By Gail Caldwell
Pulitzer Prize winning book critic Gail Caldwell and best-selling author Caroline Knapp had a deep friendship that was cut short when Caroline died of lung cancer in 2002. Now Gail writes about their bond in a new book. Read a section of Caldwell’s “Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship,” excerpted below.
By the time I moved East, in 1981, the drinking had long revealed itself as panacea and problem both, though I didn’t yet see that one almost guaranteed the other. I came from a line of Texas Protestant bourbon lovers who had incorporated their affection for whiskey into a way of life. One exception, at least as I understood it, had been my maternal grandfather, a sweet blue-eyed farmer who sang acapella in the church choir and pleasantly deferred to my intrepid grandmother’s every wish. Years after they had died, I asked my mother to confirm what I had always perceived as a harmonious union. “Were Mamaw and Granddad happy?” I asked. “Why, sure,” she said. “After Daddy quit drinking.” I was stunned; I had no memory of my granddad ever drinking in my childhood. But my mother told me that day about a summer when I was about four, when we were visiting our grandparents’ farm near Breckenridge, Tex., Granddad had infuriated my father by taking me and my sister to a bar on his way home from errands in town. His binges had been legendary, my mother told me, until Mamaw threatened to take their six kids and leave. He stopped drinking shortly thereafter, and because I had been so young at the time, I remembered him only as a teetotaler.
The rest of the family tree had a root system soggy with alcohol, and the memories were not so opaque as with Granddad. One aunt had fallen asleep with her face in the mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving dinner; another’s fondness for Coors was so unwavering that I can still remember the musky smell of the beer and the coldness of the cans. Most of the men drank the way all Texas men drank, or so I believed, which meant that they were tough guys who could hold their liquor until they couldn’t anymore – a capacity that often led to some cloudy version of doom, be it financial ruin or suicide or the lesser simple betrayal of estrangement. Both social drinkers, my parents had eluded these tragic endings; in the post-war Texas of suburbs and cocktails, their drinking was routine but undramatic.
From my first experiment with drinking at an overnight slumber party, when I was 13 or 14, it was clear I would be lining up with the blackguards in the family. Our young hostess mixed us the noxious concoction of Scotch and Diet-Rite Cola; every other girl had just enough to get goofy or sleepy. I had six tumblers of the stuff, and decided to dance on the dining room table while my placid friends snoozed around me. Barely on the verge of adolescence, I was still a shy girl who preferred math homework to boys. I was neither daring nor particularly unhappy, but booze flipped a switch in me I hadn’t even known was there.
By high school I was known for possessing a hollow leg. A good friend told me what the circulated story was on me. “’Caldwell is the most expensive date in town,’” he quoted the other boys as saying. “’She’ll drink you under the table and she’ll never put out.’” My dad would have no doubt appreciated both traits as signs of character. In some of my earliest memories, he had ended his days with a cut-crystal glass of bourbon and coke, and this magic concoction seemed to make his humor mellow and his voice a little more velvet. By the time he had switched to bourbon and branch water, as he called it, I was a brainy, wild teenager in a macho Texas town, and as much as I fought my dad, I also emulated him. Whiskey took an ordinarily rebellious adolescence and sheathed it in golden light. I had a fake ID at 16; on my 21st birthday, I became a daily drinker. By then I had wandered through college and the anti-war movement and tried every drug and insurrection in sight, but the pendulum always swung back to the sweet promises of booze.
Whenever I would go home to Amarillo, my father would stock the liquor cabinet with Scotch and bourbon, then tell me to show some restraint – the excellent duplicity of Texas drinking etiquette, which counseled that you drink like a man and act like a lady. “There are two things a man can’t stand,” my dad would say after our first couple of belts, his voice gravelly and full of self-satisfied wisdom. “A woman with round heels, and a woman who drinks too much.” We would both nod sagely, and I would ask him to explain the first saying, and he would make a pushing motion with his hand and shake his head. For years I thought that round-heeled meant spineless, because he was too modest ever to explain it.
