patrick_oneil_b&w

 

My memoir: Gun Needle Spoon begins with the last years of my heroin addiction, my consequent descent into crime, primarily armed bank robbery, and my eventual incarceration. My final arrest was June 25, 1997, and I look back at the person that I was then and wonder who that person was. He certainly is not who I am today. Over the last 18 years I have worked hard to instigate such an internal psychological change. If you had told me then that I’d become a recovering drug addict, a published author and a college instructor, I would have laughed and told you, “no fuckin’ way, dude!” Heroin addiction’s mental and physical stranglehold combined with the junkie tunnel vision of procuring the drug at all costs, mentally altered me from the person I was meant to be and the direction I was heading. In 1977 I was an artistic kid at art school right as punk rock hit the radar and the music world exploded, flash-forward twenty years later, I was a semi-illiterate career-criminal facing a 25 to Life Sentence under California’s Three Strike Law, and wondering how the hell it had all turned out so wrong. Patti Smith said, “I never thought I was gonna make 30.” Well, I never thought I was going to make 21. It has been a long road to get to who and where I am now, and it makes me wonder what the “1997 Patrick” would have to say to the Patrick of today. 

Please explain what just happened.

Jani Lane (Warrant) was just found dead. This is really weird — I’m just sitting down now to do this interview, and my inboxes are flooded with the news. Even though his cause of death is unknown at this moment, Jani did have a history -– like too many of us -– of alcohol problems. I planned on taking half a day off because it is absolutely gorgeous outside this morning, but this sets a different tone for me for the rest of the day. Mostly because I’m thinking about how his kids must feel.

What is your earliest memory?

Being told that my art was going to fail. I was around 8 years old I guess, and I was trying to make a submarine (like the one used in “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”), out of oak-tag paper — big enough that I could get into it and go in the water. I remember coloring it with crayon for days and days on my bedroom floor. My cousin had stopped over at our house, saw what I was doing, and said “that’s going to sink like a rock.” I believe I had a revelation at that moment: I completely understood the meaning of the phrase “fuck you” after he hit me with his comment. Negative criticism is usually traumatizing for artists, because we take it as a personal attack. In my case, I have always used it as fuel. I finished the submarine, got into it, and realized it was too big to get through my doorway. The sinking fears my jealous cousin stirred in me would never have a conclusion.


James Brown’s memoir The Los Angeles Diaries is one of those books that writers hear other writers discussing with reverence, and that’s how I discovered it in 2004. This River, out now, serves as a postscript to The Los Angeles Diaries, and it equals its precursor in both skill and vision.

James Brown’s prose is tight and spare, which contrasts starkly with the chaos of his life, including the suicides of both his siblings, and his own battles with alcoholism and drug addiction.

Each chapter from The Los Angeles Diaries and This River is a stand-alone piece. The layering of chapters—and now of books—delivers a staggering panoramic perspective.

Of This River, Tim O’Brien writes, “A beautifully crafted and intensely moving book. Without artifice or pretension—without false moves of any sort—James Brown goes after the biggest literary game: death, love, children, degeneration, hopelessness, hope.”

Jim and I met when we discovered that our books had the same release date of March 1st. I was already a fan of The Los Angeles Diaries and had emailed him long before to tell him. We soon decided to team up and do readings together, as well as simply support each other through the publication process. In this spirit, he agreed to answer my questions.

 

 

 

 

In The Los Angeles Diaries, after a scene with your father, you write:

I’ve mined the territory before, if not this particular moment then something like it, and I’ve done it so often that I find myself confusing what actually happened with how I imagine it. In trying to sort between autobiography and fiction, or invention, and then trying to put the pieces together so that they make some kind of sense, I’ve come to think that the truth as it occurs isn’t of much use to me other than, say, as a catalyst for a story.

As a writer, I’m curious about this passage. I’d just like you to comment further. Why memoir over fiction? Or not. You’ve written fiction as well. How do you distinguish the two, etc?

 

Memory is fallible. It is also non-sequential. I can’t recall the past precisely as it may have occurred, especially whenever it is I’m writing about took place many years earlier. But I can recall more than its essence, and what I’m after when I write memoir is an emotional truth that, I hope, transcends the straight, literal experience. Memoir is not journalism anymore than it is fiction. At the same time there are lines you simply don’t cross in memoir that you would or might in fiction. You must tell your story, to the best of your abilities, as honestly as you can in memoir. It’s presumed you’re telling the truth in this genre, and you owe it to your reader to uphold that presumption, or promise. To blatantly do otherwise is to lie, and that’s the art of fiction, not memoir.

