Monday, July 23, 2012

Book Review: GUTS by Kristen Johnston

GUTS:  The Endless Follies and Tiny Triumphs of a Giant Disaster by Kristen Johnston
Galleria Books, March 13, 2012   ISBN 978-1-4516-3505-8 (Hardcover)

Many addiction memoirists offer up in lurid detail their most horrifying experiences when their addiction had complete control over their lives and behavior.  The author/addict gives the reader a front-row seat to the worst moments of his or her life with a focus on the horrors of being an addict.   Johnston’s talent enables her to write a memoir which explains both the universality and her individual experience of addiction.   Her writing style is incredibly accessible, but never misleading, as she tackles this most difficult territory.  If addiction memoirs seem “scary” to you, then read it for the “funny.”  Johnston still will be able to slip you lots of insight and understanding. 

Johnston grows up (and she means that literally; she is just shy of six feet by the age of 12) in a Catholic family in an affluent Milwaukee suburb.  She is bullied by classmates at her parochial grammar school for the gross offense of “being different” or “other.”  As a day-dreaming book lover, Johnston focuses on the future.  Her discovery that she is funny is a life-saving grace.  She goes to NYU’s Tisch School of Drama and studies acting.  She works extremely hard and, at age 24, is cast as “Rose” in Howard Korder’s play The Lights, and the production moves to Lincoln Center.  There she is spotted by television producers, who want her to audition for a new show they are creating:  3rd Rock From The Sun.  The sitcom becomes a huge hit, and runs from 1996 through 2001. Johnston’s performance as Sally Solomon garners her 3 Emmy Awards as Outstanding Supporting Actress – Comedy Series.  She also becomes an acclaimed feature film actress.  After 3rd Rock is cancelled, she resumes a successful career in the theater, and continues to make television and film appearances. 

Now, that’s how it all looks from the outside.  The inside scoop, however, is that Johnston is not a happy, healthy person.  She is a functioning alcoholic and addict who manages to continue to work.  Yet she uses much of her energy and ingenuity to acquire drugs, remain in denial, and lie about her drinking and addiction, thinking nobody was the wiser.  Her success and celebrity doesn’t make her feel better about herself.  Only booze and opiates make her feel better.

Johnston gives the best explanation I’ve ever heard as to why people become addicts:

“Now, the reaction of the drug addict’s brain is just slightly different.  It goes a little something like Yes!  Yes!  Thank you!!!  This is what I’ve been waiting for all these years.  I finally feel normal, I finally feel happy!  MORE MORE MORE MORE MORE MORE…  And that’s what makes me suspect that addiction might just have a little something to do with people’s different brain chemistries and isn’t just because we’re lazy, pleasure-seeking narcissists, hell-bent on ruining our lives.”

While in London to do a play in December 2006, Johnston, age 39, has her “Giant Disaster.” She is unaware that she had a gastric ulcer.  She consumes her usual mass quantities of alcohol, and she also is able to purchase codeine over the counter in England.   However, the codeine is combined with aspirin, and Johnston’s daily intake far exceeds the recommended limit 8 pills per day.  Then, while alone in her hotel room one night, her gastric ulcer bursts, and Johnston actually spills her guts.  (Her surgeon later explains that the erosion of her gastrointestinal wall has led to her intestinal content spilling into her abdominal cavity, causing acute peritonitis.)  The paucity of kindness Johnston receives from most of the hospital staff is no match for the lack of compassion she shows herself.  She denies herself the comfort of having her mother there in a misguided attempt to prove she doesn’t need anyone and that she is in control of this situation.  Johnston also checks herself out of the hospital prematurely in order to return to the play as she doesn’t want the producers to lose money.  Fortunately, the stage manager of the play realizes just how ill Johnston is, and insists she returns to hospital.  Her surgeon explains she has developed an infection as the result of surgery, and if she leaves again, she will die.  The penny finally drops.  Johnston faces the truth about how she alone is responsible for her near demise during the two-month recovery in the isolation of her hospital room.  She also realizes that she alone is responsible for her salvation.  When she is well enough to return to the U.S., she gets herself into rehab.

What makes Kristen Johnston’s memoir Guts a stand-out is the way in which she tells her story.  She possesses the tremendous gift of having a unique voice as a writer, a voice which is unsparingly honest, in-your-face, and uproariously funny and ribald, as well as vulnerable and wise.  I cannot wait for her to write another book!