But he always knew, I think, that drinking was going to be my problem. He knew because I got too happy and animated even at the sight of a drink, and because he shared this dark affection and yet had managed to cap the geyser at its source. If half the people on both sides of our extended family had loved the drink too much, I tended to laugh about it because I couldn’t bear to consider the consequences. My relatives also possessed a constitution that allowed them to live well into their 90s, and in the calculus of denial, I used this longevity to counterbalance our affliction. “In my family,” I used to say, “if alcoholism or suicide doesn’t get you, you’ll live forever.”
I usually said this with a tumbler of whiskey in my hand. (“But you always just had that one glass,” my sister said, years after I had stopped, when she was trying to piece together the mosaic of the past. “Yes,” I told her, “and it was always full.”) Because my tolerance allowed me to drink hugely but functionally for years – I had survived most of graduate school with a cache of Scotch – I cultivated an image that waffled between between tragedy and liberation. The self-perception was constructed to fit the need: With alcohol the mandatory elixir, I would erect a stage set to justify its presence. I would be the sensitive heroine, or doomed romantic, or radical bohemian – I was Hamlet, Icarus, Lily Bart. God forbid that I simply face who I was, which was somebody drunk and scared and on my way to being noone at all.
Most of this self-actualization was unfolding in Austin in the 1970s, when the streets flowed with excess of every kind, and I surrounded myself, unconsciously but probably intentionally, with people who drank the way I did. Some of them got sober and some of them died, and a few of them calmed down, grew up, and settled for one martini instead of seven. I did my part for my generation’s collective crisis of adulthood by moving East, with the brazen notion of becoming a writer – surely, according to myth, a way to reinvent one’s life. When I left Texas, I had two quarts of whiskey in the trunk of my old Volvo, which I figured would cover the five days on the road that were ahead of me. I had a few friends in New York and knew two people in greater Boston, where I was going, and however scared I was, I knew there would be a liquor store wherever I landed. By then I was 30 years old, and I’d learned that courage in a bottle could get you through all kinds of doors, and all kinds of trouble, and a lot of bad-ass nights alone.
In the early 1980s, hordes of people were leaving the northeast for the softer industries and climates of the Sunbelt. New England was cold, dark, and unforgiving, people warned me; the more precarious truth was that I had no job, no place to live, and enough savings to last a year. My writing resume consisted of a couple of rejections slips from venerated magazines; my confidence came from a few gruff encouragements from professors. But however fragile the external scaffolding looked, I suspect that I was trying to save my life, not just relocate it. I had grown up staring at the vast, imprisoning horizon of the Texas Panhandle, a place I only understood how much I loved long after I had left it, and I had jumped free of that life with a kind of high-octane terror. If conservative Amarillo, with its oil rigs and churches and cattle ranches, promised a provincial life, for years I challenged every dictum I perceived my family to possess. A decade later, I had to assume an equally resolute posture to get out of Austin – to leave behind what I loved and what I feared was killing me.
I was equal parts bluff and fear, I think, poised there on the verge of a life unfolding, not knowing whether I would leap or fall. In my last couple of years in Austin, when I had been teaching at the university and pretending to read for doctoral oral exams, I had let my heart lead me to the water’s edge of a writing life – an inner sanctum of such power and solace that it staggered me with its reach. I lived in a few rooms of an old Southern mansion, with 10-foot ceilings and poured-glass windows, and I would sit there at night before my typewriter, primed with a glass of Scotch and a pack of Winstons. One night before the Scotch kicked in I had written something that so excited me – I have no memory of what it was – that I leapt up from my chair and kept typing standing up. Probably every young would-be writer has such moments, the crystal-clear elation that keeps one going. But now I see the moment as pivotal and even Faustian: The light is holding, the typewriter’s motor is whirring, the young woman full of yearning and joy. The writing was the life force and the whiskey was the snake in the grass. For as long as I could, I chose them both.
