Successful failures

In the October 5th BMJ (subscription required) Dalrymple addresses author T. C. Boyle’s novel Killing Babies, in which a recovering addict is given a job working in his brother’s Detroit abortion clinic:
Failure is the dark underbelly of success; for every outstanding case of the latter, there are many cases of the former. Perhaps that is why the US author and philosophical anarchist Henry David Thoreau wrote that most men lead lives of quiet desperation (and go to the grave with the song, if any, still in them). The necessity of failure for there ever to be success also explains why, in so optimistic a land as the United States, so much of the literature is tragic; the land of opportunity is also the land of missed opportunity. The study of failure is in any case a more fertile subject for literature than success; failure is both more various and attractive than success.
Life in a quiet Detroit suburb (this was before the city imploded) is not for the protagonist. He searches for, and soon finds, drugs: “I can see now that the Desoxyn [methamphetamine] was a mistake. It was exactly the kind of thing that they’d warned us about. But it wasn’t coke and I just needed a lift, a buzz to work behind, and if he [the brother] did not want me to be tempted, then why had he left the key to the drug cabinet right there in the conch-shell ashtray on the corner of his desk?”
This is a shrewd illustration of the tendency of addicts to blame others, or circumstances, for their conduct. He has a gun and, irritated by the aggressive and even violent self-righteousness of the anti-abortion protesters, he starts shooting them: “It was easy. It was nothing. Just like killing babies. It is a regrettable fact that we often behave like, or worse than, those whom we most despise.”

6 thoughts on “Successful failures

  1. B Kay

    The methamphetamine certainly was a mistake.

    “a shrewd illustration of the tendency of addicts to blame others”

    Hmm.. yes, I knew someone who was an addict (mainly alcohol) and shrewd? Intelligent, sometimes endearing, generous (but only really in proportion as it made people complicit with his irresponsibility and love of a ‘freebee’ etc) etc.

    I hope this isn’t straying too far from the topic but this ‘addict’ was involved with a woman, I never met her… long story but I can imagine fairly well what he dragged her through (though I doubt very much that he was ever violent toward her).

    After a year or two or three, the foolishness of her wishful thinking proved untenable, they went their separate ways, in her vulnerable state she turned to Islam.
    I wasn’t aware of this when he showed up suddenly in my life, after years… I directed him to TD’s article How And How Not To Love Mankind, this very effectively had the desired effect of striking an emotive chord.
    He replied enthusiastically saying that he was familiar with TD that, in fact, he’d referred his ex-partner to When Islam Breaks Down (typical of him, this was not motivated by a caring concern so much as a spiteful desire to deliver a crushing existential blow. “Choose Islam over me?” …Because of me?)

    I then recommended How Psychobabble Shields The Seriously Selfish… he didn’t like that one bit.

  2. Robert Murray

    Of course we alcoholics blame others for our additions, for; “it is through alcohol that I first fell in love with unreality”.

    As the good doctor once opined, it is this very characteristic of addicts that allows aboriginal alcoholics to “beat their wives and blame history”.

    For me, recovery began by taking ownership of my addiction to alcohol and begining to shed that “unreality”.

  3. Clinton

    Congratulations on your recovery, Robert. It must take immense willpower to overcome such a powerful inclination. Quitting smoking was difficult enough for me, and I know that’s nothing compared to alcohol addiction.

  4. B Kay

    Well, the tragic reality is that whilst I’ve retreated considerably (perhaps even cowardly) from much of society, and indeed my life experience has been relatively privileged… even living over a decade in one of the most Civilised cities on earth… there’s little shortage of the maddening attitudes that TD so effectively, eloquently exposes (I’m also guilty, but have improved and continuing to do so I’m quite sure).

    I’m much more inclined to read an essay from, say, ‘Our Culture’ several times than seek out essays I haven’t read; so encyclopedic? Surely not… but perversely addicted? Probably!

    Yes congratulations Robert, for what it’s worth… the person, alcoholic, I mention was surprised that after what must have been nearly ten years (starting to assume he was most probably dead) that I (with my overflowing single bedroom) had safe guarded the belongings he’d off loaded on to me at short notice.

    I’d be more receptive and helpful, but his attitude wasn’t doing much to inspire my fellow feeling (in spite of being off the booze… again) for time being, I just want him out of my life; he was going up in the world in fairly dramatic fashion anyway, supposedly… I hope he’s still on track as it were, it would take some five years before I’m convinced.

  5. Louise

    Actually, Dalrymple claims that alcoholics have a superior temperament to heroin addicts. This is based on the ‘fact’ that the alcoholics he has met are more personable, witty and, yes, entertaining than the heroin addicts and, not unreasonably, has deduced from this that this is a universal truism. I really admire people who are so closely wedded to The Scientific Method.


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