Sam Fussell: an interview with the author of Muscle
Michael J. Joyner, M.D. June 10, 2014
In 1991 Sam Fussell published the book “Muscle” about his experiences in body building. The book tells the story of how he went from being a good 6-4, 170 pound college soccer player to a committed body builder about 100 pounds heavier. It is perhaps the best first person account ever written about one person’s entry into, and ultimate engulfment by, an athletic subculture. Muscle also contains insights into “why people dope” that go beyond what the cyclist Tyler Hamilton and others have explained in books like the “The Secret Race.” After publishing the book Fussell more or less dropped out of sight. He has no website and has not done much to try to cash in further on his book.
I found Sam Fussell and he was generous enough to answer questions and engage in a multi-day e-mail exchange and reflection on the topics covered in his book and all sorts of related digressions that ultimately ran to more than 9,000 words. Consistent with what I expected his answers were thoughtful and articulate. What struck me more is that 25 plus years after his experiences in the gym, he has incredible insights about the search for what is real in our manufactured world. I believe these insights will hit home with a lot of people who have gone to the edge chasing physical goals, they certainly have for me.
When I asked him if he had been waiting to expound on these issues for a while and I just sort happened to be the person to ask, he responded “I have been thinking about these issues for over 25 years. (And honestly, being something of an obsessive, not thinking about much else).”
So here are the high spots of the exchange more or less verbatim, but before I start with the questions below are before and after shots of Sam.
1) Your book “Muscle” was published in 1991. In it you describe your transformation from a budding member of the East Coast literary establishment to a hardcore bodybuilder essentially living in a gym in S. California. When you look back after 25 plus years does it seem real? Does it seem like a dream that happened a long time ago and a sort of multi-year out of body experience?
Sam Fussell: “A budding member of the East Coast literary establishment?” Hah!!! That was not me reclining in a leather wing-backed easy chair at the New York Society Library, discussing my take on Proust in between lecturing gigs at Ivy Schools. That was, in fact, me, hovering over the Xerox machine, wearing a rubber apron to keep (unsuccessfully) my clothes from being stained by toner ink (which fed the Xerox machine). That was me sitting at my desk in my cubicle on the fourth floor of a Corporation which cranked out books for money.
But that was me working by the Xerox machine in my toner bib by choice. Oxford had asked me to continue and do a PhD (their D.Phil) in American Lit and I felt I had not done well enough on my exams to warrant their offer. I was also haunted by the lines I’d read by a medieval poet who wrote something like, “Methinks a monk in his cloister is worth narily an oyster.” I didn’t see a future for me in academia. I didn’t think the world needed another fifteenth-rate English Professor.
While publishing companies would love the comparison with universities, one exists for financial profit, the other not.
In the hierarchy of the corporation, I was above the janitor (perhaps), but below everyone else on the floor. It was understood that if the head of the floor (who spent his days sitting back in his office, his eyes creased in misty reverie, discussing — with anyone who would listen — his days as a Yale undergraduate) wanted water from the water fountain and others of us were already in line, we would part like the Red Sea for the head to get his drink of water. It was explained that, ‘his time is worth more than yours.’
I worked at this corporation for two years and watched people on my floor angle for the move from the cubicle to the office, and then from the office to the corner office. They would spend decades plotting their ‘rise’ to power. That power shown by real estate (the location of their corner office) and by how many people worked beneath them (how many employees they then ‘owned.’).
When I first worked in publishing, I was naïve enough to believe people who worked in publishing read books. Wrong. They work at an assembly line and ‘process product.’ I worked in that assembly line (but, unlike them, I actually went home at night and read books).
So, after 25 years, does it seem real (the bodybuilding part vs. the Joe Versus the Volcano office Barnaby Drudge/Bartleby part)?
Yes, it does seem real.
Because my world went from black-and-white to color as soon as I took one step through the gym door (which I remember like it was yesterday).
And through that door (‘the rabbit hole’ as some critics called it), was something missing in the Corporation.
My first week at the Corporation, I worked something like 70 hours. I came in on Saturday and Sunday. The person who had preceded me in my job had left months before and left a backlog of work. So I tackled that. With joy. But a couple of weeks later, I got a phone call and was led to an office where I sat before a group of higher-ups who questioned my hours. They couldn’t believe I worked that many hours. Rather than argue about it, I told them it must have been my mistake. I realized then that in the Corporation, the aim is to fit in. Not stand out. Real industry was suspect. I was to be rewarded for doing x amount of work. Not 3x amount of work.
Once a year, I was up for salary review. Any raise would be a certain set percentage of my previous year’s salary. There are no exceptions. None. So, the incentive to do 3x work was actually not there.
In the gym, I found a world where I would be rewarded for doing 3x amount of work. And it was liberating. I’d found, in the gym, a meritocracy. Where labor had visible, tangible results.
