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STARS DON'T FALL
titled lady, her chief loss was self-respect. When
the overcast lifted, the stars were there as before.
MY ALCOHOLIC PROBLEM began long before I drank. My personality,
from the time I can remember anything, was the perfect
set-up for an alcoholic career. I was always at odds
with the entire world, not to say the universe. I was
out of step with life, with my family, with people in
general. I tried to compensate with impossible dreams
and ambitions, which were simply early forms of escape.
Even when I was old enough to know better, I dreamed
about being as beautiful as Venus, as pure as the Madonna
and as brilliant as the President of the United States
is supposed to be. I had writing ambitions, and nothing
would do but that I'd write like Shakespeare. I also
wanted to be the queen of society, with a glittering
salon, the bride of a dream-prince and the mother of
a happy brood. Inside, I went right on being a mass
of unlovely self-pity, queasy anxiety and sickening
self-debasement. Naturally, I succeeded in nothing.
Until I reached A.A. my life was a shambles; I was a
mess, and I made everybody near and dear to me miserable.
I had to go through extreme alcoholism to find my answer.
There was no material
or external reason for this. I was born in a castle,
in pre-war Austrian territory.
father had a title; there was plenty of means in the
family. When I was a baby, my mother brought me to America,
and I never again saw my father. But again, the living
was easy. My family, on my mother's side, was brilliant,
gifted and charming. They were ambitious, successful,
strong and famous. They inherited wealth and acquired
They did the best
they knew how as far as I was concerned. It took me
three psychoanalysts and several years in A.A. to really
get this through my head.
Up to my early
thirties, when my drinking had become a major problem,
I lived in large houses, with servants and all the luxuries
that I could possibly ask for. But I did not feel a
part of my family or a part of the set-up. I got a good
non-academic education; my intellectual curiosity was
encouraged. I learned how to hold a terrapin fork. Otherwise
I got nothing out of it.
Before I started
to drink seriously, I tried a couple of other escapes.
At eighteen I ran away from home. Showing all the courage
and ingenuity that I had not used in a positive way,
I covered my tracks and his from my family so successfully
that they did not find me for months. I went out to
the West Coast, waited on table, washed dishes and sold
newspaper subscriptions. Like most sick people before
me, I was implacably selfish, and chronically self-centered.
My mother's heartbreak, or the unpleasant publicity
I had caused did not bother my pretty head. After eight
months, the family found me. Their telegram was kind
and nice. But I was afraid. I was still untrained for
any work but washing dishes and waiting on table.
I married a nice, well-meaning young newspaperman, so
as not to have to go home. It did not occur to me that
marriage might be a job, too. We came back East and
met both families. His were good, simple Quaker folk
who accepted me with love. But I did not fit into this
pattern either. The birth of a daughter filled me with
new fears. Responsibility again. Her father became both
mother and father to her. At the tender age of twenty-three,
I got a divorce. My husband was made miserable by this,
but I had already made him and myself miserable. He
got half custody of our child, but later kept her during
most of the school terms. It was the only real home
she knew. I resented this, but I did nothing constructive
Now I had done
some living but I hadn't learned a thing. This was where
I started my first drinking lessons. Up to this time
it just hadn't occurred to me to drink. My Quaker mother-in-law,
bless her heart, used to set the Christmas pudding ablaze
with lumps of sugar dipped in rubbing alcohol. But now
I was a young divorcee, leading a Washington social
life. Prohibition meant nothing. My family always bought
the best, and the embassies were flowing.
I think I had the
physical allergy right away. A drink never gave me a
normal, pleasant glow. Instead it was like a tap on
the head with a small mallet. I was a little bit knocked
out. Just what I wanted. I lost my shyness. Five or
six drinks and I was terrific. Men danced with me at
parties. I was full of careless chatter. I was so amusing!
I had friends.
I got a novel written.
