In this honest confession, engineering professor Lisa A. Pruitt reveals how she overcame alcohol abuse and a lifelong eating disorder through the therapy provided by her horse, JJ.
Spurred by the loss of an infant sister and struggles with school, weight, and friendships, Pruitt’s bulimia began at age eight and her dependence on alcohol shortly thereafter. A passion for engineering and an academic career seemed to promise a sense of worthiness, but when Pruitt joined the UC-Berkeley faculty, her academic achievements merely became “protective armor” hiding the pain of her addictions and unhappy marriage.
Pruitt’s only respite is horses, and as she progresses from riding and eventing to having her own ranch, she purchases JJ, a retired thoroughbred. JJ, her “spirit horse” and “the love of [her] life,” becomes Pruitt’s lifeline after she’s trampled at a horse show and the resulting epiphany propels her toward a long, painful journey to sobriety, physical health, a happy second marriage, and motherhood.
Pruitt’s prose is solid and her metaphors convincing, as when she describes her armor making her as “unyielding as structural steel.” She’s humble about her professional successes, stressing instead the irony that, as an engineer, she didn’t anticipate she was driving herself to fracture.
Throughout the book’s first half, readers don’t often feel inside the narrator’s experience, perhaps because Pruitt’s too busy hiding her addictions to examine her experience closely. Additionally, her use of present tense excludes the possibility of deep reflection.
In her work with her horses, however, the prose and Pruitt as a character come alive, as she describes the many instances in which JJ serves as a “beacon of light” in her recovery. Pruitt finds real healing when she begins to integrate her passion for horses with her academic work, and as she finally confronts her lifelong grief through JJ’s decline and death, the concluding chapters soar with narrative detail and meaning.
While readers who don’t share Pruitt’s past addictions or passion for horses may find less to identify with, the story of her struggles is uplifting and a solid addition to the genre of addiction and recovery memoir.