| print this
A DRUNKARD’S PROGRESS
and the sobering strength of myth
souls it is death to become water, for water it is death
to become earth; from earth water comes-to-be, and from
man when he is drunk is led like an unfledged boy, stumbling
and not knowing where he goes, having his soul moist.
dry soul is wisest and best.
all the things that happened on my last binge before going
to Alcoholics Anonymous, I remember clearly only one: a
powerful, somewhat surprising surge of fellow feeling for
a couple standing next to me at a Manhattan bar. The bar
was not one of my favourite watering holes. I had none but
that time, not much caring where I drank or with whom. But
this places was more familiar that most, filled with an
ill-assorted crowd of professional people, Hispanics, street
people, and the odd preppie. The couple, too, seemed haphazardly
matched, and it was evident that before this moment they
had never spoken to each other.
The man was black, with a Che beret and wispy chin whiskers.
A law school textbook lay open beside his beer. She was
drinking spritzers: a woman in her late twenties, in tweeds,
and with plain gold hoops in her earlobes. She was white
and, as I subsequently overheard, of Irish descent. They
were making friends, talking about his ancestors, and it
came out that one of his great-great-grandfathers had been
a ship captain on the Liverpool - West Indies run. And so,
miraculously, had one of hers. Alas, they couldn't prove
the link beyond a doubt, for the law school student could
not remember his ancestor's last name. But I remember how
delighted they were to establish the possibility of one,
and how their joy touched off something like it in me, their
secret sharer. I felt buoyed up as if on the gentle swells
of the sea they'd been taking about: the old oceanic feeling,
you might say, but in my condition, rather poignant. Then
the couple went on to talk of other things (police brutality,
as I recall) and I went back to my bourbon and water.
are more synonyms for "drunk" than for any other
word in the English language. Wentworth and Flexner's Dictionary
of American Slang
has to resort to an appendix to cover them all. There are
313 words in it. Most of us could add one or two to the
collection. I like misjudged, for example: a splendid equivocation
by which the drunk manages to suggest that he has merely
underestimated the potency of the liquor, or that his behavior
is being sadly misunderstood. At any rate, the clear implication
of this vast vocabulary is that drunkenness is the most
verbal of human conditions until it becomes the most unspeakable.
intrigues me is the allusion that so many of these words
make to the liquidity of drunkenness. We drunks are all
sailors, stumbling and reeling from tavern to tavern. But
to us it is the world that totters and plunges. Nothing
stands still for us, no more than deck furniture stands
still in a storm at sea. Everything spins - the faces of
friends, the bar, the streets, the bushes in the front yard,
the stairs, the toilet, the bed. A drunk's world is hopelessly
fluid, now rocking us gently, now breaking over us with
blind and cruel force.
my fascination with the liquidity of drunkenness is idiosyncratic.
It certainly doesn't seem to be shared by my fellow drunks
in A.A. At a meeting once, I tried to convey a sense of
my drinking career by comparing it to a salmon's epic voyage
to the swimming pool. "I drank like that fish swam,"
I said. I told them how I dived into the tumbling waters
with fervour and rose in glory. What was my quest? It was
infraverbal, instinctual. And when I got there, where the
waters were still and warm, I found a dreamy breeding ground
of the self, with the bright air just above, attainable
(wasn't it?) by a mere flick of the tail. But then, immersed
in the pool, it seemed that my flesh was flaking off and
floating away before my eyes, until at last I was all nerves
and eyesight, staring into the fireplace, drinking Gallo
from a gallon jug, trying to remember or forget, neither
of which I could do, and weeping into my glass.
seemed a terrific analogy when I launched into it at the
meeting, almost a fable. But long before I reached the spawning
pool I sensed that many of my fellow alcoholics had gone
onto a different wavelength, and thereafter I kept my story
plain. An analogy is a way of fishing for the unfamiliar,
of catching it on the hook of the familiar. But nothing
about drunkenness is unfamiliar to the people at an AA gathering.
