Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Catching Up with Jonathan V

A few weeks ago, while fooling around on, I happened upon the name of a law school classmate of mine named Jonathan V. I called him up and spoke to him for the first time in over 20 years. Jonathan told me that he’s not practicing law, and I told him that since he had enjoyed considerable romantic success with a classmate of mine who was one of the great unrequited crushes of my life, I wholeheartedly envied him. I also told him I was pleasantly surprised he had not managed to drink himself to death, which is what I honestly suspected had happened to him—in law school, he was a horrendous lush. (yes, I can be a very plainspoken so and so can’t I?) He told me, “Jesus Christ is keeping me sober.” I was delighted to hear that Jonathan is alive and that he’s sober, and whoever he wants to give credit to is fine by me. I did not enquire as to whether the Jesus Christ he was referring to had his staff headquarters in Rome, Canterbury, Salt Lake City, or any other place—I’m glad he’s sober.

This reminded me of something fascinating I recently learned about Bill Wilson, the founder of AA. For 15 years after he returned from his service in WWI, Bill Wilson was a horrendous drunk. He had sought assistance from his friends, his family, especially his long suffering wife, from clergy and from doctors, all to no avail. Wilson knew he was in very real danger of drinking himself to death, and he asked a doctor who specialized in treatment of alcoholism what were his prospects. The doctor told him bluntly that at that time there was no effective treatment for alcoholism. The only exception was when the patient experienced a spontaneous spiritual rejuvenation. In effect, Wilson needed a miracle.

By coincidence, on Armistice Day 1934, Wilson got a visit from an old friend of his with whom he had done some serious drinking. The friend told him that he’d managed to stop drinking because he’d got religion. Wilson’s friend was involved with what was known as the Oxford Movement, which was an explicitly protestant organization. Something clicked. Wilson started reaching out to other drunks to try to persuade them to stop drinking, and as the months passed, he noticed something extraordinary: he did not succeed in getting any of his friends to sober up, but he, for the first time in 15 years, was off alcohol himself.

It was in May of 1935 when Wilson made a business trip to Akron, Ohio, where he met Dr Bob Smith, another longtime alcoholic. They hit it off immediately, and the next day, they visited a third drunk, a patient at a nearby hospital suffering from alcoholism. That day marks the beginning of AA. I wonder if anyone today reading this more than 75 years later can appreciate exactly how desperate and alone Bill Wilson must have felt. He was very much on his own, without the possible support system we know of today, While both he and Dr. Bob were familiar with the Oxford Movement, they were more interested in helping other drunks and keeping themselves sober than proselytizing. One day, Wilson visited a hospital patient who admitted that he was a near-hopeless alcoholic, and he suspiciously asked Wilson how much his scheme cost. Wilson replied nothing at all, which got that man’s attention. However when he mentioned the spiritual side of the program, that man called him everything but a precious child of God and accused him of evangelizing for some religious cult.

My best guess is that the fellow was Catholic. There’s an old joke in AA: any time you find four Irish Catholics, you’ll soon find a fifth.

It was shortly thereafter that Wilson, Smith, and their small group of alcoholics broke with the Oxford Movement. They introduced one of the most important of AA’s traditions of turning your life over to God as you understand him. So what’s the result? Is there room in AA for Protestants, Catholics, Christians of every stripe? Jews and anybody else? Definitely. Shortly before his death in 1971, Wilson revealed that he had corresponded with Buddhists who said that they would prefer the tradition read “Good as you understand it” rather than “God”, but it did not turn out to be a problem.

I much admire the work of Penn and Teller, but I once saw a segment of their TV program Bulls**t which was an “expose” on AA. Penn commented, “either there is a God in AA or there isn’t.” I think Penn Jillette is a brilliant man. Why the hell can’t he figure out if you have 2 million members in AA you can get 2 million definitions of a God or a higher power? Jillette also commented that AA still used Bill Wilson’s “big book” to help its members stay sober. He sneered, “If you used a medical textbook from 1935 for any other malady, wouldn’t you be committing malpractice?” That comment really made my blood boil. If a med textbook from 1935 recommended that people suffering from influenza bundle up, stay in bed, and avoid close contact with others, does that mean it’s a good idea for modern flu sufferers to get naked, run around in the snow, and exchange lingering open-mouth kisses with friends and family? I think not. He also commented that AA by itself has a low long term success rate. That is a dangerous half-truth. Alcoholics who use only AA meetings have a low long-term success rate, as do alcoholics who go though formal treatment and do not stay active with a 12-step support group. However, as my more clever readers will have by now figured out, those who do both enjoy very high success rates. This past week I spoke with a treatment specialist at a Continuing Legal Education seminar who told me that recovering alcoholics who use both treatment and 12-step and manage to stay sober for 2 years have a better than 80% chance of retaining sobriety for the rest of their lives.

One acquaintance of mine who is not so much atheist as, I would say, theophobic, said he found it objectionable that AA meetings end with the Lords’ Prayer. While that is a tradition, it is not an iron-bound law. Once, while reading some AA literature, I saw that one group met in the basement of a synagogue. I haven’t had the chance to ask any of my Jewish friends how they would feel about a bunch of recovering alcoholics reciting the Lord’s Prayer in the basement of the synagogue, but I figure most of them would figure that if it helped keep a bunch a drunks sober, there would be less chance that drunk would kill them or their loved ones in a drunk driving incident.

When I was in Alaska, I once saw a notice about a guest speaker, a Yup’ic man who promoted “mushing for sobriety.” He went from village to village with his bobsled team speaking in favor of staying sober. I never met him, Perhaps mushing was his higher power. When I first read about him I was a bit bemused by his choice of methods. Then I found out he grew up in a family with 8 children. He had buried 7 of his siblings, all of them dead from alcoholism.

So who then is could possibly have a problem with being in AA? The answer is anyone who is an atheist who can’t go 30 min without shouting that fact from the rooftops , and fortunately enough there are sobriety programs, i.e. Rational Recovery, which have a specifically atheist ideology., If they keep anyone sober, I think that’s a very good thing. Some promoters of rational Recovery have attacked AA as being a cult. I think that’s terribly inaccurate. I’m happy to report AA takes a very mellow attitude.

If anyone wants to know how I came to be such an expert on alcoholism, although I’m a teetotaler myself, the answer is I spent five years as a public defender in western Alaska, where I sometimes represented clients with alcohol-related priors that numbered in the triple digits. If everybody west of Anchorage stopped drinking, 90% of all public defenders would be out of a job, and the ones who weren’t unemployed would have to work one morning every other week.

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