Wednesday, May 23rd, 2007
By Whitney Joiner
First-time memoirist James Salant grew up with a classic upper-middle-class family in Princeton, New Jersey: therapist mom, psychoanalyst father, and an older brother with a penchant for drugs and petty crime. At 15, following his brother Joe’s footsteps, Jim smokes his first joint. Then in an astonishingly quick turn of events, Jim transforms from a self-proclaimed mama’s boy to a junkie. “At seventeen, I’d been arrested once for pot,” he writes in his debut, Leaving Dirty Jersey (Simon Spotlight Entertainment). Read an excerpt here. “My parents had sent me to a month-long wilderness rehab in Montana, and I was using and selling coke, Ecstasy, and LSD.”
Hoping to avoid jail, 19-year-old Jim enters another rehab—this time for heroin addiction—outside of Riverside, California, where popularity often depends on who’s done serious time.
After a few weeks, he re-enters the outside world in Riverside, pledging to stay clean. Instead, he tries crystal meth and is instantly hooked. Obsessed with simultaneously divorcing himself from his comfy liberal background and repping a street-tough myth of his home state, he tattoos his left arm with his moniker: “Dirty Jersey.”
With its drug-crazed paranoids and criminals, scenes of anonymous sex and endless searches for a better high, Leaving Dirty Jersey is Salant’s remarkably unglamorous account of the meth-fueled year he spent in motel rooms and trailers throughout Riverside—-and a breakup letter to the tough kid he so desperately needed to be. Now 23, Jim has been clean for three and a half years.
As a kid, you weren’t an avid writer or reader, but you wrote Leaving Dirty Jersey immediately after cleaning up. When did you start thinking about writing a memoir?
I started writing it directly after I got out of rehab. As I describe in the book, my identity throughout high school was as a junkie. So I didn’t study anything; I didn’t learn anything. And that’s who I was up until 19, 20, when I was actually forced to get clean. One of the more difficult things about getting clean is that you’re not anything besides [a junkie]. I was a blank slate, and grasping for whatever I could to make me feel better about myself—some kind of hand in life; some kind of identity. And writing fit that perfectly. I started writing, and I thought it was the best thing in the world—I thought I was now a writer. And that’s where I was, essentially, just getting out of the program. I went into it with all the same energy that I’d gone into drugs; I found it comforting. Luckily, I also had a few people who could tell me, “Hey, you also have to read, you can’t just write. And no, your writing’s not the best thing in the world. In fact, it quite sucks.” I was determined enough to learn from there.
So you went through a process of educating yourself. Who was supporting you, and what kinds of things were you reading?
My mom brought a collection of George Orwell essays to rehab, and that made me fall in love with writing. She continued supplying me with books: Russian literature, Crime and Punishment. And then my uncle, who’s an editor at Doubleday, started recommending more contemporary stuff: Philip Roth, Tobias Wolff. And I really got into that. I showed him my writing, and he told me, very gently, how much it sucked. [Laughs.] And we started working together.
He helped you develop it into an actual manuscript?
Yes, this is before the book was actually a book: I was just writing episodically about stuff that had happened. Aside from working, that was all I did, especially the first year. It was very regimented and structured: I’d go to work, then I’d work out, and then I’d read and write for the rest of the night.
He started working with me about three months after rehab, and then we worked on the writing for maybe a year or so. Around that time, I was lucky enough to meet an agent at a party, and it actually took shape and I found a voice. That’s when I started writing the book proper. I put together sample chapters and sent them in; I was waiting for my first rejection letter, which I was going to frame. But they actually liked it.
It must have been incredibly intense to go back and relive this period.
It was a double whammy. It’s hard to get something down on the page, even if you have it clear in your memory, and it was all pretty recent. So I would write something and re-read it and say, Wait, that’s not how it happened at all. It took a lot of rewriting to get it clear so that it was kind of settled in my mind. And then for the emotions to work themselves out: I’d be writing about somebody and I’d be absolutely furious at them. And I wouldn’t be able to finish the scene until months and months later, because I was so emotionally tied up with people.It was a double whammy. It’s hard to get something down on the page, even if you have it clear in your memory, and it was all pretty recent. So I would write something and re-read it and say, Wait, not how it happened at all. It took a lot of rewriting to get it clear so that it was kind of settled in my mind. And then for the emotions to work themselves out: I’d be writing about somebody and I’d be absolutely furious at them. And I wouldn’t be able to finish the scene until months and months later, because I was so emotionally tied up with people.
Were there times when you got so caught up in reliving your experience or the emotional intensity that you thought, I can’t do this anymore, this might take me back down this road?
I was pretty hard-headed; it had to be done. When I first started and I just thought I was the best thing in the world, I just naturally assumed that the book would be published: you write a book and it gets published. Then when I started reading more and I found out how hard it is and how hard people work for it, I just assumed that there was no way in the world that it would be published. But by that time I’d developed enough of a respect and love for writing itself that I thought it was valuable in just doing it by itself. So I just kind of plugged through.