The first job I ever had was working in a lion-and-tiger show at what was then called Great Adventure Amusement Park (now Six Flags). I was 17. My job was to hold a ten foot long iron bar and to stand outside a cage filled with lions and tigers. As the show began, the lions and tigers were released into the cage-enshrouded ring. The drama was built with the appearance of the lion tamer in the ring after a several minutes of simply the animals cavorting amongst themselves without him. He didn’t want to enter the ring with his bait box attached to his hip (the bait box he used to reward his lions/tigers with treats for their tricks), so the box was always left in the ring for him to fetch when he stepped through the cage door. My job was, from the outside of the cage, to protect that treats box by smacking the snout of any lion or tiger that went for it with my ten foot long iron bar.
Why do I bring this up?
Because my life has always been full of such things. As a kid, when the rest of my classmates stayed in school in America, I would be shipped to first France, then England, for a full year, then rejoin the same students in my hometown of Princeton, NJ, to continue my education.
That would be like a dream, yet I can remember it so well and the colors were, and are, so vibrant, metaphorically-speaking.
Specifically, as to bodybuilding, because bodybuilding/powerlifting is so numbers-oriented, among other things, part of that reality is remember how it first felt to bench press 315 (three wheels!), to bench press 405 (four wheels!), to squat 500 (five wheels!), to deadlift 500 (five wheels!). Every single one of those lifts took years (for me) to build up to. They were a kind of concrete sanctification of what I was doing (that pleasure comes from pain, that dreams come true through sheer industry and endless repetition with some minor variation).
“A multi-year out of body experience?”
Hmm. That body, described by Bob Paris as a ‘gorilla suit’ is something that takes years to put on, like acquiring armor, and only months to take off.
The body becomes your own and you end up fitting it well – and forget it’s even ‘on’ (forget you are even wearing it) until you see the reaction in the stares and either fright or delight or disgust in the eyes of those around you. Some girls fetishize it. I had a girlfriend who simply stroked my arms and stared at them. I was reduced to a body part. But given I had reduced my own life to building a body part, how could I object that she was significantly more interested in my bicep than in me (I mean, really, she chose one of my weakest body parts!!!).
I think it takes about ten years or so to develop a world-class body. I wouldn’t know, because I ‘only’ spent four or five years doing it and was far from a finished product. Unfortunately, those first four or so years are spent in the formative process where one is pudgy and confused about how to actually gain muscle vs. how to simply put on water weight (easy enough to do by goggling the crap sold in the magazines (protein powder/creatine and the rest of the useless bullshit).
So, in sum, it doesn’t seem like a dream or a multi-year out of body experience because while I may look like I belonged floating down the avenue in a New York City Macy’s Day Parade as a giant float, so much of the gym is tied to numbers AND, crucially, so much of the experience is tied to the extremes of the body: I remember the puking from heavy squats, the bleeding when the steroid syringe popped into my skin, the sweat from heavy lifting, the scraping of flesh and resultant blood from the deadlifting bar barking up my shins. All of these very, very vivid memories, now 30 years later (I entered a gym in 1984).
2) I have told many people interested in exercise that your book is the best description I have ever read about how someone becomes engulfed in or by an athletic subculture. Yet at the same time you seemed to retain your perspective about what you were doing even as it got more extreme like quitting your day job, derailing career plans and ultimately using steroids. How did you keep your perspective and get so “extreme” at the same time?
Sam Fussell: I’m not sure it’s possible to keep your perspective and engage in this kind of physical pursuit. In the same way, I don’t think it’s possible to climb mountain or race bicycles at the highest level and not sacrifice everything to get where you want to go. If, by perspective, one means a kind of balance, I can’t think of anyone who truly excels in their field (and that doesn’t have to be a physical field, it could be writing novels) who is in any way balanced.
I think the healthiest method of attack (in the pursuit) is to do what you do because you love it. Love, that is, the pursuit for the sake of the pursuit. If you love yourself (your own glory, your own image, etc) more than you love the pursuit, then the pursuit can get entirely self-destructive.
On the other hand, if you love the pursuit for the sake of the pursuit, that can become self-destructive as well.
I knew, after about four or five years, that to get the muscles I wanted, I’d need to lift heavier and heavier weight. And that this would come at a severe price. Most of the people I know from that world have had hip replacement surgery, shoulder replacement surgery, severe heart problems, and lots of them are, let’s face it: dead.
What was I willing to do to get where I wanted to go?
The fact is, even then, I was not willing to take Human Growth Hormone, which was becoming de rigueur for bodybuilders even back then.
Once I competed, I knew I was on my way out. Because the idea of culminating those years of training by ending up in a bathing suit the size of a child’s watchstrap and flexing on-stage seemed so absurd. It always bothered me that bodybuilders don’t do anything. Okay, if you show us your muscles, let’s see you actually use them and see two things: 1. who has the best body (admittedly, even that’s tough, as Lisa Lyon once wrote: “How can you judge a lily from a rose?)), and 2. who is the strongest and at what lift?
So when I went to bodybuilding shows and saw grown men cavorting on stage without actually testing those muscles for strength, it seemed absurd.
Also, by the time I moved to California and began to run into some of the best bodybuilders in the world, I noticed a gigantic gulf between what the muscle magazines portrayed about their lives and what their lives were actually life. Reality is a bitch – if you’ve been spoon-fed (or injected) fantasy.
