself, the courage to move forward despite my own fears–concrete ways to practice these and all the spiritual values embodied in the steps–then I am capable of making great changes in the way I live my life. To me, it’s all very practical. And, I would say, very spiritual, too.
Jerry Waxler: I saw that you offer group discussion topics. What sorts of groups have you found interested in working with these questions?
Tim Elhajj: I think you are talking about the reading guide posts I’m publishing on the blog for Dopefiend. Each month, I write a short post that explores some aspect of the spiritual value assigned to one of the chapters or a meditation on the step associated with the value. I try to tie the action of the chapter into the value used in each of the chapter headings, as well as some thoughtful questions for the reader. I try not to add any spoilers, so feel free to read them over, even if you haven’t read the book.
I plan to do reading guide for all twelve chapters. I’m about to post the one for chapter four any day now. I hope they encourage people to buy the book, or at the very least consider the questions. I’d invite everyone to check it out: http://dopefiend.telhajj.com/category/reading-guide/
For brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.