A family steeped in 12-step recovery risks addiction to 12-step programs.
Heatley (My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down, 2008), who has provided illustrations for the New York Times, New Yorker, McSweeney’s, and other publications, pairs deceptively simple drawings with transparently direct text. Though the book is divided into 12 chapters, it doesn’t really involve working all 12 steps until the last. Before that, Heatley delves deeply into a life that is as complex and messy as any, that refuses to untangle through easy epiphanies, and that doesn’t resolve itself the way readers may anticipate. Throughout his life, the artist has been drawn to—and suspicious of—12-step programs since his parents were involved in numerous ones, often simultaneously. He heard the jargon and witnessed the results as his mother transformed herself (at least temporarily) through Overeaters Anonymous and changed the family’s dynamic enough to divorce his father, who had issues with debt (and at least borderline sexual abuse of his sons). At various times, the author was addicted to pornography, spending, shoplifting, and attracting romantic attention. He and his wife fought frequently, most often over their financial instability but about his various 12-step programs as well, which she felt he was using as an escape from domestic tension. He felt he was becoming addicted to those arguments. He saw his brother walk a thin line between spiritual fervor and madness, and he resented the way that his mother responded to every complication in any of their lives with 12-step bromides. He supplemented his programs with therapy, and he found counseling and 12-stepping to be at odds with each other. “It was clear to me that I had a spiritual disease,” he admits, yet finding the cure proved confusing. This graphic narrative, rich in detail and reflection, shouldn’t be read quickly in one sitting but rather savored.
Heatley powerfully demonstrates that when lives are messiest, art remains cathartic, even redemptive.