Youth and pride can be decent weapons against the woes of alcohol, but only for a while. I kept jobs, I threw cold water on my face each morning, I swam laps to counter the effects of the booze and then drank to wipe out the gains of the swim. For years the psychic balm of alcohol – its Holy-Grail certainty that it could take me through anything – eclipsed the hangovers and emerging fear that I was in trouble. I had a silver pocket-flask that I filled with whiskey for back-up drinks; I figured if I looked the part,then I could get away with the reality. The booze took the rough corners off, and I tried to right the equation with coffee and protein and 5 mg. of Librium to ease the the come-down. I was a well-oiled machine, with a 4.0 grade-point-average, and nobody knew. Or so I believed.
Why did I drink? When a therapist asked me this nearly a decade after I had stopped, I thought it one of the most ludicrous questions I had ever heard. Why wouldn’t[ital] one drink? I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so I shrugged and answered as honestly as I knew how. “Becauu..se,” I said, with a little scorn. “The whole world turned golden.” It took me hearing the words out loud to realize that the hue of the sublime had itself been an indicator of trouble.
A few professionals over the years had made feeble efforts to address the problem; in Texas in the 1970s, substance abuse wasn’t even a phrase yet. My last couple of years in graduate school, I went to see a nice woman therapist to address, or so I thought, the ordinary stresses of work and love: I was in a demanding academic program, I had just broken up with someone, I was having trouble sleeping. We ate Milano cookies together, the therapist and I, and laughed about how hard life was. “I think I drink too much,” I said one day. “I’m throwing down five or six Scotches a night. Maybe I need to check in to Shoal Creek.” Shoal Creek was the psych hospital in Austin where people went to dry out; a lawyer I’d worked for (and who taught me how to drink Scotch and eat raw oysters) had considered it his spa. “They wouldn’t take you,” my lovely, nonconfrontational therapist said. “You look too good.”
By which she meant that I was still vertical, of course, and hadn’t yet had the external calamities that suggested a problem: no drunk driving citations, crashed marriages, employment woes. The same year I had a routine physical with a male internist who was less benevolent and more obtuse. When he asked me how much I drank, I told him about four drinks a night, not yet aware that the medical profession’s rule of thumb, if a patient’s consumption seemed problematic, was to double whatever quantity the patient confessed. “You’ll want to be careful with that,” he said, refusing to look me in the eye. “There’s nothing more unbecoming than a young lady who drinks too much.”
Such idiocies only fueled my intake. I was in my late 20s, a veteran of the counterculture and the women’s movement, and I clung to the belief that my drinking was part of the sine qua non of a new day – it was how women like me functioned in the world; it was an anesthetic for high-strung sensitivity and a lubricant for creativity. The alternative truth was far grimmer. Alcoholics – a word I couldn’t even think of without shame and terror – were broken people who had drunk themselves into a corner, and the only way out for them was to give up the drink. That was unthinkable to me, a gray, gray room without any highs or relief or even change, and so I clung for years to what I believed was the border between alcoholism and drinking to excess. Every time I voiced my fears it was in the guise of humor, or machismo, or nonchalant rebellion. “I’m afraid that if I stopped drinking, I wouldn’t be interesting anymore,” I said offhandedly to a friend in Austin, an R.N. whose father had died of alcoholism after sitting in a chair surrounded by beer cans for decades. “Don’t be so sure,” she told me. “Day in and day out, boring is where all alcoholics are headed.”
