The heroine of my upcoming book, Tanya, is a recovering alcoholic. As I was preparing for the book’s release, my husband and I were talking about other stories of addiction and recovery. He had so many wonderful examples to share, I asked him to write a post discussing some of his favorites.
You guys are in for a treat because not only is Kevin a wonderful writer, he’s also a deeply intelligent reader of popular culture. He’s always the first person to read my books, not least because we share an interest in recovery stories like the ones I write and the ones he discusses below. In fact, he wrote a companion piece to this essay that’s up on his blog today. It’s called 12-Step, Suicide and the Star Wars Special Editions and it’s fantastic, so check it out.
Full disclosure: I never liked Cliff Robertson. (Granted I knew him from lesser works like ESCAPE FROM L.A. and the 80’s MILF sex-comedy “CLASS,” so my judgment was pretty biased.)
But then I saw the 1958 TV version of DAYS OF WINE & ROSES and I *got* it. What makes his performance so magnificent is the framing device: Robertson’s character (Joe) attends an AA meeting and shares his story. That requires Robertson to go back and forth, between playing scenes sober and dramatizing rock bottom in flashbacks. And because it’s live TV, he only gets one chance to do it — and the guy nails it. During rehearsals the director and other actors were worried that Robertson didn’t have the dramatic chops for the role, but Robertson knew he needed to save his energy for the live broadcast. And when the show starts he delivers a riveting performance.
The other thing that’s so special about this story is that it shows a man benefiting from the fellowship of a 12-step program. Too often men write memoirs where they romanticize their own sobriety. Pete Hamill’s book A DRINKING LIFE consists of one long bragging session about what a wild man he was, and in the last 20 or so pages he concludes that he decided to stop drinking. And Hammill suggests that because he’s a real man, he didn’t need any help. That attitude is more than just macho bullshit, it’s dangerous and irresponsible. I’m grateful that DAYS shows a recovery story where a man can get help, and provide support for others just by attending a meeting and sharing his strength and courage.
Lastly, there’s something profound about watching this 66 year-old production and hearing the slogans that I hear each week. It reminds me that the slogans are still being used because they work. And they’re used each day, because recovery is a long haul. You can watch a clip of DAYS OF WINE & ROSES here.
Speaking of men who think they don’t need rehab, Bucky Sinister wrote a book for people who are suspicious of 12-step programs. Specifically it’s a book for outcasts who shun groups, and atheists who are uneasy around God talk. With this lean, funny, honest book Bucky voices the questions a reader might have. (Bucky was a stand-up comic, so he knows that one of the best ways to connect with your audience is to call out their collective doubts.) He challenges ideas about groupthink and offers alternatives to traditional concepts of a “Higher Power.” (In one chapter Bucky considers using a higher power that isn’t a supernatural entity. Your higher power could be a future version of yourself that you want to be.)
GET UP! also tells his story: from growing up with extreme fundamentalists to spending years in the punk scene and eventually getting sober. Throughout the book he recognizes the pitfalls of recovery culture.
He offers practical insights for just getting your shit together, like the importance of getting a real mattress to sleep on. He speaks to the reality that misfits aren’t usually joiners and encourages people to stick with the program. Bucky Sinister also writes about how addicts frequently overcome one addiction and replace it with another. That really resonates with me and my obsessive personality.
With GET UP! Bucky Sinister wrote the book he wished someone had given him. In doing so, he’s using a guiding principle in AA’s public relations—it’s about attraction not promotion. Simply by telling his story and not being preachy, GET UP is very attractive — even to people who are skeptical about recovery.
When Director Harold Ramis died, hardly any obituaries even mentioned this film. People seem to love it or hate it.
I love it for a few reasons: it has a sense of humor about recovery (even if some people don’t find it funny). Some of the funniest stories I’ve heard have been in meetings. A good 12-Step meeting has everything I want in first-person comedy: honest, self-effacing, relatable stories. (And people don’t go over their 5 minutes.) Stuart Saves His Family offers all of that — and it has a very relatable depiction of Al-anonic behavior. (When a fight breaks out at a cemetery, Stuart tells a cop “You see Officer, this is really about alcoholism, which is really a family disease…”)
Finally, I respect the movie for portraying recovery as an ongoing process. There are regular meetings, daily readings, traditions and affirmations. Most movies follow a three-act structure that call for dramatic conflict, a big climax and resolution. But life rarely follows that formula. One of my favorite horror movies ends its second sequel with the villain bellowing “It’s never over…” Likewise, Stuart Saves His Family illustrates that recovery is never over. SPOILER ALERT: Stuart doesn’t exactly save his family, but he does learn to keep the focus on himself.
“Because what they say is true,” Stuart remarks, “it’s easier to put on slippers than to carpet the whole world.”
I frequently recommend Jerry Stahl’s memoir to young writers, since it’s loaded with scathing insights about the entertainment industry. But the book also hits a bulls-eye about addiction, bringing together painfully funny truths about shame, class, family and the cycles of addiction. “I kept getting high to kill my shame at the fact that I kept getting high,” he writes.
There’s a palpable self-loathing that runs through the book that you don’t get in the movie. The 1998 film gives you the broad strokes of Jerry Stahl’s journey, but the viewers get off easy. The film includes a scene where he goes on a drug run and leaves his infant daughter in the car. In the book, he carries his sleeping baby in his arms and — here’s the harrowing dialogue that must still echo through Stahl’s skull — when a “muttering skeleton” of a woman asks to hold the baby he refuses and she sneers through her mouth of missing teeth “Hey, I got a baby, too motherfucker… ‘least I don’t bring no kid here.” It’s this harsh status he’s trying to forget with drugs.
For Jerry Stahl’s recovery story, he has to overcome an addiction to heroin, as well as overcome decades of shame and self-loathing. And recovery offers people a chance to trace and face the ugly memories and terrible feelings.
Stahl’s story is about addiction, secrets, and fucking-up — but it’s also about the act of telling your story. And the release that comes with that. “This book, for me, is less an exercise in recall than exorcism.”
There’s a lot to love about Paul Williams: he’s written music for The Muppets, The Carpenters, even The Phantom of the Paradise. But this documentary isn’t just about the song-writer, it’s about the recovering alcoholic.
Again, some tell-all memoirs serve as a romanticized triptych of debauchery with a tacked-on epilogue about getting sober one day. STILL ALIVE starts with a sober 70-year-old and works backward. And that man has spent over 20 years getting straight.
Throughout the film Williams talks candidly about his own recovery. He goes out of his way to keep the film genuine, as an extension of the rigorous honesty that comes with 12-step. In a way, this particular film shows the process of making a documentary. (Including sit-down interviews where Paul calls out the interviewer for asking a question that feels “dirty.”) And that’s fitting that it’s a movie about process, because recovery is about progress (not perfection).
There seem to be a lot of documentaries that show a once celebrated star’s fall from grace — an aging has-been is reduced to playing small-time gigs. But watching PAUL WILLIAMS: STILL ALIVE you come to understand Paul’s journey. And when you take in his sobriety and recovery, you understand that Paul’s life is triumphant. Instead of focusing on his body of work, we see the work he’s done in 12-step. And Paul’s life illustrates that recovery really works.
Like Bucky Sinister’s books, Paul Williams co-writes a blog that shows “recovery is not just for addicts.” You can follow it here.
Have a question or comment for Kevin, or a favorite recovery story to share? We’d love to hear from you! And don’t forget to check out 12-Step, Suicide and the Star Wars Special Editions on Kevin’s blog.