Most drug addicts do not live to tell their stories, and even if they do, they rarely write a page-turner like Moshe Kasher’s “Kasher in the Rye.” This fast-paced, humorous and compelling story is told by a young man who went from cigarettes to booze to marijuana to hallucinogenic drugs to jail to rehab, with all the drama that accompanies these steps.
As the son of two deaf parents, Kasher grew up with his share of challenges. “When your parents are deaf, nothing is normal,” he writes. “Everywhere you go, you are treated like retarded royalty.” He began psychotherapy at age 4, and it has become an integral part of his life. “My mother believed in therapy the way that people believe in Jesus,” he writes. “It was simply infallible. . . . Therapy became, in my house, more than just a source of answers. It became a third parent.” As a result, seeking therapy as an addicted adult seemed natural.
After his parents’ separation, his mother moved him and his brother to Oakland, Calif., to live in a predominantly black neighborhood. The Kashers being white, where they lived became one more circumstance to make the boy feel alienated. The cherub-faced 13-year old hung out with 35-year-olds who were up to no good. Once the boy became an addict, he mastered the addict’s skill of manipulating those who tried to help him. Even though his grandmother had predicted at the time of his birth that he would become a great holy man, Kasher felt like a failure for at least the first 25 years of his life, the span of this book.
Kasher’s stream-of-consciousness writing, coupled with vivid dialogue, make for an emotional story. Much of the trouble he found himself in was self-inflicted. Somehow these sorts of books often begin by casting blame on parents and childhood traumas, but in the end the reader surmises that addiction is the result of a variety of circumstances, including family dynamics, genetics and the individual’s sensibilities. It is not easy for addicts to dig deep into their emotional truth about their experiences, but Kasher does a remarkable job and should be applauded, especially in view of his miraculous recovery. In the last line of the book, he says, “A good guy, that’s what I’d become.”
Unlike Kasher, literary agent Bill Clegg restricts his memoir to an episode from his adulthood. “Ninety Days” is a sequel to his first book, “Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man” (2010), which told of his worst period. In his new book, Clegg recounts his rehabilitation, specifically the 90 meetings he attended in as many days — the period he had allotted himself for getting sober. He emphasizes that recovering from addiction is best done as a social activity. “Listen to [other addicts],” he writes, “be honest with them. Help them — even if you think you have nothing to offer. Be helped by them.”
Ultimately, Clegg says, “I am happy, I think — for the first time in my life, happy. I’m sober, surrounded day and night by other sober people, the urge to drink and use has left, finally; I have just enough money in the bank to pay the rent and send tiny checks to the many people and places I owe, and I’m with someone I have no secrets from.”
“Memoirs of an Addicted Brain,” by Marc Lewis, a neuroscientist and psychologist who is also a recovering addict, is for the more scientifically inclined reader who might be interested in the links between addiction and brain chemistry. While telling his story, the author interjects his expertise as a neuroscientist by sharing explanations for what is going on in his own brain and body. The reader never feels that sense of self-absorption sometimes found in memoirs. For instance, in discussing dopamine (a neurotransmitter that affects the brain’s responses to pleasure and pain), the author states that this chemical also “fuels attraction, focus, approach, and especially wanting and doing.” Addictive substances can stimulate dopamine’s release, especially in those whose levels are naturally low. It is this dopamine release that drives the addict back to the triggering substance.
The addict, Lewis sums up, should remember that “addiction is a neural mistake, a distortion, an attempted shortcut to get more of what you need by condensing ‘what you need’ into a single, monolithic symbol.” In the final chapter, he notes that to beat addiction, just saying no is not enough. One must also find safer and healthier alternatives for dopamine release. Essentially, this means filling life with meaningful experiences that can provide a high or euphoric feeling: a commitment to spiritual practice, say, or yoga, meditation, love — whatever works best.
After many years as an addict, Lewis finally, at age 30, set out to trade in that life for one as a professor of developmental psychology and neuroscience, deciding to study the brains of kids like himself who got messed up by substances. In other words, he managed to turn his worst feature into a career devoted to helping others avoid what he went through. It’s hard to think of a more successful story of addiction overcome.
KASHER IN THE RYE
The True Tale of a White Boy from Oakland Who Became a Drug Addict, Criminal, Mental Patient, and Then Turned 16
By Moshe Kasher
Grand Central. 300 pp. $24.99
A Memoir of Recovery
By Bill Clegg
Little, Brown. 194 pp. $24.99
MEMOIRS OF AN ADDICTED BRAIN
A Neuroscientist Examines His Former Life on Drugs
By Marc Lewis
PublicAffairs. 325 pp. $26.95