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Review: Let’s hear it for the codependents

Nina Renata Aron, author of "Good Morning, Destroyer of Men's Souls."
(Tai Power Seeff)

We are swimming in recovery memoirs, some great, some terrible, most of which center the addict as the hero of these disaster narratives — flawed heroes, but heroes nonetheless. These stories often have something to say about the nature of codependency, but the enablers themselves are merely supporting players, pigeonholed as weak and victimized.

When we think of codependents in recovery, why don’t we think of the temperance warrior Carrie Nation — the hatchet-wielding activist relegated to a footnote in history as a killjoy? Why don’t we think of the trauma that often led codependents themselves to this lowly place? Why don’t we understand how their recovery can be a salve and a hatchet to cut through addicts’ lies, exposing them for the abusers they are?

Nina Renata Aron tackles these questions in her ferocious new memoir, “Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls,” in which she chronicles her on-and-off romance to a heroin-addicted abuser she refers to as “K.”

“The disease I have is called codependency,” Aron writes early in the book, “or sometimes enabling, and it isn’t really a disease, though it can feel like one.” She focuses on the nurturers and caretakers who keep addicts alive, employed or barely functional enough to get through the next court appearance, job interview or family dinner. These are Aron’s people, and for many years she was one herself.

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No matter what your relationship to addictive behavior might be, Aron offers a fresh and sometimes shocking perspective that has been sidelined since the beginning of the recovery movement. She writes “about the ways that living around addiction habituates us to chaos and fear, invites us to dwell in perpetual victimhood, and drives our decision-making in self-destructive directions.”

Many of Aron’s truths are so pulverizing in their honesty that they ought to come with a warning, especially for readers new to the gritty realities of recovery: “Loving K is physical, a combat sport. Every day a different flavor. He is the butcher and I am the meat.”

It should go without saying that her relationship with K wasn’t a healthy one. Rather, it was “the sort that never heals — it informs, instructs, shapes the remainder of one’s romantic career.”

Nina Renata Aron's new memoir, "Good Morning, Destroyer of Men's Souls."
(Crown Publishing Group)

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But there’s more to this memoir than doomed romance. As an adolescent, Aron was drawn to punk rock. It was more than a visceral attraction to the loud, fast music; she embraced the feminist ideals of the Riot Grrrl movement. She was no one’s doormat.

The tranquility of Aron’s suburban New Jersey home was upended when her older sister, Lucia, became addicted to drugs. Aron was enlisted by her mother to help mitigate the impact of her sister’s drug use on the family, which slowly started to unravel. She became “someone who searched for drugs in her sister’s shoulder bag, in the aperture of her sister’s pupils. Someone whose parents had gone limp and ragged with worry.”

This took a heavy toll. Aron felt compelled to play a sisterly role with her mother and that of a concerned aunt with her older sister. This was her first taste of trying to take care of someone who resented her for it while becoming out of touch with her own feelings.

“So inclined was I toward empathy and understanding,” Aron writes, “that I didn’t even know how I really felt about anything, whatever that even meant. I saw everything from everyone else’s perspective and I felt bad and sad for us all.”

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While Aron’s upbringing becomes a template for the string of one-sided romantic relationships that follow, it’s not meant to excuse her behavior. Despite her blunt, brutal tone, “Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls” is not a confessional.

Aron frames her story within the struggle for understanding and acceptance among the larger recovery community. “[I]f codependency is a condition that produces widespread despair,” she says, “why don’t we know more about it?”

Aron looks for answers in the language of codependency adopted in the 1990s, which has its roots on the fringes of Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1940s and ‘50s. This marginalization is baffling considering that women who’d been harmed by their substance-abusing and –addicted husbands led the temperance movement.

Carrie Nation provides the title phrase for Aron’s memoir — reputed to have used it as a greeting to bartenders when she showed up, hatchet in hand, to shut down a speakeasy or saloon.

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Aron’s hatchet is the sharp prose she uses to slash through broken promises and empty apologies. Whether she’s describing her mental state (“Depression made a nest of my mind”) or the landscape of addiction (“A bus depot at night is always a site of small horrors”), each page of Aron’s memoir glints with hard-won truths.

The magic of recovery hinges on broken people helping broken people. When it works, it can feel like a miracle; but it’s always messy. In “Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls,” Aron lights a path through the darkness of her past toward a better future.

“It took me all of my youth and a significant portion of adulthood to realize,” she writes, “that sometimes when people are careening, it’s best to get out of their way.”

Ruland’s new book, “Do What You Want,” with Bad Religion, will be published in August.

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Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls
Nina Renata Aron
Crown: 304 pages, $27


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