No one whose first allegiance is to the source of the trouble can hear such warnings, at least not until they’ve dragged themselves through a few miles of broken glass. Help in its most benign and unthreatening form – if there is even such a thing for an alcoholic – wasn’t exactly beating down the door; if it had, I’d probably have moved out in the middle of the night. I didn’t want help; I wanted reassurance. Which is to say that I wanted the consolation, however transient or artificial, that I would be able to drink forever and get away with it. It’s like the old joke about the guy on the desert island with the genie who offers him two wishes. The guy asks for a bottle of beer. The genie instantly produces, and tells the man that the bottle will never be empty and will always be cold, and that he still has one more wish. Just to be sure, the man tells the genie, you better give me another one.
When I was still young and brave enough to crave adventure, I came to the east coast. I had been an adult the first time I’d ever set foot in New York, a few years earlier, and the city had offered the usual elixir. I walked 80 blocks, from the Guggenheim to Greenwich Village, in a daze of happiness. I stood on a corner amid whirling snow and fleets of cabs and all the other pop culture icons that I had grown up seeing on movie and TV screens; the idea that these things were real – that you could walk into thishigh-gloss scene and become a part of it – was humbling and life-altering. I went to the Museum of Modern Art, where Picasso’s “Guernica” was still housed, and I had to hang onto the railing when I turned on the stairs and saw it for the first time. However sophisticated I deemed myself to be, I had grown up with wheat fields and suburbs as the visual constant, with art as something that mostly belonged in books. Being in Manhattan was like running headlong toward your own life, or finding out you could fly. To turn away from it would have seemed the failure of a chance not taken.
Cambridge had its own gorgeous, if more reserved, version of seduction. On my first trip there I had gone to the Orson Welles Theatre, with its arty documentaries and cappucino machine, and I’d wandered through Harvard Yard in a battered leather jacket trying to pass as a local – sensing, I think, that I had found a place far greater and more consuming than the confines of my own sad heart. Maybe this is a common perception of youth, holding back fear with exhilaration. But I look back now and see myself as shadows bumping into light. The light was trying its damnedest to win, and part of the plan, I believed, was to get out of Texas.
That first summer in Cambridge, I lived in a sprawling three-story house with six other people. The household included a physician, a physicist, a dancer, and a couple of puppet makers, and somehow this glamorous cast found me exotic – partly, I feel sure, because of the hard-drinking image I was still trying to pull off. I had the boots and macho countenance and two bottles of whiskey I kept in brown bags on a closet shelf, and my housemates seemed amused by the drawling Texan who had invaded their genteel counterculture. My closest friend in the house was Jackie, the dancer, who attired herself for a normal outing in faux leopard hats and pink elbow gloves, and would begin the recitation of her day each evening at the dinner table, saying, “First, I got up!” We adored each other – she was the revolutionary Dr. Joyce Brothers to my tragic heroine – and one afternoon, the day after a summer party at the house, we were sprawled in the backyard comparing notes. I had aworse hangover than usual, and in a moment of candor, said so. Besides being a dancer and an eccentric, Jackie was also an R.N.; she had worked in the trenches of the medical field and seen the psychic casualties of the ‘60s and ‘70s. We were lying next to each other with our eyes closed – the peer-analytic position – and out of the blue she said, “Are you an alcoholic?”
She might as well have been asking if I were a Pisces, the question was so gentle. And it was sounexpected that I answered it honestly. “I don’t know,” I told her. “I know that I’m psychologically addicted.”
The exchange hovered through my consciousness for the next three years I would drink. Jackie had dared to ask what I could not; my answer had let someone else in the room with all that fear, if only for a minute. A few months later, I moved down the street to an attic garret that had all the romantic underpinnings of the life I hoped to lead and all the bleak corners of the life I first had to leave behind. Jackie had the foresight and kindness to understand the darkness and stay nearby while I lived through it. I braved the streets of Boston, landed some freelance writing assignments, came home and poured down drinks while I hammered away on the Adler typewriter. I got a Persian kitten and named him Dashiell Hammett, and he sat placidly on the pillows of my bed while I drank, his huge eyes a docile witness to the staggering and the late-night blackouts I couldn’t stand to endure alone. The Phoenix, an alternative newspaper in Boston, took me on as a regular contributor, and I wrote my columns in the light of morning when I was sober; if I was a drunk, I was also a perfectionist – two traits, I believed, that would ultimately balance each other out. I smuggled pamphlets on alcoholism out of a doctor’s office, and took the 20-questions test with a glass of bourbon in my hand. In the early 1980s, the questions still made traditional social assumptions about women; one of them, unforgettably, was, “Have your husband and children ever expressed concern about your drinking?” I checked off “No” with a flourish. No husband, no children, no worries.