 

We’ve discussed a little about subject matter—whether you choose what to write, or whether it chooses you. I’m wondering if you could speak on this topic?

 

I believe the material chooses the writer, if the writer allows it. You write about what you care most about, what you know most about, what you think most about, the memories that haunt, your obsessions, your shortcomings, your successes and failures, and how all these experiences and feelings have shaped how you see yourself and others, particularly those you love most in this crazy world.

 

You come from a working class background. You and your brother and sister chose to pursue careers in art. Can you speak about this?

 

I’m not sure. I think my brother set the pace when he chose acting. His passion was contagious, though our mother started him on this path when he was just a kid. My brother, like my father and sister, were also big readers, and I think I originally began writing to please my brother, since I looked up to him so much, and soon enough it became a passion, which is a good thing, because as a teenager I’d also developed a strong interest in crime, the easy money, the rush that comes from robbing and stealing, as well as drug and alcohol habits.

 

Do you envision a third memoir? Or is that impossible to know?

 

I do envision one more memoir, but I can’t, and won’t, return to the dark places of my first two. This third one I want to be about getting and staying sober. I want to show another side, a better one built around this wonderful gift I’ve been given in sobriety, a second shot at life.

 

Did you have a structure in mind for your memoirs or did the pieces collect and build into a cohesive whole?

 

I had a structure in mind, but it wasn’t sequential. I wanted to write about only those events in life that affected me most, the memories I couldn’t shake, that I’d lived with for years. I felt if I didn’t write The Los Angeles Diaries, if I didn’t just come out and tell the truth about the things that haunted and troubled me, of the ugly person I could be and had become in large part because of my addictions, that I could never move forward. The book has a beginning, middle and end, just not in that order.

 

Your prose is, like O’Brien points out, without artifice or pretension. I’m curious about what writers you admire—and which writers influence your work.

 

Actually I’m a big fan of Tim O’Brien, and his work, particularly The Things They Carry, has had a strong influence on me. I also admire Flannery O’Connor, Chekhov, Raymond Carver, and Hemingway.

 

You have quite a history with the publishing industry. Can you give an overview of your experiences and comment on the industry?

 

The industry has been good to me, though I could always complain that my career could and should be better. But what’s the point of whining? “Less successful” writers would call me ungrateful. “More successful” ones would think I’m jealous. The point is, it’s the process of writing that defines success, not publication. You know when you’re doing good work, and when you’re on a roll, a streak, there’s your real pleasure. And it doesn’t get any better than that.

 

Jim and I will be reading at Skylight in Los Angeles on March 16th at 7:30 p.m. and at Vroman’s in Pasadena on March 24th at 7:00 p.m.


Page 1

The End

I will start by giving the straight facts about AA. The program helps many, and adherents attribute their sobriety to it. I take them at their word. As I see it, whatever works, works. Nevertheless, AA is clearly a religious organization, steeped in Christian theology, with many of the meetings subtly reassuring the nonbeliever that he or she will, in time, come to pray on their knees, as I was so often told.

This approach is underpinned by the Big Book chapter entitled “We Agnostics.” It relates the central AA message: The group will accept atheists and agnostics, but unless they eventually accept a higher power known as “God,” failure is guaranteed. “Actually we were fooling ourselves,” the chapter asserts, “for deep down in every man, woman, and child, is the fundamental idea of God. It may be obscured by calamity, by pomp, by worship of other things, but in some form or other it is there. For faith in a Power greater than ourselves, and miraculous demonstrations of that power in human lives, are facts as old as man himself. We finally saw that faith in some kind of God was a part of our make-up, just as much as the feeling we have for a friend. Sometimes we had to search fearlessly, but he was there. He was as much a fact as we were. We found the Great Reality deep down within us. In the last analysis it is only there that He may be found. It is so with us.”

The same chapter later relates a story in which an alcoholic asks himself, “Who are you to say there is no God?” That, indeed is the question, or one side of the question. I might just as easily say, “Who are you to say there is one?”

The Christian roots of the AA program are well documented and continue to bloom in its Edenesque garden. I need not repeat the evidence here. It is not my duty to condemn or refute AA.  Rather, I wish only to warn agnostics and atheists that — after the short honeymoon — they will not be accepted by the program unless they accept its language, which irrefutably cannot in any way be interpreted as secular. Just as an atheist and a fundamentalist Christian would be unlikely to maintain a successful marriage, so the atheist and AA are unlikely to form a lasting bond. Exceptions exist, but the AA atheist or agnostic has a big house to build in order to house that much self-delusion.