The myth sells, not the man. So my education began in distinguishing fact from fantasy. And the facts, once I was out in California, were staring me in the face. The bodybuilder listed at six two, was, in fact, five foot ten. His arms, listed at 22 inches, were, in fact, 20, etc, etc. The rabid heterosexual was, in fact, gay for pay. The ‘all-natural’ bodybuilder, in fact, was a walking advertisement for the pharmaceutical industry.
And infinitely depressing, because it meant, eventually, all you could believe in was iron – because iron does not lie.
You can either lift it or you can’t.
3) What were the most positive elements of your experience body building?
Sam Fussell: Ooh, I loved so many of the people. J.T., Trudy, Buddy, Doug, Carmine, Carlos, Lovely Linda from the Vanderbilt Y; Junior, OB Squared, Tina, Kelley Riley from Pasadena, Ca. What a beautiful feeling to work, balls-to-the-wall, in a building with people who understand what you are doing and are right there doing it too.
I also flat-out loved iron. Loved the feel of it. Loved what it could do – providing you were willing to put in the effort to use the iron to create all kinds of physical changes in your body.
Several years ago, it looked like HBO was going to do a television series based on my book. I was hired to write the pilot. So, having not seen a weight in a couple of decades, I went out and bought an Olympic bar and some plates. And when I picked up that iron 45 lb plate, and felt it in my hands for the first time in so many years, a tear trickled right down my cheek.
Because I remembered.
I never lifted the weight and immediately put it back down and haven’t touched it since. Don’t need to. But I needed to remember.
It’s ironic, we spent so much time attempting to become super human in physical appearance, but what ends up mattering most is the human connections between us in the gym. Girls I loved. Lifters who, without pay or profit, went out of their way to help me out. People who would sacrifice their time and their lives for others, purely out of generosity. Beautiful.
In the first few years you are in the gym, as an aspirant bodybuilder, you learn to train body parts, but you really don’t understand the fluidity of a physique and how, when done right, everything fits together. There are very few bodies on this planet where the bodybuilder has done that and every muscle ties into the next one, eventually comprising one solid, unified whole (as opposed to a collection of astounding, individual body parts).
So as the years pass, in order to save time and in order to ease into this look where you are not a collection of individual body parts but a unique flow, you start supersetting.
Once you start supersetting, you are no longer ‘stop-and-go,’ but you are one continuous movement. Then, bodybuilding becomes, in a sense, like dance. Rhythmic, anyway, and, what with the music perennially blaring overhead on the stereo speakers, you spend the hours lifting and moving and, with supersetting, everything is connected.
Once you figure out how to actually tax the muscle you are working (such as targeting your biceps or targeting your hamstrings), it is a beautiful feeling indeed to get to the point that whatever muscle you are working starts cramping. It means you’ve succeeded: you’ve hit the area you’ve targeted. It took me years to get lat cramps and when I did, I’d return to my apartment in South Pasadena, Ca in joy: it meant I was finally getting there and the proof was my lats would involuntarily fibrillate for hours after a workout.
4) What were the most negative elements?
Sam Fussell: There’s a saying in the gym: “It’s not enough to learn to lift. You have to learn to lie.”
In other words, if you want to make a living doing what you love (lifting), you have to lie about how you lift.
In other words, a steroid-fed bodybuilder does not make his living talking about how he built his body with hard work, with learning to diet, and, crucially, with steroids.
Instead, he willingly stands in his bathing suit, with dyed hair and capped teeth, smiling at the camera, his body glistening in posing oil, and in his hands he lovingly cradles, what, the protein powder that he never took to grow? The amino acid pack he never took to grow? The creatine pack he never took to grow?
When steroids took over bodybuilding in the early 1960’s, the muscle magazines had a problem. A huge problem. They had made money selling weightlifting equipment before then. But they quickly learned that instead of selling iron and bench sets for x dollars, they could make 100x dollars if they sold bogus protein powder and ‘muscle milk’ etc. and showed the bodybuilders drinking it as if they gained their size from a product sold from the magazine.
This form of outright fraud dominated the magazines and, to this day, still does. But it also meant, and means, that every single lifter who wanted to make the magazines and make a living off their lifting had to make the choice: am I going to lie for a living or not?
Some who chose to lie for a living responded with, “But who cares how I got this way? What I am, is a catalyst for change! Don’t read the fine print!”
In other words, the muscles are a metaphor and the Big Picture still stands.
But there are other lifters who, upon getting to the point of being sought after for the magazines, understood that they couldn’t live with themselves if they prostituted themselves and sold out to such a degree, so they passed on fame (or at least fame in the bodybuilding world).
This culture of corruption is so accepted now, given its half-Century precedent in bodybuilding, that no one even bats an eye when every single world-class bodybuilder is, in fact, a felon for taking illicit drugs.
Since no one gets arrested for it, it’s simply a shrug, wink, wink, situation.
I never minded the drugs. I always minded the lying about the drugs. And the fact that body builders, with such huge muscles, had no balls because the company line has always been, “No, no! If anything, they help about 5%!”
