Bill Clegg

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by Ruby Comer

Photo by Charles Runnette
After reading Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, by Bill Clegg, I had one pressing question. So I set out to get it answered.

This memoir chronicles Bill’s hellish descent into the underworld of crack addiction. Though he seemed to have it all—a prestigious job as a New York literary agent, an apartment on 5th Avenue, a longtime partner, and close friends and colleagues—his life became an endless whirl of scoring hits and having sex, which led him to poverty and sickness. It’s a wonder he’s still kickin’.

I contact Bill and he suggests we meet at Friends In Deed, an organization that provides spiritual and emotional support to those living with HIV. Located in SoHo on Broadway near Houston Street, they offer workshops, seminars, yoga, one-on-one and group counseling, nutritional advice, and much more. Bill and I relax on a couch in the comfy living room.

Ruby Comer: This place is like being in a friend’s home! It’s so inviting and tranquil here.
Bill Clegg:
It is, Ruby, and the Big Groups [a facilitated support group] that are held in the afternoon, the center provides lunch for the attendees. It’s cooked in their own kitchen [he points to it; the next room] then everyone gathers around a large table to eat.

What a splendid place. Why did you want to meet here, Bill?
One of my closest friends is Cy O’Neal [A&U, December 1998]. She cofounded and runs the organization. It came into being during the AIDS crisis as a way of addressing the needs of not only people with an HIV/AIDS diagnosis but their families and partners as well. I’ve been involved in fundraising and brainstorming about getting the word out about their work. I’m also the agent for her book, Talk Softly, the story of Cy’s journey which led her to a life of service. Cy is a great inspiration to me.

Photo by Christian Woods

You’re an inspiration, young man. I was totally engrossed and captivated by your story and came out of it with one question: After becoming sober did you get tested for HIV because of all the anonymous sexual escapades you had while you were high?
I was always safe when I was high. Given that so much of my drug use was driven by a death wish, especially at the very end, my survival still surprises me. My insistence on being safe even in the most self-destructive hours is one of the only pieces of evidence I have that ultimately I didn’t want to die.

Thank heaven. Where did you first hear about the epidemic?
On the news when I was a teenager in rural Connecticut. It seemed very far away and very frightening. In high school I never knew anyone who was out. When I think about it now, it just astonishes and depresses me. The epidemic came as terrible news to me in the way that stories of starvation in Africa did. Far away, remote, disconnected from my life.

What impact has the AIDS epidemic had on you?
Well, I arrived in New York in the early nineties just after the most violent and terrifying years of the storm had passed. So it was like arriving at a party after a huge fight breaks out and the police have carried away the warring parties. Everyone is still spooked, still careful.
My first boyfriend, “Noah” in the book, had been very involved in ACT UP. I was fascinated by his involvement. I had just come out of the closet when we met and I had very few gay friends. His stories of the gay community fiercely mobilizing in the time of such great crisis were moving to me. It was through him I first came to know the history of that activism and he was the first person I knew who actually knew people who had died of AIDS.

Have you lost anyone close to you from this disease?
Fortunately, no, though I hear its echo often and see the ongoing pain in the faces of those I know who lost partners, friends, and colleagues. [He clears his throat.] Recently I’ve seen people slacken their care, relax their worry [about the epidemic] and that frightens me.

Oh, Bill, you are unfortunately correct. How would you address a young person today who is an addict and participates in risky sex?
I would tell them to come with me to a group session at Friends In Deed and just listen. Then I would take them to a room for recovering alcoholics and addicts and have them listen.

Good deal! How do you keep it all together, so you don’t return to using?
I stay connected to other alcoholics and addicts in recovery. My relationships with them are the most important in my life because without them and the work I do with them I would have no sobriety. Without sobriety, I would have nothing.

The book took fours years to write and your story will hopefully reach others.
As an active addict and alcoholic I was convinced my struggles were singular and hopeless. The main reason for the book to exist is to show anyone who identifies with any aspect of my story that they are not alone and that as bad and hopeless as it may seem—there is hope.
As well, I tried to manage my drinking and drug use for years and years. One drink would become ten no matter how much I told myself at the beginning of the evening that I’d just have one or two—same with drugs. I persuaded myself that at some point I’d be better able to manage it all and the truth is that it only got worse and progressed to the point where I didn’t want to live anymore. If anyone recognizes that same evening negotiation, I hope they see in my story where it leads and avoid for themselves all that misery—for themselves and everyone around them. When people write to say thank you, that my story has helped them in some way, I feel relieved and grateful that the book—my whole dark journey—can be helpful to others.

For more information about Friends In Deed, log on to www.friendsindeed.org.

Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected]