Sunday, January 17, 2010


At the head of the long table in that darkened hospital conference room
what I was doing was presenting my first qualification in ACOA before a group of actual adult children of alcoholics or worse.

They called it “qualifying,” I was not sure why. It was a term carried over from AA, where the language in the literature seemed to be the irony-free language of Midwestern Rotarians. When you led a meeting you were to start by giving a talk about your own experience – like what I was doing for the first time this Sunday afternoon.

You might be behind a podium, or on a chair in a circle, or, like I was now, at a long table filled with adult children, with many more on folding chars in rows down from the end of the table. To one side of me was a scroll that listed the 12 steps to recovery – this AA thing that many of us in ACOA ignored. Another scroll containing numbered items was headed “The 12 Traditions,” and seemed to consist of rules for good behavior in AA and other programs. This was not relevant either, since Manhattan ACOA people took pride in circumventing rules.

After you spoke, a meeting would turn into a sort of forum that you led, calling on people with raised hands who wanted to share matters from their own experience. What hit me hardest was that so many people’s stories appeared when they heard my stories.

My problems with my twin brother – who, I repeated, was in the CIA – might lead to a tearful Germanic lady’s problems with her lesbian lover. The snobbery in my family’s old summer domain might lead to a Vietnam veteran’s chilling tale of being odd man out, apparently dispensable, in a combat brigade. It was as if there were more truth to my own stories than I had believed could ever be made evident.

And it seemed I could say anything here and these people would receive it without criticism. This even though I had never seen most of them before, and with none of them did I have even as deep a connection as my brief connection with Bonnie. I could say anything, and it was seeming that I could count on support here in this darkened room that I would never have expected outside it. And yet there was a big area that I did not touch, either in my background, or foreground. This area that contained my experience in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

My not talking about NH was not because I did not think what had gone on there was relevant to me. But I was not sure why it was so relevant. And it did not seem possible to make anyone, even these kind and empathetic people, much less myself, understand.

I was still very new to this time in which it was possible to question anything without building up defense for an inevitable backlash. When I qualified I was just days away from my experience with the Hobbema painting that in my mind was meant to be a happy summer day painting but became a painting of a terrifying place, with his dark woods becoming mixed in my dreams with the dark woods of New Hampshire, my life’s central supposed happy summer day place.

One thing I did say in that meeting was that now I was off on the biggest journey of my life. It gave me a chance to throw in matters that I thought would make me seem interesting, my adventures in far off and dangerous and in some cases barely explored places. But this journey underway now, this traveling that was time travel….

I began to tear up as I told these people that it was by far the highest stakes journey in all my travels in years of constantly traveling. And this was hardly something made up to make myself seem interesting, for I had all these premonitions about that place, the White Mountains, and I had only recently begun this time travel trip, to get to what I knew without knowing yet why I knew what I knew, to access why on some nearly hidden level I knew so much about the darkness, the precariousness, the suppressed horror, of that beautiful place.

And it was certainly not because I felt I needed to protect those very correct people in those summer towns, those white glove Episcopalian, like my grandparents. These Republicans,except for my grandparents. But it was just that no one would understand.

My not talking about New Hampshire was because I did not yet think any one could understand such a place. Not because part of it was a rich place, though that was an element even though so many in the family had seemed to think of themselves as verging on poverty. And it was certainly not because I felt I needed to protect these very correct people in those summer owns, those white glove Episcopalian Republicans (except for my grandparents). But just that no one would understand.

My not talking about NH was not because I thought the place was so strange but more that I did not think it possible to get across to any strangers what the place was and meant.

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