by Jerome Ellison
The exclusive story, with case histories, of a new group that is
bringing hope to alcohol's most tragic victims: The wives, husbands and
children of the drunkards themselves;
One night three years ago a wife in Long Beach, California, despondent
over her husband's drinking, went to a meeting of the local
Alanon--contraction of Alcoholics Anonymous--Family Group to see what,
if anything, might be done. After an evening of intent listening to men
and women who had served as spouses to other drinkers, she returned home
with her strategy drastically revised.
Always one to pour the household liquor down the drain when a binge
on, she now purchased five imperials of the finest, lined them up on
kitchen sink and waved an invitation to her husband to help himself.
Unmanned by this reversal, he sat down to hear her explanation. He was
so impressed by what she had learned about his problem that he returned
the bottles unopened and hasn't had a drink since.
Alanon Family Groups, of which there are now about 700 neighborhood
units, have produced many recoveries which are hardly less remarkable.
The society is not mainly organized, however, to effect such comebacks.
This is the province of its parent organization, Alcoholics Anonymous,
or AA, the international fellowship of former problem drinkers who keep
sober by helping inebriates find sobriety. Alanon tackles the problem
from the standpoint of the nonalcoholic who is hurt in the emotional
economic tornado which so often accompanies alcoholism. Its members are
mostly wives and husbands of AA members or prospects.
The field for Alanon is larger, the statistics suggest, than that
available to AA itself, and the need is scarcely less urgent. The
National Committee on Alcoholism, an educational and fact-finding
organization, estimates that of the 65,000,000 Americans who drink,
4,000,000 have well-developed cases of alcoholism. A Public Affairs
Committee summary of the annual cost to the nation charges $31,000,000
to medical care, $25,000,000 t o jail maintenance, $89,000,000 to
accidents, $188,000,000 to crime, and $432,000,000 to wage losses. Other
costs, such as the addling of good brains, the neglect and abuse of
children, the disruption of families and friendships, are borne in large
measure by those closely associated with problem drinkers. It is this
population segment of 20,000,000 that Alanon Family Groups are intended
primarily to help.
"And we need help," says the wife of AA's surviving founder. "After
years of living intimately with an acute drinking problem, we've become
as jumpy as the drinker, and as much in need of restorative measures."
As in AA, help is given mainly in the form of shared experience. Just
former drinkers are best qualified to appreciate inebriates problems,
the harassments of the alcoholic's, spouse--or brother, father, sister,
mother, sweetheart, employer or friend--can best be understood, Alanon
members say, by a nonalcoholic who has had similar experiences.
The voices of experience are heard in the talks members give at
meetings, during the refreshment period afterward, and through informal
get-togethers between times. Sometimes, as in the case of the Long Beach
wife, a listener gains insight that results in an immediate improvement
of the home situation. Of course, no one had suggested treating
alcoholism with alcohol. But the principle that a desire to stop
drinking is an inward thing that cannot be created by outside lecturing,
threatening, scolding or deprivation, is one of the tenets embraced in
way of life that AA's and their mates call "the program." The
Californian grasped it promptly, applied it daringly and achieved a
seemingly miraculous recovery.
"Hang around," new members are advised. "Sooner
or later, you'll hear a
story that exactly matches your own." When this happens, a feeling
belonging is strengthened, isolation is ended, anxiety begins to ease
In a recent trip through the East and Midwest I met and talked with
scores of Alanon members attended their meetings and heard their case
histories. There was a fantastic variety of family narratives, most of
them having a happy ending. Families had been salvaged from
circumstances seasoned counselors had pronounced hopeless. With the help
of AA and Alanon, chronic drunks had been restored as dependable
fathers, female barflies had made a comeback as conscientious mothers,
families had been lifted from a special brand of hell to a special brand
members call their talks at meetings, briefly describe the
family's condition before AA and Alanon, the circumstances that led to
joining and the family record since. The "before" passages
days and nights of desperation and shame. "Our house was always
a New York husband reminisced. "I could never be sure my wife would
sober when I came home; we could never entertain friends or go visiting.