They want only to have the familiar made vivid, sharp, personal,
immediate. They want conceteness: the kind of booze, the
names of the bars, what your wife said then, what the cop
looked like, how much, when, how long. They want stories.
all we did was tell stories, if only to ourselves. Drinking,
we built ourselves a drunk’s ladder of words, one
end propped on clouds, the other end floating on water.
The whole ladder is important if you understand drunkards,
but the fluid footing is where you begin to understand AA.
The fellowship exists to ground the drunk’s ladder
on solid earth, on common ground, and whether we extend
one end of it back up into the heavens or simply lay it
down to bridge the chasms between ourselves and others,
it is still made of words.*
the youngest of Odysseus’s companions, is described
in The Odyssey as an ordinary fellow, not overly brave,
not particularly wise. He was also the first to die, doing
so even before the ordeal of the great captain and his crew
had properly begun. The circumstances, however, make his
name irresistibly appealing to the writer of this essay,
as a pseudonym.
happened to Elpenor could have been funny. For nine long
years Circe, the goddess of human speech, held the Ithacans
captive on her remote island, transforming them into dumb
animals, slaves of their most ignoble appetites. But then
at last Odysseus persuaded Circe to give them speech again,
to make them men, and to let them begin their voyage home.
One whole day, before setting sail, they spent feasting
on meat and wine; then at nightfall they lay down to sleep
in Circe’s great hall. All but Elpenor: heavy with
wine, hot, he found a ladder and climbed up onto the roof.
He was still there when Odysseus, down below, roused his
comrades in the morning. Poor Elpenor! Springing up at the
sound of voices, befuddled, he forgot the ladder he’d
come up by and pitched headlong from the roof. “His
neck,” as T.A. Murray translates Homer’s lines,
“was broken away from his spine, and his spirit went
down to the house of Hades.”
But this was not the end of Elpenor’s story. When
Odysseus’s turn came to make his own descent into
Hell, Elpenor was the first of all the shades to greet him.
“Son of Laertes, sprung from Zeus, Odysseus of many
devices,” he cried, “an evil doom of some god
was my undoing, and measureless wine.” He begged a
favor of his captain, that when Odysseus gained again the
common ground of mortals, “heap up a mound for me
on the shore of the grey sea, in memory an unhappy man,
that men yet to be may learn of me. Fulfil this prayer,
and fix upon the mound my oar wherewith I rowed in life
when I was among my comrades.”
A.A. meeting is an answer to a plea which everyone has heard
nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me. Speak to
me. Why do you never speak? Speak.
ground rules differ from meeting to meeting. Some are for
alcoholics only, others for anyone at all. Some are "beginners'
meetings," but because beginners often tell the most
touching and dramatic stories, and because veteran alcoholics
want to keep their memories fresh and help those less experiences
in the ways of sobriety than they are, these meetings are
usually packed with old-timers as well. The number of people
varies greatly. In New York I've seen meetings of twenty-odd
people jammed into the cellar of a brownstone, and more
than 200 crowded into the basement of a cathedral-sized
church. Where I live now, meetings seldom draw more than
fifty and sometimes only two or three. Twenty seems to be
is a good number, to my taste, and the meeting where I feel
most at home attracts about that many once a week. We have
beginners, too, vanned in from a drying out farm back in
the hills. The format of the meeting is the open discussion
group, with a lead-off- speaker telling his tale, the other
members following up with bits and pieces of their own stories.
I always speak, whether I want to or not. I think of it
as a kind of spiritual discipline: to attend to what's being
said, to keep one's mind open to the spark of recognition,
to wait in mounting tension for the moment when one will
be called on, then finally to hazard a link between one's
own story and another's. The sensation, when I have said
my bit, is what most of us came for, serenity.
no one is under any compulsion to speak. On the contrary,
old-timers tell you again and again that one of the great
virtues they discovered in the program is the capacity to
listen, without making assumptions or jumping to conclusions,
without analyzing, categorizing, glossing, or comparing
(what I'm doing now, for example), but with appetite, imagination,
and sympathy. At an A.A. meeting, good listeners become
as little children listening to fairy tales. And a fairy
tale of sorts is what, typically we hear.
