In Qualification (Pantheon), Heatley attempts to heal his damaged psyche through multiple 12-step programs.
When did you realize you needed to write this book?
One of my biggest frustrations after I left 12-step was that I’d spent years cataloguing these “character flaws,” in the language of the program. I thought, “I could have written a book with all this”—and then realized I could. But I also had to forgive the program for “failing” me. I started to see the valuable things I got from it; my book editor helped me to broaden the memoir from falling into a diatribe.
Qualification is a narrative about the search for metanarratives. Did you resist the simplicity of “I realized I was an addict, then everything got better”?
The program promises you this comfortable narrative of redemption, a before-and-after: “I fucked up my life, I got saved, everything is a
gift from here on out. God is going to smile upon me forever.” I was making healthier choices in some ways but not others. I have a pretty happy life right now, but it’s the result of years of hard work in therapy and working on my marriage. I had to embrace the messiness.
You include a note about your workaround for maintaining the anonymity of others in the program. How did that apply to characters like Daryl, who took you through the program?
For anecdotal characters, I felt that what they said was more a part of me than them—that they probably wouldn’t remember saying what stayed with me all these years. That felt like fair game. But I struggled with Daryl. At first he was upset that I was going to talk about him, but he talked with his sponsors and he eventually told me, “I see you mean to do no harm with this book.” My relationship with him was emblematic of my relationship with the program—it was beautiful, frustrating, and it captured larger themes.
In what ways do spirituality and 12-step programs intersect?
Twelve-step is a faith-based, magical belief system that resists scrutiny. As much as people say it’s nondenominational and that even atheists can make it work, there’s a subtle pressure to conform to a sin-based narrative of “I have a lot on my soul that only God can take away.” The thing I suffered from most was an isolated, superjudgmental stance. The program gave me relief from that mindset. I’d hear someone talk and realize we were all human and all the same, and I’d feel released. But the minute I left the meeting, the world was challenging again.
You draw people literally saying “boo hoo hoo” when they cry. Does that sum up the book’s tone?
The magic of drawing memoir as cartoons is that it naturally gets lightened up. That’s a cartoon trope from daily newspaper strips. It’s also a parental perspective: the thing your toddler is crying about is the most serious thing in the world, but you’re kind of laughing about it at the same time.