I hated all of it." A Westchester father said, "I dragged my
son out of
bars, argued with him, took his money and liquor away. Nothing worked."
Wives spoke movingly of what had happened to their loved ones and
themselves. "He was changing before my eyes, losing his gaiety,
irritable. He was a binge drinker and the binges came closer together."
problem so filled my mind that I found myself forgetting
appointments, riding past bus stops, looking at people and not hearing
what they said."
lived in a small, gossipy, party-line town. We tried to keep up a
gay front, but were stingingly unhappy."
From a Western
state: "You know the story: father'd
get plastered and
you'd retreat to a corner to commit mental suicide and murder. I could
never know what turn things would take; there was never any security
sense of well being or peace. Finally I built a wall around myself and
retreated behind it. We didn't go out for months at a time."
The Alcoholic Doesn't Fool the Children
taken refuge in a dulled acceptance. "I
had given up hope and
become a martyr. We never talked much; we were almost strangers. He was
sure I had stopped loving him; I was sure he had stopped loving me."
strain had affected my disposition, and this, in turn, affected the
children. Our daughter avoided home like a plague and our son was in
trouble at school. Bills at all the stores were long past due, we had
cash, our furniture belonged to a loan company. For a family accustomed
to making its way, it was hard."
lived at a high pitch of nervous protest. "When
he was out,
I'd jump out of my skin when the phone or doorbell rang, chain myself
the house so I'd be there when he returned, visualize accidents,
infidelities, arrests. When he was home there were spilt drinks, uneaten
meals, insults, physical violence, interrupted sleep, ordinary filth,
said, "Our marriage was held together by
a little hope, a large
fear and two children."
were not fooled. "I always knew when
daddy was drunk, by
the way he put his key in the door," a drinker's daughter said. "When
was like that I ran to my room and locked the door."
recalled: "Kids notice things. I remember
them stumbling around
saying, This is the way Marilyn's daddy walks."'
In some cases a family member took the first step toward family recovery
through Alanon, drawing the alcoholic into the AA orbit later. "Our
doctor suggested AA as a possible step for our son," one father
began attending AA meetings on my own, and after a time Bob went with
me. AA made sense to him right away, and he hasn't had a drink since
first meeting." Later, this father helped organize a family group
served as its chairman.
response is not always so prompt. "Alanon
daughter and me and gave us new hope," one wife said, "but
didn't join AA until a year and a half later, when being fired for
drinking finally opened his eyes."
In a New York City Alanon meeting it was the questing wife, one night,
who received the eye opener. After hearing the symptoms of alcoholism
described she jumped up, saying, "I don't belong here, but in AA.
Some members report having been self-conscious and even suspicious in
the beginning. "We had been referred to AA by our minister. I knew
nothing about it, and my son was afraid it might let him in for some
kind of enforced soul-saving program. He came home glowing after his
first meeting, relieved of this and a great many other fears." This
Midwest mother learned of the family group, joined and became an
effective counselor to other families.
like to compare notes about how they happened to "come
in." Some are awed at the unlikely "chance" which brought
help in a
desperate hour. A husband said, "One day when I was at my wit's
about Mary's drinking, I ran into an old friend who had been a complete
lush, and found out about AA. Mary said she'd try it, and I joined the
local family group to help her."
A wife reported: "During
the last week of Jim's last bout, a
ninety-seven-day affair, I knelt down in my flower garden and said what
was probably my first really serious prayer. A few minutes later a
neighbor called and suggested I phone AA."
Frequently the alcoholic joins AA and the nonalcoholic partner
affiliates with Alanon at the same time. "While I was in the hospital
for an operation, my husband drank himself into another hospital. The
AA's called on him, and when he came out he was a member. When I came
out I joined the family group."