The more looming truth was that what had seemed like liberation – the flight from Texas, the brown bags of whiskey, the reinvention of a life – was revealing itself to be unmoored terror. Because I had the sense and the pride not to drive drunk or appear blasted in public, my world got smaller and smaller. I had bruises on my upper arms from running into doorways; when I sprained my ankle, I tied two plastic bags to the crutch handles – one with ice, the other with a flask of bourbon – and hobbled with my portable bar from the kitchen to the desk. Then one night I went beyond these amateur foibles and took a fall that landed me in the E.R. Standing before the bathroom mirror in one of those Leonard-Cohen tragic moments, I had collapsed, dead-weight, with a glass of Scotch in my hand. I landed crosswise against the bathtub and broke four ribs. It was 4 a.m. Even to my denial-wracked mind, this was no longer social drinking.
The cultural dictates of time and space – of Texas and its macho drinking culture, of the still-provincial understanding about addiction – had always told me that alcoholism was something untreatable and reprehensible. It happened to people who were broken in other ways, or weak, or who didn’t have the willpower to straighten up and fly right, as my dad would have said. What this version always left out was the inner struggle – the want for drink trying to eclipse the light of survival – that someone in the throes of addiction endures. Every morning, waking to the sorrows of another night’s failures, I would swallow my fear and swear that this time, today, I would have only four drinks. I would switch to vodka, or go to a movie, or call Jackie, who now lived in New York, and tell her how bad it was. The tape would play all day long – courage/terror, resolve/yearning, bargaining/surrender – and then I would crack open the freezer for the ice and my whole body would exhale in relief, and the cycle would start to play itself out again.
The worst psychic legacy of this endless loop was the ongoing feeling of betrayal. Each day I made a contract not to drink, and every night by 8 or 9 I had broken it again. The erosion, like water on stone, was gradual and constant. I had been blessed with parents whose separate strengths had been passed on to me; I had my mother’s independence and my father’s tough-minded resolve. And I had a trust in myself that was based on three decades of pretty good outcomes. But this adversary was far crueler, stronger, persistent than any challenge I had faced. The last year had proven that it was no longer a deadlock; I had actually had a dream that I was in the ring with a bottle of Jack Daniels, and I was being beaten to a pulp. For more than a decade I had negotiated with the gods so that I could keep the booze: Meet the deadline, get the bottle. Get the writing assignment, have the drink. The better I felt about the prose at the end of the day, the greater the reward.
Which might explain the cliffwalker behavior I engaged in as a writer, going after stories that I thought would somehow legitimate my intake. I had been scheduled to leave two days after my fall on an assignment to the weather observatory atop Mount Washington, in New Hampshire, a moon-like outpost that boasted the worst weather in the world. Because of the broken ribs, I postponed the trip for six weeks. When I made the three-hour bus ride to Gorham, N.H., at the base of the mountain, in February, my ribs were still wrapped and I had painkillers and two quarts of whiskey in my luggage. We left Boston at 6 p.m., and the bus headed north into the dark. I sat on that lonely bus in the cold with my aching ribs and my Percocet, eating a bleak little ham sandwich I had packed for the trip, trying not to think about the frightening state I found myself in. By the time we got to Gorham, the end of the line, there was only one other passenger, a creepy-looking man who made eyes my way and acted as though he might follow me. I got off the bus using a walking stick to navigate the ice, made it to the local hostel, and as soon as I got to my room I threw down eight ounces of bourbon. The next morning, when the sno-cat arrived to drive me and a couple of geologists up the mountain, I was more worried about the glass bottles I had stashed in my backpack than I was my own fractured anatomy.
