Skip to main content

Interview: March 26, 2015

Sylvia True was born in Manchester, England to German refugees, who moved to the U.S. when she was five. She has been a high school science teacher for over 20 years, and now she (and readers!) welcomes her debut novel, THE WEDNESDAY GROUP. It’s the “unputdownable” story of five women, who meet each week in therapy to discuss the trials of being married to sex addicts. In this interview with The Book Report Network's Bronwyn Miller, True talks about why she felt compelled to write a story about addiction from a fresh --- and often overlooked --- angle, the reason she’s so interested in how people experience shame, and how writing about it helps her resolve those feelings in her own life.

The Book Report Network: Congratulations on the publication of your first novel, THE WEDNESDAY GROUP. Where did the idea for the book come from?

ST: I did not start this book with the concept of a therapy group for wives of sex addicts. I am not nearly that concrete sequential. Nor am I very methodical. But in hindsight, when I look back over the process and the things that got cut and those that remained, it was pretty clear that my intentions, probably driven much more by my subconscious than conscious mind, were to explore the issue of shame and how to move past it. Shame has been a constant in my life, and something I am always struggling to overcome. It makes sense that in the end this was the emotion I really wanted to explore, and what better way to explore it than with an addiction that is mired in shame?

TBRN: Apart from your novel, I can’t think of another one that addresses the topic of the spouses of sex addicts and what they go through. There have been several addiction memoirs, but not many that come from the point of view of the addict’s partner. Did you write THE WEDNESDAY GROUP to specifically shine a light on the loved ones of addicts?

ST: Absolutely. There are so many painful realities that surround addiction, and I think that the family is often overlooked. I remember reading about a spouse of a sex addict, and she said, “It’s not fair. They get sobriety chips, and what do we get? Nothing.” I realize this is a rather simplified view, but it really struck me that the spouses, who often stay and support their husbands or wives, and who keep the family together and functioning, are given almost no attention. The disease of addiction affects the whole family, and I think it’s important to acknowledge the struggles --- and the courage --- of other family members.

TBRN: How much research did you do for THE WEDNESDAY GROUP? What was the most valuable thing you learned while working on this book? Did you use any other novels as a sort of touchstone while writing it?

ST: I did a lot of research. I read books by Patrick Carnes, who writes about sex addiction. I read blogs and websites and articles. But by far the best research came from a few women who were willing to share their stories. Obviously, I need to respect their anonymity. I would never share their names, and I changed their stories enough so that no one would recognize them. What I tried to stay true to was the emotional reality of their plights. 

TBRN: Did any one character prove more of a challenge to write? If so, which one? Did you find a bit of your own personality (or anyone you know) coming out in any of the characters?

ST: The most difficult character for me to write was Gail. At times she probably comes off as a bit of a snob, but really that is just a mask for her insecurities and fears. All of the characters have flaws, but I often worried that Gail was not a sympathetic character. I felt that it was my job to make sure the reader understood her fallibility, and that she was just as vulnerable and sensitive as the other women.

I feel as if all of the women are in some way or another an extension of myself. I pull from things I know. They have jobs I could either find out about easily, or that I already knew a lot about. One is a psychiatric nurse, one is a photographer and one is a chemistry teacher (which I am). The scenes are all fictional. I love playing the “what if” game, and throwing as many difficulties at my characters as I can.

TBRN: Did you always want the story to come solely from the women’s viewpoint rather than their husbands? 

ST: Yes. That was something I never hesitated about. The addict wants his or her choice of drug, whether that’s heroin or gambling or sex. Stories of addicts can be moving and ultimately uplifting, but to me, the stories are often similar --- get the high, try to quit, get the drug again, and finally hit such a low that something has to be changed. In this case, I was more interested in the spouses’ struggles, what goes on behind the scenes, and how much shame they carry with this, even if they have done nothing wrong.

TBRN: Each woman in the group is very different: Gail is calm and in control; Bridget is all raw emotion with no filter; Flavia is warm and sweet; Lizzy is trying so hard to be optimistic. Did you want each character in the group to play a certain role? Why did you have Flavia return to Greece with her husband?

ST: Yes, I wanted the characters to be different, otherwise the story would have been very repetitive. I also think that they represented different stages in their own healing and recovery. Clearly, Bridget was the angry one. I do think Lizzy had hope until the end. I also think that each of the women had varying degrees of denial. Flavia did represent a kind of denial. She thinks that the change in environment will be the cure. And as most of us know, you can run away, but you end up with the same problems, just in a different location.

TBRN: Given the statistics about recovery rates of sex addicts, how do you think these characters and their spouses will fare?

ST: Actually, I have read a range of statistics, so I don’t put a lot of credence in the numbers. I do know sex addiction can be difficult, and I am so amazed at peoples’ perseverance and courage. How do I think the spouses in my novel will fare? Hannah might make it work because she really wants to understand the nature and cause of her husband’s addiction. Lizzy will move on. Gail’s marriage is broken. Flavia will learn that running to another country will not change the addiction, and Bridget, I’m not sure. She loves Michael, but I think that when she sees him, she can’t let go of the betrayal, and ultimately it might be too painful for her to stay in the marriage, even if he gets better.

