Back from the brink: Memoir by Scott Hunter depicts his recovery from years of drug abuse and emotional wreckage

  • Longtime Valley resident Scott Hunter describes his picaresque life and past struggles with addiction in his memoir “And the Monkey Lets Go.”

  • Scott Hunter, the author of “And the Money Lets Go,” at his home in South Deerfield. His memoir recounts his odyssey-like journey in the 1970s and 1980s from substance abuse to sobriety.  STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Scott Hunter, the author of “And the Money Lets Go,” at his home in South Deerfield. His memoir recounts his odyssey-like journey in the 1970s and 1980s from substance abuse to sobriety.  STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Scott Hunter, the author of “And the Money Lets Go,” at his home in South Deerfield. His memoir recounts his odyssey-like journey in the 1970s and 1980s from substance abuse to sobriety.  STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Scott Hunter, the author of “And the Money Lets Go,” at his home in South Deerfield. His memoir recounts his odyssey-like journey in the 1970s and 1980s from substance abuse to sobriety.  STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Scott Hunter, the author of “And the Money Lets Go,” at his home in South Deerfield. His memoir recounts his odyssey-like journey in the 1970s and 1980s from substance abuse to sobriety.  STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • The former Belchertown State School, where Scott Hunter worked as an attendant in the early 1970s. He says he was fired when he challenged the poor treatment given to developmentally disabled patients in the facility.  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 6/1/2020 9:14:28 AM

Scott Hunter has a blunt assessment of where he should be today: in his grave.

An Amherst College graduate (class of 1967) who has had many a vocation over the years and who today is a semi-retired landscaper, Hunter spent most of his 20s and 30s immersed in a haze of booze, pot, mescaline and more. He drifted from place to place, unable to form strong relationships with women.

But when he hit 40, he got on a slow road to recovery — and also discovered emotions and memories he’d effectively buried for years through his self-medicating.

It’s a story that Hunter, who lives in South Deerfield, lays out in his book “And the Monkey Lets Go: Memoirs Through Illusion and Doubt.” Published by Mascot Press of Herndon, Virginia, “Monkey” offers a wild but also painful ride that traces Hunter’s peripatetic journey through the late 1960s and 1970s, a time when many young people took unconventional paths through life.

Hunter, now 75, found himself tracing some of those paths himself: teaching English as a Second Language in Thailand, driving tractor trailers, studying theology at a Presbyterian school, living in a teepee on an organic farm, and serving as an attendant at the former Belchertown State School, an institution that became notorious for its poor treatment of the mentally ill and developmentally disabled.

In a recent phone call, Hunter said he’d lucked out with “an amazing amount of serendipity in my life — it’s been a bit crazy, really, but it helped me in ways that maybe I didn’t realize at the time.

“I should be dead, but I’m not,” he added. “I’m alive, and people need to hear this story, to know that there is hope and that with determination you can overcome addiction.”

It wasn’t until early 1986, after he’d tuned 40, that Hunter really began to turns things around, attending a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous in Northampton that a friend brought him to. He writes that he broke down in tears when he spoke in front of the small group of people there, admitting that he had a substance abuse problem.

But since that moment, he says, he hasn’t taken a drink or ingested a drug. In fact, Hunter went from being about as unhealthy as he could be to just the opposite, establishing a successful landscaping business and taking up ultra running, at one point completing four 100-mile races within a 10-week span. He also has published two books of poetry.

“Running became another form of addiction,” he said with a laugh, noting that he still runs today but at a more moderate level.

His memoir, which he first began working on about 10 years ago, gives him some mixed feelings today, but he has received encouragement from his longtime partner, Kate, and friends.

“I’m feeling kind of vulnerable right now, having put all this out there,” he said, referring to the description of the difficult periods of his life. “But I know writing this book was something I needed to do.”

A functional alcoholic

“And the Monkey Lets Go” rolls along in an episodic fashion, without a formal introduction. Hunter begins his account with his arrival at Amherst College as a freshman in 1963, feeling overwhelmed by the school: He was “smart enough,” he writes, but he was also “clueless” about college-level academics.

It was at Amherst that his problems with booze began. The school, he wrote, “taught me to think and drink, and I became a functional alcoholic ... By senior year, the weekend ended on Sunday night and began Monday night.”

It’s not until somewhat later in the narrative that you learn Hunter was raised in western Pennsylvania, about 20 miles outside of Pittsburgh. He weaves in a little bit about growing up there, painting a portrait of his parents as solid people who were not particularly affectionate with one another or with him or his sister, Marilyn.

Instead, the memoir focuses on the way Hunter’s unplanned life took him from one place to another, though a good part of that zigzag journey was due to the substance abuse that came to be a regular part of his days, including a stretch during which he was essentially homeless (he would crash at other people’s homes until he eventually wore out his welcome).

“It’s really a collection of stories,” Hunter said. He explains that he had told some of these episodes in the past to various people, and at one point, during a trip he was on with Kate, he shared a couple tales with a woman who said to him, “You really should write all this down.”

“That’s what I ended up doing,” Hunter said. “[The memoir] was chronological at first, but eventually it took the form it has now.” He also worked on the book with a writer and writing coach in New York City, Julie Chibbaro, who helped him shape the narrative.

Serendipity played a big role in his first big post-college move. Unwilling to be drafted for the Vietnam War, he enrolled in a theological seminary in Pittsburgh. But when he found himself at odds with the instructors on many issues of Christian doctrine, he applied in 1969 to do community service in the U.S. through the national offices of the Presbyterian Church in New York.

He mistakenly ended up in the center’s office of national missions, where a woman asked him if he’d be interested in going to Thailand to teach English in a Christian school. “My response?” writes Hunter. “Sign me up!”

Just like that, Hunter found himself in Thailand for the next two years, where he learned to speak and read Thai and to meditate, tooled around on jungle roads on a motorbike, brushed up against U.S. military forces that had established a remote base near where he taught — and smoked a lot of Thai stick, very potent pot.

Those habits of substance abuse and letting life lead him where it would continued for years. But as Hunter hints in his narrative, there were unresolved issues from his childhood that kept him from coming to grips with his substance abuse and forming any real close relationships with women — and only when he quit drinking and drugging was he able to confront these problems.

“And the Monkey Lets Go” offers a portrait both of young people in the 1960s and their search for spiritual meaning and new experiences, as well as a look at the Valley of the 1970s and 1980s — from the communal farm in Wendell where Hunter lived for a time, to the dark conditions at the Belchertown State School, which finally closed in 1992 following a series of lawsuits and investigations of abuses against patients.

Once recovered, Hunter earned a masters in rehabilitation services in 1992 from Springfield College and did substance abuse counseling for a while. But he later started his landscaping business, drawing on his background in spirituality and meditation for its name and logo: “Philosophical Gardening. No Job Too Mundane.”

Though the COVID-19 pandemic has led to the cancellation of many in-person events, Hunter looks forward to eventually having an opportunity to talk more about his book. “I’m willing to go to any library or place that will have me and talk for free, to speak about any aspect of this,” he said, “anything that might help other people.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com. More about Scott Hunter’s memoir can be found at scottjhunter.com.




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