Interview with Janelle Hanchett

Janelle Hanchett created the website Renegade Mothering in 2011 because she needed to know if the rest of the mothering world was crazy or she was. Writing after her kids went to bed and while she was supposed to be working, Janelle attracted an audience of hundreds of thousands of readers. She holds a BA in English from University of California at Davis and an MA in Eng­lish literature from Sacramento State. She lives in northern California with her four children and husband, Mac, who thinks “getting dressed up” means shaving his forearm tattoo. Her memoir of addiction and recovery, I’m Just Happy To Be Here: A Memoir of Renegade Mothering, was published by Hachette Books this year.

Litro: So … what’s your poison? (Or what were your poisons, I guess.)

I suppose it shifted over time. Beer and psychedelics in high school. Wine, whiskey, and cocaine in adult life. Eventually, I was more of a garbage disposal, an indiscriminate sub­stance user. But alcohol was always my stronghold, my best friend, until it turned on me.

Litro: You have a blog, “Renegade Mothering”, as well as a book – what’s the re­lationship between them and the difference in writing the two?

I began writing after being reunited with my family after a two-year separation. I was almost two years sober when I started writing the blog, 31 years old with two young chil­dren and a baby. I sort of woke up dropped into motherhood, or that’s how it felt. I had tech­nically been a mother for nine years, but I wasn’t engaged and awake. I was drunk. Sober, I looked around the mothering world for somebody writing or talking about my experience – which was a deep gratitude alongside a deep and relentless boredom and sense of erasure – and I couldn’t find it. So I started writing what I wanted to read, which Toni Morrison talks about. The blog made sense in the context of my life: I could write when the kids went to bed, whenever I wanted, for no stakes. It was informal and easy. At the time, I was working thirty hours a week and attending graduate school while my husband worked as an ironworker two hours away. I didn’t have time for fancy essays and formality. We knock blogs in the literary world, but in many ways the medium has served as a sort of “room of one’s own” for mothers.

In November 2015, an agent found my blog and offered me representation. In April 2016, I had a book deal. The book is the sort of backstory of my irreverent mothering blog. More than anything, I hear readers ask, “How do you say the things we’re all thinking but don’t have the courage to say?” Well, this book is how. But it’s quite a deviation from “mom­my blogging.” I never delved into the story of my addiction and recovery. There wasn’t space in the blog. And the blog is written in a colloquial, fast, in-your-face tone and voice. A blog captures readers for five minutes. If I wrote an entire book in that voice, people would want to punch me in the teeth by page twenty. Asking somebody to hang out with you for 300 pag­es is a different beast, requiring a more measured tone.

Litro: Supposedly addicts have to hit rock bottom before they can pick them­selves up. What’s the view like from down there; how do you find hope?

It’s interesting how we interpret this “rock bottom” concept in relation to addiction. We tend to understand it in terms of externalities: lost home, job, family, etc., but it’s more an internal bottom, an ontological bottom, where everything you thought you knew about yourself turns out to be wrong (that’s a paraphrase of Baldwin). The external results of drug addiction have more to do with race and class than they do with individuals or even depth of addiction. Here in America, if I were a black woman, or in poverty, my consequences would have looked very different. This isn’t because I managed my disease better, or am a more mor­ally sound person, or less sick. I was pulled over twice for drunk driving and they let me off both times. I was once driving in a poor, urban, predominately black neighborhood after pur­chasing cocaine, and a cop started tailing me. I thought, “Well, here we go. I’m going to jail.” But his lights never went on. Turns out he was escorting me to the freeway. As I got on the on-ramp, he stuck his arm out his window and waved to me. He wanted to make sure the little white girl was safe. I didn’t earn that. But that’s how I avoided jail, or losing my kids to the state. I had a family with some means who could send me to rehab, and take my children when I couldn’t care for them.

I think this bottom has to occur for a person in late-stage alcoholism or other ad­diction, because we’re always posturing. We’re blaming others and scheming to avoid real re­flection on our own powerlessness over the substance. Eventually, for some of us, the lucky ones, we reach a point when there’s nothing and nobody left to blame, and we give up fight­ing. It’s funny, as I mentioned in the book, I was always “fighting” my addiction. It was in the surrender, when I knew I was licked, that I found some peace, and long-term sobriety. It wasn’t that I couldn’t drink. It was that I couldn’t not drink. It’s weird and counterintuitive, because here I am, nine years later, not drinking. But it required for me a sort of turning over of control, a reliance on something other than my brain that constantly suggested a shot of whiskey was a good idea.

Litro: Would you say you are a spiritual or religious person? Is faith or spiritu­ality or whatever on some level a necessary tool for a recovering addict, even if they’re a hard-nosed atheist or rationalist?

