As I read Timothy J. Hillegonds’ harrowing memoir of addiction and youthful rage, The Distance Between (University of Nebraska Press, 2019), I was reminded of a sentence written by one of my favorite fiction authors, Richard Lange: “We can only, all of us, run so far before what we really are and what is meant to be catch up to us.”
Hillegonds’ book is certainly not fiction, but the above captures one of the underlying motifs in his brutal reckoning with the past: the misguided idea that one can start anew primarily by leaving home—and our troubles—behind, that we can reboot our lives and turn our biography into a blank slate by choosing a new place to live.
After Hillegonds found his “way into the rooms of AA and [got] sober,” he learned that this misconception is known as the “‘geographical solution”—when a person, usually an addict, tries to change his situation by “changing his geography.” Or, as he puts it elsewhere, “the attempt to assuage the wound on the inside with what’s found on the outside.”
Traveling alone or moving to a new place by yourself often provides a unique opportunity for introspection. With insight, however, comes the risk of shining a light on what we may be concealing—the more unpleasant aspects of our personality or our past. This is what happened to Hillegonds when he dropped out of high school and left Chicago behind—along with a mother and a stepfather he didn’t get along with, a biological father who abandoned him, and, more fatefully, mounting legal problems stemming from his substance abuse and a dissatisfaction with life that often turned violent.
His destination was Colorado, where he would attempt to become a professional snowboarder and stay with friends until he found a job. Almost as soon he started working at a Denny’s, he began a relationship with a coworker, April, a single mother with similar substance-abuse problems. Alcohol and crystal meth provided escape from the daily routine but not from Hillegonds’ mounting anger, leading to domestic abuse and repeated arrests.
Longing for Redemption
Often wondering if he would ever break away from this self-destructive cycle, Hillegonds’ conviction that he was trapped in his lifestyle became ironclad when he found out he would be a father. “There was no surprise in the moment. Of course April was pregnant, of course she was—because getting April pregnant was the logical next step for a guy like me,” he writes. His relationship with April became more strained—and each day, a succession of long shifts at the restaurant followed by self-destructive nights. On any given morning, Hillegonds “… would feel nothing but a deep and cavernous sadness that stemmed from humiliation and remorse.”
Unlike fiction, life often lacks a narrative arc or chapters that end neatly. Still, Hillegonds’ Dantean succession of missteps, alcoholic blackouts, drug-induced highs, fights, and loneliness has a purpose. A warts-and-all reckoning with one’s life as a first step toward recovery can be as brutal as an addiction. In the latter case, however, there are no substances to help you evade responsibility or ameliorate the pain.
While reading this book is not as brutal as having lived it or even written it, it’s an intense experience that is nevertheless rewarding thanks to its heartfelt sincerity and longing for redemption. If I could level any criticism against Hillegonds’ tour de force memoir, it is that I wish it had gone on for a few more chapters so that we could learn more about his recovery process. Then again, that’s not a flaw in the book but a testament to the captivating story it tells.
— Gonzalo is a writer born in Texas, raised in Chile, and currently living in Shepherdstown. His books have been published in Spain and Chile, and his fiction has appeared in Boulevard, Goliad, and The Texas Review, among others.