When Dan Jones of the New York Times called about publishing one of my stories for Modern Love, I was delighted. I was also determined not to let him know I had a drug history. Dan had emailed me that he thought my story might work well for Father’s Day and wanted to discuss it more by phone. I immediately thought: Don’t tell him about the drugs. He’ll think you’re a loser. But then when he called, we talked for less than five minutes before my drug history came up.
It went something like this:
“So if your son was in Pennsylvania with your ex-wife, what were you doing in New York City?” Dan asked.
I chuckled demurely. Lying seemed like a bad idea.
“Well,” I said taking a deep breath. “That’s another story.”
As it turns out, Dan is a great guy who quickly put me at ease. “I hear stuff like this all the time,” he said. He sounded like an AA sponsor or a Catholic priest. I guess if you’re going to be the editor for a column like Modern Love, you end up hearing your share of confessions.
So I told him my story. I had been in an inpatient drug treatment program in the Bronx. He asked the obvious: What type of drug?
“Heroin,” I said, my voice sounding squeaky and small.
I told him about the first time I tried it. I was seventeen and I used for about 10 years after that. I made it clear that I wasn’t interested in adding any of this information to the story, which Dan had said needed to be fleshed out more. If I were originally worried that Dan would think less of me for using drugs, now I was concerned that he would ask me to add my drug history to the story. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that. You tell people you have a drug history and you never know what to expect.
Dan assured me we didn’t need to add any information I wasn’t comfortable revealing. But now there was a different problem. He was hesitant, taking his time to make his next point.
“Is it honest?” Dan asked.
This question confused me. I started thinking about the James Frey scandal, but that’s not where Dan was going. To clarify his position, he quoted a line from my essay. “You wrote,” Dan said, “that you ‘couldn’t help but feel guilty about [your] divorce, even though [you weren’t] the one who had asked for it.’”
There was a pause. I still didn’t get his point.
“That puts the reader’s sympathies on your side,” he said. There was another pause as I let this information sink in.
“It certainly does,” I said. I chuckled nervously. Dan is too nice a guy to finish that sentence, but I thought I understood where he was going. Is it honest to let the reader feel sympathy for an addict? Would leaving this information out be some sort of lie of omission?
It’s a legitimate question. If you’re an editor, your first obligation has to be to your readers. I felt a little uncomfortable, but I definitely had an opinion. Two people can have different interpretations of the same event, but here is one thing of which I am certain: I never wanted that divorce. More important, the story I wrote was about the relationship I created with my oldest son, despite having been an absentee father. Adding the drug history would have overpowered that story and pulled the drug problem center stage. The story about the relationship with my son would have gotten the short shrift. I didn’t want to do that. I don’t mind talking about my drug history in the right context. I’ve come to terms with that part of my past and have even written about it and intend to write more. But I’m not sure that means I have to include a disclaimer in every essay I write.
I didn’t mention any of this to Dan that afternoon on the phone. To be honest, I didn’t know what to say. In desperation, I told him that my ex-wife knew about my drug use right from the start. This is actually the truth. I think I told her about the drugs on our second date. I remember popping my collar and saying something like, “Baby.” (I was trying to channel James Dean or Elvis.) “I’m bad news. And you better stay away from me.”
What teenage girl could resist that?
Although it was the truth, I felt bad presenting it to Dan this way. If I blame my ex-wife for leaving me, what does that say about me? Now I was getting flustered. I stood up and started to pace from living room to kitchen and back, all the while talking. I found myself telling Dan about how terrible I felt right after the divorce. I talked about my fruitless effort to woo her back. I even mentioned my father and his failed marriage. Although my parents had never divorced, I had sworn I would never be anything like Dad.
Pretty soon Dan interrupted me.
He had made his decision. He took the story with some minor revisions and no drug history. Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t try to defend my position with a reasoned argument: Instead I let my story speak for me. What could be more honest than that?