“5%?!!! Right!!! Try about 30%.”
Back when I was in that world, if anyone asked me what I was on, I flat-out told them. One startling moment for me was reading an article about Tom Platz, who, once he retired, talked about exactly what he took. I was blown away because at the time, I took more and looked nothing like Tom Platz. I looked instead, like Ichabod Crane, though with a tan. But I loved Platz for, however briefly, being honest. Because, up to then, which was 1987, no one else had ever been remotely honest because honesty was very, very bad for business. But what can you say about a business that is founded on dishonesty?
5) When you stopped did you stop cold turkey and return to a sedentary life or did you keep training but in a less extreme way?
Sam Fussell: Initially, I stopped cold-turkey. I really, really wanted to write about bodybuilding, but I found it difficult to do it and to write about it at the same time. But even while I was doing it, I sat down and tried to figure out how to put it on the page.
If non-fiction, how to arrange it? Who do I want to write about? Myself? If not who, how? Profiles? History of the industry?
So many options.
So after I competed, I completely stopped for about nine months (which was the time it took me to write the first draft of Muscle).
In that time, I continued to train clients as a personal trainer, but, without lifting, I no longer looked like a personal trainer (one of my clients once said, “When I hired you, you looked like Sam. Now, you look like Santa”).
After that nine month gap, I then started lifting again, without drugs and, sadly, without much passion.
I’d seen enough.
It’s said that if you’ve run a sub-four mile, you probably aren’t going to really enjoy running the mile in five minutes ‘for fun.’
So while I rewrote Muscle two more times, I continued to lift, but no longer with the same drive.
I’d go to the gym a couple of times per week, instead of twice per day, three days on, one day off.
The gym, like any subculture, is a hierarchy. It had taken me years to rise in that hierarchy. When I lost my muscles, I lost rank and privilege within that hierarchy. So going to the gym was painful in that sense. I was no longer who I was. “When will you be you again?” was the standard question I received.
For me to write that book, I very much had to disconnect myself from that world. I couldn’t do it as an insider looking out. Only as an outsider looking in.
I also very much knew the price: success would mean exile.
If I were to be honest, I wouldn’t be welcomed into any hardcore gym for decades.
The book was very much an attempt at self-exile.
And that’s exactly what I wanted, because the one thing I did not want in my life was to end up hanging out in a gym for the next fifty years of my life.
So many other things to do and to see and to experience. So many other dreams to turn into reality.
And those dreams, I thought then and think now, are harder to realize if you are intent on maintaining your status and ‘establishing your routine’ in a gym.
In other words, that box of a room can make some things happen, but your work in that box can keep other things from happening.
6) From what I can tell you have more or less avoided talking or writing too much about your experiences and book and sort of went off the radar. Were you concerned it would define you and that you would always be the guy who escaped from the freak show at the circus?
Sam Fussell: Life lies in the doing. Not in the being seen doing.
I had had enough of gauging my worth either by looking in a mirror or taking my shirt off and checking the glances of those who appraised my body.
Initially, when my book came out in 1991, I did talk show after talk show and I was pitted against bodybuilders who lied through their teeth, claiming the best bodybuilders in the world never took steroids, etc. I understood why they lied: they’d say anything to protect that which they loved.
I literally went around the world to talk about that book. I’d wake up in the morning and not only not know which country I was in, but which continent I was on. Television show after television show. Radio. Print. etc.
And I hated it.
I hated it because I’d left bodybuilding because I didn’t want to spend my life pretending to be me.
I’d written a book because I had something to say and the talent to write it.
But here I was on a television set, once again, pretending to be me.
I was getting rewarded for being an actor on a television screen, and the whole point of my book was ‘live life, don’t live life as an actor.’
Also, I was being asked to support the publisher’s version of the book, not my own. The publishers, in order to make as much money as possible, lied and said that I’d nearly ‘lost my life’ from steroid abuse. Please. Then I’d be introduced this way as I walked on to one more television set.
But what was interesting was how binary the media is. And that was an education. You are either tall or you are short. Rich or poor. Good looking or ugly. Steroid-addicted (meaning ‘dirty’ or ‘clean’). So, I was relentlessly portrayed as a good boy (once again, binary: good vs. bad) who had gone bad (lifting) and become good (non-lifting) again.
The fact that I had actually sat alone in a room for two years and hand-crafted a book was never mentioned. Instead, like everyone else on talk show, I was a ‘celebrity’ with a product to plug.
I once did a show in Australia in which the interview asked me the difference between my book and Schwarzenegger’s.
I said, “For starters, I wrote mine. I didn’t use a ghost-writer.”
The interviewer scoffed at me for implying that might actually matter. And, from his perspective, as a show business person, why would it matter? It’s all about the show, after all. ‘Don’t tell me about the pain, show me the baby,’ even if it someone else’s baby and you are claiming the baby belongs to you. Who cares if you stole the baby? Just make it entertaining!
But for those of us who choose not to make a living in front of the camera and those of us who chose not to cap our teeth, not to dye our hair, and not to get nose jobs, yes, it matters, because life isn’t about the being seen doing, it’s about the doing (and that includes the writing).