More commonly the alcoholic pioneers in AA, and the spouse joins Alanon
weeks or months later. One factor is curiosity. "Something had worked
profound change for the better in my husband," a Buffalo, New York'
testified, "and I wanted to find out what it was." Another
factor is a
constructive kind of rivalry. In my visiting around the groups I heard
frequent reference to the growth in understanding and maturity of the
alcoholic spouse through AA. "We had to find out what it was all
or be hopelessly outdistanced."
out what it's about sometimes comes as a shock. "I
was quite put
out at my first meeting," one wife said. "I expected to hear
husband's problem discussed, but there was hardly any mention of
husbands. I was huffed when one wife expressed the opinion that fear,
worry, gossip, criticism, grudge-bearing, self-righteousness and
self-pity might be as reprehensible as drunkenness, lying and thieving.
This was a shock--it hit home." A more usual first reaction is one
relief. Again and again I heard of the newcomer's reassurance on
discovering that others had survived all he now faced and more, and had
emerged cheerful and with a solution.
The "after" portions
of the stories did not always proclaim unqualified
victories over the demon rum. AA claims to be able to help all sincere
applicants except those who are "constitutionally unable to be honest
with themselves." A number of these are represented in Alanon by
spouses. One wife felt that the Alanon program was successful in her
case "simply because I have some degree of serenity and good health,
can feel respect and good will for my husband even though he's just come
off a two-week drunk." Another reported dramatic relief from disabling
headaches which she believed had been psychosomatic. A five-year member,
she is successfully raising her two sons, though her husband remains
pathological drinker. One wife advised newcomers to be optimistic and
patient about mates who were slow to respond. Her husband, now sober
four years, had taken seven years to "make" AA!
group of "after" stories bears a restrained
improvement. "Has all disagreement ended in our household?" one
asked rhetorically. "No, but friendly compromise has become possible."
year of Alanon, a wife reported: "The main
difference in our
family is that now we can talk. The two hardest people on earth to talk
to are a drunk and an irritated wife. Now that we've broken the sound
barrier, companionship is growing."
Generally, however, Alanon stories reflect a happily reconstructed
family life. They are preponderantly enthusiastic. "I'll never forget
those first meetings--seeing so many people I knew, never dreaming
they'd had the same problem we'd had! I'd been a plain snob! We had all
been so foolish to cover up our problem instead of solving it!"
made such wonderful friends! We can laugh and even cry together
and understand just what we're laughing or crying about."
advice to families with an alcoholic problem is, don't try to do it
alone; it's too big."
found this secret of harmony: When each partner is trying to remedy
his own defects, there's nothing to differ about."
I recall particularly a meeting in Des Moines, which has a family group
of the predominantly female variety. Since AA runs more than five-to-one
male, this is the usual, but by no means invariable, complexion of the
spouse groups. The main AA group in Des Moines has more than 200 members
and holds meetings in its downtown clubrooms, over a store at 816 1/2
Walnut Street, on Tuesday evenings. Saturday night is family night, and
it is not unusual to have seventy for dinner and twice that many for
evening program of AA speakers. Family group meets on second Wednesdays
at eight P.M.
At the meeting I attended I counted about eighty women. There were
grandmothers and there was a babe in arms. The twenties and forties were
well represented, with the thirties having a plurality. The members were
smart in appearance and cheerful in demeanor, and the quarters pleasant.
The loft measures perhaps forty by a hundred feet. In the rear are
kitchen and dining facilities, a coffee bar and an office. The front
portion, where the meetings are held,
is a lounge and auditorium. Presiding was the secretary, a long-limbed,
gently spoken matron in her thirties named Dorothy H.
