The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Matthew Perry’s memoir, a need for fame leads to 65 rehab stints

7 min

The first time Matthew Perry went through detox, he was already as famous as a Beatle, thanks to his role as Chandler Bing on the culture-shifting 1990s sitcom “Friends.” He was also an addict, tormented by a long list of demons that eventually included Vicodin (55 pills a day at his low point), alcohol, cocaine, Xanax and Suboxone. He went on to detox 65 more times, he estimates, spending millions of dollars and half of his ruined life in treatment facilities.

“Friends” lasted 10 seasons, and Perry was spiraling for most of them, according to his new memoir, the grimly funny, mostly unvarnished and frequently proctological “Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing.” His struggles played out in front of millions of viewers every week. He writes, “You can track the trajectory of my addiction if you gauge my weight from season to season. When I’m carrying weight, it’s alcohol. When I’m skinny, it’s pills. When I have a goatee, it’s lots of pills.”

The book arrives at a strange time, as our understanding of addiction grows and our tolerance for the problems of rich White men shrinks. It is both a conventional memoir and an account of the dire events of 2018, when Perry’s colon exploded, a presumed side effect of his opiate use. He fell into a coma. His family was told he had a 2 percent chance of survival. He spent five months in the hospital and nine months with a colostomy bag. He endured countless surgeries, a harrowing ordeal recounted in minute detail. By page 11, readers will become intimately familiar with the contents of his gastrointestinal tract.

In alternating chapters, the 53-year-old recalls his childhood in Canada as the son of a beauty queen and an American folk singer-turned-actor. His parents were young, ridiculously attractive and outmatched. At 2 months old, Perry was given barbiturates to stop him from crying. At age 5, he was sent as an unaccompanied minor to visit his father, who had left when Perry was 9 months old. “Not having a parent on that flight is one of the many things that led to a lifelong feeling of abandonment,” Perry writes.

Perry was a bottomless hole of neediness, desperate for approval from his mother. He vied for her attention against rivals that included his stepfather, local newscaster-turned-“Dateline” legend Keith Morrison, and glamorous Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, for whom she worked long hours as a press secretary. (In grade school, Perry writes, he beat up his son, future prime minister Justin Trudeau, in retaliation.)

Perry treats his stepfather with a distant affection, often referring to him as “Keith Morrison,” as if, like us, he was merely watching Keith Morrison on television. When an adult Perry wakes from a disorienting bender to find a worried Keith Morrison at the foot of his bed, he wonders at first if he is in a “Dateline” episode.

As a teenager, Perry moved to Los Angeles to live with his father, a functioning alcoholic who starred in Old Spice commercials. Perry soon followed in his father’s footsteps, simultaneously pursuing an acting career, alcoholism (he took his first drink at age 14) and, once his erectile dysfunction cleared up, an endless assortment of available women.

In a pattern that continues to this day, Perry, who longs for a family, falls for a number of perfectly suitable potential wives, but he rejects them before they can reject him. He even dated Julia Roberts, who would appear in a Season 2 episode after the Super Bowl, after courting her by fax. When he broke up with her two months later, she stared at him uncomprehendingly, as if such a thing had never happened before.

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Desperate for the fame he was certain would cure feelings of loneliness and inadequacy, Perry recalls kneeling on the floor of his tiny apartment and praying for the first time. “God, you can do whatever you want to me,” he writes. “Just please make me famous.” Three weeks later, he landed the role of Chandler after his close friend, fellow actor Craig Bierko, passed on it.

Perry, of course, became rich and famous, while Bierko — poor Craig Bierko! — became a trivia question. In one of the book’s most wincing passages, the men, estranged for years, reunite. Bierko admits to feeling jealous of Perry, who explains that fame does not fix a person anyway, which Perry treats as a major revelation, even though any reader of even one celebrity memoir has figured this out. Bierko does not appear to find this helpful.

“Friends” was the best job in the world, writes Perry. The cast members genuinely adored each other, and everyone got rich thanks to an early suggestion from David Schwimmer that the cast members negotiate their salaries as a team. By their 10th season, they were working an easy schedule. “We were making $1,100,040 an episode, and we were asking to do fewer episodes,” Perry recalls mournfully. “Morons, all of us.”

Perry plunged deeper into his addictions, which reached warp speed when he was introduced to painkillers after a jet skiing accident on a movie set. It is here that a familiar pattern emerges. Though he is occasionally, precariously sober, he spends most of the rest of the book shuttling between a series of increasingly posh rehab centers. He is sometimes better but never well. Everyone is always vaguely worried about him, but until a celebrity poses a direct threat to someone else’s livelihood, people tend to leave them to their own devices.

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Jennifer Aniston once attempted an awkward mini intervention, but it did not take. Aniston, like Keith Morrison and Perry’s eventual costar Bruce Willis, appears here as a warm, if half sketched, character. The more Perry likes a celebrity, the less he mentions them, as if out of professional courtesy.

Others bring out a latent sharpness that always seems to be simmering below Perry’s nice guy surface. He is (understandably) upset when a stoned Cameron Diaz accidentally hits him in the face. He repeatedly expresses unhappiness that Keanu Reeves, surely the most inoffensive person imaginable, is still alive. He is unhappy to report that former costar Salma Hayek “always had a very elaborate and lengthy idea about how to do a scene, but her long-winded ideas weren’t always helpful.” To normies, this may seem like mild criticism, but in the exaggeratedly polite way of famous people, it is a smackdown.

Perry’s wryly conversational and self-deprecating style will seem familiar to “Friends” viewers, like a smarter version of Chandler wrote a book. He is easy to like, if prickly, and as easy to relate to as someone with multiple Banksys and a talent for repeatedly blowing up their own life could be.

Years of Olympic-level addiction have blown out his pleasure receptors. Even if he wanted to relapse, the drugs probably would not work. He would change places with any of his poorer and less famous friends, even that one guy who has diabetes and lives in an apartment, if it meant his brain was no longer trying to kill him. “I would give it all up to not have that,” Perry writes. “No one believes this, but it’s true.”

Allison Stewart writes about pop culture, music and politics for The Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune. She is working on a book about the history of the space program.

Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing

A Memoir

By Matthew Perry. Flatiron. 272 pp. $29.99.

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