Considering how guarded David Foster Wallace was when asked about his own experiences with drugs and alcohol, it’s rather astonishing that the halfway house where he lived for a time in the late 1980s happens to be one of the central locations in his most famous work, and one described with almost uncanny accuracy.
Since the early 2000s, an unsigned first-person essay has circulated like samizdat among Wallace die-hards, telling a story of addiction and recovery that fit with certain then-publicly known details about his career and whereabouts—while possibly adding some new wrinkles. Attempts to imitate DFW are invariably obvious as such, while the writing voice here rings true, virtuosic as ever, and prodigious without overstaying its welcome. To quote Maria Bustillos from The Awl: “Few (really zero, to my knowledge) who looked into the matter doubted” its provenance. Although it sounds as if this essay is difficult to find, it is not: to this day, “An Ex-Resident’s Story” is available—along with several much shorter testimonials—on the website of Granada House, a substance abuse recovery program still located in Boston and once located on the grounds of the Brighton Marine Health Center.
Had it still occupied the same brick building on Commonwealth Avenue, I might have felt the imposition of my person and camera verging on tactlessness. (I would have never made it as an investigative journalist.) Supplied with intelligence that the organization itself had moved elsewhere, I made it my first destination upon arrival.
The real, physical building is of course still there, hidden from the street by a few trees, a low-slung brick wall, and a wrought iron fence. It is also hidden from notice because it appears to be, and is, perfectly ordinary. Its architecture is unremarkable to the surrounds—unlike, say, the anonymous essay concerning it.
In the novel Wallace predicted a kind of proto-Internet service, a limited, one-way medium controlled by the InterLace TelEntertainment corporation, suggesting that it’s unlikely he foresaw the kind of online sleuthing that led readers to this discovery. As of 1991, when he began writing Infinite Jest, it was perfectly reasonable to assume that the best way to hide something was to leave it mislabeled in plain sight.
But the Granada House essay, obviously dating to the Internet era, might also answer the very question it raises: rather than seeking to conceal his personal history, it seems likely he simply intended to honor twelve-step recovery programs’ tradition of anonymity while grappling with the subject through his writing—signed and unsigned.