The Real Thing
Louis 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.
Copyright © The A.A. Grapevine, Inc., February 2001
K.W.: How has your sobriety changed over the years?
Lou 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.
K.W.: How were you trying to do that?
Lou 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.
I 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.
And 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.
So, 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 same.
K.W.: What do you think has altered your perspective the most – meetings, the Steps, or working with others?
Lou 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.
To 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?
Years 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.
By 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.
An 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.
K.W.: A lot of old-timers have stopped going to meetings. Why do you think that is?
Lou 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.
K.W.: Why do you keep going to meetings?
Lou 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.
Why 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?”
I 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 other.
This 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.
K.W.: What changes in AA do you see today?
Lou 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.
We 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 accent.
I 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 is dead.
K.W.: 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?
Lou 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.
What 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.
Even 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 a 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.”
K.W.: 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?
Lou M.: Yes, I think any rule violates the Traditions. We have no rules in AA according to the Traditions the way I understand them.
Of 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.
K.W.: Do you have any fear about the direction in which AA is going?
Lou 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.
You 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.
Was 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.
Bill 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.
So 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.
Would 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.
K.W.: In general, what Traditions do you see as being least understood and, therefore, in danger of being violated?
Lou 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.”
I 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 gotten sober.
But 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.
K.W.: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Lou 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.
When 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.
He 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.
Copyright © The A.A. Grapevine, Inc., February 2001