Before the meeting I learned that Dorothy was the wife of Ray H., a
prominent local attorney and one of the founders of the Des Moines AA
group, and that they have an eleven-year-old son. Ray, in his day, had
been jailed eighteen times for drunkenness, and hospitalized countless
times. On one of these occasions the attending doctor jotted: "A
alcoholic, formerly a man of repute." As Ray's secretary, it was
part of Dorothy's job to cover up for him during his binges. She agreed
to marry him only if he'd give up drinking. He accepted the condition
and stayed sober three months. There followed four "awful" years,
one day fourteen years ago, when an AA stranger from Omaha blew into
town, told Ray he was the man to introduce AA to Des Moines, and wrought
the marvel of sobriety.
The secretary and treasurer reported briefly, and members learned that
some $17.85 remained in the till. A collection basket was passed, into
which the ladies put as much as a dollar and as little as a dime. Four
new members were introduced, and presented with pamphlets outlining the
nonalcoholics' adaptation of AA's twelve suggested steps, stressing
self-examination, self-improvement, prayer and service. A rummage sale
was announced among the coming events, and a home-talent show. These
latter are popular, drawing as many as 500 spectators. At one of them
prominent local political candidate and AA member offered his services
as a target for custard pies. At five dollars a throw, he became a
formidable moneymaker. By these and other means, the family group has
provided the club with furniture, television, piano, refrigerator,
dining silver and kitchen range.
The first speaker, an attractive forty-year-old redhead celebrating
first anniversary of her family's affiliation with AA, said it had been
a short year and the happiest of their married life. "When Don came
year ago, the neighborhood tavern keeper made a pool on which of the
first fourteen days Don would resume drinking. The pool was extended
three, then four weeks, then called off. Don likes AA and likes
sobriety, and now it's a year. In our house, it was a revelation to
learn that for an alcoholic the dangerous drink is not the third or
seventh or eleventh, but the first! It's wise to recall the things that
happened while Don was drinking-it encourages a sense of gratitude--but
unwise, I think, to brood over them. Some of them, recalled a year or
two later, even seem funny.
didn't go out much, because Don drank all day and wanted only to
sleep when he came home. Now and then, to make up, he'd blow me to his
idea of a big treat--like the time he took me to a drive-in theater,
then snored all through the show. Our social life has improved a great
deal, now that people can understand what Don is saying. Don says my
cooking is better. Of course, it is. He used to phone at dinnertime and
say he'd be home in ten minutes. Two hours later he'd call and say he'd
be home in five minutes. An hour later, when everything was dehydrated
to the consistency of cedar shingles, he'd turn up for dinner." She
long been in the habit' she said, of cutting out and saving quotations
that particularly appealed to her. She read us one: "A clever wife
through her husband; a good wife sees her husband through."
speaker was one of the founders of the family group. "Jack
I came into AA eleven years ago. He's a broker. He drank a lot in his
business and we drank together daily, I almost as much as he. Things
were not going well with us, with Jack's business, with the children.
There had to be a change, either for better or for much worse. Then Jack
Alexander's article came along in The Saturday Evening Post, and we
began to talk about AA. After three years of talk, my Jack actually
joined, and, of course, I affiliated with the family group. It has given
me friends, and steady help with current problems, and many good times."
She closed by reading the passage of the marriage ceremony that goes:
" ---from -this day forward, for better for worse, for richer or poorer,
in sickness and in health---" It helped her perspective to remind
herself, she said, that she had once made such a promise and considered
The active therapeutic ingredient of AA-Alanon, a mysterious force that
AA's are sometimes heard to call "the program," is a little
define. After attending meetings over a wide geographical spread, I
concluded that the effective essence is not in physical surroundings
programming. In Montclair, New Jersey, and Kew Gardens, New York' the
groups met in churches. In Jackson Heights they met in an office
building, in Westchester in a museum, in New York City in an AA club,
Buffalo in an apartment. In Des Moines there were eighty at the meeting;
in other places the average attendance was twenty. In Westchester and
one of the North Jersey groups, the chairmen were men. Buffalo and New
York City had speaker programs. In Kew Gardens and Jackson Heights the
meetings were open discussions. In Westchester and Montclair, new
members submitted written questions, and the program consisted of older
These were typical questions: How far does one go in accommodating an
spouse's drunken proteges? How do you take a moral inventory? Should
liquor be kept under lock and key? To what extent should one cover the
lies of a husband who's still drinking? How long after the alcoholic
stop drinking does that awful uncertainty persists?