imagine many of my fellow drunks would be infuriated to
hear their stories, "true" stories recalled with
anguish and told quite literally in fear and trembling,
described as fairy tales. Yet that's what they are to the
listeners and I don't mean to belittle them. After all,
as Walter Benjamin has told us, a fairy tale is usually
the story of a quest, through which as children we may learn
to confront the forces of the mythical world, the dreadful
projection of our fears, our hurts, and our mistrust. In
quest stories a child goes forth, a child much like the
listening child in his secret conviction of helplessness
and oppression. And along the way he discovers that the
real world of experience is much like the mythical world
of apprehension: peopled with witches, ogres, and tyrants,
rife with duplicity, danger, evil, and death.
as the child battles through his ordeal, he also finds that
nature is in secret complicity with his struggle. Life himself
wants him to survive the ordeal, to defeat his enormous
adversaries, to come into his kingdom. Little people, common
people, all denizens of the earth, appear to help him. And
the child must let nature's secret complicators in, trust
them, and with them trust himself, his wits and his high
resolve. And with this access of trust, the last liberating
secret is revealed: that freedom is a gift of strength,
and strength a gift of going forth and suffering. The gift
of the story to the listener is hope.
for point, this is the story one hears over and over again
at A.A. meetings. Not that anyone orders us to tell them
in this form. All we're told is to share our "experience,
strength, and hope" for ten or twenty minutes. There
are no other instructions: no one prompts, analyzes, jeers,
breaks in to tell his own story, or criticizes.
that's the way they usually come out, as quest stories,
and one reason they do is that it's so easy to construe
the actual course of a drunk's career in that way. The ism,
alcoholism, is a disease. (I prefer to think of it as a
gift, like the gift for music, but malign. Becoming an alcoholic
is like winning a recital at Carnegie Hall: you must have
the gift, but you must also practice. Still, most drunks
take it as a disease.) But because the disease of alcoholism
goes its way in a seemingly purposeful fashion, it is a
simple matter to personify it. In A.A. we call it "cunning,
baffling, and insidious," and having gone that far,
we might as well call it the demon. When he first appears
on the scene, he is frisky and cute as Faust’s poodle,
found on an idle stroll. Later, revealed for what he is
(charming, helpful, always available at the crook of an
elbow), he begins making promises and deals. And this Demon
knows how to make a deal, how to keep a promise. The stories
I've heard! Hardworking foremen, corporate swashbucklers,
surgeons, interior decorators, bus drivers, librarians,
fishermen, submarine skippers, mongers of all sorts and
kinds of things, all of them stewed to the gills morning,
noon, and night, yet never faltering on their upward climb,
never losing their jobs, never falling in the esteem of
we all lost our souls, and in the typical story, sooner
or later, everything else as well: jobs, money, family,
friends, health, the lot. We end up in a barroom, say, screaming
a challenge to take on any man in the place. Ludicrous:
we might be blowing bubbles in the bathtub. There are no
takers. But out on the street, the Demon's little helpers
are waiting, a bunch of pint-sized muggers come to collect.
The deal was that you hold the liquor. With the grip reversed,
begins the most crucial episode in the drunk's career: hitting
bottom. Everyone finds his own bottom. It might be on the
carpet of an executive suite or in the backyard where the
pints of vodka are buried; it might be the gutter, the slammer,
or the bin. Wherever it is, it seems somehow more textured
with the actual than anything we've known since we first
set out on this voyage. And the Demon is down there as well,
delighted as always to help a drowning man. Voices reach
us, urgent voices. One, heroic in timbre (though strangely
demonic), cries out, "Hold on!" Another, so close
to the bottom we're lying on that it might be coming from
there, speaks in a croak. "Let's go," it says,
"let go." These voices, this site, are the drama
of Alcoholics Anonymous.
quest were we on when we set forth? What was it we wanted,
really wanted? It wasn't anything in particular. That was
the trouble. All we had was neediness and vision, bottomless
neediness and wondrous vision. Out of these we conjured
a god - the god, in fact, whose servant is the Demon. W.H.
