There are so many ways that a story of addiction can go wrong, especially when it is narrated within a framework of fall and redemption. On one level, the stories are so similar that we feel we can trace the arc before opening the cover—the prelapsarian idyll, the first hints of trouble, the descent into the dark, the friends who watched appalled, the bottom, the arrival of light, the relapse, the hard-won insights, and the clear-eyed ascent to a new normal. Those who write about their journeys also must struggle with the temptation to force their particular tale, with all its contradictory messiness, into something with eternal meaning or, heaven forbid, a moral. The best writers in the genre hold on to one thing above all else—gut-wrenching honesty.
Katherine James knows the pitfalls, but from the first chapter of her new book on her family’s odyssey with their son through heroin addiction you know that she has chosen to overturn every cliché with honesty. “Referring to someone as an addict is like hiding a beautiful person behind a pee test and a dose of Suboxone,” James says early on in A Prayer for Orion: A Son’s Addiction and a Mother’s Love. “They aren’t addicts, they’re Jason, or Becca, or Nathan.” (62) Or Sweetboy, the name she gives us for her son.
As in James’ first book, the award-winning novel Can You See Anything Now?, what distinguishes her writing is her artist’s eye. It saves her from reducing the complexities of moments and lives to labels. She sees the world as a kaleidoscope of shifting colors, all of them suffused with love and the God who is love. So even in the darkest moments you can detect the pulsing beauty of the world.
The earth is so many live things pointing up: trees, blades of grass, even flies stalling on roadkill. There are the fires sparking into the night. There are humans. We’re both obvious and obscure, I think. Our mere existence points to God and yet we hide like Eve behind a bush. (211)
There is a practical aim to James’ book. She wants you to know how horrible heroin is and what a deep wound walking with a loved one through heroin addiction can be. She knows all stories don’t end as well as hers, since she can still hold on to Sweetboy after two life-threatening overdoses. She parcels out the horrible details throughout the book, right down to the cool cup of borrowed urine of the drug test and the yellow poo of a detox. And she can zoom out to give you the scale of the U.S. heroin crisis—64,000 overdose deaths in 2016, a 200 percent increase in overdoses since 2000.
There’s a spiritual battle she wants to tell you about, too, however. Without sinking into dualism, she hopes “that our story will both reveal the evil of The Evil, and the magnificence of The Magnificant. And if you’re in the midst of a similar story, take comfort in the fact that there are a lot of us out here who understand.” (143)
That kind of compassion in the face of forces much larger than us leads her to a hard-won humility. “In the end,” she says, “humility—that same thing we’re always running from—makes rubble of The Evil. It’s all about being humble because when you’re humble you start to pray and when you pray you’re comforted and when you’re comforted you comfort others.” (184)
Not that James doesn’t look back and wonder where it all began and how she might have made it different. She wonders about her free-range parenting, and food choices, and the effect her own mental state might have had on her children. She talks about the “decent-sized bag of guilt” that arrives with every new born child. “At times,” she says, “I’m still tempted to ruminate on the ways that I failed Sweetboy, but that’s assuming I had more control than I did which is a pretty solipsistic way of looking at things.” (44)
A Prayer for Orion rolls out elliptically, moving us through time the way memory holds it. We circle around to moments in James’ childhood, the creation of The Chill Spot in the garage of their Philadelphia home where a tribe of Lost Boys begins to gather, the wedding of her daughter, a traumatic car trip with Sweetboy when he was a child, and always to the night when they drove frantically to find him after his first overdose. The circling keeps us from giving the horror, The Evil, too much power, more attention than it deserves. It highlights the unique, loving relationships that James and her husband, Rick, were able to develop with the young adults who collected in their home.
There are more things we want to know. What were those Bible studies that Rick held in the family living room like? How did Sweetboy’s sisters process what was happening? And so much more that we would like to know about Sweetboy’s own perception of his life. But it is part of James’ care for her family that she keeps her story personal, allowing space for them to have their own stories.
And her story is full of beautifully-observed images that will stay with me: “The thin line beneath the door” behind which her son was being worked on in the hospital, which “slid in shadows from the hallway activity, slow flickers of gray and white rearranging and reflecting off the glossy floor.” (144) The marbles refracting light on her teacher’s desk. The air of Provence. All hints of some deeper reality to the world.
She also includes her dreams and confusions, which often don’t make the cut in narrative work. Most poignantly there is the moment when she wakes up and can’t remember the way the solar system works. “I was suddenly unable to remember whether we circle the moon or the moon circled us.” Addiction, it seems, can unsettle every certainty. But she returns to her practice that gives the book its title.
I prayed for my children—those three stars of Orion’s belt—as complex as they are, because I believe the one who made them knows them, and the one who knows them loves them, and whether it’s Saturn’s halo or Cassiopeia his plans are fantastical and are sprouted from the seed of love. (133)
There is no platitude in such pronouncements. There is only Katherine James’ honest heart.
Read my 2017 interview with Katherine James here.