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A Memoir Fuels the Conversation

November 1, 2006
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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William Cope Moyers sees opportunities in the dialogue around his new book

“Wherever people are in the black hole of addiction-whether it is at the edge of a loved one's battle with drugs, in a horrifying fight of one's own, or standing amid the devastation caused by death, even suicide-I want them to know that addicts are not monsters. I want them to know that healing and beauty can come from the most destructive forces our world has ever faced. I want them to know that hope still exists.”

-From Broken, by William Cope Moyers

William Cope Moyers

William Cope Moyers keeps these words, written by the twin sister of an addict who killed himself at age 27, in his wallet always. As he travels on a promotional tour for his memoir Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption (published by Viking), he sees the yearning eyes of people touched by addiction, trying to cling to hope amid darkness. His book signings inevitably morph into town meetings on addiction and recovery-sessions where some of the questions are all too familiar and many of the answers remain painfully elusive.

“There has been an outpouring of requests for help since the book came out,” Moyers says during an October telephone interview with Addiction Professional from an airport terminal, just days after his book's late September release. “The good news is that people are talking. The bad news is they're still not knowing where to turn.”

Moyers, arguably the most prominent national voice for changing public policy about addiction over the past decade, certainly had reason for concern about how people would react to the intensely personal Broken. He says that to this day, someone in a public forum will inevitably rise and argue that he is violating Alcoholics Anonymous's tradition of anonymity (“I can't explain it anymore,” Moyers says with a hint of fatigue during the interview).

Also, even though Moyers and collaborator Katherine Ketcham began working on the book in 2004, long before any sign of a national stir over the maligned James Frey memoir A Million Little Pieces, the relative proximity of the books' releases could be expected to invite comparisons. For his part, Moyers says he has not read Frey's book and certainly has no reason to consider his a counterpoint to that work, which caused controversy for both its embellishment of life events and its casual dismissal of the 12-Step path to recovery.

“The only thing I can say about my book is that it's true,” Moyers says. “The events of my life validate the story…. The way I look at it is that Frey's story is Frey's and Moyers' is Moyers'.”

In some ways, the vice-president for external affairs at the Hazelden Foundation now sees the timing of his book's release as something close to perfect. Amid the recent public struggles of prominent individuals such as actor Mel Gibson and former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, a moment of truth for the cause of advocacy may be at hand, Moyers believes.

“Everyone feels a palpable sense that this is an important moment,” he says. “We have a chance as a profession to capitalize on the dialogue.”

An open book

“When my doctor told me I had cancer, he didn't raise his eyebrows or wag his finger at me. I felt no shame or humiliation. When I told my family and friends that I had cancer, no one ever suggested that I gave myself the illness or that it was in any way my fault…. It was a completely different story with my addiction. From the beginning, we all thought the disease was partly if not wholly my fault…. When I checked into St. Vincent's, I didn't use my last name but instead identified myself only as William Cope. I don't know exactly who made that decision, but we were all complicit in it.”

Moyers admits it was difficult to write parts of his book, which chronicles college-age drinking and an arrest for breaking into a fish market; a downward spiral into crack cocaine addiction (“cocaine owned me, body and soul,” he writes); the bitter dissolution of a first marriage; the pain of relapse; and treatment stays at St. Vincent's Hospital, Hazelden, and the Ridgeview Institute.

“Not every dark moment of my story is in this book,” he says. “Some things should be left to family members and my own memory. It was hard to invite the reader into my life and my living room.”

Some of the book's most insightful passages come from letters exchanged over the years between Moyers and his famous father, Bill Moyers (they almost could serve as material for a course in family dynamics), as well as from journals he has kept since his stays in treatment. “I have to credit the love of my father and my love of journalism for giving me the clarity to save those letters,” he says.

Besides the question about anonymity, he says he is most often asked by those who attend his appearances about what a parent should tell children about his/her addiction, and about the role his spirituality played in his recovery. On the latter point, Moyers does not engage in polished, political-sounding talk.

He doesn't claim that the spiritual aspect of his recovery necessarily applies to everyone else. “It worked for me,” he says. “If kissing tree frogs would have helped me in recovery, I would have done that.” He adds, “I still struggle with spirituality. We all probe our beliefs.”

Moyers says the institutions and people that were instrumental in his recovery have been extremely supportive of the book's messages and the exposure its release shines on them. A recent alumni event he attended at Ridgeview took on an evangelical tone for recovery, he says.