The coddled life leading to drugs and then recovery/redemption has been told before. How is your story unique?
I don’t know what difference it makes that the coddled life to drugs to recovery story has been done before. So have stories about relationships. Lots of kids are still trading affluence for squalor, people want to know why, and since nobody’s going to have one definitive answer, it seems to me the more stories the better—the closer we come to understanding.
Still, I guess a book should introduce something new. And as far as I know LDJ is the first to describe the meth world through a coming-of-age story about wanting to be tough. Living in Princeton, I wanted to be tough the way most kids want to get into Harvard, and then all of a sudden, at 19, I was sent 3,000 miles from home to live with people who’d actually been to the Harvard-for-tough-guys: Chino State Prison. I don’t know that that story has been told before.
Can you talk more about the emotional impact of working on it? Was it healing? Painful? Embarrassing?
Those three sum it up. It was painful writing it—really painful—especially the stuff towards the end. And trying to figure out what happened and where I stand morally in terms of what happened.
It was intense. I wanted to explore as much as I could and intensely as I could, and at the same time, get away from it as much as possible. And at this point, just about now, it seems very much over. With the book being on shelves, drugs aren’t a draw at all anymore. They haven’t been for a while. It really seems like it’s over.
Throughout the book, your parents continue to support you—they send you money whenever you ask—while you’re lying to them the entire time about what you’re doing. What was their reaction?
They were great. The whole way through they were nothing but gracious when it came to the writing. And it’s kind of not really fair to them, because I say how great they are in the epilogue—when I come home—but I kind of come down on them hard throughout the book. I spend some time looking for causes, and they, being the parents, definitely factored in. I say that they could’ve been tougher on me; they were too lenient and I was able to play their game, and I say that kind of contributed to my becoming a junkie. But in the end, it was exactly that kind of open-minded liberalness, just loving, just being willing to take me in and put up with pretty much everything unconditionally—that’s exactly what I needed at that end. And that extended to the writing of the book. They were as close to perfect as they could be. After having lived it, reading it was more of a relief than anything else.
Who do you hope reads Leaving Dirty Jersey?
I hadn’t thought about that when I was writing it, since I didn’t know there was going to be an audience. Kids…although, when I think back to where I was when I started using drugs, I don’t think there was a book that could’ve helped. But maybe someone who’s kind of on the fence. I think it’s valuable to explore that world and reveal it for as banal as it actually is.
Right. Crystal meth, in particular, isn’t glamorous at all.
It’s not glamorous! But it was so glamorous to me throughout. When you step back, it’s really boring, and the people are all really lame. I’m meeting people and I think they’re the coolest thing in the world, but they’re just as insecure as high school or middle school kids.
Do you worry about comparisons/accusations to a certain other badass tattooed recovering addict memoirist?
I still think that most people can tell the difference between an honest and a dishonest story, so in that sense I’m okay. But the Frey business has had an effect.
With memoir there’s a distinction, I think, between being honest and telling the truth. Being honest means sharing everything you think relevant to understanding your story, no matter how painful or embarrassing. Telling the truth, though, is simply impossible. I can’t know for sure what somebody was thinking on a given day, or even what somebody was wearing, but in order to make a narrative out of the events I have to fill in those details. So long as I’m honest, though, there’s no problem—people should understand, at least intuitively, because they do it all the time. People need a narrative to make sense of their own lives, so they extrapolate from what information they do have to come up with a story that feels close to the truth. In a sense, I’m doing publicly with my story what they do privately with theirs.
I think this is why people were so upset about Frey. If somebody you don’t really know lies to you, you don’t particularly care. But with Frey, people had invested a lot of trust. They trusted him with the huge responsibility of filling-in details in search of the truth, and he didn’t go for the truth. He lied on purpose. And I think writers were so upset, writing op-eds and whatnot, because they thought Frey might screw up this crucial, tacit agreement whereby readers expect writers not to be infallible but to do their best. For example, if I’d written this book before Frey and someone had asked me if everything in it was true, I could have said yes and not thought twice about it, assuming that any thinking person would know exactly what I meant. But now there’s an impulse to explain, to say, “Well, I obviously didn’t have a tape recorder on me, and I’m not sure so-and-so was really wearing shorts that day”—when all that should be taken for granted.
Can you talk a bit about why you chose this excerpt for SMITH?
In this scene I tried convey how drugs and violence actually converge in that world. Drugs are always there, as is the threat of violence. Junkies are ripping each other off and talking shit, and every second you’re expecting somebody to get hurt. But more often than not, it happens when you least expect it—in a haze, because of something you hadn’t even noticed. These guys had never had any problems with each other; I looked up to both of them and therefore was happy that they seemed to be getting along—so happy (and high) that it never occurred to me that they might start fighting for my admiration.
What’s your six-word memoir?
I shot meth into my dick.
Leaving Dirty Jersey is available now.
Whitney Joiner was an editor at Seventeen and Salon, and now writes for both from her home in Marfa, Texas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Spin and ID.