After I toured for the hardbound version of my book, one year or two later, the paperback came out and it was assumed I would tour for that as well.
The head of the publishing company called me up and tried to talk to me about it.
And I said, flat-out, “No.”
I despised so much what the first publishing company did to sell my book, and I had done enough talk shows to see that no television show was interested in actually exploring the points raised in book. They just wanted to increase their ratings by pitting me against bodybuilders.
Plus, the first time around, my book was excerpted for a magazine, only the magazine altered many of my sentences to make them more sensational, and kept my name on the byline. When I objected, I was told, by the publishing company, “Well, Sam, we can pull it, but, remember, we’ve made an investment in you and we need to see an economic return on our investment. etc.”
As in, the subtitle of my book.
Muscle, as a title, I love.
But the subtitle, “Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder”? Are you kidding me?
When the editor called me up to tell me that subtitle, she cooed into the phone, “But Sam, it will make readers think of Rousseau!”
25 years later, and not one human being on this planet has ever said to me, ‘Sam, I love the subtitle. It’s so very Rousseau!”
So back to the point: yes, I went off radar, off grid, because I didn’t find meaning in ending up tiny pixil dots on a television screen
In America, you are not real unless you are fake.
In other words, if people see you on television or the movies, the see you as larger (and realer) than life.
The representation becomes the reality.
And, because it is merely representation, it is fraud.
Given I had enough fraud in the hall of mirrors that is a gym, I didn’t want to continue that in a representation of reality that constitutes tv or the computer, where self-advertising is as ‘normal’ a function as breathing.
This is why I don’t have my own website. This is why I fired my fancy ICM agent and refuse to have such a creature in my life.
The publishing company wanted to sell me as the latest generation’s George Plimpton, so they saw a string of books with me assuming that persona.
Once again, life by proxy.
I like Plimpton’s books (they are amusing, even when, as always, spectacularly shallow) but we are different (“Hey George, come join me on the bench and let’s share lifts of 405!”).
Interestingly enough, the shorthand persona of ‘author’ was much harder to shake than ‘lifter.’
I had to assume a persona in which to narrate Muscle. That persona needed to be consistent. That narrative voice needed to be funny and also to be trusted by the reader.
But, after the book came out, who was I?
I was no longer a lifter.
I was an author.
But how does an author behave I public?
Well, let’s see: Hunter S. Thompson is an author. How does he behave in public? Ditto, Hemingway. Faulkner, McInerney, etc.
Not exactly sterling behavior there.
It took a long time to let it go and realize I didn’t have to change or alter my behavior, but if you slide into a slot, vocationally-speaking, it’s difficult not to end up behaving like that slot, because that is very much what people expect of you (and it satisfies them to fulfill their expectations).
I knew that to write the book, I had to leave that world (in order to gain any kind of perspective), but I also knew that to leave that world, I would have to move 3,000 miles, so, in 1990, I moved to Philadelphia, PA, where no one lifts and no one cares what they look like.
Where I live now, bodybuilding does not exist on anyone’s radar so for me to talk to anyone about bodybuilding in Montana would be as absurd as discussing just how I skin a bear to someone who lives in Los Angeles.
7) You are now a hunting guide in Montana is that correct? I realize it is a probably a long story about how this happened but have you again entered a subculture which features intense physical experiences and camaraderie?
Sam Fussell: I am not a hunting guide in Montana. I am a hunter in Montana. And this is why: a man drives his rectangular car into a rectangular supermarket lot. He passes the other rectangular cars on the way to park in his rectangular parking spot. He exits his vehicle and walks to the market. Along the way, he picks up a rectangular shopping cart. He pushes his cart into the supermarket. The supermarket, as a building, is a large rectangle.
The man pushes his cart to the frozen meat section. He eyes the offerings. The meat, be it chicken or beef, is wrapped in a rectangular package.
The man leans forward and selects a rectangular package of meat from the display and proceeds to the check-out line.
He places the meat on the rubber moving counter, the counter in the shape of rectangle. He pulls from his wallet, which is the shape of a rectangle, a bill. The bill is the shape of a rectangle. Though he could have used a debit or charge card. Also the shape of a rectangle.
So why do I hunt? Why am I a subsistence hunter who hunts all of his meat from the woods instead of buying it from the store?
Because life is not rectangular.
Because the meat I eat is earned not with a piece of paper but with my own sweat and work in the woods. Through detective work: tracking animals, learning their habits, their proclivities, etc.
I have set up 12 different treestands in a 40 mile or so range in the Rocky mountains directly behind my house.
Every one of those stands is set up for a specific reason and for a specific species.
And when I take an animal’s life, I gut them, then bring them out of the woods by power cleaning the animal over my shoulders and on to my back.
That experience is not rectangular.
I am a hunter and not a hunting guide by choice. The last thing I would want to do is to accept money for leading a guy who has not done the detective work and has not bothered to learn the land or study the species and take him to put him in position to make a shot on an animal he has not earned. This is sick, to me.
It’s all about earning it.
