“This is the story of the soul's strength and of my downward spiral into a horrible heroin addiction that ends up with me performing on Broadway, and then ultimately, to finding recovery in the circus.”
That sentence from the introduction to Joe Putignano's memoir Acrobaddict, does sum up the story arc but, like every circus or sideshow act, it only reveals the surface of the complexities that are churning beneath. The story of a descent into addiction has been told many times before, but Putignano's story has unique hooks. Putignano was a champion gymnast who came very close to competing at the Olympics and the rigors of that training gave him a body that is a work of art; he has no qualms about baring that body in photographs and he has no qualms about baring his soul and scars when telling his story. The gymnastics training also helped Putignano achieve a fairy tale style ending when he, under the guidance of Cirque du Soleil and theatrical genius Robert Lepage, became the Crystal Man who descends from heaven to open Cirque's magical production Totem.
When I first began reading Acrobaddict, I was struck by the floridness of the prose. The metaphors and descriptions often take on the tone of an intriguing hybrid of Gothic horror and circus barker, as if Putignano was struggling to recreate the intensity of his emotions by piling on images and feelings in an attempt to communicate exactly what he experienced. Sometimes this reads as overkill, occasionally it creates an unusual but absolutely apt phrase or moment: his mother's breath smells of "Marlboros and gin;" "glamour had a curfew;" and "Gary was a weed growing out of our restaurant's bar and my mom had plucked him out to keep her company."
One can see the effort and pain that went into writing Acrobaddict, it bleeds from the pages, and, like a gymnast or circus acrobat, the sentences are eager to show off, to flaunt their literary muscles, and, crucially, to get attention. Putignano wants attention, he is almost desperate to save the reader from the hell of the addiction he suffered. The melodrama of Putignano's childhood and college memories veer close to high camp but then, ironically, once the heroin addiction kicks in, the prose loses its narcotized manic flavour and becomes relentless and driving. The ending lapses a little into new age-speak but by then one is so invested in Putignano's struggle that the catharsis outweighs all. And, as loathe as I am to admit it, the aphorism/folk tale of the duelling wolves has stuck with me despite it not having any connection to the circus metaphors that drew me to the book.
Acrobaddict is Putignano's statement, full of raw opened wounds and honesty, but after digesting for a few days, and Acrobaddict will definitely make you ruminate, I found I still had a few questions. So I asked:
Drew: Gay isn't mentioned in Acrobaddict, though it is certainly underlying, until 114 pages in and even after that your sexuality is either treated matter-of-factly or coyly. The three things that stuck out to me were "There are still days when I wish I wasn't gay," "I connected with the boy who was endlessly ridiculed for his sexuality" (though there is scant explicit evidence of that in Acrobaddict), and the passage where you write that you preferred being called a "drug addict" to a "fag." Downplaying the gay can definitely help Acrobaddict reach a larger audience, but did internal or external homophobia play a larger role in your addiction?
Joe Putignano: I definitely let my sexuality be an undercurrent in Acrobaddict because I wanted to focus my memoir on helping others find inspiration and hope. I was fearful that a straight addict wouldn't read my memoir if they knew I was gay, and this would create a block in carrying the message. I definitely wanted to talk about my homosexuality, because being made fun of in school, definitely played a hand in the destruction of my self-esteem. I also knew there were other gay/addict memoirs and I didn't want to recreate something similar. Getting a book published is tougher than I ever imagined.
I made the decision to keep addiction as the main focus because my entire intent behind writing this memoir was to help others. I honestly didn’t even know it was going to get published. Addiction has destroyed my entire family, ex-boyfriends, and even currently some of my friends. I know we can all relate to this, so this was my attempt at helping those who suffer.
Of former boyfriend Darren you write that you were "as addicted to each other as the drugs," and you describe college boyfriend Nick as a fratboy fantasy realized, but there is little talk of the sex. There is a current debate about the dangers of drugs like meth becoming cross addictions with sex. So many drugs are used in the gay community as sex enhancers, often leading, alas, to addictions that replace the sex. You were pretty consistently coupled throughout Acrobaddict, were drugs a sexual enhancer or a sexual replacement for you?
In the '90s rave era, cocaine and ecstasy were definitely sex enhancers for me, but my drug use quickly progressed into heroin addiction. There is nothing sexy about a heroin addict, except in the mind of the one who is using it, so I wasn't having tons of sex. I used to say, “Who needs a man, when you have heroin?” After all, I was having sex with the devil, and no man could ever fill his shoes. Heroin did become a sexual replacement for me.
You've appeared in many highly sexualized photo shoots (a coffee table photo-laden version of Acrobaddict would be a best seller), is that a sign that you've come to terms with your own attractiveness and sexuality or is it a marketing hook?
If definitely wasn't a marketing hook because most photos were shot before I even started writing the book. I had done some print work in New York. I am on the shorter side and because of this, my agent said that the only work I would get in this business is underwear modelling or fitness. I ended up going on tour with Cirque du Soleil, so I could never get to any “go-sees” in New York, but I still shot with different photographers as a way to build my portfolio. It was a lot of fun because I had always seen myself in a different way than others saw me. Nobody wanted to take my picture when I was a heroin addict, so in a way, it was a gift of my sobriety to myself saying, “You're not that monster today.”
I admit I was rooting for a happy ending with you and the last boyfriend mentioned, Jonathan, and was dismayed when he was dismissed with one line about the two of you breaking up. Have you found, assuming you are looking for, love since?
