Since Sunday’s airing of “On all Fours,” the darkest and most troubling Girls episode yet, there’s been plenty of debate about whether or not what happened between Adam and Natalia was rape, bad sex, or something else that’s difficult to name. (I liked what Amanda Hess and Emily Heist Moss have to say.)
Like so many, I found the episode emotionally triggering to watch. Witnessing anyone — whether they’re friends or fictional characters of whom one has grown fond — relapse into destructive, humiliating, or dangerous behavior is painful. I have always had a lot of sympathy for the darkly brooding Adam (played so well by the magnetic Adam Driver), not least because he’s in recovery, having struggled with alcoholism since his teens. In this most recent episode, we see Adam make the conscious choice to drink again. As an addict who has been clean nearly 15 years (and who was in and out of Twelve Step programs for 11 years before that) I’m captivated by relapse. I want to watch it up close, partly because I will always be drawn to the fantasy of going back to drugs and alcohol, and partly because studying the mechanics of another’s fall is a kind of prophylaxis against making a similar decision.
What haunts me about Adam isn’t just that he’s a fellow drunk with a compelling mix of social awkwardness and sexually-charged charisma. It’s the way in which he externalizes his own self-destructiveness. Driver is a good enough actor that he’s able to show us two Adams at once: the disconnected narcissist and the vulnerable boy who knows that he’s capable of empathy if he can only, only get out of his own way. We never doubt why women fall in love with him, and we never doubt why they will invariably leave.
I’ve been Adam, both with the alcohol and with the sex. Watching him assault Natalia (I’m not gonna quarrel about words), I remembered how easy it is for the addict to use sex to disappear into one’s own pain, one’s own rage. And I remembered — as Girls will surely show Adam remembering -the mix of shock and fear and disgust on the face of a woman who trusted me. “Where the fuck did you go?” one ex asked me in bewilderment and anger. I’d fumble with an apology, with remorse, with soothing words that always stood in painful contrast to what had just come before. Like Adam, when I had sex high or drunk there was almost always this nearly instant post-ejaculatory regret, as if my orgasm had purged a demon and I could return to being present, empathetic, and tender. (One reason I had to be celibate in early sobriety was to learn how to connect sexually, how to stay present even when my clothes came off. That wasn’t an easy lesson to learn.)
It’s dangerous to over-identify with a fictional character. I’m not Adam. But we’re similar enough that I was shaken to my core by the reminder of where it is I can go if I’m not “doing my work.” I was also reminded that that destructive disappearing act, that vanishing into sexualized cruelty, had nothing to with the women I was with. On Twitter, some of my friends were suggesting that what happened was partly Natalia’s fault for not understanding Adam’s peculiar kinks; “this is why Hannah was better for him,” they claimed.
Men don’t drink and disconnect and (yes) rape because they’re with the wrong partner. It’s both a dangerous oversell of female power and a devaluation of men’s responsibility to suggest that a woman’s empathy — or sexual adventurousness — is enough to restore an addict to sanity. Men like Adam (and the me that was) don’t need a particularly adventurous and understanding sex partner; we don’t drink and disappear into rage because we’re misunderstood. The love of a kinky woman won’t save us for long. We drink and disappear because we’re not working our program, because we’re not winning the fight every damn day against a disease that leaves us incapable of empathy, of sustained kindness.
The good news is that when we start to win that fight we change; we can become completely different people. In sobriety, I learned how to be present, how to listen, how to play with humor and tenderness. In the program, we’re reminded that we only have “a daily reprieve contingent on maintaining our spiritual condition.” On Sunday night, I watched someone lose that “daily reprieve,” and inflict so much stupid, cruel, unnecessary pain as a consequence.
Monday morning, I called my sponsor.