Seated on a plump leather sofa in his Chelsea apartment, Jamie Brickhouse is visibly in his element. It’s a fitting environment for an interview, given that the rooms, the furniture, the very air are steeped with the experiences that inspired Dangerous When Wet, his debut memoir. His history of alcoholism is evident in the antique (and fully stocked) bar tucked away in a corner of the living room. The presence of his mother, the straight-talking Texan matriarch of the family, Mama Jean, remains palpable in the apartment she helped buy; portraits of her are scattered throughout the living room. Mama Jean always insisted that her son was meant to be a writer, but it wasn’t until after her death in 2009 that Brickhouse joined a writing workshop and decided to make a go of it.
“I guess since rehab,” he explains, “I had been thinking about writing a memoir about addiction. I started this workshop when I was still raw from my mother's death, and the first thing I wrote in that workshop was—it's in the book, in a much better version—when I tell her I'm not coming home for Thanksgiving.” Thanksgivings, he explains, were sacred in the Brickhouse family, and to a mother who perceived any act of defiance as proof that he had stopped loving her, to skip the holiday was tantamount to announcing that he never wanted to see Mama Jean again. "That piece wasn't ostensibly about my alcoholism, it was about my relationship with her, but it had the undercurrent of booze. So, organically, the first piece I wrote about was my relationship with her and booze, and I saw how much they were interrelated.”
Moving forward with the text was far from easy, Brickhouse recalls, despite the years of therapy and stints in rehab following his spiral into alcoholism and related suicide attempt. His account is buoyed by an almost feverish prose to match the manic life of drinking and sex, yet all the while undercut by a grounded, biting sense of humor. “I was a few steps ahead of other people, I think, in writing an honest memoir because I was so used to being honest and talking about that stuff. It was a huge help. But,” he continues, “it was still at times painful. I didn't break down and flail about on the floor, but there were times when I got weepy and would have to stop and have a moment. Whether I was writing about my suicide attempt, or writing about the time that I finally decided to not drink—that last moment when my drink date was cancelled and I took that as a sign—to my mother's death and decline, those were moments that I relived that emotionally.
“And I was still in the closet about being HIV positive. There were only a handful of friends. I had never told my mother, I hadn't told my father at that point, and I wavered. When I went out to sell the book, I first wasn't going to include it, because I thought, ‘Well I can tell the story without saying that I'm HIV positive.’ But the more I thought about it, I realized that it is, actually, crucial to the story. In my case, I became positive as a consequence of my drinking. I don't judge anyone who becomes positive stone cold sober, but that's my story. Now I'm proud to own it, and I hope it helps—the more people who own it, I think, takes the stigma away of being HIV positive.”
Confronting his life so directly not only aided understandings of his own life, but it added to his relationship with his father. While he passed away late last year, Earl was able to read a completed manuscript, and Brickhouse says that it sparked a dialogue that he hadn’t realized he’d been missing. “I really did need him to approve more than I realized. I needed his blessing, and he loved it,” he says, stipulating that he expressed an amount of reservation about the inclusion of the very memorable Chapter 13, in which crystal meth and a dwarf combine to leave a lasting impression.
At its heart, Dangerous When Wet is about the two most powerful forces in Brickhouse’s life: Mama Jean and booze. And what would the fiery spirit who gave birth to him make of the no-holds-barred account of Dionysian debauchery?
“She was honest to a fault,” Brickhouse says, “and a realist. I don't think she would dispute anything in here. She might have said, ‘Goddammit! You didn't have to tell that story about the tobacco leaf rabbit,’ but she wouldn’t say it didn't happen. I think it would have been difficult for her to read some of the stuff about me, more than her, just like it was for my father. But in the end, I think she would have given it her seal of approval.”
James McDonald is a British-trained historian and a New York–based writer.