Tuesday, December 29, 2009


There was a sense that what was going on in Manhattan ACOA could not last. The program was always in danger of being taken over by orthodox 12-step people or by orthodox advocates of therapies that stopped short of meaningful results. They were already laying siege, much like literary critics and academy-approved novelists and small town failures who find to their horror that there are writers loose who are saying things no one should be allowed to say.

Scared representatives of convention were coming in from all directions attempting to bury with constructed generalizations what was real in the stories of my new ACOA friends. Sometimes these attacks came from AA people who said things like, “I used to blame my family but now I appreciate them. They had nothing to do with my drinking. I drank because I am an alcoholic. End of story.” Some AA people could get really angry about our probing the past and our showing anger about what we found.

More than once an Alanon person came to an ACOA meeting wearing a frozen smile, and said how much she admired the bravery of those who spoke, and then was never seen at a meeting again. And sometimes these anti-ACOA people got support from the very people they thought they had to subvert. One quite young woman who was overweight, a little pimply and clearly in pain talked in the meetings of the problems of being so pretty, then vanished from the meetings. I saw her on the street shortly afterwards looking anguished and no prettier than I remembered. “I’m fine now that I’ve stopped going to meetings,” she said. “I’ve stopped whining. I got rid of all that negativity.”

The policing and the self policing reminded me of what went on in other spheres. Again those literary and art critics who are so scared of anything new and strong.

I thought of my brother’s reaction at the start of the seventies when he heard Harper’s Magazine Press gave me a $5000 advance for a novel based on my wild time in Bangkok. My brother’s next door summer neighbor, my old friend Mickie, told me what he had said to her: “It should not have happened. Fred did everything wrong. He didn’t even go to graduate school!”

How similar, it seemed now, to what was happening with Manhattan ACOA, where people who had been nearly silenced were letting themselves be heard. Refusing blind obedience to past strictures, so much like the very best modern artists and writers who always defy the academy and the critical establishment and the publishers and dealers.

On sale with other literature at most ACOA meetings, however, was Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child – a take no prisoner’s approach which sided with the abused and not the abuser. She was uncompromising in going after real stories. And I had started reading her just as my life had seemed at a dead end.

At first other books on sale at the meetings seemed to back up Miller, but not for long. For these other books could have the effect of making real stories small by forcing them into very precise categories of stories, to bury your own story beneath some catch-all universal story.

This felt a little like what Plato did two and a half millennia back by forcing things that were real into idealized forms of things. No wonder that Plato felt the only art that should count was art that helped make people docile supporters of the state.

The other books on sale at the meetings were by therapist-writers who specialized in ACOA subjects – Janet Woititz, Claudia Black, Sharon Wegsheider-Cruise. They were proponents of the idea that families could and should be looked at from the standpoint of children falling into basic family roles – most often presented as the hero, the scapegoat, the mascot, the lost child. It was as if we were being told by these therapist-writers that if you dealt with something in its generalized form you would be safe.

I was immediately intrigued with this new, to me, idea. But I was not so interested in it as was Jenny, whom I found touching when she described the comfort she took from these delineations of family roles. She said one of the great things that happened when she entered ACOA was her discovery that there were these books in which "I could find myself." She said she was pretty sure she was the “mascot,” for although there was much violation of her spirit and apparently physical violation too, she had always been the one who distracted the family from its problems by being entertaining.

At one big meeting she got applause when she described how she had just gotten out of jury duty. She had told the judge there was something in her life that made it impossible for her to judge whether or not someone was a criminal. The judge asked what it was, and she said she did not want to say it aloud. The judge asked her to come up to the bench to tell him quietly. She went up and spoke one word and he said “Excused.” The one word was “incest.”

At another meeting one participant reported that over in New Jersey Janet Woitiz had just announced that incest was not an issue for either alcoholics or children of alcoholics.

Someone else reported that at a weekend retreat led by Sharon Wegsheider Cruise no one was allowed to leave the grounds of the retreat house because no one could be trusted to follow her absolute ban on sugar and so might try to smuggle that dangerous substance in.

I went down to Princeton to see one of Rob’s plays. I said I was looking into our family’s past. Rob said that if I found out anything disparaging he did not want to hear it.

He said he and his wife has been to Littleton for a visit with their mother and with his sister Deirdre. He said Deirdre, always a problem to them, had “suddenly gone nuts” while they were watching television. It was a TV movie with a theme of family sexual abuse.

Apparently her often violent brother Paul, long dead now, had molested her once and no one in the family knew about it. Rob did not seem to think this amounted to much.

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