At the risk of sounding like a woo-woo in yoga pants, I suppose I will say I am “spirit­ual.” Definitely not religious. I’m a seeker of truth, and I don’t care where it comes from. Art­ists, writers, singers, saints, the nutcase on the street corner. I read texts from every religion, but have no interest in the dogma, ritual, or political bastardization of spiritual messages. America is demonstrating this with white evangelicals and their support of Trump at a level that feels hyperbolic. Absolutely inane. They call themselves followers of Jesus yet their entire belief system is rooted in hate and fear. It’s spectacular to watch them idolize Trump, a man who appeals to our basest selves, as if he is God, or sent from God. What a pathetic, small God that must be, if Trump’s his guy. But none of that matters if you’re coming from a place of fear and hate and nonsense “patriotism.” One doesn’t have to look past one’s ego, which I think is the job of spirituality, of any belief in God. To make us kinder people, to connect us more fully with one another. If it’s not doing that, it’s useless.

I would never attempt to say how other addicts need to recover. I only know how I did. I was raised Mormon, but sort of Mormon-light, with a non-Mormon father and ex­tended family, but I left the church at fifteen and never returned. I thought I was an atheist, very intellectual, but mostly I just made “no God” my new God. I made myself my God. My intellect. My thoughts. That failed me rather miserably. It was a lonely place, and I was ter­rible at running the show. I suppose you could say I “found God” in the darkest moment of my life, a sort of death of self, but I don’t know how I’d define that “God.” Something out­side myself that means something, I guess. The ocean. Redwoods. Gravity. The unknown. I don’t care if there’s a god or not. I just know my life got better when I surrendered to the uni­verse, to that which is.

Litro: You write about some pretty low moments in your life … is it difficult to be honest in writing stuff like this?

Some of the sections were absolutely brutal to write, and they’re still brutal to read. I still can’t read them without crying. Occasionally while writing, I’d think, “You can’t say that out loud.” But I’d answer myself back by saying, “Well, Janelle, you’re either going to tell the truth or you’re not.” There was no point in writing this book if I wasn’t going to tell the truth. Part of what I’m responding to is the glossing over and softening of mother addicts, of our in­sistence upon the children “healing” us. If I engaged in the same sort of softening, what was the point of writing it? I either told the story truthfully or I left it out. I was adamant about that. But I was trying to be of service to others, not soothe myself.

Litro: It’s as much a book about being a mother as an addict… So would you of­fer our readers some Helpful Parenting Advice?

The tagline of my blog is “Join me in the fight against helpful parenting advice,” so I’m probably not a great person to ask, but obviously that’s tongue-in-cheek. I think I would say, “You have everything you need to parent the children you’ve been given.” Sometimes it all feels so massive and I feel so wildly unprepared, inadequate, or just not cut out for it. My midwife told me that once. It’s helped a lot.

Litro: What’s your thoughts on addiction more generally, socially and politically? Like how sick is society right now?

Well, I’m in America, where a barely literate, racist, pussy-grabbing former reality-TV star was elected President, so I’d say we’re pretty fucking sick. He has activated and brought to the forefront the most miserable among us. Everything he does activates our basest selves: ego, fear, nationalism, hate. The rich love him for the tax cuts. The poor whites love him for the racism and empty promise of “jobs.” But they don’t look at data, at facts, at how they’re getting seriously played. They think he’s the speaker of ultimate Truth, and they don’t look past that. They exist in the most profound state of solipsism, to the point of virtually no log­ic or reason. It’s all to serve their pathetic “patriotism,” which as Trump creates it, is about as anti-democratic as you can get.

Anyway, part of capitalism’s job is to create a gaping hole in us that it then offers to fill with the next toy. We work endlessly at inane jobs for ridiculous pay, hustle for basic health­care, and convince ourselves that the next boat or car or a bigger TV will make it all mean something. I suppose addiction is a byproduct of that seeking, that desire for wholeness and meaning.

Litro: You mentioned the question you get asked the most – what’s one people never think to ask, because they’ve not been through what you have?

People deep down insist upon the role of willpower in recovery from late-stage addic­tion. I find myself constantly trying to explain that my power was found in surrender. But that’s something nobody will understand unless they’ve lived it, and nobody wants to be­lieve it, because no power is wildly unpleasant. We all want to believe our loved ones can set their minds to it and fix their addictions. In my experience it was more about abandoning the mind and recognizing that I will never “fix” it.

Litro: Who are your favourite writers, and what have you stolen from them?

I know as a good feminist I’m supposed to hate him, but early on, it was decidedly Hemingway. I read The Sun Also Rises and saw myself in Brett Ashley. I had no idea writing could be like that. The sparse prose. The poetics in so few words and the repetition of syntax and diction. I read everything he wrote one book after another. Later, Jane Austen, Toni Mor­rison, Emily Dickinson. The past few years, James Baldwin. He was a prophet and a mystic as much as writer. I read words by him and cannot believe they’re real, they’re so spectacularly true. He saw and spoke right from the core of humanity. He almost makes other writers im­possible to read. That’s probably just me. Maybe I have a little obsession.

Litro: What are you working on right now?

I am working on a pilot. I’m signed with 3 Arts Entertainment, which produces fabu­lous TV shows, so that’s what I’m focusing on now. It’s quite a switch from a memoir, but re­freshing to write fiction. I believe this book was the book I had to write before I could write anything else, so I look forward to what’s to come.

I’m Just Happy to Be Here: A Memoir of Renegade Mothering is out now.

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