Auden called him Possibility, and said that his idolaters
were legion in modern societies. But drunks have always
known about that god, long before there were modern societies,
for on the downward leg of the drunkard's quest it is Possibility
who fills the sails.
after all, is simultaneously the one great true thing (anything
can happen), the great half-truth (I can do anything I want
to), and the great lie (I can be anyone I want to). There
are moments of Possibility-worship in everyone's story.
In most people's lives, however, Possibility makes itself
felt as more or less fixed object of desire, not the wind
but the compass: riches, celebrity, a lively love life.
The more concrete the desire, in fact, the more coherent
the voyage, the story, and the "I" who is telling
it. In a drunk's story, Possibility appears as it is to
the true idolater: the achingly elusive element in which
we live and move and have our dreams, the pool, the drowning
pool, of the self.
I don't know how many times I've heard an A.A. storyteller
begin his story with the assertion that he began drinking
to "get along," because he was shy and ill at
ease at parties and a snootful made it easier for him. I
would never identify with this until a few months ago. I
was at a party, a small dinner where there was a man who
I instantly realized was clever, more articulate, more entertaining,
and more forceful than I could ever be. This would have
been hard to bear under the best of circumstances, but these
were especially difficult. For one thing, the hostess was
a woman whose attentions I coveted and my "rival"
was winning. For another, I had stopped smoking three weeks
before; this was my first foray into unfamiliar social territory
dessert, I was in such a rage of envy that I grabbed a cigarette.
(One of his cigarettes, needless to say.) I think I'd have
grabbed his wine bottle, too, if there hadn't been another
recovering alcoholic at the table. Still, I smoked, which
was bad enough, I smoked out of envy. Cleverer than I could
ever be? Ever? Dear God, say it isn't so! Say that I could
if I tried. That I could if I made myself new. That I could,
by some miracle, be someone else. But now, wafted onward
on my nicotine afflatus, I was another man - if nothing
else, a man who had not smoked but did now. Exhaling, I
could see my self I wished in the moist clouds of smoke,
and a good deal less of the man I envied.
I now realize, did the same thing for me. Looking back to
when I began drinking, I can see that I was no different
from those others who say they drink to make themselves
agreeable, lovable, clever. We drank to spawn new selves,
to be reborn in Possibility, more charming, more persuasive,
more resolute, more high-spirited - until at last our new
selves swam away and lost themselves in the darkness and
silence of the bottom.
spawning Possible selves is what the drunk was up to during
the first part of his quest, then "re-collecting"
and "re-membering" those selves is what he is
doing when he tells us about it. Recalling himself as he
was, prostrate before the idol, he remembers daring great
deeds and speaking resounding words. But even if he did
and said half of what he dreamed, even if he was the selves
he gave birth to, the lived experience eluded him, forever
being dissolved in the solvent of alcoholic Possibility.
God does save drunks and fools, but what he saves them from
is experience. The story of a life devoted to Possibility
sounds like a quest story with the ordeals left out. It's
just a haphazard accumulation of endings: triumphs or catastrophes,
as the case might be (for anything can happen), but completely
severed from the necessary middle, the traveled ground of
the rooms, then, where A.A. people tell their stories, there
are really two dramas going on, the events recounted in
the narrative and the narrator's struggle to recover his
experience, to build a new ladder of words on a firmer footing.