It was all about Scott Fitzgerald's little lost debutante,
running wild. The book was published, but the reading
public said—So what? I did not see that the book
dripped with self-pity. I only saw that I had not become
I met a wonderful
man. He was the dream prince, the answer. I, who did
not know how to give love, was head over heels "in
love." I wanted him to love me and make up to me
for everything. He was brilliant and ambitious. He was
well behaved, and idealistic where women were concerned.
But he noticed that I was not a good mother to my child,
that I relegated her to nurses when she was with me.
He saw that I was unsettled, living away from my family
and renting houses here and there. A house in Virginia,
during the fox hunting season; a little chalet in Switzerland,
during the summer or a place on Long Island—each
house complete with cooks, butlers and maids. Above
all, he noticed that I drank a good deal, often got
tight in his company and told him naughty stories. He
did not like naughty stories, so I made them naughtier.
He finally decided that he did not love me enough, and
soon he told me so and said he was engaged to another
He has since become
famous and distinguished, an asset to his country. I
saw him recently and he told me that he had always felt
guilty, because, after our separation, I had become
a serious alcoholic. With ten years of A.A. behind me,
I was able to tell him that I'd have been an alcoholic,
no matter what; that I had been a sick person, unfit
Even then I knew
in my heart that I was unfit for the very things I wanted
most, a happy marriage, security, a home and love. But
when this happened
me, I declared to friends that I would get drunk, dead
drunk that very night, and stay drunk for a month. A
normal person, hit with adversity, can go on a drinking
spree and then snap out of it. But I got drunk that
night and stayed drunk, getting increasingly worse until
I found A.A. ten years later.
That first night
I blacked out at a large dinner party. In the morning,
because I was young and healthy, my remorse was worse
than my hangover. What had I said? What had I done?
I experienced my first real guilt and shame. This was
in Virginia, where I had rented a house with stables
and a swimming pool, and the fall fox hunting had begun.
The people I knew rode hard, and some of them drank
hard. Many of them carried a flask and sandwich case,
strapped to their saddles so they could stay out all
day. But whereas my horse was always equipped with a
flask, I merely endured the fox hunting so I could start
drinking at lunch time. I would pull out early, and
go to the hunt breakfast and the flowing bowl of milk-punch.
By two-thirty in the afternoon I was always tight.
During these years,
I did acquire some good friends. A few stood by me,
at least in their hearts, throughout the whole of my
drinking career. Others have come back, others I have
lost. But at this time, I began gravitating toward the
really hard drinkers, hanging around with them more
and more. My old friends showed distress. Couldn't I
drink less? Couldn't I stop, after a few? It was nothing
to my own inner distress, my self-reproach, and my self-loathing,
for was I not bearing out all the horrible things I
had always suspected of myself?
I accepted a big tax-free income from the family, but
I didn't like it when they told me how to live. I went
to Europe to escape them, so I thought. I was really
trying, once more, to escape from myself. Imagine my
surprise when I came to, in Europe, and discovered I
had brought myself along! I rented a beautiful apartment
on the banks of the Seine in the winter, and a chalet
in Switzerland in the summer. I read sad poetry, cried,
drank red wine, wrote sad poetry, and drank some more.
I also wrote another novel, all about Scott Fitzgerald's
poor, misbegotten, unloved, tipsy little debutante.
Even the critics kidded me about this one. I had worked
the previous summer on a New York fashion magazine,
a job I really enjoyed. I was now with the Paris office.
I stayed with them until I got drunk and had a row with
the Paris editor.
During this period
I married again. This was an Englishman who, at least
at this time, drank as much as I did. What we had in
common was alcohol. On our honeymoon in Egypt, he cuffed
me around quite a bit, and subsequently he hit me some
more. I can't blame him. My tongue had become increasingly
skilled at venomous home truths. He had not developed
this art and had no recourse but his fists.
We went through
the two years of deadlock required by the English divorce
laws. During this time, you are supposed to behave yourself,
but I took a little wine-tasting tour through France,
all by my lone, with car and chauffeur. Tasting the
best of burgundy at a famous restaurant one night landed
me passed out on a park bench in the public square.
