I looked up AA in the Manhattan directory and I dialed the number. A pleasant sounding man who answered referred me to something called Alanon, which I soon found out could be the enemy of what and where I wanted to be, and also was something that everyone in the world had heard of except me – Alanon, which I was told later had begun as a women’s organization started by men in early AA days to keep the women busy while the men were in their AA meetings. After AA became more co-ed Alanon changed to a rather genteel self-help system to “keep the focus on yourself,” but at the start it was rather like the old-time ladies auxiliaries of fraternal lodges, volunteer fire companies and veteran’s organizations. And then after Alanon had become something of its own, not just a group to support wayward husbands, out of it came this organization called Adult Children of Alcoholics.
I called the Alanon number, and an efficient sounding woman who answered said that yes there was such an organization, ACOA. She said it as if she were holding her words at arms length. It t existed but she wasn’t sure about meetings. I thought I could hear her shuffling papers. “Oh yes, there’s a meeting tonight, St. Jean’s,” she said – a Catholic church on Lexington and 75th, Oh God, right in the heart of the socially stuffy Upper East Side, the one part of town I never wanted to be in. A family part of town. But I went. I was desperate.
It seemed that night that there were hundreds of people in that bare basement in an otherwise ornate church. The church was run by an order of French priests and brothers, which meant St. Jean would be a male name. I liked the idea that this was a French place.
All these people on fold-out chairs in that big basement. I later revised my estimate down to maybe 30. But it was still intimidating, for all these people were talking about themselves.
And it felt like my being here was the most forbidden thing I had ever done in a lifetime of doing forbidden things. And I walked away in a daze, smiling inwardly though not so that anyone on the street could see, I thought. Not that I felt any immediate identification in the church basement.
When I walked in, a slightly disheveled and quite pretty, still youngish woman in a rumpled businesswoman’s office suit, her hair a little rumpled too, was leading the meeting, and was talking about how she would bring her friends home from high school and they would have to step around her father who was passed out in the hallway or on the kitchen floor, and it was as if no one saw him. This is great stuff, I thought, though it has nothing to do with me. Yes, my mother, before leaving Connecticut, did hide pint bottles around, taping them to the undersides of her dining table, and she drove with small vodka bottles in her car, and she did fill up the bottles of cheap blended whisky and gin that she found in the liquor cabinet with water to bring them back to the level at which she found them, and when I went to Connecticut to investigate a woman named Gloria Mansbridge who had been her best friend, and was married to a publishing colleague of my father’s, said you have to realize your mother is the town drunk. And I told her about how they seemed more and more isolated with their problems, including Dad’s advancing Parkinson’s, and Mrs. Mansbridge said we don’t invite them anymore. “You see,” she said, "the Pooles don’t have anything to say.”
And yes there was me and this drinking that sometimes seemed my heritage. Uncle Nick clearly alcoholic, and Great Uncle John too. And I was skimming over things I did when drunk, from angry fights to sentimental marriage proposals, things that had finally so scarred me that by now I had not had a drink in 10 years. And despite all I knew about the alcoholism in my family of birth, not to mention my college and my writing worlds, I could not bring myself to consciously identify with the young woman talking. And I was also thinking that when my father was in a nursing home in Florida because they had mixed up his medication, and because they had been thrown out of the place they were staying after the fire department was called to get my cursing mother out the bathtub, she was that drunk – and my father kept reminding me all day that at the nursing home he was allowed to have two high balls in the evenings. And then in the church basement there was another attractive woman who for some reason was talking about trips she made to Russia, and then a tall older man in a three-piece suit talking about his problems with women he dated – and they all had introduced themselves with words I am so-and-so and I am the child of an alcoholic – though there seemed so many problems besides alcoholism that had brought them together. And I could not believe I could ever say a word in such a place, and I knew immediately that though I had never joined any group except when forced to as a child, or when drafted into the army, this first meeting of ACOA would not be my last.
Although you would never know is from the people who had answered the AA and Alanon numbers, there was a meeting of ACOA every day and night of the week in Manhattan – sometimes at St. Jean’s, often at the private Corlears School, down on West 15th, ten short blocks down from where I lived. And in church basements on the Upper West Side and in midtown, and a midtown luncheon place, and in conference rooms at St. Vincent’s Hospital in the Village, and in a synagogue in the East 80s. I did not say a word in any of these meetings, but I was going to one just about every day.
I was there anonymously and, it seemed, not visible. One night at the end of a meeting in St. Jean's I left for the subway walking fast, looking straight ahead so as not to let anyone catch me with their eyes. On the subway platform there was a pleasant shaggy guy who had been talking in the meeting and had said he was a carpenter, which had always seemed to me a great thing to be though I had not lived that way myself. When he saw me on the platform he waved and said “Hi,” and it was as if I had been exposed in public. My hesitant "Hi" in reply sounded to me like it came from an old man's guttural voice. I smiled and kept on walking and there was something devastating. I had stepped into a new version of reality and it was as if I were being called to connect in some place which would be safe only if no one could see I was there. And, moreover, it was as if I were doing something I had always wanted to do.
I believed no one would understand if I said out loud how I was thinking I had not found anything this risky in Borneo or Angola or Nicaragua or Vietnam. Those places were relatively without risk.
In the meetings I was attending people were still talking about themselves and even their feelings. As I walked alone down the platform at the 77th Street IRT stop I tried to identify the feeling.