THE QUESTION OF WHETHER artists are more susceptible to abuse, or whether we historically liked to think they were, reverberated throughout the 20th century. The drinking and drug habits of several writers became a subject of morbid curiosity for their audiences, who continue to accumulate anecdotal evidence of addiction as if it were the key to understanding genius. When asked by “dumb psychiatrists” why he used heroin, the narrator in William S. Burroughs’ autobiographical first novel “Junky” (1953) replied, “I need it to stay alive.”
The heart-wrenching romantic ideas of writer-addicts aren’t exclusive to white men, though of course there’s a double standard. For white men, drunkenness has long been a kind of social currency, an interesting quirk of the mind, while women and minorities who indulge too much break one of our last remaining cultural taboos. Americans don’t seem to experience the same curiosity about the addictions of a black or brown writer, but something closer to fear—indeed, the poisonous myth of the black drug user as a menacing criminal has fueled decades of racist laws overwhelmingly targeting and lock up everyone who is not white Female addicts are not seen as heroic but as mentally ill. Heather Clark, in the beginning of her 2020 biography of Sylvia Plath, quotes literary biographer Hermione Lee: “Women writers whose lives have dealt with abuse, mental illness, self-harm, suicide, have often been treated biographically as victims or psychological cases histories in the first and as professional writers second.” For female artists, substance use is generally grouped under the larger umbrella of insanity, historically a sort of ratline to institutionalization, often against their will, for women ranging from Zelda Fitzgerald to Britney Spears.
Which brings us to Dad. It would be impossible to talk about addiction among artists without mentioning the immense privilege Ernest Hemingway still enjoys as the standard-bearer of masculine masculinity and brilliance, despite the fact that alcohol hurt him immensely. In the 2020 Danish comedy “Another Round,” a group of friends experiment by spending most of their waking lives lightly intoxicated, citing a debunked idea that a constant, low level of intoxication — the equivalent of being constantly intoxicated from one to two glasses of wine — is the optimum condition for humans. (“You’re more relaxed, balanced and musical and open,” says one of the friends. “Braver in general.”) They test this theory by adhering to what they call, however questionable, Hemingway’s own standard: Stop every day at 8 o’clock in the evening with drinking to be fresh in the morning. The plan, like many with drugs or alcohol, works well until it stops working.