By Nina Renata Aron, Crown, 304 pages, $27
Stories of codependency are quite rare. Aside from the odd self-help book, the story of the codependent doesn’t share much shelf space with the muscular, gritty stories of addicts themselves. And, with the notable exceptions of women like Carrie Fisher and Mary Karr, the culturally celebrated addict is often male (to say nothing of their whiteness): Thomas De Quincey, John Cheever, Denis Johnson, David Carr.
The altogether less glamorous role of the codependent, sitting in the rusty sidecar attached to the death-driven motorbike of addiction, is often assigned to women. “Codependency is a girl’s song,” Nina Renata Aron writes in her new memoir Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls. Its “sounds,” she writes, are those “of the busying and tidying of the quietly controlling. The sniveling and whimpering of the long overlooked, the caterwaul of the brokenhearted.”
Aron’s book is stunning. I came to it as a reader with extensive experience with addiction and codependency; reading it was like a first sip of water after a 20-mile run in the heat. Aron is not only a master of metaphor but also a brilliant researcher who braids the story of a romantic life lost to codependency with a variety of other texts, including Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
Aron describes three types of addicts: the ones, like her boyfriend, K, whose addiction keeps them from leading normal adult lives; the ones whose addiction is an open secret “like a pervert in church”; and finally, the ones whose addiction nobody knows about. For a long time, I fell into the final category. For weeks or months at a time, I binged on all kinds of drugs — luckily, I didn’t share K’s love of heroin — and relied on benzodiazepines and marijuana to get me through the periods in between. Mine wasn’t the brutal, masculine story of a nose-dive into the netherworlds of addiction. Like Aron, I did drugs or got drunk and then woke up the next day to carry on with my life.
Aron writes harrowingly of doing methadone (“government heroin”) with K and then throwing a birthday party for her son the next day, shivering and vomiting throughout. I can’t count the number of times I struggled similarly, showing up to family or social events hungover and sweaty with guilt. I didn’t seek help because I wasn’t nose-diving — I didn’t think my story was worth telling, or even counted as a story at all. There was always someone else who seemed to be suffering more than me: male friends and lovers who “partied harder,” whom I was concerned had substance-abuse problems but whose substance abuse I aided and abetted with my own. Even in the midst of my own addiction, I was always answering panicked texts and giving relationship advice and tidying wrecked living rooms and anxiously awaiting reports of well-being. Like Aron, I was a codependent, doing women’s work for the male addicts around me.
There is a saying in 12-step programs that the addict is “living in insanity.” This means what you’d expect it to mean — that she does the same thing over and over despite life-threateningly negative consequences. K frames his heroin dependency as an ethics of punk nihilism — at one point, he insists that he can’t live sober in a world where a three-year-old Syrian boy’s body could wash up on a Turkish beach. But Aron sees past this and acknowledges the senselessness of K’s actions and her own. No matter how wrecked the world — whether it be by climate change, electoral discord, or CoViD-19 — the logic of the addict still doesn’t add up. The compulsion to shoot, snort, drink, or smoke a substance again and again and again wears at the soul, rendering the addict the dispatcher of a single, tired duty — an obligation that was fun a thousand grams or ounces ago but isn’t fun anymore.
The codependent, bound by the addicting need to love, must stand witness to the brutalization of two souls: her beloved’s and her own. This is perhaps why the title of Aron’s book is taken from Carry Nation, a 19th-century temperance crusader who took hatchets to bar tops and greeted bartenders as “destroyers of men’s souls.” For Aron, the insanity of K’s addiction left a human-shape void where a lover, boyfriend, and stepfather could have been.
If you’ve been an addict or loved an addict, Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls will enter your bloodstream and overtake your mind in the most serious way. But even if you have no experience with addiction or codependency, this book is an essential read. It shows us that addicts are more than statistics, their codependents more than “sniveling, whimpering, and brokenhearted.” These are real people, rendered by Aron with eye-opening complexity and dynamism. In this book, the underrepresented and overlooked world of the codependent emerges from the bargain basement of self-help and shopworn homilies into the realm of love and loathing, birth and death, blood and urine. Into the realm, in other words, of the literary.
Here we see that women can not only minister to addicts but be addicts themselves, and that the whole messy, dangerous, love-bound struggle is more common than one might think. There is a war of attrition being waged by addiction and codependency against millions of American souls, and Aron’s memoir is a powerful strike back.