I came to and found a man leaning over me. When he reached
I rose and smote him. He, in turn, kicked me so I fell
to the ground. Bruised, and deadly ashamed, I told no
one. I began, here and now, to fear the answer to the
question—what is the matter with me? I had already
been to one analyst at home. We had not gotten anywhere.
Was my mental state more serious than he said? Was I
insane? Was that it? I did not dare to think. I drank
and I kept on drinking.
Drunk or sober,
I was hectic, unpredictable, irresponsible. At a large
party in Geneva, with people from many countries represented,
the kind of party that is "protocol" in the
extreme, I swayed, laughed hysterically, made naughty
remarks in an unhushed voice, and was finally led from
the scene. My friends understandably hurt and angry.
Why had I done it? Why? I could not tell them. I was
afraid to think why. Now I hid when I wanted to drink.
I drank alone or with someone, anyone who would stay
and drink with me. I passed out frequently in my home,
An American doctor
in Paris said I had an enlarged liver. He also said,
"You are an alcoholic and there's nothing I can
do for you." This went in one ear and out the other.
I did not know what he meant. An alcoholic cannot accept
the news that he's an alcoholic unless there is a meaningful
explanation given, and an offer of help, such as you
get in A.A.
I returned from
Europe shortly before the war broke out and I never
went back. Things were no better with the family, so
I moved to New York. Here, also, I had good friends,
but I became more and more separated from them. Why
did I have to have at least three cocktails to sit through
dinner? Other girls
I had known all my life asked for one weak scotch after
dinner. Sometimes they'd put it on the mantel, and forget
it. My eye would be glued to that glass. How could anybody
forget a drink? I would have three quick strong
ones in order to endure the evening.
My first analyst
said, "You are becoming more and more of an alcoholic,"
and sent me to another analyst. This good and gentle
man, a brilliant research doctor, got nowhere with me
fast. I was accepting help with one hand and pushing
it away with the other. The liquor counteracted the
help I was getting.
Meanwhile I had
found another escape. This one was a dandy. It combined
running away from my world, and drinking all I wanted
to. I had met a bunch of gay young Bohemians who lived
in the Village, and were sowing their wild oats. They
were all kids, most of them younger than I was. All
of them have since settled down to jobs and good marriages.
None of them were alcoholics, but at this time they
were drinking as much as I was. They introduced me to
beer in the morning to kill hangovers. This was the
life! I was the center of attention, just what my sick
ego craved. They said I was so funny, and told me, with
shrieks of laughter, what I'd done the night before.
Ribaldry was the substance of the conversation, and
I set out to be the funniest and most ribald of them
They woke up with
hangovers, but with no remorse. I woke up filled with
secret guilt and shame. Underneath, I knew this was
all wrong. Now it was semi-blackouts every night, outrageous
behavior, passing out in some friend's Village studio
or not knowing how
got home. The horrors of increasing hangover sickness
to occupy the entire day; nausea, dry heaves, the
rocking bed, the nightmare-filled mind.
At this stage,
I began a daily mental routine. I must drink less,
I would tell myself. Or: If I'm really a genius,
I must produce a great work, to show why I act like
a genius. Or—this is a little too much! I'd
better taper off. I must use self-will, self-control.
I must go on the wagon for a while. Drink only beer
or wine. I used all those well-known phrases. I
also thought that I must have power over myself.
I was an agnostic, so I thought. My new friends
made fun of God and all the orthodox beliefs. I
thought I was the captain of my soul. I told myself
that I had power over this thing. One day soon,
the analyses would reveal why I drank and how to
I did not know
that I had no power over alcohol, that I, alone
and unaided, could not stop; that I was on a downgrade,
tearing along at full speed with all my brakes gone,
and that the end would be a total smash-up, death
or insanity. I had already feared insanity for a
long time. Certainly, when I was in my cups, I was
not just drunk, I was crazy. Now my whole thinking
was crazy. For, after those daily self-punishing
sessions with myself, after the vows to stop, I
would change entirely as evening came on. I would
get wildly excited and look forward to another night
of drinking. The remorse would turn inside out,
and become anticipatory pleasure. I was going to
get drunk again—Drunk!
