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M. got sober forty-five years ago at one of the first groups
in New York City, the Twenty-fourth Street Clubhouse, and
he has been sober ever since. Born in rural Pennsylvania,
Lou moved to New York with his family when he was a child.
He now frequents meetings on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
This interview, conducted by a member of the Grapevine's
Editorial Advisory Board, Kirk W., was conducted on a park
bench overlooking the Hudson River.
© The A.A.
Grapevine, Inc., February 2001
How has your sobriety changed over the years?
M.: (laughing) It's hard to say. Most of the changes are
subtle. They have to do with my relationship to the world
and my relationship to others. For instance, I see myself
as just a tiny, tiny thing in a physical sense compared
to the universe, which a few years ago I worked very hard
to try to understand.
How were you trying to do that?
M.: Well, scientists now have an idea that we have 100 or
200 billion stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way. So I would
sit down and write the number one billion and try to understand
how much that is. I'd think of different things like the
leaves on the trees or the grains of sand on a beach and
wonder, "How many are there?" Then I'd multiply
by 100 billion and say, "All right, that's how many
stars there are." So I got big numbers - zeros that
went a couple of pages long - and I'd try to understand
that. But I wasn't really capable. I saw the number, but
I wasn't capable of grasping it or feeling it.
came out realizing that as an individual I am so small I'm
almost totally meaningless in the universe; it's almost
as if I didn't exist. But not quite. In my own small way
I'm precious to myself and to the universe, because the
universe will never again be the same because I was here
and because you were here, because that tree was here or
because that leaf was there. As small as I am, I'm not totally
meaningless. I once sat on a windowsill because I thought
my life meant nothing.
there's another thing: I do exist. In his Meditations, Marcus
Aurelius said that nothing ever falls out of the universe.
When I read that, I literally had to close the book and
think about it, because that meant me, too.The idea that
nothing falls out of the universe gave me a sense of accepting
that I belong here, no matter what I think of myself.
many things have changed over the years. My understanding
of the Steps and of some words have undergone great changes.
And so it is with the Traditions and everything else in
AA. But my sobriety hasn't changed in the sense of my drinking
and not drinking. I don't drink and that has stayed the
What do you think has altered your perspective the most
- meetings, the Steps, or working with others?
M.: I don't differentiate between meetings and what people
call "working with others." I don't know what
"working with others" means. If it means talking
with people, talking with friends, that's no different from
meetings. If you are walking along and bump into somebody
on the sidewalk, as I'm sure you have many times, you just
say hello and sometimes you are there an hour and a half.
me, those encounters are like meetings. I mean, that's the
language of the heart that Bill W. was talking about. Can
I tell a little story in connection with that?
ago, I used to spend weekends with my family in the Catskill
Mountains. They had a little house and a garden, which I
liked to work in. Well, one weekend I came back feeling
so good that when I got off the bus at the Port Authority,
I decided to call my sister and tell her what a wonderful
time I'd had. So I called, but there was no answer. Then
I tried calling a friend, and he wasn't home. I just stood
there hearing the footsteps of all these people walking
to work, thousands of people walking, and I wasn't able
to tell anyone. And that hurt because when you feel good
in yourself it's not the same as when you're able to tell
someone else that you feel good.
the same token, I learned that when I've been defeated and
crushed and I'm sad and fearful, it's not quite the same
as it is when I tell someone about it.
old-timer once told me that he believed that AA was a great
leveler: When you're up high, your friends help bring you
down a little bit. When you're down low, they help bring
you up a little bit. And so I've found it.
A lot of old-timers have stopped going to meetings. Why
do you think that is?
M.: Well, I don't know too many old-timers who have stopped
going. People go less often for various reasons - and not
just old-timers. People get sober and they get married and
have children, or they get involved in other things. But
there are some people, and Bill talked about it, who come
to a few meetings and then stay sober and never come back
to AA. There are people like that. But that's not the usual
thing, and that's not the way I want to do it.
Why do you keep going to meetings?
M.: Do I think I can stay sober without going to meetings?
Yes. For how long? I don't know. I mean, I can't measure
it or say I can stay sober for four years without going.
do I keep going? Not just to stay sober. I know that being
sober also involves being with other people who want to
be sober. And I like it. A lot of my friends are here, and
I like talking with AA people. There's very little bull,
as in ordinary society, where you stand around at a cocktail
party or something and people say, "It's nice weather
we're having, huh?" or they ask, "What do you
do?" and they mean, "What kind of work do you
do? What's your standing in the community?"
don't hear much of that in AA. We might talk about the weather
or about a ball game, but that's not the main thing. The
first thing that captured me at my very first meeting was
the way AA members talked with one another. There was a
genuineness, something real there, that I wanted. That's
what attracted me to AA really, more than physical sobriety.
I saw they were sober and that they were honest with each
is still a tremendous lure to me. There's no substitute
for it. You know, the thing that Bill later called "the
language of the heart." As sick a boy as I was when
I came in, I was able to hear some of that language without
even knowing it.
What changes in AA do you see today?
M.: Well, one of the biggest things is that we have so many
meetings. Mary, one of my early friends in AA, and I talked
for tens of thousands of hours in railroad stations, in
subway stations, and on park benches. In those days in New
York City, there might have been twelve or fifteen meetings
from the Village all the way up to west 100th Street. Today,
there are 100 or something like that.
used to say, "Gee, wouldn't it be wonderful if we had
meetings every ten blocks?" Well, now we do now. I
think that's good, although, sometimes we get inbred. People
don't move out of their territory. I think it would be a
good idea if people went to other meetings once in a while
just to hear different people, to hear AA with a different
also think there are a lot more people who know about the
Traditions today than there were when I came in. And I think
that's a saving grace because without the Traditions, AA
In the past five years, meetings have been springing up
where a single member of AA appears to be a leader of sorts.
