Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Not that I was getting religion. Not that I rose to otherworldly explanations. At the start I gravitated to people in ACOA who opposed the religiosity they saw in more orthodox 12-step programs.

There was Veronica, a clinical psychologist divorced from an abusive fat man,who for the first time in her life was closing in on deep past family matters that had haunted her all her years. She seemed to look out at the world from behind a pane of grey-tinted glass, but from meeting to meeting the glass became clearer and more color came into her face. In her work, she had used the past as a starting point, but before ACOA she had never really stepped into the past, she said, either in the therapy she gave others or the therapy she received.

Avoidance by therapists of anything truly risky, not getting at what was at the center of a person’s history, came up over and over in the stories I was hearing. Not that some had not benefited from therapy, but far more often their therapists had run from the harder parts of what they remembered.

It felt much like what I had seen all my life of conventional literary worlds, from members of a puffed up English department in college to the smug Times reviewers to editors I pretended to respect to literary people out in the world as well as back in time in my family. James T. Farrell should never have said what went on with his sister. Hemingway told about people in his life the way no gentleman ever should. We don’t object to sex, they said, but Henry Miller needed boundaries and so did D.H. Lawrence, and also James Joyce when read without the decoding of critics. And the Russians were really quite silly in their intensity. And as for Thomas Wolfe….

Teachers and critics who had their own unresolved issues and usually fled from anyone dealing with true stories that reached into points of danger that might remind the critics and teachers of what they were suppressing in themselves. These careful literary people and careful therapists. These kibitzer critics and sham healers.

Although ACOA was nominally a 12-step program, like AA and its many offshoots, almost no one in it showed respect for the steps. My ACOA cohorts were not following the system, which directed you, step by step, to admit powerlessness over an addiction, decide to call upon a “higher power,” take an inventory of your life with an idea of changing and making amends to all you had harmed. In the untamed Manhattan version of ACOA the only amends that interested us were those that were owed to ourselves. A member of ACOA would admit only to being an adult child of one alcoholic, rather than something shameful the member had gone through. We were out to find the villains in the stories we were bringing to light. We wanted justice. We did not want to bow to anyone. New authorities in 12-step programs did not tempt us.

Most in Manhattan ACOA, as opposed to the far milder versions of ACOA we heard existed elsewhere, ignored the AA, and also Alanon, system whereby you were supposed to get someone to act as your “sponsor” to help you discern right from wrong and keep you on a better path. This was okay for the kind of ACOA that paralleled Alanon, but most of us had contempt for Alanon, which had apparently been started as a sort of ladies’ auxiliary of AA in the early days when AA was mainly male. Something to keep the wives busy. Orthodox 12-step ways could seem to us like enforced religion. We sometimes protested when someone wanted to close a meeting with the Lord’s Prayer, which some called the Our Father, as was always done in AA and Alanon. One night a rigid AA person, a tightly wound old-seeming young man, came to an ACOA meeting at the Corlears School and acted like a right-wing political protester crashing an opposition rally. He lectured on the subject of how we were getting it all wrong. How there was no excuse for the anger he saw in ACOA – people so self centered they did not try to see the other fellow’s side. actually used the words "other fellows side," th of 1930s colleoquial language of classic AA literature. He sounded much like Bill Cosby, the comedian turned moral scold and advocate of family discipline, who was talking these days about how he was sick and tired of hearing people put down their families. Like Cosby on the air, this AA guy in our ACOA meeting seemed to be issuing unspoken threats.

I did, however, feel there was nothing set in stone in our version. Although not many in ACOA had any more use for organized religion than for organized families, there were exceptions. There was a girl far older than her years named Michelle who was living for the time being with a group of actual nuns while she journeyed inside herself and through time. I was her admirer, despite the connection to nuns. She was one of the ones about whom I wanted to cheer when she entered a room, her anger so white hot and clear, her eyes wide open as she tried to pull the past into the present. Her father was a therapist who had become a cult leader. And she was sure he had violated her physically as well as mentally. She was looking for evidence, and she hoped to find it in memory. “I want the visuals,” she said.

The visuals!

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