My child was
being exposed to all of this. She was also the victim
of my scolding and incessant nagging. I was really
scolding my mortal enemy, the inner me.
poor child could not know this. Her father, quite
rightly, wanted to put her in a school. When I protested,
his lawyer, my lawyer, and my third and last analyst
had a conference. She was duly sent to school, away
This new analyst
was a woman doctor, one of the best in the country.
She did all she could to help this situation and
to protect my child. She was endlessly patient as
we looked together for an answer. She, more than
the others, showed me what ailed me basically, why
I was immature and insecure. But I was not able
to make use of this knowledge until after I became
sober. A.A. had to stop my drinking first. Then
I was able to do something about me.
a couple of good things. And again these were things
that I really profited by after I sobered up. I
saw that my Village friends, all of whom had small
jobs, were living happily on about a tenth of my
sinecure. It had never occurred to me before that
I could live simply and be independent of my family.
So I did the right thing in the wrong way. I had
a drunken quarrel with my family, denounced them,
and left them forever. They were awfully good about
not cutting me off. It was I who had to tell the
bank, after a certain time, to refuse all further
deposits. I had saved my allowance. I now had quite
a nest egg. I had a tiny trust fund, and I moved
into a small apartment where I learned to cook,
keep house, and do the things that normal people
do. I learned a whole new sense of values. I wrote
and sold some short stories. These things were carried
out in moments of less severe hangover or short
stretches on the wagon. But the money I had saved
up went for cases
liquor. I was, when drunk, just as undisciplined
and erratic as ever. My new friends had a social
conscience. They were bright and well read, they
held various political views. In the course of drunken
arguments, I found my own views and a sense of responsibility
as a citizen. Now it was wartime. But as an air
raid warden my attempts to serve my country ended
in a drunken and abusive row with a fellow warden.
By this time
I had ceased to be the life of the party. I became
a menace, the fish-wife, the common scold. I took
everybody else's inventory. Finally my new friends
told me, one by one, that I could not come around
Now came the
black and endless dismal night. I went to bars alone
to drink. There was one Village bar in particular
for which I formed an obsession. I had to go there
every night. I rarely remembered getting home. The
bartenders took care of me, not out of brotherly
love, but through enlightened self-interest. An
obstreperous woman in a bar is a nuisance, and they
wanted no trouble with the police. On the other
hand, I was a marvelous customer. For three generations
my family had had a charge account in one of the
big New York hotels. I stopped at the cashier's
any hour of the night on the way to the bar and
cashed a check. In the morning I would wake up with
a dollar or two. I suspect that those bartenders
would wait until I had shot my wad, then call a
cab and send me home. This too is how the nest-egg
So here, in
this dive, this hangout for dead-end alcoholics
and neurotics, here was I. In a sick people's place,
myself among the sickest. I despised the other barflies
and, naturally, they loathed me. In my cups
used to tell them off, giving them lengthy advice
on how to lead the right life. They got so they
moved their barstools when they saw me coming. The
bartenders too, treated me with contempt. Yes I,
the queen of them all! The glittering society belle,
the modern Shakespeare, the happy wife, the loving
and beloved. I, who had dreamed these sick dreams,
now reaped the nightmare. What I had secretly believed
myself to be all along, this I had become. I was
not beautiful or good, as I had yearned to be. I
was fat, bloated, dirty and unkempt. Most of the
time I was covered with bruises from "running
into doors." I wore a man's raincoat, turned
inside out, a present from a friend, for now my
funds were low. I could not live on that tiny trust
fund and still drink all I wanted to. My tweed suit,
once a very good one, was shapeless and baggy with
bare places worn in the elbows from leaning on the
Once, in a
strange gin mill, I stole a bottle from behind the
bar. The bartender, a tough Irishman, came around
and "gave me the elbow," which means that
he raised his elbow and smacked me in the face.
I literally hit the sawdust. Luckily a friend was
with me, who dragged me out, screaming and cursing,
while the bartender threatened to call the police.
