Should the pet mouse named Snowball, slang for a cocaine-heroin combo, have been a clue? If not, there were many more: the broken promises and missed meetings, the haggard appearance and flu-like symptoms, the lassitude and neglect of his children.
Yet it was only after his death, from a bacterial infection, that freelance journalist Eilene Zimmerman realized that her ex-husband, a hard-charging intellectual property lawyer, was a drug addict. Before that, she had imagined a range of explanations for his odd behavior and failing health — only not this.
Zimmerman’s memoir, “Smacked,” asks how such a fate could overtake someone so gifted, successful, wealthy, and driven. She first described Peter’s plight in a 2017 New York Times essay, “The Lawyer, the Addict,” highlighting the prevalence of drug addiction in the legal profession. “Smacked” expands the story in two directions: It offers a much fuller account of Peter’s life (and hers), and it reports on the factors — including depression, work stress, and competitive consumerism — that fuel white-collar addiction.
“Smacked” reads like an amalgam of two different books. The first, recounting Zimmerman’s love story, her marriage, the subsequent divorce, and Peter’s gradual deterioration, is an engrossing narrative laden with elements of pathos and mystery.
The second is a reportorial overview of the culture and causes of “white-collar pill-popping.” It is intended as both warning and self-help, a preventative against future tragedies. But it falls short — perhaps inevitably — of illuminating the complex, seemingly unfathomable psychology of Peter’s addiction.
What is missing, through no fault of Zimmerman’s, is Peter’s own voice — specifically, his testimony about how his dependence on drugs, from opioids to speed and cocaine, started, and how and why it got out of hand.
With the benefit of hindsight, Zimmerman describes Peter as someone with an “insatiable need for affirmation and acceptance, for validation and gratitude,” whose problems might have originated with his insecurities as an adoptee.
As an adult, he must have been consumed by loneliness. Like most addicts, he lied repeatedly to friends, family, and colleagues. When Zimmerman asked about his deteriorating health, he claimed to be suffering from an ailment called Hashimoto’s disease.
Peter died before managing to get sober, or to reflect on his experiences. A former chemist, he left behind no journals — just a macabre record of his pill intake and injections, presumably designed to prevent overdoses.
Zimmerman begins “Smacked” with her dramatic discovery of Peter’s corpse in his “architectural trophy” of a house, “all sharp angles and sunlight.” Though divorced, they are bonded by their personal history and their two children, and she still worries about him. Unable to reach him, she resolves to check on him “to make sure he’s okay and take care of him if he isn’t.” By the time she finds him, it is too late.
The narrative then flashes back to their first meeting, in April 1987. He’s a personnel recruiter; she’s in search of a writing job. He’s immediately smitten; she is not. But they become friends, staying in touch long-distance while he pursues graduate studies in chemistry in upstate New York. When she finally visits, to see his band play, he is already drinking heavily and doing lines of coke.
Still, they have sex, and she falls in love. Before long, they are living together in Philadelphia. Despite vague feelings of discontent and a distinctly unromantic proposal, she marries him.
Eighteen years later, Peter, having graduated first in his law school class, is a partner in a law firm, working marathon hours. They are living, unhappily, in San Diego. “Marriage,” Zimmerman writes, “has made me feel lonelier and more invisible than I have at any other time of my life.” But financial dependence keeps her from divorce — until Peter confesses to an affair.
Even after the divorce, they remain in touch, and Zimmerman notices his physical deterioration and unreliable behavior. He is “the king of noncommitment,” with excuses for every slip-up. “All I knew,” she writes, “was that nothing with him made sense anymore.”
Only after his death, when the medical examiner mentions his track marks and drug paraphernalia, do the clues finally snap into place.
In the last 80 or so pages, Zimmerman turns from Peter’s personal story to the larger context of white-collar drug abuse, as well as her own efforts to move on with her life. She notes the high number of lawyers suffering from depression and anxiety, as well as the epidemic of alcohol and drug use in the profession.
But the problem goes well beyond law, she writes, to the high-pressure fields of finance, medicine, and tech. Drugs are rampant, too, she says, among millennials and Generation Z, who often smoke marijuana and are prescribed, or overprescribed, psychoactive meds.
Zimmerman manages to end this poignant tale on a gently positive note. Peter’s absence looms over her daughter’s graduation from the University of Michigan. But she is nevertheless able to appreciate her family’s survival, the fact that she and her son and daughter are “alive and happy and together.”
SMACKED: A STORY OF WHITE-COLLAR AMBITION, ADDICTION, AND TRAGEDY
By Eilene Zimmerman
Random House, 272 pp., $27
Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, has been a two-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.