The story emerges rung by rung, sometimes as farce, sometimes
as melodrama: a situation comedy or a horror show. Often
it is both. At one meeting I used to go to, for example,
a tough little Irishman convulsed us with an inexhaustible
series of disaster stories involving run-ins with the police,
tractor trailers, frosty bank managers, night nurses in
the drunk ward. He used to tell how he was cured of the
gambling addiction that overcame him after he went into
A.A. He and his wife were at a Florida racetrack, and each
had bet on a different horse. His horse, which had been
in the lead, stumbled and fell. His wife's horse, which
was second, tripped over the fallen favourite and broke
its neck. "I took it as a sign," he would say,
"a bad sign."
farce is easily transmuted into horror. There are meetings
where one feels beaten, physically and morally, by the ingenuity,
the persistence, the cruelty that human beings bring to
the task of destroying themselves. Again and again you find
yourself saying, "Now, dear God, surly he's reached
his bottom!" He has not. But the storyteller has. The
storyteller is here now, warm and dry and safe, perhaps
with a firm grip on sobriety, perhaps just digging his fingers
into the beach against the pull of the slamming sucking
surf. So the end of the story is always both happy and tragic.
Now, right this minute, he is in these rooms, telling his
story among common people, close to the world's center of
gravity. (Meetings seem always to be held in basements.)
But after the meeting he must go out again into the fluid
world of Possibility. And out there, as he and every member
of the gathering know, waits the certainty of death.
some stories, the presence of death is almost palpable.
In these versions the hero hits bottom and goes into A.A.
The quest should move on from there, a quest for sobriety,
but it does not. Instead, we see the drunkard lifting himself
up from the bottom time and again, only to slip back. The
pity of it is unbearable: the rehab centers, halfway houses,
asylums, prisons, A.A. itself, in and out, in and out. These
are epics, heroic and terrible. The terror, of course, comes
from the hero's willed participation in his own doom. The
heroism is the storyteller's. Telling that story, groping
in agonizing silence for words, the speaker becomes an actor
in his real life, the protagonist in a struggle between
cynicism and trust, despair and hope, death and life, death
and love - now enacted, in these rooms, in an agon of remembrance.
of the word, of course, are almost as easy to come by as
a drink. And it might be asked, as alcoholics in A.A. meetings
do often ask, why it is that these other therapies, psychoanalysis
in particular, were never able to help them stop drinking.
It's a good question, and I think the answer tells something
about the kinds of people alcoholics are. (The question
of whether we were always that kind of person, or became
that way as a result of drinking, is a chicken-and- egg
question, and not a good one.)
goes on in an analytic session is quite similar to what
goes on in an A.A. meeting. Analyst and patient meet periodically,
the patient bearing his anxieties, some too deeply rooted
or too painful for words, others already fixed in words
- too fixed, like a published text. The analyst brings his
own experience, and in the encounter between the two, the
patient undergoes a kind of conversion, or rather a series
of conversions, in the course of which he works out a new,
illuminating, and presumably helpful version of his life
story. So, too, at an A.A. meeting: there, the newcomer
learns to channel the maelstrom of his experience along
the lines of a quest story. And there are parallels, as
well, between the dramas played out in each kind of session.
In A.A. there is the drunk's mortal struggle to compose
his life in words and the counterinsurgent denial of his
need to stop drinking, as well as of the proffered way to
stop. In analysis the drama is the patient's painful ordeal
to become a maker of sense and his fierce resistance to
the analyst who can help him.
it's just there, in that element of drama, that the alcoholic
finds analysis wanting.
alcoholics are intensely social, constantly threatened by
loneliness: we need to go out, mix it up with the crowd,
see and be seen, perform. What can an audience of one man
or woman do for us?
we want sacrifice. Once we sacrificed ourselves on the altar
of Possibility; now, giving ourselves to others like ourselves,
we learn a new form of sacrifice, one with life itself as
the gift for giving. In analysis there's nothing like that,
nothing so dramatic: if anybody is being sacrificed it is
the therapist, who may be dying of boredom. But he is being
paid for it, which rather spoils the fun.
Considered as theatre, moreover, psychotherapy in general
(as a drunk might say) is pretty small stuff, as primal
as the quest story. Sophocles' Oedipus is want we want;
Freud's is too refined, too limited. Lacking experience,
and in that sense childlike, we like our theatre crude and
dirty and full of miracles. But we also like it formal.