I too was rooting for a happy ending with Jonathan, and I can definitely say, we have one. Even though we aren’t still together, it was a very successful and incredible relationship and we are good friends today. We
are actually co-writing a sci-fi novel about eugenics called Zeus’s Garden. I have not found love like that since. I have given pieces of my heart to all my exs, so the real question is, “Do I have any pieces left to give?”
Did working with Robert Lepage who is so casually out in both his life and art help with your struggle?
Working with Robert Lepage changed my entire life, and he has become a mentor. Robert was the one who urged me to continue writing Acrobaddict, and currently pushes me to continue to create and write more.
Twyla Tharp, who you worked with in The Times They Are A-Changin', and Lepage are two of the foremost theatre artists in existence. How are you planning to follow those experiences?
I’m not sure I can surpass these experiences, but I would love to work with the director Guillermo del Toro some day.
A lot of Acrobaddict's metaphors and descriptions owe a debt to horror fiction and films. And there is a thread that lies teasingly under the surface when, four times that I counted, you mention a passion for horror films dating back to your childhood. Do you see your story as a horror narrative but with a happy ending?
Horror is definitely my literary genre. The first book I tried to write when I was 13 was horror. I remember using my mother’s make-up, not to dress in drag but to create scars, bruising, and other wounds. I actually thought I was going to be a special effects make-up artist when I grew up, but life had different plans. Even as an adult I’m still obsessed with horror. My apartment in New York is full of the macabre and the occult with things like a coffin (which is now a book shelf), taxidermy, old apothecary jars, skulls, voodoo dolls, medical instruments, and any other unusual oddities that usually make people squeamish.
Acrobaddict would have been a lot darker had it not been for the editors and publishing house. My original title for the book was How to Kill the Human Spirit. It was Robert Lepage who suggested I find a more inviting title. I even tried to get the cover of the book to be a photo of me contorting around syringes - that is the imprint my past has left in my mind. I can’t quite commit to saying Acrobaddict is a horror narrative, because I can go a lot deeper, but this story was definitely born in the shadows. Publishing a book requires artistic compromise and I had to let go of some of my darkness in the editing process.
What appeals about horror? And how does the jolt of adrenaline and catharsis horror provides different from drug use?
Horror appeals because it is actually difficult to scare people. As a writer or director in this genre, you have to convince the audience that the unnatural could happen to them; otherwise it’s not scary. If people know
it’s fake, they don’t get scared as easily, so they must believe in it. For myself, the only authentic relationship with horror and addiction is that it truly felt like there was an evil entity living inside of me. The devil has the most beautiful skin. However, this kind of horror isn’t make believe, and it is truly the stuff of nightmares.
In Acrobaddict, I describe a time when the doctor’s told me I had died. What I remember about that moment is still one of the most profound memories, and in a way, that situation increased my passion for the supernatural because I still need to know if what I felt was death or just all the drugs. When I was touring all over the world with Cirque du Soleil, my hobby was to go to famous haunted places and try to to find evidence, but I have to say that, thus far I've found none.
What are your favourite horror novels or films or writers?
My favorite horror writers are HP Lovecraft, Stephen King, and Anne Rice. Poltergeist is still a perfect horror movie, and recently there have been some good ones like the The Conjuring and A Haunting In Connecticut. The photographer Joel-Peter Witkin is one of my favourites, because his photographs transform what some people consider ugly and unusual into unique and powerful images with a message that suggests everyone is beautiful.
Are you actually, as you tease at the end of Acrobaddict, working on a horror novel?
I’m so glad you asked this because, yes, I am writing a horror novel. I'm halfway through it and will be sending it to my agent soon. The working title is Diabolus Hora.
You turned to psychics at two crucial turning points in your past. Has there been one since and what do they predict the future will hold?
God I love psychics. I have seen a couple since then, and ironically the most accurate psychic is the one I mentioned in Acrobaddict. She did say I would eventually write a horror book. The most recent psychic I saw, which was two years ago, told me I would never publishAcrobaddict. I kind of want to contact her and tell her I published my book, but that wouldn't be very nice.
Would Dan, your first gymnastics coach who haunts you with guilt throughout Acrobaddict, be proud of what you've accomplished? Have you been in contact?
I was extremely fearful that Dan would want nothing to do with me after reading the book. Throughout my addiction I would call him collect when I was homeless, and hang up the phone because I was too embarrassed to admit the life I was living. However, he read the book fairly recently and contacted me immediately. He is extremely proud of me, and in a strange way, this healed a very old wound I once carried.
How do you define yourself at this point in your journey? Acrobat? Gymnast? Recovering addict? Writer?
I’m always afraid to define myself because I feel like giving my work a label boxes me in. So, I’m going to define myself as: a guy with a really bad past who is trying to do better in the future.
What do you hope Acrobaddict will accomplish?
I hope people who read Acrobaddict will be able to identify with the struggles, not just as a LGBTQ person, but as a human being that has endlessly tried to fit in, be heard, and make a difference. I have had the luxury of traveling all around the world and the most common thread I see in everyone is that: we are all in pain. That is why I mention in Acrobaddict that the universal language isn't love: it's pain. It is through pain that we find compassion, which is then attributed to love. I really do want to help others, because I have seen the terrible suffering of addiction from every angle.
What do you hope to accomplish next?
Currently, I will continue to write, and next fall will be speaking to students from pre-teen to colleges on bullying, addiction, and following one’s dreams. I would like to try and change my acrobatic performances into more acting, as my shoulders are injured beyond repair for the kind of work I once did.