The Space Between Addiction and Recovery

Joshua Mohr’s Sirens is one of the most brutally honest memoirs of 2017

Acclaimed novelist Joshua Mohr’s Sirens immediately earns a place on the list of great addiction memoirs, and then it gets better. Substance abuse, rationalizing, and guilt are the cohesive elements that bring Mohr’s personal narrative together, but failure, lost love, parenthood, the possibility of redemption, health issues, and a constant struggle against the monster of relapse are what ultimately turn this memoir a special reading experience and make it one of the most unapologetically searing and brutally honest nonfiction books indie publishing will see in 2017.

Jumping back and forth in time and ranging in tone from depressive to hilariously surreal, Mohr offers readers an unadorned and sometimes uncomfortably straightforward look at the stages of his life. From his early life drinking his mother’s leftover alcohol, his time spent as a substance abuser willing to experiment with anything and unable to see the damage he was doing to himself and others, and finally his days as a husband, devoted father, and heart surgery survivor, the author’s life is an open book from which he reads the juiciest, darkest, funniest, and most dangerous/cringe-inducing passages . In the process, he discusses writing, the nature of relationships, rehab, violence, and shame. The result is an outstanding memoir that is not only about addiction and recovery but also about all the things that occupy the space between those two things.

The writing in Sirens is very personal, but Mohr manages to pull the reader into the story of his life and to turn his experiences into something that everyone can learn from; the private story of an individual that, through sharing and questioning, becomes a collective experience full of lessons:

“What do you struggle with — what’s that one thing in your life that you wish to control, yet the compulsion spins constantly, relentlessly? We all have that seductive adversary, the voice in our head calling us to calamity. What’s yours?”

When writing about the self, there is usually a level of either detachment (usually steeped in practiced nonchalance) that helps the individual cope with the past/present or a shamelessly self-serving filtering and (re)constructing of the past in order to place the writer under a positive light. Neither one of these is present in Sirens. Instead, Mohr does something that, at first light, seems counterproductive but ends up working very well: he drags out his demons in an attempt to keep them at bay and opens up old scars to offer readers the blood of truth. Mohr did awful things in the past and still struggles with the pull of narcotics and alcohol, but he wants it all out there, wants his daughter to know her father won the battle despite having touched the bottom in a way that almost cost him his life:

“The MRI showed a lesion on my brain, a scar from a stroke in my past. When I mentioned my enthusiastic drug history to the neurologist, she said I probably had the first stroke when I was a loaded and might not have known. I imagined myself sitting at a dive bar, coked up and twisted on whiskey, and stroking right there, surrounded by other sorrow machines, me speaking in tongues, brain curdling, and no one noticing, including me.”

“I’ve told you terrible things about myself in this book, and while I’m not a Nazi doctor, I do question my own worth,” writes Mohr. This moral questioning can be found throughout the memoir, and asking the question and seriously pondering it becomes more important than arriving at a conclusion. In fact, Sirens is about uncertainty and changing, about duality and knowing one familiar road is always there, beckoning, but having the willpower to take a different, unknown one for the sake of that which we love most. Yes, this is a true story about a man coming to terms with his mistakes and knowing that a bad step leading back to the abyss is always a possibility, but it is also a narrative about learning that love is perhaps the most powerful motivator in the world.

Perhaps one of the best things about this memoir is that its author systematically avoided the elements readers expect to find in the genre. Mohr plays with time and his own chronology. He talks to a dog and to the ghost of Dr. Forssmann, a man responsible for the operation that saved his life who also happened to be a Nazi doctor. He deals with the emotional and intellectual battles of addiction, loss, relapse, and rehab. He deconstructs his actions in order to understand himself, and the writing that emerges out of that process is at once heartfelt and humorous, entertaining and uncomfortable to read, slightly fantastic and as full of pain and regret as only the best nonfiction can be.

Mohr already demonstrated his is a superb storyteller with his novels, and Sirens now proves he is just as great at writing nonfiction. This memoir is touching and funny in ways that feel natural. It is a study in what it means to be a parent and about learning to accept the inherent multiplicity of human nature. In a way, Mohr becomes a philosopher, even when he never mentions occupying that skin in this book. His words grant him that title and make Sirens a very exciting addition to Two Dollar Radio’s already amazing catalog.

“We are never just one thing. I was never only the heart defect, only the author or junkie or husband or father or professor or drunk. I wear all these layers of skin. Like stars creating a constellation.”

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