I shall write from my experience. After much well-meaning advice from friends seeking to help me overcome my hesitation to join AA due to the “God factor,” I thought I had finally found a way around the problem of what exactly my “higher power” would be.  It would involve the infinite universe and the nothingness atheists, especially, and, to a lesser degree, agnostics, face. I would give myself over to nothingness, “turning over” my problems and thereby finding a faithless faith.

More than anything, I sought comradeship.  I found it, at first.  The key to the AA meeting is the common bond between all addicts and alcoholics.  I do not dispute that this is helpful. Indeed, AA could start and stop with that assertion, providing a truly all-inclusive safety net. However, as in all movements, the initial idea of AA was quickly reduced to dogma and a reactionary stance.

I began with the intention to find what I needed and leave out what I didn’t. I discovered what I needed at my first few meetings, which was the simple sharing of common experience.  But during the fifth meeting, the 11th Step was discussed. “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out.”

While the words “as we understood Him” are often used to support the contention that AA members can believe God to be anything at all, the discussion revealed every single member as understanding God in the very same manner.  All had always believed or later came to believe in a Christian  God.  All had fallen to their knees and prayed. Others nodded their assent.  Oddly, every member understood prayer, but many could not grasp the idea of not praying: Does not compute.

When my turn to speak arrived, I simply restated that I was an atheist.  I threw the bone that I “may change my mind — who knows? — but that’s how I understand things now. I don’t see why this stance should discourage me or anyone else from seeking help here.”  I wanted to add, “By the way, I can teach the basics of meditation in ten minutes,” but I left it there, not wanting to be reprimanded for starting a philosophical debate.

My message was met with weak applause and a few askance glances. “Here,” I thought, “comes the first argument.”  The honeymoon was over.

Immediately after the meeting, I was twice pulled aside and told that I would come to find what all the others had found.  It seemed I must find it, since they had found it.  Just as I find it incomprehensible that anyone believes in a benevolent God, so they find it incomprehensible that anyone doesn’t. I could point to the Holocaust and say, “That event caused many survivors to lose faith or even conclude that God must be evil.  Isn’t that rather strange behavior from a God expecting so much attention?”  They would point to me and say, “You may go, but you’ll come back when you hit bottom again.”

Now, I must give AA its due. Through discussions not involving God, I was able to see how I had undermined myself via self-deception. This was certainly an accomplishment for which I thank AA. The problem, then, begins and ends right there. For me, such discussions were enough. Leaving God completely out of the program would allow anyone to benefit from it. Replacing faith in a higher power with the acknowledgment that the mind cannot always be trusted would achieve similar results.  No one would be excluded or made to feel they were violating the basic tenets of what amounts to faith.

I relate this to a short fling I had with Catholicism.  This occurred in my early thirties.  I found a way around every aspect of Catholicism with which I did not agree.  I discovered authors like Graham Greene, who seemed to harbor so many misgivings regarding the Church that it was nearly impossible to categorize him as Catholic. Graham himself claimed that he was a “Protestant within the Church.”  I had reached a different conclusion: “I am a Catholic even if there is no God.”  Irrational as this claim may seem, I was quite satisfied with it and myself. Eventually, I lost my ability to trick myself around the sticking points of Catholicism and my own “clever” argument.

Just about then, the child abuse scandal broke, and with it my faith finished collapsing.  It had been waiting to fall, and reassurance that the guilty priests proved the exception to the rule of good priests failed to convince me that I could, or should, restore a bridge that would crumble into the river below regardless of repair.

For AA to work, one must either completely accept its basic tenets or find some way to believe its central proposition despite one’s rejection of it, just as I had done near the end of my Catholicism. I am glad that some are able to do the latter, for many maintain sobriety within the program.

Others, like myself, may be as humble as any Christian and believe in transcendence (a scientifically proven phenomena, i.e., a literal state of mind provable by brain scans and other methods).  However, we cannot trick ourselves around praying, nor fail to detect the contradiction between AA and what we disbelieve. We cannot say, “We are not religious but spiritual.” We cannot accept the view that anyone, anything or any force watches over and protects us.

In short, those finding a home within AA meetings do well to make their beds there.  Those finding the same beds uncomfortable should resist complaining to the hotel manager and simply depart. If that person insists upon complaining, the manager will state that the traveler “shall find no better bed in the world, and you should thank God on your knees for having such a bed. Why, if you leave, you’ll come back. Until then, enjoy sleeping on beds of nails and knife-like rocks. You’ll be back, all right. You’ll return to see that this is the best and indeed only bed in the world.”  Such a traveler may remain a traveler; better to keep moving than fool oneself that a place in which one does not belong is the best and only place in the world.