Ten years ago, I moved to Montana because I didn’t feel connected to life or to much of anything where I lived in Philadelphia.
I was breathing, but I wasn’t truly alive.
I felt disconnected from that which matters.
Hunting connects me to that which matters.
There are no mirrors in the mountains. There are no agents in the mountains. There are no proxies in the mountains. There is no bullshit in the mountains.
And, on that score, when I moved here, I learned to dive. Which leads us to ‘what I do.’
I am Diver 16 on the Flathead County Sheriff Dive Rescue Team. We work, as a team, to recover bodies from water in my area. They range from homicide victims to suicides to accidental drowning victims. We recover guns or weapons or bits of guns used in murders. We recover and salvage vehicles that have been driven into the lakes or ripping rivers or still ponds.
We work in whitewater. We work underneath the ice. We dive up to 130 feet deep to do our job.
We work in, sometimes, clear visibility, where you can see 30 feet or so, to zero visibility, where you cannot see your dive watch in front of your own eyes.
We train for zero visibility by duct-taping our masks to blackness.
Underwater, under the ice or in zero visibility, we are connected to a ‘tender’ on-shore. We wear a harness and are connected to a rope line. We communicate with a language based on rope tugs.
I have recovered, with this team, many victims and reunited them, in a body bag, with their grieving relatives, sobbing onshore.
We risk our lives to help other people. To try and mend something that is broken. To help make something awful just a little bit better.
Have I ‘entered a subculture which features intense physical experience and camaraderie?’
And the muscles that remain are used, in practical application, to actually help people in need.
8) You mentioned tree stands. I assume you hunt with firearms. Did you grow up hunting or is this something you learned de novo in Montana?
I have 12 tree stands, and even that is a probably de trop. (Some are perfect for a morning hunt (depending on the thermals, some are perfect for an afternoon hunt (depending on the thermals again), some I hunt in order to hide me with the sun directly at my back, some are specifically for elk, some for bear, some for deer).
I hunt primarily with a compound bow, though I also hunt with a recurve. During firearm season, I hunt with firearms.
I dropped lots of trees on my land (learning how to do this with the complimentary dvd that came with my chainsaw).
From these trees, I cut rounds of wood. From these rounds, I cut ‘quarters,’ wood that I then stuff into my wood burning stove to keep me warm for about the nine months of cold per year in Montana.
In other words, to turn on the heat, I don’t reach for a switch. I grab a maul or an ax and head outside.
Once again, the muscles are earning it.
I pared down limbs and cut them and draw shaved them of these trees I felled and created mortise and tenon archery supports out the wood.
So my property now has archery targets set up at 10, 20, 30, 40, and 50 yards.
I practice every single day.
As a one-time soccer player, I used to ‘juggle,’ that is, keep the ball in the air with touches from your feet, your thighs, your head.
By the time I was a senior in high school, I’d start juggling and not stop until I had touched the ball 1,000 times without letting the ball touch the ground.
My archery is similar.
You don’t have the touch unless you practice. And to get consistent groupings (the arrows arriving approx. at the same spot), you have to learn to relax while shooting. You have to learn to ‘let go’ while you are letting go (relax while you are holding the bow while releasing the string).
Like lifting, you are never as good as you want to be.
But always working on getting there.
My bows are incredible. The compound bows look like something out of the 21st Century. Which, in fact, they are. Someday, I hope to be worthy of them.
But I’m getting there.
9) As you got deeper and deeper into body building, both of your parents were concerned you had gone totally off the ranch. How did they come to see it as the years progressed, and what was their response to your life as a hunter?
I think by the time I was 12 or so, my parents had had enough and simply sat back and watched the show when it came to me.
They knew, given my nature (or was it nurture) that whatever I found, I would fully pursue.
By the time I found bodybuilding, I was in my mid-20’s and, honestly, couldn’t give a flaming fuck what my parents thought about it.
My mother once wrote how she believed it was a ‘phase’ that was an act of retaliation against the cerebral, body-less world of my father.
(25 years after she wrote that, she ended up at a gym and hiring a personal trainer).
My father was fine with my doing anything just as long as 1. I didn’t ask him for money, and 2. I wrote about it. More than anything, the writing, to my father, is the thing. Without it, the experience is lost and without sharing it, the experience is entirely selfish.
One could say, ‘would he have been happy with you assassinating a President?” Well, the answer would be. a. Which President? and b. Is there a book in it?
When the book appeared, my father and mother were delighted. “What a talent! He’s made!” my father wrote to my mother. And, yes, to be a writer as the son of writers pleased me. I finally fit in my own family, even if most of the members of that family no longer spoke to one another.
And, cue Sinatra, I did it my way!
And, what was their response to your life as a hunter?
By the time I started hunting, my father started his descent into dementia and Alzheimer’s, so not much response there.
My mother loved it because she understood how life is about, among other things, blood and bone, and how earning your meal in the woods, bringing it out, stripping it down, and cooking it is about the honest, daily transaction of life and death that is either done for you (the supermarket) or that you do yourself.
One requires honesty. The other, cash.
