In this monthly Live Culture feature, I review the first 50 pages of a local book — and sometimes more, if I feel like it.
Back in 2013, a Vice
article called "The Brown Mountain State"
introduced the world to Vermont's heroin problem. The much-read piece was authored by two Vermonters then living in NYC: Gina Tron and Hannah Palmer Egan.
The latter is now Seven Days'
food writer; the former also returned to Vermont and writes for the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus
as Gina Conn. Her memoir authored under her pen name, You're Fine.
, was published last fall by Brooklyn's Papercut Press and written up in Interview magazine
You may also know Tron as the author of Vice
pieces such as "I Was a Suspected School Shooter,"
which chronicles a bizarre episode from her difficult high school years in Barre. Her journalism and essays have been published widely; find more here
In December 2010, Tron checked herself into the rehabilitation center at Gracie Square Hospital on Manhattan's Upper East Side. She'd spent two days in detox earlier that year, but knew she needed more help to shake her addiction to cocaine. "Sometimes I spend hundreds a week on it," she tells the intake doctor matter-of-factly, "but I'll often spend hundreds a day. It's been like this for at least a year now."
My favorite sentence(s)
Besides her addiction, Tron was struggling with the after-effects of a sexual assault — detailed later in the book. But she didn't find a lot of help at Gracie Square's co-ed inpatient facility, which takes both addicts and psychiatric patients. Heavily medicated, she adjusted to an atmosphere not unlike high school — complete with cafeteria cliques, makeovers, public temper tantrums and smoking in the girls' room. Actual therapy and rehabilitation, however, proved elusive.
The first two sentences
"T'was the night before Christmas when all my life was a mess. I knew I needed help, so I committed myself."
"I had overdone life to such an extent that it took being in a jail-like atmosphere to feel human, instead of just like a blob of flesh."
"Nobody likes being the emotional garbage can. They only want to be the garbage thrower. People love to talk at other people."
"Next thing I knew the conversation has transformed from body fat to another gruesome topic: love."
A quote that puts the book in a nutshell
"[T]he doctor told me, 'We can help you. I'm going to warn you, though,' he looked at me with a touch of genuine concern, 'it's not going to be pretty. I am going to give it to you straight. Most patients want to leave as soon as they get up there.'"
Will I read the rest?
Started to. I like the way Tron interweaves her memories with her current experiences in the later chapters, and I'll probably read on to find out what happened at her 10-year high school reunion in Barre, which preceded her trip to Gracie Square.
If you've already read some of the many memoirs and novels about being institutionalized, many aspects of this book will be familiar. Perhaps most interesting is the revelation that, at least in her early days at Gracie Square, Tron didn't get anything like the treatment she had voluntarily sought there — only a preliminary diagnosis of bipolar disorder and large doses of Seroquel that left her feeling high.
In her account, the staff's attitude seems laissez-faire at best. Attendants sing carols in the cafeteria on Christmas morning, but no one seems to care much when Tron reports that male patients have been flashing her. One fellow patient confesses, "The only time anyone here talks to me is when they feed us food or pills." It's not a great testimonial to the current state of mental health treatment in America.
The passages I quoted above give you a sense of Tron's voice — in-your-face, deliberately outrageous and often fun to read. (Elizabeth Wurtzel and Prozac Nation sometimes come to mind.) Tron has a sharp, insightful eye for the many ways in which people can be nice and (more often) nasty to one another, and her description of middle school in Vermont may draw groans of recognition from some readers. (Was it really that bad? Yes. It was.)
That said, some writers (perhaps all writers) need an editor to shine, and I think this book needed a more aggressive one. Sometimes Tron blunts the force of her own points by restating them too many times, or tells us something when the events she's already shown speak more powerfully for themselves. Memoir is a tricky genre where the writing has to have that extra polish. (Unless you're a celebrity, in which case your old grocery lists and diary entries will probably sell a million copies.)
Granted, insufficient editing is a common criticism I have of small-press books, so I'll leave it to readers to decide if they agree on this one. And I do think Tron's humor and fierce candor will appeal to readers, especially those with an interest in addiction and recovery.
A note to authors: I choose books for this column at my own discretion. Please don't send me your book with a specific request that I feature it here (or not do so). Please don't ask for an explanation either way. And please recognize that these write-ups are not always "reviews," which would entail reading the entire book.