Consciously or inadvertently, I had picked a drinker’s hermitic paradise at the observatory. The meteorologists were used to being locked in by inclement weather for weeks at a time, and they had a full liquor reserve along with their gallons of tomato sauce and industrial-size spices. My two housemates gave me a glass-lined office overlooking the ravines of Mount Washington; evenings, we would meet to cook dinner over a few drinks. Their morning shift began at 5 a.m., so by 8:00 I could retire to my bunkbeds and my bottle of bourbon. And every night I made a scratch on the bottle, so I could be sure the rations would last.
The next few months were a blur of adrenaline and fear, a last-ditch effort to maintain the façade. I arranged to do a story about Boston Light, one of the last manned lighthouses in America, which entailed my spending the night on Little Brewster island in Boston Harbor with the lightkeeper and his dog. I still had the morning shakes when the Coast Guard’s cigarette boat arrived to take me over to the island. There were three or four sweet, rowdy fellows in the boat, showing off and gunning the engine, and because I didn’t want them to see how nervous and sick I was, I employed the old Texas maneuver of raising the stakes. “So,” I asked them. “How fast can you guys make this thing go?” They grinned at me, and then at one another, and took me across the harbor at about 60 mph. I was pale when I set foot on the island, but they thought I was tough – at least I thought they thought I was tough – and to my addled sense of self, that was what mattered.
But the lightkeeper knew. By now my pride was a tattered camouflage for the problem. At the end of our afternoon together I went upstairs and threw down six ounces of vodka in about 20 minutes, then reappeared in the kitchen to watch him cook me a T-bone steak. We were the only people on the island, and he was a big, strapping, shy fellow in his mid-30s, and we sat that night in his bright kitchen, drinking Pepsi and eating steak, while he told me a story, seemingly out of nowhere, about how he had given up drinking a few years earlier. I smiled and nodded sympathetically. I had chosen vodka so he wouldn’t smell it, but he knew. The next morning, hungover, I forced myself to climb the dizzying steps to the top of the 90-foot tower, and I made myself count the steps as I went so I could put the number in the story. When people say alcoholics have no willpower, they have no idea.
For all my mock heroics, my constant recalibrations of the fuel and the façade, I know now that writing is what threw me a rope and let me drag myself to shore: The idea of a world where I kept the drink but lost the writing was even more unbearable to me than one without booze. During those wretched last months, I’d started finding boozy, half-comprehensible notes I had scrawled to myself late at night. By day my sober prose was at least lucid and legible; these notes from the dark side were like coming across an ex-Broadway floozy in a gin palace who had seen better days. I was 33 years old. It seemed way too soon for the tragic decline, however much the tortured-romantic myth had driven me onward. I had fostered for years the sodden hall of fame of those writers who lassoed their talent with a bottle of whiskey: Faulkner and Hemingway and Hammett (tellingly, my inner referents were mostly male). What I had conveniently left out of this self-told tale were the endnotes that proved the lie: Faulkner’s discipline, Hammett’s long sobriety, Hemingway’s shotgun. Whiskey didn’t stoke the flame of creativity, it extinguished it, sometimes one slow drop at a time.
The attic garrett where I had thought to live out my writerly fantasy was a third-floor walk-up on a tree-lined city street. My typewriter was in the front room of the apartment, and I could look out the front windows onto rooftops and the New England sky, and below to the street scene of people going about their lives – the postmen and dog-walkers and familiar strangers that form the background canvas of urban life. One winter afternoon when I was still house-bound with broken ribs, I stood there watching the snow fly outside and my heart seized with the disparity of the dream delivered: I had come here, all this way, with no job or family or scaffolding, intent upon making it as a writer, and now I was trapped three floors up in my own little cellblock, removed utterly from the people below and waiting for the day to end so I could drink. The free-fall I’d been in for years had landed, and the fear had become despair, and I simply couldn’t bear it anymore.
