The warning, as ever, is also a promise: This program contains subject matter and language that may be disturbing to some viewers. It’s a promise the same way an ambulance is a promise, or a scar, or a freeway clogged around an accident.
The show is called Intervention, and each episode is named for its addict: Jimbo, Cassie, Benny, Jenna. Danielle lines up twelve prescription bottles on the coffee table while her eight-year-old says: I know real mommy is just waiting to come out. Sonia and Julia are anorexic twins who follow each other around the house so that one won’t burn more calories than the other. Everyone has a wound: Gloria drinks because of her breast cancer. Danielle takes her mother’s Percocet because her father is a drunk. Marci drinks because she lost custody of her kids because she drinks.
Andrea is twenty-nine. She hasn’t lived with her husband and children for nine months. She spends her days drinking rum carefully rationed by her mother. She takes a drink and tells her mother, This one is because you never got me counseling. She keeps a bottle of Captain Morgan in one hand and a liter of Pepsi in the other. She has bruises all over her body from where she’s tripped over chairs, fallen into doorframes, landed on the floor. Excessive bruising can be a sign of compromised liver function, the show tells us. We are given scientists’ eyes. We can see the purpling damage for ourselves.
The camera work is an experiment in turning monotony into something interesting. The fatigue and stamina of addiction are kept electric by compression: time-lapse shots of a bottle’s sinking line of whiskey; a cancerous pile of empties in the corner; a time line of photos that ticks off stations of the cross, sinner to martyr to corpse: smiling baby gives way to pock-marked meth ghoul gives way to sullen mug shot.
Sober Andrea talks about her responsibilities. Drunk Andrea talks about her afflictions. She toasts the twin nodes of trauma that constitute her life: an absent alcoholic father and a rape at fourteen. When she is drunk, she doesn’t believe she can do anything but hurt. This is all life has apportioned her.
The structure of the show implicitly endorses her narrative of victimhood. It needs a story to tell, after all, and she’s fashioned one—a story patterned by the saving, satisfying grace of cause-and-effect: get raped, get silenced, get abandoned, get drunk. Connect the dots. The television program needs a genealogy for her dysfunction. Getting drunk is more interesting when it can be read as a ledger of traumas rather than their source. Recovering alcoholics sometimes talk about feeling like they never got the Life Instruction Manual everyone else got. Here’s a substitute set of imperatives: lose a job, get drunk; lose a child, get drunker. Lose everything. Andrea has. So get sober. Maybe she will.
The father of her children, Jason, barely greets her when she comes to visit the kids each month. She still calls him the love of her life. He says, What’s up? and keeps cooking lunch. He declines to be interviewed by the program. He doesn’t participate in the intervention. He’s given up. He’s not crying on the other side of the bathroom door, or yanking the bottle from her hands. He’s just gone.
We’re not gone, though, we viewers. We stay with Andrea after she tells her children good-bye. We see her get drunk, again. We see why it might have been hard for Jason to stay.
The shows takes care to emphasize, over and over again, that the participants have agreed to be on a reality TV show about addiction but don’t know they will face an intervention. Given that the biggest reality TV show about addiction in America today is Intervention, this is a bit difficult to believe. But the point is, people want to believe it. They want to know something the addict doesn’t. They want the intervention to be climactic, surprising, and powerful. They want to be in on it. Don’t throw your life away, Andrea, they’d say, if they were in the room. I think you can make it.
In his theory of the sublime, eighteenth-century philosopher Edmund Burke proposes the notion of “negative pain”: the idea that a feeling of fear—paired with a sense of safety, and the ability to look away—can produce a feeling of delight. Which is to say: a woman can sit on her couch with a glass of Chardonnay and watch another woman drink away her life. The TV is a portal that brings the horror close, and a screen that keeps it at bay—revising Burke’s sublime into a sublime voyeurism, no longer awe at the terrors of nature but fascination at the depths of human frailty.
The professionals who moderate the show’s interventions are called “Interventionists,” a title that seems better suited to a blockbuster film about the Apocalypse. I imagine a slick troop of heroes, clad in black, giving an ultimatum to the world about its addiction to capitalism or oil. These Interventionists are mild-mannered grandparents dressed in business casual. They almost always stress the singularity of the intervention—“You will never get another chance like this,” they say. They mean: this moment will divide the addict’s life into a cleanly spliced Before and After.
It’s true, of course: the addict will probably never get another intervention like this—which is to say, on reality TV—but this is precisely the difference between the addict and his audience. For the regular viewer, the once-in-a-lifetime intervention happens every Monday night at nine. The unrepeatable is repeated. Every week is a relapse, the viewer thrown back into addiction after last week’s vow to stay clean. Epiphany is succeeded by another intoxication. A grown woman throws up on her mother’s couch once more. A needle jams into the same junked vein. Disturbance is promised, recorded, dissolved—then resurrected, so it can be healed again.
*This essay originally appeared in A Public Space and The Empathy Exams, published by Graywolf Press.
Leslie Jamison is the author of The Empathy Exams, an essay collection, and a novel, The Gin Closet. Her work has appeared in Harper's, Oxford American, A Public Space, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Believer, and the New York Times, where she is a regular columnist for the Sunday Book Review. She was raised in Los Angeles and currently lives in Brooklyn.