But I never got into jail. I didn't get into a sanitarium
either. I wanted to die and often I would think
of ways. I would walk up and down under the 59th
Street bridge, trying to get up the nerve to go
up there and jump. Once, when I called my analyst,
and told her I was contemplating death, she came
over and tried to get me into a sanitarium. Frightened
and shamed, I refused, and sobered up temporarily.
was not mugged, or manhandled. I did not resort
to semi-prostitution for the price of a drink. But
all these things could have happened. The
sanitarium should have happened. I was
not fit to be on the loose, and there was no one
to commit me.
I think now
that a God, in whom I did not believe, was looking
after me. Perhaps it was He who sent my analyst
to a psychiatrist's meeting at which Bill spoke.
In those days, psychiatry and A.A. had not gotten
together as they have since. My analyst was one
of the first to learn of A.A. and to make subsequent
use of it in her work. Having heard Bill speak,
she was instantly sold. She read this book that
you are reading now. She asked me to read it.
people all had your problem," she told me.
had my problem was beneath contempt!
I read the
book and God leapt at me from every page. So this
was a group of reformers! What intellectual interests
could we have in common? Could they discuss literature
or art? I could just hear their sweet, pious talk.
Nobody was going to reform me! I was going to reform
the book to my analyst and shook my head. But now
a strange thing happened. In my cups I began to
say, "I can't stop." I said it over and
over, boring my fellow barflies. Something in the
book had reached me after all. In a sense, I had
taken the first step. My analyst pricked up her
you just go down and see Mr. W.?" she asked.
"See what you think."
I now said
a lucky and wonderful thing. I said, "O.K."
In those days the A.A. Foundation was down in the
Wall Street district of New York. As I went in I
was dying of mortification. They would all stare
at me and whisper! Oh, poor self-centered, sick
little me. I did not reflect that half the office
was composed of A.A. members, and that I was as
unexciting as any client in any office.
Bill was tall,
grey haired, with the kind of asymmetrical good
looks and pleasant easy manner that inspires confidence
in the shaken and afraid. He was well dressed; he
was easy going. I could see he wasn't a quack or
He did not
take out a folder and say, "What is the nature
of your problem?" He said to me, gently and
simply, "Do you think that you are one of us?"
Never in my
entire life had anyone asked me "Are you one
of us?" Never had I felt a sense of belonging.
I found myself nodding my head.
He now said
that we had a physical allergy combined with a mental
obsession, and he explained this so that I saw for
the first time how this could be. He asked me if
I had any spiritual belief, and when I said No,
he suggested that I keep an open mind. Then he called
Marty and made an appointment for me. I thought,
"Aha, he's passing the buck. Now comes the
questionnaire." I did not know who this Marty
was. I did not want to go and see her, but I went.
A friend of Marty's, another A.A. let me in. Marty
was late. I felt like a gangster's moll about to
be interviewed by the Salvation Army. The strange
A.A. put me at ease. The apartment was charming;
the shelves were full of books, many of which I
owned myself. Marty came in, looking clean, neat,
well-dressed and, like Bill, she
neither a bloated wreck nor a reformer. She
was attractive; she was like the friends I had
once had. Indeed, she had known my cousin in
Chicago. Years of drinking and general high
jinks had cut her off from old friends. She
too had gone to cheap bars to drink. With more
physical courage than I had possessed, she had
twice tried to take her life. She had been in
sanitariums. Her luck had been worse than mine,
but not her drinking. I, who had feared questions,
now began trying to interrupt and tell my story.
I couldn't get a word in edgewise! Marty was
smart. A load weighing a thousand pounds came
off my back. I wasn't insane. Nor was I the
"worst woman who ever lived." I was
an alcoholic, with a recognizable behavior pattern.
to my first meeting with Marty and some other
girls. I was sold, intellectually. But my life,
even sober, was all askew and so were my emotions.
In those days there was only one big meeting
a week in New York. On non-meeting nights I
was lonesome, or so I told myself. I went to
several Village bars, and drank cokes or tea.