Victory stories are usually pretty simple: As I once heard a guy in an AA meeting put it, “I got drunk, it got worse, I got here.” By spring I had signed up for an alcoholism education class at my Cambridge health plan, where a tall, easy-going fellow named Rich,[NAME MAY CHANGE] a few years older than I, talked each week about the ravages of the disease. I thought he was an idiot. I would go home after class and pour huge tumblers of bourbon and brood about what he’d said. He was too tall, too kind, too unhip. Clearly there had been some mistake – the medical literature had left out a category for tragic heroines with brilliant futures who loved their whiskey. Then the next week I would stagger back in to continue my education.
My gentle teacher did two things that were invaluable. The first was that he seemed to expect nothing from his audience: He didn’t browbeat us, or try to herd us into sobriety, or even ask us to come back. The second was that he gave a Buddhist-like interpretation of how to survive life without alcohol that had been left out of every pamphlet I’d ever read. Throughout my drinking I had assumed that the slide into alcoholism was a fait-accompli failure – that you’d already lost the battle, and were consequently beyond redemption.
The best one could hope for, I assumed, was a shaky, vigilant life of bleak anxiety. Rich acceded the battle, but none of the rest. The concept of AA, he told us in the final class, was one of surrender. I rolled my eyes; I had heard this before. And surrender, he went on – deciding to lay down the weapon, and walk away from the fight – was a way to get back all your power.
The fluorescent lights softened a little, and that grim classroom where I had sat for weeks with other doubters gave off an aura, however transient, of hope. I recognized what he was talking about: This was the old mythic struggle that had defined heroism throughout the ages. Somehow that night the concept of sobriety, for the first time, had a revolutionary tinge to its message – it was life-saving, anti-mainstream, even daring. It might be possible, I thought that night, to give up drinking and still be cool.[ital] For a frightened young woman who’d spent a decade cultivating an au courant armor to mask her drinking, this was as radical as it got.
He saved my life, of course, this compassionate, low-key man who didn’t give a whit about being cool but cared tremendously about helping people. Having laid down my defense of disdain, I went to see him one afternoon after the class was over, with the ostensible purpose of talking about the alcoholism in my extended family. And even though I was cold sober that day, afterwards I remembered almost nothing from the hour we spent in Rich’s office. I know that in the first few minutes I broke down, to my own horror, and said, “I think I drink too much.” The rest was a wash of memory, until he got up nearly an hour later and rushed out to schedule me for outpatient detox the following week. Months later, I asked him about that day and what I had said. He smiled, having seen this territory of amnesia-in-crisis before. “Mostly,” he told me, “you tried to convince me that you weren’t worth saving.”
This shocks me now as it did then, because I always clung to the flicker of self-regard that I assumed got me in to see him. But alcohol, and the desperation and exhaustion that went along with it, had so worn me down that I didn’t have much fight left in me. I left him that day and went home to finish a deadline for the Village Voice. Then I drove to the neighborhood liquor store for what I hoped would be my last stash. I got a quart of Jack Daniels and – a splurge, on my freelancer’s income – a quart of Johnnie Walker Red. “Would you like the gift box?” the innocent cashier asked me. “Sure,” I told her. “Why not?” Three days later, I poured what was left down the sink and staggered into Rich’s office, hungover and half an hour late, for an appointment that would let me start again.
