The Rehab Chronicles


Lesley Arfin and I are having coffee the night after her Dear Diary book-release party, which she deems a success. “I had an emergency therapy session yesterday and we meditated, so I was able to just wear my emotions and feel vulnerable,” she says. “I totally cried. It was great.”

Arfin, 28, is the writer behind the popular (and now-defunct) Vice magazine column that shares its name with her new book. Raised in Long Island, she moved to Manhattan after college and indulged a grand-scale fondness for dope she’d developed at Hampshire University, pissing away her parents’ cash in the bathrooms of downtown haunts like Max Fish. It’s all detailed in the book (released earlier this month), along with stories of bad friends (high school still blows), bad jobs (especially a soul-sucking stylist stint), and bad break-ups. Also: cute boys. Lots of ’em.

She mentions offhand that Café Orlin, where we’re sitting, is one of her old stomping grounds, and I remember that we’re just a few blocks away from where she got mugged in July 2000, high on heroin, when she was 21. The story, according to one of Dear Diary‘s more skittish journal entries:

Tonight Darren and I got mugged. We were walking down Avenue B, one block away from his house on 7th Street. This dude comes up behind me and grabs my bag and I just fucking chase after him and get all my shit back, I was so proud of myself. I got everything in my bag back except for $7, thank God because there was dope in there and my ID and all my phone numbers. Darren lost everything and I think he felt sort of stupid. I really need to stop doing dope for a few weeks. My tolerance is just getting way too high. I gotta go cold turkey. I’m scared but I can get through it. I love Darren so fucking much.

Then the diarist doubles back, giving one of her trademark updatesset apart from regular entries by the word “UPDATE”–that explores today what she was too young, too high, or just too distracted to discern before:

This [behavior] is idiotic, especially in New York, but it didn’t seem idiotic then; it seemed heroic and bad-ass. A few years after this a young woman named Nicole DuFresne was coming home from Max Fish and got lippy with a mugger (not far from where Darren and I were mugged). He shot her in the chest and she died.

The next entry begins, “I am addicted to heroin.”

The former nightlife fixture isn’t the first or the last to write about addiction, of course. And rehab–she went twice–isn’t the focus, either. The book builds on the entry-and-update format of her Vice column (entries date from 1990) by adding interviews with many of the stories’ major players: ex-boyfriends, family members, girls who were total bitches in the sixth grade, etc.

“It’s gay to say, but I had to get in touch with my inner 12-year-old,” Arfin tells me. “It’s like part of you is still that person. You grow up and you get rational, and it’s embarrassing to admit, but those old wounds still fucking hurt.”

Which is why calling the girls from junior high was the hardest part of writing the book. “I felt like I had to conquer those interviews first because I was dreading them the most,” she says. “I thought, ‘If I can do these, maybe the rest will be easier.’ ” The result? Well, in regard to one Wendy Webb, Arfin writes: “She seems pretty nice now and has no recollection of being a condescending bitch, cunt, liar that made everyone feel like shit via weird headfuck, passive-aggressive evilness. . . . ”

Essentially, Dear Diary is a collection of accounts that contributed both directly and indirectly to Arfin’s destruction, accompanied by reports from the self-aware perspective that hindsight offers. (UPDATE: She’s clean now, and in addition to writing, works at the Maritime Hotel.) There are seemingly innocuous events (getting ousted by the popular kids) and more obvious ones (her father’s particular brand of corporal punishment), and if they aren’t all funny exactly, each is certainly engaging. Painfully familiar age-12 camp entries: “I kissed Chad Hooper. We Frenched. It was very romantic because it was raining.” Descriptions of rehab: “basically boredom, farting and terrible roommates.” And delicious celeb encounters, primarily from her days as a stylist: Naomi Campbell won’t put on her own socks. Eva Mendes admits she has no idea how to act. Pharrell Williams whispers, “What’s my name, boo?”, then asks what a co-worker’s sign is.

And while Dear Diary retains Vice‘s class of uncomfortable humor (“His fingers felt huge and foreign in my preteen pussy,” reads a February 1993 entry), what’s missing is the mag’s sense of detachment. Arfin, on paper and in person, is refreshingly sincere. One memorable entry, dated the month before she enters rehab for the second time (Betty Ford, FYI), pretty much explains her decision to keep getting fucked up: “I didn’t want to miss out, just in case something extraordinary happened.”

When I ask Arfin if she still feels like that–like she might be missing out–she hesitates. “Well, I mean, of course I do. If, like, five of my friends go to the beach, I’m like . . . ‘Oh, are they having the best time ever?’ I don’t think that goes away. But I don’t feel that way about bars anymore.” (Arfin adds that she’s secretly glad places like the Hole and Standard Notions have closed, so she doesn’t have to wonder if they’re still fun.)

“You know, you’re supposedly cool if you see so many bands and go to so many parties, have all the right records and all the best clothes. But you aren’t what you own or where you go,” Arfin concludes. “You could have all that and still be really fucking boring.”