Bar News - September 8, 2006
Book Review: Parched: A Memoir by Heather King
By: Lynne M. Dennis
Parched is a memoir by New Hampshire native Heather King, a University of New Hampshire and Suffolk Law School graduate and former NH Bar member, who is now a writer and a commentator for All Things Considered on National Public Radio. It is the story of her lengthy descent into the murky depths of alcoholism and drug abuse, and how she escapes. King tells of her redemption without preaching or overloading the reader with recovery jargon. She takes the reader from the maelstrom of her affliction through profound inner change to an awareness of her spiritual resources. Anyone who has experienced these conditions, or whose life has been touched by an alcoholic or drug addict, might find hope in these pages.
In the prologue, King notes that she could see her law school from the window of her Boston loft. She writes: “I could hardly believe it myself, it was such a cosmic joke, but it was true: I was technically a lawyer. I say ‘technically’ because although I had managed to graduate with honors and pass the Massachusetts bar a year—whoops, two years—ago, I had never, for obvious reasons, actually worked for so much as a day as a lawyer. Naturally this filled me with massive amounts of shame, guilt, and remorse, and yet—I had to admit it, in some little corner of my psyche, I was also perversely proud. Not that I was a lawyer, but that I was throwing away something other people would have given their right arm for.”
A healthy sense of humor will help the reader to avoid misery fatigue while reading this book. The description of the “barroom colloquy” that leads to the author’s decision to go to law school is hilarious. Warning: lawyers who take themselves too seriously will not enjoy this passage. Her discussion of her law school courses and her interviews for legal work are entertaining, too.
King grew up on the New Hampshire seacoast, and starts her story with her schoolgirl days, when she began to drink. North Hampton, the environs of UNH, and Boston are the principal locales for her story. The writing style varies to reflect the author’s voice at different points in her personal development, and she quotes a wide range of characters that peopled her life. Thus, the language is quite coarse at times. It is not a pretty story. It spells out the progression of a disease that takes almost everything from the author, including her dignity, until she recovers.
While still entangled in her toxic lifestyle (“there is no way that I could have gotten through law school if I hadn’t been drunk,” she says), the author graduated with honors from Suffolk Law and passed the Massachusetts bar exam. Throughout the period covered in this book, King’s vocational endeavors are limited to the world of waitressing, even after she graduates from law school. Despite her seeming inability to function in accordance with society’s expectations, she maintains a love affair with the written word, filling her world with books, even at her lowest points. The book includes many short passages from the author’s journals, written during some very dark times. It is difficult to imagine someone in such desperate condition having the ability to continue making entries in a journal, much less being able to decipher them later.
As the result of a surprise “family intervention” at which her entire immediate family and an alcohol counselor confronted her with the effects of her behavior, King spent a month at a well-known alcohol and drug treatment center in the Midwest. That was in 1986. The memoir describes a bit of that experience, and, other than a brief epilogue, that is where the story ends. Knowing that she went on to use her law degree and achieve success as a broadcast journalist and author is heartening.
This book is not meant to impress the “Can you top this?” crowd. There are no sensational scenes of violence, incarceration, or melodramatic deaths of the author’s fellow alcoholics and addicts. Great power and sadness come from the understated way in which King describes her own actions and the fate of the friends who never made it out of addiction. For example, after recounting the story of a disastrous clambake with family and friends, she notes simply of a dear friend: “Tommy would go on to break many hearts, father three children, and die at the age of forty-one after drinking so much alcohol and doing so many drugs that his body simply shut down. I like to remember him as he was that night, though, still in his prime.” Much of the book describes inexplicable behavior, repetitious self-destructive patterns. King does not flinch from describing her own petty crimes, mostly swiping food from her restaurant employers and indulging in illegal substances. She does not blame others for her troubles.
Parched took three years to write and edit. It was published shortly after the release of the best-selling James Frey “memoir” of alcoholism and addiction, A Million Little Pieces, which sold millions of copies after being recommended by Oprah Winfrey. The Frey book was later exposed as more fictional than might be expected for something published as nonfiction, and a widely reported scandal ensued. In contrast, King’s work is not filled with high drama, and does not seek to make a hero of its author. Instead, it provides an emotionally honest and unsparing account of the corrosive effects of her alcohol and drug abuse over two decades. Most importantly, she describes her awakening to a worthwhile life, not forgetting her past, but taking the lessons learned, reconciling, and moving beyond it.
This book omits the later parts of her life story. King did pass the New Hampshire bar exam in the late 1980s, after she became sober, although she never practiced in New Hampshire. She moved to the west coast, where she also passed the California bar exam. She practiced law in Massachusetts and California, but finally gave up the law to pursue her calling as a writer. The training received in law school and as a practitioner has been useful in her writing career, she says, instilling discipline, focus, and the ability to synthesize. All good writing should tell a compelling story, and hers does that.
We do not know the tragicomic stories that our fellows carry inside them unless they are courageous enough to tell them. Parched is a courageous book.
Parched is published in hard cover by Chamberlain Bros. It is scheduled to be released this month as a trade paperback by New American Library.
Lynne M. Dennis is an attorney with McNeill Taylor & Gallo in Dover.