Honest-to-God, I hadn't planned on this becoming a series.
Plus, I'm hedging some in the title of this post. Really, it's about my 4th least favorite paragraphs -- it's more than just one little paragraph.
This is all in Chapter 9 of the book "Alcoholics Anonymous" (AA's Big Book). Chapter 9 is entitled 'The Family Afterward' and the bulk of the chapter is a discussion of how the newly sober "Dad" and his family -- scarred by Dad's drinking -- is going to handle things as Dad tries to work the 12 Steps and live the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous in his home.
First, some context:
As I've said before, for me personally I think it's important to consider the era in which this was written. For the most part I find the Big Book to be overwhelmingly inclusive and open minded -- amazingly so for something written by a bunch of straight white middle-aged Midwestern men (for the most part) in 1939 Ohio. But for me where the age they lived in really colors the language is in the discussions of family dynamics -- expressed in very specific gender roles -- and dear God, the hokey slang is no help either. Here's a great example of some of this, from pg. 131:
"... his drinking placed him constantly in the wrong. Mother made all the plans and gave the directions. When sober, father usually obeyed. Thus mother, through no fault of her own, became accustomed to wearing the family trousers. Father, coming suddenly to life again, often begins to assert himself. This means trouble, unless the family watches for these tendencies in each other and comes to a friendly agreement about them."
I like to look past the specific gender phrasing to the spirit of what that says, which (to me) is something along the lines of:
When one partner in a family is completely debilitated by their alcoholism, all the responsibilities and decisions fall unfairly on the other partner's shoulders. A pattern is then set, which, when the sober alcoholic begins to come back to life, will need to be renegotiated -- and both partners will need to watch themselves and each other, committing to keeping their cool and talking things through, now that the drunk is in recovery and the old, sick dynamic no longer fits.
Again, that's just what it says to me -- I make no claim as to being an official translator of 1939 colloquialisms or Big Book philosophy.
But we're not even up to my 4th least favorite paragraph yet -- this is just clearing the ground some. It's important for me to say that this chapter has real wisdom in it, but in its discussion of family dynamics and the alcoholic, the language is what one might expect of those people in that time, and thus, to find the wisdom and how it applies to us in 2010 one must look past the old timey allusions to whatever point they were trying to make.
Okay, here it is. Pg. 135, the last page of the chapter in fact:
"Here is a case in point: One of our friends is a heavy smoker and coffee drinker. There was no doubt he over-indulged. Seeing this, and meaning to be helpful, his wife commenced to admonish him about it. He admitted he was overdoing these things, but frankly said that he was not ready to stop. His wife ... nagged, and her intolerance finally threw him into a fit of anger. He got drunk.
Of course our friend was wrong -- dead wrong. He had to painfully admit that and mend his spiritual fences. Though he is now a most effective member of Alcoholics Anonymous, he still smokes and drinks coffee, but neither his wife nor anyone else stands in judgment. She sees she was wrong to make a burning issue out of such a matter when his more serious ailments were being rapidly cured."
The point here is about priorities, and also perhaps that AA is not about becoming perfect.
But that's not what troubles me about this.
Every time I read it with a sponsee or hear it in a book study I flash on my dead sponsor, the late, great John S., who would, after hearing whatever dramatic tale of triumph or heartache from me, often take a long hit on his cigarette, unconsciously smooth his toupee a little bit, kind of squint one eye and say, "Yeah, but what are you getting out of it?"
Which is to say he had -- and instilled in me -- a deep suspicion of the alcoholic's ability to manipulate. (The book "Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions" puts this beautifully, calling it "hiding a bad motive under a good one" -- though in that discussion its about self-deception more than anything else.) It's not my intent to make any non-alcoholics cynical or paranoid when dealing with alcoholics (really? well, too late, Mr. SP!). But I have a deep respect -- and real fear -- regarding the insidious nature of alcoholism and its ability to blind alcoholics to our own deeper motives, or, worse yet, rather than hide them from ourselves, justify them.
In this story I can't help but notice that at the end of it, the alcoholic got what he wanted. Funny how that happens sometimes.
Now, in Chapter 8 of the Big Book, "To Wives" and also in many places in this chapter, the point is made that some alcoholics are not going to "come to Jesus." For example, in "To Wives" it says (pg. 108):
"There is an important exception to the foregoing. We realize some men are thoroughly bad-intentioned, that no amount of patience will make any difference. An alcoholic of this temperament may be quick to use this chapter as a club over your head. Don't let him."
In other words, for all its talk of healing, hope and Higher Powers the Big Book is not naive about alcoholics or human nature.
And if there's one thing I've learned from blogging its that sometimes to make a point well you must make only the one point, and set aside, in that particular bit of writing, all the additional "on the other hands" and "sometimes though"... so in the story of the nagging wife and the smoking coffee drinker just the one point is made, about perspective and priorities.
But -- even though the book is quick to label the alcoholic "dead wrong" for using the anger from being nagged as justification for drinking -- it rankles me a little that, at the end of the day, he got what he wanted, which was to smoke and drink coffee with impunity -- and not only that, one could extrapolate that he did set up a bit of an invisible club over his wife's head when it came to further nagging feedback.
I'm grateful to my dead sponsor, he who's wise counsel I miss every single day, for giving me such a jaundiced eye regarding alcoholics and our ability to somehow, after all the dust settles, get our way. I think it's helped me guide some sponsees to the heart of a few issues, and most definitely its led me to be ruthless in regularly asking myself "what am I getting out of it?"
Because in so doing, what I'm getting out of it is sobriety.