By Pauletta Hansel
Readers of our Urban Appalachian Community Coalition blog are used to seeing posts BY Mike Templeton, rather than about him. Therefore, I am especially honored to be writing this post about his first book, described by its publisher, Erratum Press, as “memoir of addiction, incarceration, and return from the brink of destruction.”
I recently had the opportunity to see an advance copy of the book (it is available to purchase as of September 25.) The Chief of Birds is a memoir of the body—describing in piercing detail the ravages of alcoholism—and of the mind, allowing (again from the publisher) “quotations from Samuel Beckett, Maurice Blanchot, and others to speak where the author has been silenced.”
Before I go on to discuss The Chief of Birds, I want to share some of its author’s current situation, having received his permission to do so, and to let readers know why there have been no recent posts from him. Mike Templeton has experienced a “silencing” of a different kind. In early July, he was diagnosed with throat cancer, which necessitated (among other treatments) a laryngectomy which has left him unable to speak. Mike reports that his recent surgery went well, and that the doctors say he is healing fast. The great news is that they got all the cancer. He will start radiation soon to make sure none lingers, and has begun speech therapy to use the prosthetic voice box to speak again. We all wish Mike a full and speedy recovery, and hope he comes back to UACC as soon as he is able.
The Chief of Birds is a brave book, both in form and content. That Mike Templeton is a fine writer with an incredible intellect will be no surprise to our readers. And though Mike could not speak to me about the book, he was able to write to me about his process. He said, “The book relies on a fragmentary narrative, and this is because everything I experienced came to me as fragments. All of these experiences were disjointed, and I had no way to properly understand what was happening. This is also why I allowed the quotations from other writers to speak for me. My own thoughts and language were insufficient as other language systems took over for me. The law, medicine, psychology—these things spoke for me and would not even allow me to speak for myself. I asserted the words of others as a way to re-gain my own words.”
Woven into the narrative are excerpts from the author’s journal during his period in “The House,” the residential recovery facility where he landed after what he calls the end. “The end begins in my room,” Mike Templeton writes. “The end” in this case are the final days and weeks of a downward spiral leading almost certainly to the narrator’s death, but instead to fragmented and somewhat haphazard years of recovery, at first enforced through court orders, and eventually to an emergence of self. These journal entries are a mix of the author’s own words and those words scavenged from philosophers and poets, and provide a throughline in this fragmented narrative.
“The end is in the beginning” is a quote from philosopher Samuel Becket, and is the title of the first chapter. Beckett is (to this reader at least) a driving force. My own study of philosophy has been so limited that I can’t call it study at all (despite, or perhaps because, I was raised by a philosophy professor!) but I was deeply affected by attending a performance of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot as a young woman. Knowing that Mike will be reading this post, I hesitate to try to name the play’s “meaning,” but after first encountering Waiting for Godot, I did, for a time, live with a sense of the meaningless of an existence spent waiting for what would never come. “The House” in The Chief of Birds, as perhaps a physical manifestation of “recovery,” seems imbued with a Godot-like existence, that of “waiting” for a path, a way out or through to some other place.
One of the things that I found most interesting in the book is the description of how reading and ultimately writing was how the narrator recreated himself from the void he perceived himself to be. Here’s a short quote from late in the book. “The exterior I encountered in writing founded an interior I did not know was shaping into a ghost within me that I would one day encounter as myself.” Mike Templeton goes on to write, “My path away and out was to allow myself to be stitched together from broken pieces of the words of others.”
I will note here that because he has written about an issue of extreme importance to so many people, the disease of alcoholism and its recovery, Mike wanted to stress to readers that his story is his alone. He told me, “It is important to me that people understand that this book is about my experiences and in no way represents a “critique” of the world of recovery and 12-step. The House, as it is called in the book, has helped countless people. My rendering of my experiences is distinctly my own.” And that is, perhaps, the only and best thing a memoirist can do—render personal experiences in such a way that a reader can enter and find something of his or her own self, which surely Mike Templeton has done in his unique creation, The Chief of Birds.
Finally, as is characteristic of Mike, he wanted to share the credit. “The idea to write a memoir came from a professor at Miami University where I got my Ph.D. [who] became a friend and mentor. I told him a little about my time in treatment and he said I had everything I needed for a memoir. The thought never left me, and I wrote the book. I owe Keith Tuma a debt of gratitude for inspiring me to write this thing.” As we do to Mike Templeton for having written it.
Pauletta Hansel is a UACC Core Member. She is a poet and teacher originally from southeastern Kentucky.