Long-time readers may have noticed that all the non book-related Sweets dropped off the blog a few months ago. My “about me” also reads more professionally, rather than as an attempt at a humorous dating profile. As I delve back into the writing life with more consistency, these moves are calculated to build my “platform,” and solidify my “brand” as a funky taste-maker when it comes to books. Publishers look at things like “platform” and “brand” when they consider taking you on, and even though thinking about things like that makes my head hurt, I’ve decided to make Sweet with Fall and Fish as shiny and pretty for company as I can.
I told you that so I can tell you this: despite my attempts to focus on books rather than myself, this post gets personal. In keeping with book recommendations, I’m going to hang it on reading Amber Tozer’s Sober Stick Figure. Feel free to skip this if you’re just wondering whether it’s a memoir worth picking up.
“Self-obsession can be a slow and tricky killer that drags you to a very dark place in your mind and says mean things to you until you feel like dying.”
-Amber Tozer, Sober Stick Figure
I attempted suicide in second grade, when I jumped out the window of my childhood bedroom. I was eight years old. I’d been wearing my best clothes for weeks – a red blazer over various checkered button-down shirts, and corduroy pants rather than jeans – and giving away toys to classmates. I was also practicing. I tried stabbing myself, which meant holding a steak knife pointed towards my stomach for a long time and failing to find the nerve to ram it home, run into the wall with it, or fall onto it. I tried hanging myself by tying the belt from my bathrobe to a plant hook in the ceiling, but the hook ripped out when I jumped off the bed. My parents didn’t have pills or guns, so I finally settled on jumping from my third floor window.
I don’t remember opening the window, or taking the screen out and setting it aside, or crawling into the window. I do remember laying on the sill, scrunched up, feeling the cold winter air on my face, and looking at the snow-covered ground below. If I drew a picture of that moment now, of leaning forward until I fell, it would be black lines rushing from the ground, coming to grab me.
When I didn’t come down to dinner or answer my mother’s calls, she came upstairs and found the bedroom door locked. I could hear her frantic cries. I yelled up at her to use a screwdriver to open the door (if you had those doorknobs in the seventies, then you know what I’m talking about). She did and found my bedroom empty (it must have been freezing in there by that point). I was standing in the snow in my nice outfit, looking up, waiting for her silhouette to appear. She yelled down.
I was an imaginative child, the kind who wore a blanket as a cape and went around baring plastic fangs, the kind who wore Halloween costumes in the summer. I’m sure she expected to hear something about how I thought I could fly.
“I wanted to kill myself.”
“I wanted to kill myself.”
“I don’t know.”
Then I began to cry, and the practical matters of getting me out of the snow, into the warm house, and fed took over. The five of us – my parents, my fifteen year old brother, and my thirteen year old sister – ate diner in silence. We’ve never talked about that night. Our family limped along for several more years before we started therapy.
My dad got sober, then he started Alcoholics Anonymous and he and my mother started Adult Children of Alcoholics, my siblings and I started Children of Alcoholics and one-on-one counseling. The timeline on all of this is fuzzy, but I remember how neatly we all fit into the roles that being in an alcoholic family assigned to us – my brother, the Hero; my sister, the Scapegoat; and me, the Lost Child (“who frequently attempts suicide, often without even knowing why,” I read with a jolt).
Waiting for the bus to take us downtown to Armory Square for my COA meeting and her one-on-one counseling, I told my mother I was sick of going. She told me it wouldn’t be forever. After two years of being forced to talk about things I didn’t want to talk about, of painfully digging for feelings I couldn’t even identify, I wanted a definitive cutoff point.
“Well,” she reasoned, “it took you fourteen years to get this way. It might take another fourteen years to get you healthy.”
“Jesus, so I’ll be doing these stupid meetings until I’m twenty-eight? Great pep talk, Mom. Thanks.”
I’ll be forty-four this year, and being healthy at twenty-eight sounds like a dream. Instead, I’m still dealing with this shit. This shit being my childhood. It’s because of my son (every time Dylan pointedly says, “Stepson” I think of how he used to call me “daddy” until his biological father felt threatened and put a stop to it, how if I was a different person I’d point that out to Dylan, how I die a little inside when he does it but I don’t think it’s the right fight and that my being there for him for the last seven years will have to speak for itself… damn, that’s a lot to contain in one syllable).
I fly into blind rages that have nothing to do with his behavior (or at least, nothing that he shouldn’t be doing as a child), and everything to do with how I grew up. This is the worst, most unlovely thing about me: I am jealous of my son’s childhood.
I should be proud, proud of myself and my wife for being able to give Dylan so much, proud of him for doing so well. Instead, I’m poisoned with bitterness because he doesn’t appreciate what he has. My childhood is mostly a blank, but clearly some nasty things lurk behind that blank. And in being jealous of a child for being happy, I can almost see those lurking shapes.
My grandfather belted his children and wife around on a regular basis. My father became passive-aggressive instead, lashing out physically only on rare (but memorable!) occasions, and only towards his children. Did he hit us to show us how lucky we were that we weren’t beaten more? Did he want to show us how bad it could get, how bad his own childhood was? I think so. Remember, we don’t talk about the early days of our family.
My dad has more than thirty years of sobriety, and we don’t talk about it.
So why, oh why, did I pick up a drinking memoir without realizing it would touch a nerve?
Amber Tozer is clever and funny, tossing off lines like “He had moved into… an old apartment building that seemed like it was built specifically for old men who regretted their choices in life” with a comic’s practiced voice, refusing to feel sorry for herself or aggrandize anything. In fact, she admits at several points that her memoir is probably disappointing to people looking for tragedy and darkness. So if that’s your tipple, search elsewhere. Nothing earth-shattering happens in Sober Stick Figure.
Except the times you feel like you’re reading about yourself, about your own struggles to find yourself, about the hurt and heartache that’s made worse because you know you’re the one causing it. With a combination of humor, stick drawings, self-deprecation, and self-awareness, Tozer never devolves into self-pity or makes her situation seem more desperate than it is.
She does unloveable things, but you never stop rooting for her, because you did some dumb shit when you were young, too. Of course she gets sober in the end, because why else would there be a book, and when she finally does it feels like grace.
In the final pages of her memoir, Tozer includes a letter she wrote to her alcoholic father for therapy (“I thought this was such a cheesy thing to do and was like, ‘Oh, okay. Great, write a letter to my dead dad, then what, talk to my inner child?'”). Reading that letter brought me to blubbery tears in the shower.
As a book, Sober Stick Figure works on a lot of levels. It’s funny, despite the subject matter, which is always good. She strikes the perfect tone so you can read it and say, “Thank God that’s not me” without feeling bad about yourself, which is also good (and often what people go to drinking memoirs for). But that letter, so open, so raw, when the rest of the book uses humor to keep the reader at some remove… it will bring you to blubbery tears, too, sober father or not.
That letter makes the book special, and it wouldn’t work without all the lighthearted darkness that comes before it.
Basically Amber Tozer tricked me, just in time. If she hadn’t, then I’d still be exploding at my innocent son and wondering why, instead of picking up a shovel and digging through the graveyard that is my childhood.
So if you like memoirs and you’re looking for a good one, then Amber Tozer’s Sober Stick Figure will scratch you where you itch.
But if your family has walked some of the same roads as hers, then reading it might just change your life.