10) In the post Lance Armstrong world I have also told people your book is the best book I have ever read about why people dope. The press focuses on the money, fame, and glory angles of doping. Your book describes among other things the search for control of your body and the sense of physical command that is possible in athletic endeavors. These are great experiences beyond what the average person can imagine. Have you considered to what extent they drive people to use performance enhancing drugs, so that they can have these experiences more often and more intensely?
Sam Fussell: I think for many sports for many decades, PED’s have been such a given and used by 100% of the top competitors in the world that it becomes a kind of club. Everyone in the club knows. Everyone in the clubs knows that the first rule of Fight Club is there is no Fight Club.
So many generations of track & field, Olympic Lifting, etc have gotten away with it that the current users really regard it as their right to do the same as their predecessors.
The ‘Brotherhood of the Needle’ becomes a kind of fraternity where drug use is universal among members and the common bond, but never discussed outside the fold.
The first time I was injected with steroids, I staggered right outside my living room to the front door, opened, it, fell outside, and vomited right onto the Welcome mat.
I had crossed the line.
Like everyone else, I was going to be the first person in history to do it ‘naturally.’
And then, like everyone else, I witnessed with my own eyes just what drugs can do.
Time and again, the ‘champions’ tell us, once they are dumb enough to get caught, ‘drugs never made a champion.’
You wanna compare the times of Marion Jones on drugs vs. off them?
What I found with steroids is not only could I train once a day, balls-to-the-wall, but I could train twice per day, balls-to-the-wall. Not only could I have one orgasm per day with my girlfriend, but I could have three or four. Not only was I pleased when I woke up each morning ,but I literally could jump out of bed. They were like an amphetamine for me.
And in the gym, all of a sudden, there are no more limits.
Before, you could fail a lift and say, “Well, I’m not on steroids.”
But when you are on steroids, you no longer have that excuse.
The problem is when you are on steroids, your world gets very, very small because all of your friends are also on steroids. You end up speaking the same vocabulary as your friends (“What’s your cycle? What are you stacking? Are you ‘on’ or ‘off’?). And your best friends become your steroid dealers.
In the gym, the better you get at lifting, the more you become a walking billboard, in flesh, for your steroid dealer. People come to you to ask who is your dealer. You help with the ‘referal’ and either get a kick-back or get free supply, depending on the number of clients.
Well, you are led to believe it is free.
Until the phone rings at 1:00 in the morning and your dealer calls and he asks you to do him a favor, and, in his debt, you agree, whatever it is.
And what it turns out to be is your dealer picking you up at 1:30 in the morning and taking you to a 24 hour gym in Los Angeles, where he parks the vehicle, and asks you to accompany him over to that car with two guys in it. The guys get out of the car, and you arrive with your dealer.
The dealer talks to them about the money they own him.
The two guys look at you dwarfing the dealer and them.
And they pay.
That’s a best-case scenario that happened to me.
I will say, in direct answer to your question, that I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more alive in my life than loading up 500 lbs on the Olympic bar in the squat cage.
I sit on the bench and I slowly and tightly wrap each knee.
With help and an outstretched hand, I am led up from the bench to stand on my two feet.
I square myself about ten feet before the Olympic bar.
I take it in.
There are is a spotter or two waiting by the weights, but I don’t even see them.
I hear screaming in the background, screams, in fact of encouragement, but they drown to just background noise.
I see my reflection in the floor-to-ceiling mirror beyond the Olympic bar, which has so much weight on it, it is actually bent.
One step at a time, I slowly walk towards the bar.
I slightly dip my knees, and nestle by upper back beneath the weight.
The screaming intensifies and the entire gym stops. Time now stands still.
I lift upwards, the full 500 lbs is on my back, and I’m right where I want to be: drugged to the gills, exactly where I am through tens of thousands of previous lifts, glued to that spot, as happy as a man can be.
Physically ecstatic because I know every inch of my body is under my command and will do anything I ask of it.
And my body is, because of this, on fire.
Needless to say, having not touched steroids since 1988, this is a feeling I miss. I’ve never been even tempted to go back ‘on,’ but I remember the feeling of being perfectly suited, through years of training, to be exactly where I was and doing what I was doing.
Injury-free, no less, with ever single muscle in perfect working order.
11) Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis 1988
When Ben Johnson won the gold at Seoul, I was clustered with about ten other bodybuilders at a table at the indoor portion of the restaurant, Burger Continental, in Pasadena, California.
Every single bodybuilder at the table used steroids and all of us trained (some of us harder than others).
All of us at the table had US citizenship.
And who did we want to win that race?
Who cared that he wasn’t from our country!
He was one of us!
We knew it!
And all of us despised Carl Lewis, because his vanity and bitchiness was clear and present at every waking moment.
When Johnson got nailed (‘Drug tests are failed by uninformed athletes’) his coach, Charlie Francis, memorably said, all of us felt certain that 100% of the field was completely drugged. Johnson had failed in his preparation.
