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Reality stings in Joshua Mohr’s addiction memoir ‘Sirens’

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Heather Scott Partington

Four stars

Sirens By Joshua Mohr, $16.

"I'm glad I embarrassed myself all those nights,” author Joshua Mohr (All This Life, 2016) writes at the beginning of his rich and fragmented addiction memoir, Sirens, “because I learned what shame was.” Mohr’s life in San Francisco’s Mission District reels with lyrical and enthusiastic drug use until parenting and a health scare inspire his sobriety. Though he had long endeavored to block addiction’s siren song, seeing his daughter in peril cuts away his pretense and sends him from temptation. “The world doesn’t care about best intentions,” he says, personalizing an accident that befalls his daughter. “She can’t articulate it but knows this is my fault. That’s the dominant throat in this choir.”

Mohr’s work is rational, self-incriminating: “We will all be injured to varying degrees, we will all scar. I hurt my daughter and that’s that.” Childhood is a point of connection between moments in his story. He tells Sirens as a fractured narrative, returning repeatedly to the connections between fathers, sons, mothers and daughters. In one particularly heart-rending scene in Reno (“What better place for soul torture than Reno, Nevada,” Mohr offers), the author sees himself and his own experience reflected in the neglect of a fellow user’s young child. But Mohr doesn’t offer easy equivalence or a false sense of meaning; he makes it clear that even some of his bad memories are decent.

In its last third, Mohr’s memoir expands beyond the confines of what is purely remembered. After a series of strokes, he learns he has a heart defect. Mohr draws parallels between his blackouts and surgery; as the author explores his darkest hours of addiction and his worst health crises, he writes into the blankness of his blackouts and hallucinations. This is easily his most compelling prose, as it allows him—his subconscious mind? his soul?—to wrestle with the parts of his actions and humanity that are hardest to label.

Sirens is an addiction memoir of Negative Capability. One of Mohr’s hallucinatory companions is a Nazi doctor named Forsmann, who is less a shoulder angel than an ambassador for the rationalization of Mohr’s drug use and “the filthy order of the human condition.” Mohr debates with Dr. Forsmann, creating a collage of memory and magical thinking. The looser Mohr’s grip on the real, the closer he gets to the bone, written with his signature introspection, wit and viscera.

Sirens is a new kind of song that Mohr sings himself: mournful, raw and full of gratitude.

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