If a psychotherapeutic treatment has any form, it's usually
apparent only to the therapist, and not necessarily even
to him. The A.A. drama seems as simple and straightforward
a container of meaning as the mind could devise. It has
to be, for containing is precisely what it must do for us.
We are the incontinent, those whom Dante found wallowing
in putrid slop, and what we crave is integrity, coherence,
simplicity. A.A. drama is oral, a tribal culture which gets
passed on by means of stories and maxims. There's an A.A.
maxim for every contingency: Count your blessing, One day
at a time, Easy does it, Live and let live, First things
first. The beginner finds them stupefyingly banal. Then
he learns that they are nothing more than condensed stories
waiting to be brought to life by his own experience.
of our tribes even have bards. I think of Ted, a regular
at some of the meetings I go to. The first time I heard
him speak I thought the Ancient Mariner had grabbed me by
the arm. His voice rumbles along the edge of a cough and
his story emerges with the beat and power of epic verse.
He takes us from the loafing idyll of his youth to the horrors
of a bin for the criminally insane. In his story Ted is
always moving, stumbling from bar to bar, from doorway to
alley to flophouse, from courthouse to prison, always on
foot. Fondly, wryly, he ticks off the names of the bars,
their proprietors, their regulars. Sober now, on the upward
curve, he is still moving, still on foot. "you've all
seen me, haven't you? " he says. Everyone has once
a month., perhaps, they catch a glimpse of him, day or night,
walking with his easy stride from town to town along the
shore road. He is walking to meetings mostly, and now in
his story he names the meetings, recalls anecdotes he's
heard at them, laments the dead, sings the praises of those
members who stopped and gave him a lift. Sometimes he'll
fix the date of an incident
by something he read in the papers. "It was the day
they buried old Patrick P.” says Ted, or "the
night they had that terrible fire up in Galahanty."
is a mythmaker. In the usual fairy-tale quest, the only
name you hear is that of the hero (I'm Susan, and I'm an
alcoholic"), a name so rudimentary that every individual
can identify with it. And the action of these stories takes
place anywhere, somewhere in such and such a kingdom, but
really in the good listener's head. Myth, however, occurs
in historical time, in a real country, among real people,
and the men and women of myth are the real heroes of that
country and people. A myth is constitutive: it makes for
a collective identification. That's what Ted's stories do.
They weave a magic circle of words around our meetings,
making a tribe out of a group of lonely quest-heroes. In
his own story, Ted is Odysseus; but in his manner of telling
it, he is our Homer. He offers himself up, a creature as
wretched and glorious as the powers of speech, for us to
identify with, to be at one with, to die with or to live
with, if he can only go on telling his story.
have never yet had a slip. Ordinarily, I think no more of
slipping than I think of my dead mother, who had a fatal
one. Drink is something I kissed goodbye. Hut one evening
a man was telling us how he and his wife (also an alcoholic)
were driving home from a meeting when they decided to stop
off at a roadside restaurant for a steak.
It was a wonderful steak, he said, and they had just been
to a wonderful meeting, and the two things coming together,
the spiritual and the physical well being, left him feeling,
as he ominously put it, "on top of the world."
Suddenly, the thought of how wonderful it would be to cap
off the evening with a creme de menthe slashed through his
mind. Now, as it happens, he didn't have a crème
de menthe. It also happens that I detest creme de menthe.