One reason we thought this is because many of my bodybuilding friends got their steroids from Dr. Kerr in San Gabriel. I believe the nickname of Dr. Kerr as ‘Needles.’ I believe he helped bodybuilders with their drugs is because he knew they would do it steroids without his guidance and then they would be even worse off. Sort of like a licensed abortionist vs. leaving the pregnant woman with the back alley abortionist.
Every time my bodybuilder buddies would return from Dr. Kerr’s waiting room, they would tell me of another famous US Track & Field runner they would spot in the neighboring chair.
It was an outright joke.
No wonder Gwen Torrence once referred to the US Track & Field governing body as ‘the biggest drug ring going.”
But, given all that, the training was absolutely beautiful
12) What Should Lance Do?
Lance could have saved himself in the following way:
He could have said, ‘mea culpa, and, you know what, the whole sport is culpa. We are trying to be the best at what we do and trying to please our demanding audience.’
I truly believe if he had done this, AND THEN HANDED OVER EVERY SINGLE CENT OF HIS ‘WINNINGS’ AND THE MONEY HE GAINED FROM ADVERTISING AND SPEECHES, in other words, every cent of his 120 million to cancer research, oh, sorry, my mistake, ‘cancer awareness,’ he would have come out a saint.
Or, like Mary Magdalen, a sinner who was saved.
He could have given away his entire fortune and started all over again. And he would have been adored and worshipped, all over again.
And, with his rich friends, he would have made millions more in speeches, etc. on his worthiness, etc.
But he did not seize this opportunity.
The idea that he was clean on that final comeback is such a laughable joke.
Oprah interviewing him is such a laughable joke.
If I lived in Austin, and worked in the food industry (either as a cook in the kitchen or as a waiter), I would, as Eddie Murphy once said, ‘give him a special won-ton soup.’
If I lived nearby, I’d find a way to take those seven yellow jerseys from his wall and burn them in a bonfire out front.
I don’t hate the drugging.
I understand the lying (though he could have always said, “I’ve never failed a drug test,” for many years (uh, until he did).
But I despise the bullying and find it unforgiveable.
Trying to ruin the lives of people and then having emissaries from Team Lance trying to ruin the lives of people is unfathomable to me.
I pray that he loses everything.
But he won’t.
And, even if he lost 90 million in judgments, he would not lose the mansions abroad or the money squirreled away by his lawyers.
The saying about Schwarzenegger was always, “I can’t believe he got away with it.”
It’s a miracle he was ever caught.
At least this probably means he will not end up governor of Texas
13) Do you keep in touch with any of the folks you once lifted with?
I’ve lost touch with everyone I ever lifted with. First, back when I was doing it, I moved 3,000 miles from NY to LA. Then, after I wrote it, I moved 3,000 miles back to Philadelphia, but Philadelphia and NY have almost no connection (and zero tolerance for each other).
I have an ex-girlfriend who I speak on the phone with once a year or so. She still lives in Pasadena and does her best to keep me in the loop and answer my questions about friends, but the main gym (“Shangri-La”) went out of business there 20 years ago and the entire band of buddies I knew then scattered to different gyms in that area.
Life goes on.
Also, once I stopped lifting and lost so much muscle, it was distinctly uncomfortable to hang out with those still involved in the pursuit. Losing my religion, I was no longer a True Believer and you really can’t ‘hang’ at the lifting gym unless you’ve got the bug. Sarcasm and cynicism were, oddly enough, not welcome. Even black humor was not appreciated.
I got out at 30.
Sort of like looking around the bar and seeing you’re the oldest guy there.’
Yes, that happened to me at 40.
14) Please feel free to comment on anything else that hits you….. the obvious question is do you have any regrets?
Sam Fussell: I think it’s probably clear by this point that when it comes to regrets, I have none.
I loved it. I lived it. I lifted it. I left it.
What an adventure!
I knew, being one foot taller than most bodybuilders, that I would need to weigh 330 or more, off season, to compete eventually with enough muscle to end up a good bodybuilder.
And I knew how devastating the health consequences would be.
So I knew the personal cost, when it came to health. And I knew the corrosive nature of the industry itself, which rewards liars and punishes those who don’t ‘go along to get along.’
Hard to believe, but at the time,1988, the company line was still, ‘the best bodybuilders don’t take steroids.’
This, come 2014, is such a laughable lie that it is almost unfathomable to believe that anyone would fall for it.
And, come 2014, we’ve learned that you can look like Don Knotts, like Lance Armstrong does, and be on them, or Nadia Comaneci or Katerina Witt, and be on them or the latest stringy marathon runner, and be on them.
In short, Lyle Alzado is no longer (necessarily) the look.
Here in northwestern Montana, I’ve carved a life for myself without steroids and without mirrors or an audience, but with the capacity for doing good for others.
I build my own furniture out of trees I’ve cut from my own property. I make it for myself and for my friends.
I work my land.
I don’t eat out.
I cook my own meals.
I don’t buy meat.
I earn meat in the woods.
When I work my quads, I’m not ‘feeling the burn.’
I’m churning my legs to make my fins go faster to make a body recovery underwater.
This isn’t Gold’s Gym. This is God’s Gym. And I’m an active member.
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