TBRN: What are the biggest misconceptions about sex addiction? Do you think many women fall prey to the illusion of the perfect marriage and ignore the red flags, like Hannah did?

ST: I don’t think Hannah completely ignored the flags. She wanted to believe that her husband would get better, that he was working on it, and that his addiction would be easy to cure. She didn’t do enough homework, and then the longer her marriage lasted, the harder it was for her to imagine a life without Adam, and the more she simply wanted to look the other way. Denial is often a much easier --- although certainly not safer --- state to live in.

TBRN: Support groups for other addictions are widely accepted and accessible. Why do you think sex addiction still carries a stigma?

ST: Sex addiction has been around for a while, but I think it’s just beginning to come out of the closet. I think about the stigma around depression and alcoholism, and how we are so much more accepting of those illnesses now. Relatively speaking, the Internet is new. Porn is much more accessible, and many sex addictions begin with watching porn. Just like many alcoholics begin with a glass of wine or a beer. I’m not judging anyone for watching porn, and some people can watch a little and it’s no big deal. But unfortunately, some people get addicted. In time I hope that the stigma around this addiction will decrease. It certainly doesn’t help the addicts or their partners when there is so much whispered shame about it. Sex addiction, as with any addiction, has consequences. Marriages are destroyed, and STDs are transmitted. But in some ways it’s not as dangerous as many other addictions. Think of how many young people die from heroin or drinking and driving.

TBRN: Did you always intend to leave the ending a little ambiguous? Would you ever revisit these characters in a future book?

ST: I’m not sure about revisiting the characters, but yes, I meant for the ending to have a certain amount of ambiguity.

Addiction doesn’t end, and even if some of the husbands have periods of sobriety, there is always the risk of relapse. For me, it was important that the end was realistic, but also hopeful. The group will continue; the women have grown. They understand the importance of support and friendship, and with that they are stronger and will be better able to cope with whatever the future brings.

TBRN: You were born in England and moved to the U.S. when you were five, the child of German refugee parents. Do you think your upbringing and background inform your work? If so, how?

ST: In many ways, I wanted this question to come first because who I am, and what my background is, informs so much of my work.

Both my parents and their families fled from Nazi Germany. With them they took fear and shame, and nothing gets passed on more easily to children than those two things. I am in no way blaming them, just stating the facts.

From when I was very young, shame hovered around me, although I certainly didn’t know that’s what it was called back then. What I did know was that I spent most of my life pretending I was happy, trying to hide from myself, and always feeling as if I was walking on a tightrope, barely able to stay centered and balanced. I always expected that the next day would be the day I would finally collapse and be exposed as a fraud.

I was constantly searching for normal. But in my 20s it was getting further out of reach. I decided that having a baby would cure me. I gave birth to a beautiful 10-pound girl. I had never felt a deeper or more profound love. But post-partum depression hit hard, and it wasn’t long before I ended up in a mental hospital.

I’m not going to lie and say it was all fun and games, although a surprising amount of it was. The first few weeks were the hardest. I was panicked, depressed, terrified and insanely ashamed. One day in the cafeteria I saw a guy I went to college with. He wasn’t a patient, he was a worker, and I hid --- unsuccessfully. Being put in a locked unit at McLean felt as if I’d sunk to the very bottom of humanity. Unable to take care of myself and my baby, feeling like a complete failure, I didn’t have any idea how I was going to get out of the mess. I prayed to a God I didn’t even believe in. I begged for three months. I just wanted three months with no insomnia, depression and panic. Three months to enjoy that delicious baby, and then, well, I figured that was as much as I could ask for. (I got 30 years!) And I am still going strong. I began to talk about all sorts of feelings I had been told growing up one should never talk about. The most important thing I found at McLean was support.

The backbone of this book is about overcoming shame. It’s a theme in my life and my writing.

TBRN: You’ve been a high school science teacher for several years. What made you decide to write a novel? How did you fit that in with your teaching schedule?

ST: I have been a high school science teacher for over 20 years, and I still love it.

Escapism is one reason I enjoy writing. I like the play of it. But it’s more than that. Because really it would be a lot easier to just read and watch television, both excellent forms of escape. But I also write to explore emotions and problems. Shame, as I have already said, has been a constant in my life, and learning how to overcome shame sits at the core of this book.

TBRN: What would you like readers to take away from THE WEDNESDAY GROUP?

ST: Find support. Talk to people. Be open. Most people are kind by nature and want to help.

TBRN: I understand that you’re already hard at work on your next novel. Can you tell us something about it?

ST: It’s another women’s book. In this novel, three women begin a small, grassroots charity to help people in their community. But the real reason they want to help others is in large part a way to escape the very people they should be helping --- themselves.