Yet the word, the mere sound, gave me a taste of it, as
real as the taste of the coffee in my hand, and the taste
struck me with terror. The essence of A.A. is contained
in that incident. What happened was something so simple
as to be almost barbaric: a ritual drama that transformed
our anxiety into pity and terror, our pity and terror into
is a reflex of the spirit, I think, and the spiritual is
a dimension of existence that drunks are especially vulnerable
to. There are many of us, however, myself included, for
whom spirit in all its uses (except, naturally, the liquid)
had become a meaningless, a tiresome, even a threatening
word. By the time I went into A.A., I'd pretty well dropped
it from my vocabulary. The booze had been one cause of this,
of course, having drowned my spirit along with everything
else, but my background had helped, too. Where I come from,
all the actualities and potentialities of being human are
parceled out to disciplined licensees: mind the philosophers,
psyche to the psychologists, language to the linguists,
and so on. Spirit, according to this scheme of things, belonged
to the religionists, the devotees of a god, and my spirit's
experience at the hands of religionists had been uniformly
did nothing at first to disabuse me of this. It is true
that when I went into A.A. I miraculously rediscovered my
spirit. But for a great many days thereafter, I could not
have told you what I meant by the word. Spirits (as in "high
spirits") got at part of it. So did morale. Yet there
was always something hollow in the sound of the word when
I spoke it, some dead spot of failed resonance when I heard
it spoken, where there should have been, though I hardly
knew why, a full and joyful understanding.
difficulty lay in my laggard belief that spirit had something
to do with religion, that it had to be in the most conventional
sense transcendent, that it had to be somehow always straining
upward, higher than man, toward God. Most A.A. people have
no difficulty with these thoughts. Like nine-tenths of their
fellow Americans, they are happy to declare (to pollsters,
for example) that they believe in God and that their God
is in some sense a higher power. At meetings, "Higher
Power" is the way God is most frequently referred to
: "My Higher Power, whom I choose to call God."
The locution is tactfully existential. Still, at first I
could never hear that word, God, without the abyss opening
up just beneath my heart. There is no question that the
Higher Power most A.A. people have in mind is the Judeo-Christian
one; and neither is there any question about what this power,
this high god, does for me. He gives me the jitters. He's
bad for my nerves, the affliction with which I went into
A.A. in the first place; and speech between us is quite
the interesting thing is not only that I had difficulty
getting the word spirit to sound right in my mind and heart.
It is also that no one in A.A. has ever attempted to "help"
me by pointing the way to his notion of God. Never, for
example, have I heard anyone in A.A. refer to Jesus Christ.
This is astonishing, for most A.A. people are Christian
(like most Americans). Moreover, Jesus' "story"
has some rather close parallels to the typical A.A. story.
Surely the drunk's agony of remembrance is also atonement;
surely, too, the first leg of this quest is a descent into
death, the second a transfiguration, though one that's always
at risk. To me this only goes to show that the Crucifixion
is not our only passion play, but a model, so to speak,
of the genre. But I am not a Christian, and Christians,
I should have thought, might find the temptation almost
irresistible to call upon the story of Jesus' Agony and
Resurrection to illuminate, perhaps to confirm, their own.
But in A.A. they never do. They never speak of it.
reason, when I found it out, revealed to me what I had been
missing in my sense of the spirit that moves in A.A. One
day I took a friend of mine, a poet, not an alcoholic, to
a meeting in New York. It's a meeting that attracts a large
contingent of theatre people, which probably accounts for
its being especially emotional, even for A.A. I thought
my friend would be amused and moved. At the same time, I
was a little afraid of what he might say. He is a man whose
language is extraordinarily precise, and one who ordinarily
demands the same precision of his friends. He is also an
agnostic, and these two qualities gave me pause. My hold
on sobriety was then even more feeble than it is now (I'd
been "in" for less than a month), and I was high,
rapturously high, on A.A., and felt I could take no criticism
of it. I thought my friend might despise the wide groping
for words he'd hear from these people, and scorn the trite
maxims by which we all tried to live. And I thought he'd
be embarrassed by all those references to "my Higher
Power, whom I choose to
the event, my fears proved groundless. For it was the talk
that most touched my friend: the stories told in the diction
of the suffering, the eloquence of shared experience, the
rhetoric of hope against hope. In the taxi on the way back
to his apartment he said, "The talk of God? Well, what
moved in that room is the best working definition of God
I've ever heard." And it was then that I began to see
that the true spirit of these rooms is the spirit of human
life; a thing godlike, perhaps, but not transcendent; not
"high;" a thing altogether human. In A.A. we dry
moist souls on the Iogos, the Word.
Harper’s Magazine, October 1986)