It was the summer of 1984, and AA in those days was still removed from the social order – it hadn’t yet hit the covers of the newsweeklies; the slogans hadn’t been turned into bumper stickers, and celebrity redemption-confessions were a thing of the future. Armed with a schedule of local meetings, I staggered into a Cambridge meeting a few days before my last drink, and sat weeping near the back until a soft-voiced, elegant woman elbowed me in the ribs and whispered, “Don’t worry – it’s biochemical.” Somehow I found this hilarious – a four-word answer, delivered casually but unequivocally, to the biggest problem in my life. I left there and went home to the Johnnie Walker, but I went back the next night, and the next, and by the time Monday morning had rolled around and I was scheduled to be back in Rich’s office for my syllabus of a new life, I had finished the Scotch, thrown in a lot of bourbon just to be sure, and hauled a bar’s worth of empty bottles down to the street.
Partly because twelve-step programs hadn’t yet saturated the culture, the meetings I went to seemed clandestine and hardscrabble; most of them were held in church basements. There was something incredibly romantic about this – it was like being a Mason with a bad rap sheet. For a couple of years in graduate school I had been immersed in the memoirs of writers who had joined the Communist Party in the 1930s, and who stole around to secret meetings of their cell groups, smoking and talking and convinced they were changing the world; I’d always envied their passionate focus. One summer evening I was crossing the Boston Common toward another church basement, with the grounds full of people on their way somewhere; for years I had felt removed from this stream of humanity, charging toward moments of what seemed like a realized life. Now I knew the deeper, more varied truth: that a few members of this handsome, earnest, fast-moving crowd were headed to an AA meeting. This was a hard-won but brilliant education: I had realized, as life is always willing to instruct, that the world as we see it is only the published version. The subterranean realms, whether churches or hospital rooms or smoke-filled basements, are part of what hold up the rest; somehow, I had gotten ahold of a skeleton key and found my way inside.
I’d known someone in Austin, years before, who had joined AA and put her life back together, but what no one could have told me was how uproariously funny the meetings themselves were. I walked into shabby rooms with folding chairs and coffee urns, where people were getting sugar fixes on grocery-store cookies and using old tuna cans as ashtrays. A people’s tribunal of drunks! AA cut across every class line I had ever hoped to breach. There were men in business suits and tough-talking, blue-collar women and diffident souls you’d overlook on a subway train; there were scary-looking guys who, once they started talking, you’d have wanted to have your back forever. The stories they told were wrenching and outrageous and sometimes profound, and for the most part they had happier outcomes, at least so far, than what you could expect from a lot of life. I made friends with a beautiful young woman, an artist, who shredded styrofoam cups throughout the meetings; she did this for about a year, while I chain-smoked Winstons next to her. She had begun hitting the family liquor cabinet when she was 9, and had recently graduated cum laude from Harvard while nearly drinking herself to death. For years we hung out in the back rows of the meetings together, fancying ourselves the Thelma and Louise of Cambridge AA, until she got her life back together enough to move to New York, where she belonged. We had recognized in one another the mix of bluff and need we each possessed: Eliza was tough and gorgeous, but inside was a woman of such gentleness and depth that she could lower my blood pressure just by walking in the room. She, too, had found her way to AA through the Benevolent Alcohol Counselor, and for years we referred to ourselves as graduates of the Rich Caplan Finishing School, where we had learned the careful etiquette of how to avoid consuming a quart of whiskey in one sitting, or at all.
I used to think this was an awful story – shameful and dramatic and sad. I don’t think that anymore. Now I just think it’s human, which is why I decided to tell it. And for all the wise words about drinking heard and forgotten over the years, particularly that first blurred hour in Rich’s office, I’ve always remembered one thing he said that day, when I was buried in fear and shame at the idea that I had drunk my way into alcoholism. He asked me why I was so frightened, and I told him, weeping, the first thing that came into my mind: “I’m afraid that no one will ever love me again.” He leaned toward me with a smile of great kindness on his face, his hands clasped in front of him. “Don’t you know?” he asked gently. “The flaw is the thing we love.”
Excerpted from “Let’s Take the Long Way Home” by Gail Caldwell. Copyright © 2010 by Gail Caldwell. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.