Like Denis Johnson, Franz Wright is one of those literary figures who should have been found dead from a drug overdose in some motel room in California years ago. Wright’s father, the poet James Wright, left the family when Wright was eight. His mother remarried, and by Wright’s own account, her second husband was an abusive man, both towards Wright and his brother Marshall and their mother. Wright decided early on that he wanted to be a poet. He studied at Oberlin College, where he began taking drugs, and published his first book of poems at 21. After college, he made ends meet with odd jobs and his writing and translations, while continuing to struggle with drugs and, like his father, alcohol. Wright married briefly, continued to write, drink and take drugs. He suffered a number of mental breakdowns over the years and was hospitalized on five different occasions, his last at McClean Hospital in Belmont. In 1998, however, he met Elizabeth Oehlkers, married, and converted to Catholicism.
In an interview for Christianity and Literature, Wright speaks of his conversion like this:
You know, there was a time when I thought of Catholic churches as excellent places to drink. I liked to go in and sit, they’d be empty. That was when the doors were open. They keep them locked now. […] What happened was wherever I lived, wherever I happened to be; and I lived all over the place. Everywhere I’ve ever lived, I’ve found myself wandering into Catholic churches and sitting in the back and feeling really safe and happy for a while. You know, not always drinking. And I couldn’t participate. One of the things that is so poignant about the Eucharist celebration is that it represents human beings sitting down at a table and eating together and being a family. It’s not something that I experienced a lot of. I think that might have drawn me to it. It felt like a place of unqualified love and I hadn’t had that.