Whilst there are many addiction memoirs out there with authors displaying their ‘failures’ for the public’s shock and entertainment, Jenny Valentish has succeeded in producing a rare kind of memoir that is informative rather than solely self-indulgent. An English journalist and author currently living in Australia, Valentish has hunted down leading scientists and academics to shed some light on women’s relationship with addiction. Taking you on a whirlwind tour of Valentish’s life, Woman of Substances confronts the fragile topic of addiction equipped with caustic wit and Valentish’s research skills as a journalist.
“My life should have been a Duran Duran video…,” Valentish begins one chapter, “…but it was all pubs, piss-stained raves and sitting on the toilet with my head in my hands.” Her writing drifts gleefully into the tragicomic genre, littered with cynicism and self-ridicule at her ‘colourful’ experiences, even at the most objectively awful points of her journey. This style reassures any prospective reader that may experience trepidation when faced with a non-fiction memoir about addiction, sexual abuse, and statistics.
Valentish utilises her own autobiography to research and discuss whether men and women experience addiction differently, confronting gender bias in an industry that has historically dismissed the nuances of female addiction and recovery. Academic research into this field is still underfunded, stemming from the antiquated belief that addiction is a masculine affliction, despite recent statistics indicating that women do drink equally to, if not more than, men. Through this type of research, we can inform ourselves on how the female body works as a unit, and not just in addiction-specific cases. Valentish’s book is in fact full of surprising facts about the female body: the same hormones responsible for your doughnut-cravings during PMS are behind the increased alcohol intake of female alcoholics during the same period.
A small point of criticism would be that at some points in the book, Valentish appears more comfortable discussing the wild events of her life than the scientific results of her research. She tends to repeat certain facts from previous chapters, which results in some incoherency in the scientific discussion between sections. Though the repetition can become a little cumbersome, the repeated facts are ultimately worth the reiteration and detract little from the reader’s experience.
If you are put off by the prospect of yet another addiction memoir, do not be. The beauty of Woman of Substances is that it does not glorify the story of addiction for purposes of entertainment, which would distance the reader from the experience rather than developing understanding or empathy. Instead, the book breaks the stigmas surrounding female addicts by connecting women on a fundamentally chemical level, presenting the heavy themes of science, addiction and treatment in a refreshing and witty commentary.
Woman of Substances by Jenny Valentish.
(Head of Zeus, 2018)
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