I had been on the wagon when I came to A.A.
and this sobriety-tension eventually popped.
Not understanding the twenty-four hour plan,
or not wanting to, I began drinking and was
off-again on-again, during that first month.
A.A., called Anne, who had helped me, went on
a terrible bender. Priscilla, an A.A., who,
like Marty, has become one of my greatest friends,
decided that I was a stubborn case. Since they
could do nothing with Anne either, Priscilla
suggested that I go and look after Anne. Now,
I am big and weak, but Anne was bigger than
I and strong. Her idea of fun
a bender was to hit sailors and insult cops.
We were to go up to our A.A. farm in Kent, and
I spent the evening before riding herd on Anne.
I was so busy keeping her out of trouble, and
so scared she'd swing on me, that I had my last
two drinks that night. The farm, in those days,
was primitive. There was no central heating,
and this was the dead of winter. Anne and I
went up in ski clothes and fur coats, and it
was so cold we slept in them. I tried to wash
a little, but Anne refused to wash at all. She
said she felt too horrible inside to be pretty
on the outside. This I understood. This was
how I had looked and acted a few short weeks
ago. I completely forgot about myself in trying
vainly to help Anne, whose misery I understood.
train going back, Anne's one idea was to get
to the nearest bar. I was really scared. I thought
it was my duty to keep her from drinking, not
knowing that if the other fellow is really determined
to drink there is nothing you can do about it.
However, I had phoned New York from the farm,
appealing for help, and there in the station
to meet us were two A.A.'s, John and Bud. They
were a couple of normal, sober, attractive men.
They took Anne and me to dinner. We, who were
dirty, bedraggled and in ski clothes. They did
not seem ashamed to be with us, these strangers.
They were taking the trouble to try and help.
Why? I was astonished and deeply moved.
things together brought me into A.A. I got off
the so-called wagon, and on the twenty-four
hour plan. I had never had the physical courage
to shake it out before.
Bud became my friends. John said, "Keep
to meetings." And I did. He himself took
me to many of them, including the ones out of
for one short slip, during the first eight months,
which was an angry "the world can't do
this to me" reaction to a personal tragedy
in my life, I have been sober for twelve years.
I, who could never stay on the wagon for more
than a week. The personality rehabilitation
did not come overnight. In the first year there
were episodes such as kicking Priscilla in the
shins, getting the lock changed on the desk
in the A.A. Club, because I, as secretary, didn't
want the Intergroup secretary "interfering,"
and taking an older woman member out to lunch
for the express purpose of informing her that
she was "a phony." All the people
involved in these flare-ups took it with remarkable
grace, have teased me about it since, and have
become good friends of mine.
me how not to drink. And also, on the twenty-four
hour plan, it taught me how to live. I know
I do not have to be "queen of them all"
to salve a frightened ego. Through going to
meetings and listening, and occasionally speaking,
through doing Twelve Step work, whereby in helping
others you are both the teacher and the student,
by making many wonderful A.A. friends, I have
been taught all the things in life that are
worth having. I am no longer interested in living
in a palace, because palace living was not the
answer for me. Nor were those impossible dreams
I used to have the things I really wanted.
my A.A. friends, and I have become reacquainted
with my old friends on a new basis. My friendships
are meaningful, loving and interesting because
I am sober. I have achieved the inner confi-
to write quite unlike Shakespeare, and I have
sold a good deal of what I have written. I want
to write better and sell more. My spiritual
awakening in A.A. finally resulted in my joining
a church some years ago. This has been a wonderful
thing in my life. I consider that I was taking
the Eleventh Step when I joined this church.
(This was for me. Many good A.A.'s
never join a church, and do not need to. Some
even remain agnostics.)
I feel a little bit more useful, more happy
and more free. Life, including some ups and
downs, is a lot of fun. I am a part of A.A.
which is a way of life. If I had not become
an active alcoholic and joined A.A., I might
never have found my own identity or become a
part of anything. In ending my story I like
to think about this.
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