Do you think this kind of AA works for some people?
M.: I think it's been longer than five years. Sure it works
for some people, and in that sense I'm in favor of it. I
don't care what anybody does to try to get sober. They have
a right to try to get sober in their way.
I do object to - and very strongly - (it's a judgmental
thing to say, but . . .) some guys give me the impression
that they're the second coming of Bill W., that they're
a messiah, you know - the real messenger.
then, if some people say that they need someone strict to
tell them, "Sit down. Do this. Read that." Fine.
Sometimes in an emergency that's good, if that's for them.
But don't go telling me that this is the way to do AA. That's
the dangerous thing. That is a way to do AA; it's their
way. And that includes me. What I say to a newcomer is not
the way to do it. It's a way, and I have a duty to him or
her to say, "Now listen to what someone else has to
say on this. Get other views."
Some meetings also have a number of rules about such things
as the way to dress and the use of swear words. Do you think
these rules violate the Traditions?
M.: Yes, I think any rule violates the Traditions. We have
no rules in AA according to the Traditions the way I understand
course, each group is autonomous. The group can say, "Well,
if you're not going to abide by this, we don't want you
to speak." They have a right to say that, and I do
not necessarily have a right to go there and speak. And
if I do speak in a way that they don't like they have a
right not to like me. I shouldn't get angry at that or resentful
about that. So it's a touchy kind of a thing. But to make
it a rule and to throw people out if they don't wear a tie
when they speak? Does that violate the spirit of AA? Yes,
because in AA we have no rules. We don't have rules here.
Do you have any fear about the direction in which AA is
M.: Only to some extent. I fear the kind of thing where
lecturers come around and say they know the real program.
You see, I haven't really done the Steps right, so I don't
count. But they have, and they can tell you the real program.
That's the very antithesis of what AA stands for. We don't
have one big leader. Even in Bill W.'s day, we didn't. And
we don't have one clear program despite what some people
say about the Big Book.
know, there are three little sentences on page 164 of the
Big Book that the Big Book thumpers never quote: The first
two are, "Our book is meant to be suggestive only.
We realize we know only a little." The book's writers
don't say they know all the answers for getting and staying
sober. They don't even say they know most of the answers.
They say they know "only a little." Then in the
next sentence they say, "God will constantly disclose
more to you and to us," which means that as time goes
by in sobriety and by talking with one another, we might
learn more about staying sober, about ourselves, and so
forth. So all the answers in my opinion are not in the Big
Book. Far from it.
that a great book and a great beginning? Yes, it was. But
all the answers are not there, just as all the answers are
not in an individual. It's a constant staying sober and
talking to one another in this language that Bill talked
about - the language of the heart.
himself said, in connection with the Traditions, that trial
and error always have their day in AA. Any way that a person
honestly pursues I think is the AA way. It may not work
out, you know. Or it may.
if a great guru comes along and thousands of people follow
him, I don't have to pay attention to it. And if they got
rid of the Traditions (which would be very hard to do, but
it's happened in other philosophical movements that started
off the way AA started), would I be sad? Sure I'd be sad.
But that doesn't mean you and I couldn't stay sober. You
and I could just meet like we used to and talk.
I like to see the program go that way? No, because I have
an obligation to the guy who's out there drinking today
to try to leave something behind for him, so that when he
wants to stop he has a chance to get sober. If we keep the
Traditions, these little power seekers aren't going to take
over and splinter AA into this group and that group.
In general, what Traditions do you see as being least understood
and, therefore, in danger of being violated?
M.: The only one that's visible is breaking anonymity at
the public level. A year or so ago, I heard a guy on the
radio break his anonymity. He didn't want to at first, but
he had his psychologist there, and she said, "Oh, you
can tell." And he said "Okay. Yes, I'm a member."
always feel sorry when I hear that. Maybe it seems sort
of terrible on my part to say, but they don't really understand
what anonymity means or how important it is. Of course,
movie stars and other people who are famous violate their
anonymity, and yes, people have come in because of that.
But Bill W. explains in some of his writings that this whole
business isn't about the fact that the great Louis M. has
as long as the Traditions are there, there are always going
to be a few people who take them to heart and that will
be the saving grace of AA.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
M.: Sure. I can talk for another fourteen hours (laughs).
You know, I learned more about AA and about myself from
AA Comes of Age than all the other books put together, except
the meeting list. And in it, Bill says that the reason the
Third and Fourth Tradition are important is to prevent AA
from becoming a frozen set of dogmatic principles, which
is like what some of these people say is the real AA. They
have a frozen set of dogmatic principles.
I heard Bill W. speak at his anniversary dinner in the New
York Hilton in 1968, he talked about a Buddhist from Japan
who asked if he had to understand God the way it was described
in the literature. And in effect Bill said no. It didn't
make any difference whether the Higher Power was a he, she,
it, a cosmic force, or greater humanity.
also said that there were tens of thousands of alcoholics
out there drinking that night, who weren't at an AA meeting
because they thought AA was some sort of a cult. They thought
they had to come in and become do-gooders. He called on
us and he called on me (because when I get involved with
a speaker I think the speaker is talking to me) he called
on me not to build what he called barriers of arrogance
- barriers of arrogance to keep these people out. We have
to tell that person, No, you don't have to do what we do.
You're welcome here anyway. The rituals can become replacements
for the real thing and the real thing is us talking, one
alcoholic to another, in the language of the heart.
© The A.A.
Grapevine, Inc., February 2001
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