A question which drew a comment from practically everybody present at
the Montclair -meeting was: How do I find peace of mind? The consensus
was that one never captured it by frontal attack; when it came at all,
it was a by-product of some other activity--usually of trying to help
someone else. Some found a measure of peace in counting blessings,
others in talking out a problem with an understanding friend.
Prayers--"Don't let me think that way," "Help me to make
the most of
this single day," and the familiar AA prayer for serenity and
wisdom--were reported as tending to restore tranquility.
The program is obviously flexible as to size, location and form of
meetings. I received an impression, however, that it called for a
certain minimum of individual effort. A sincere desire to get sober and
remain so is expected of the alcoholic; and of the nonalcoholic, a
genuine wish to achieve and maintain harmonious family relationships.
Reform activities are to be confined to oneself; efforts to change
others are to be restricted to friendly concern. Criticism, gossip and
grudge-bearing are definitely off the program. One may rib another
person only on condition one ribs oneself more sharply. Humility, though
regarded as nearly unattainable, is nevertheless to be sought, along
with patience, understanding, thoughtfulness and honesty. The
participation of a Higher Power is frequently alluded to as a desirable
condition for the program's fulfillment. Regular attendance at meetings
and frequent contacts with other members are parts of the program.
Through these contacts the extraordinary understanding of one sufferer
for another finds opportunity to take effect.
The growth of the family groups roughly parallels that of AA, which
celebrates its twentieth anniversary this month with an anticipated
attendance of 15,000 at its St. Louis convention. The two founders of
were a Wall Street broker and an Akron physician. From the beginning,
their wives were important partners in the movement. They turned their
homes into virtual rescue missions overflowing with drunks. As more
family men entered AA, there were more wives to be encouraged and
advised. The book Alcoholics Anonymous, from which the society took its
name, was published in 1939. Special chapters were addressed to the
needs of wives and families of alcoholics. When the first meetings were
held in members' homes, spouses chatted over coffee in the kitchen while
AA's met in the living room. Some went along on responses to appeals
help--"twelfth-step calls"-talking with the sober spouse while
dealt with the inebriate. Later, in localities where the AA tradition
includes large "open"--to the public--meetings, the nonalcoholic
attended regularly. Even where there were only "closed''--to all
alcoholics--meetings, enough AA thought filtered through to provoke a
Mainly, however, Alanon has drawn its strength from a discovery that
affected nonalcoholics have problems distinctly their own--problems
which respond amazingly to appropriate application of the familiar ideas
which make up AA philosophy. Nonalcoholic auxiliaries, variously called
Alanon, Alano, Onala, wives' groups and ladies' auxiliaries sprang up.
By 1949 there were about fifty of these. The need for some such agency
as a partner and helpmeet for AA was becoming more evident. AA general
headquarters at 141 E. 44th St., New York City was receiving a steady
stream of inquiries from distracted wives and husbands of alcoholics.
Family groups were clamoring for some sort of central facility.
A report on family groups was given at the 1950 convention in Cleveland,
which was attended by more than 10,000 AA's and their mates. Returning
delegates spawned groups everywhere. In the next five years 650 were
formed, including units in Europe, Africa and Oceania. There are now
in Canada alone. Groups are so numerous in California that the state
to be divided into northern and southern councils. They are still
forming, at a current rate of about one a week. The Alanon Family Groups
Handbook, a 200-page two-dollar volume has just--June 1955, made its
-appearance. The Alanon Family Groups Clearing House publishes a monthly
bulletin and answers inquiries from P.O. Box 1475, Grand Central
Station, New York 17, N.Y. It is manned by volunteers; overhead is
defrayed by a traditional dollar a member in spring and fall.
AA as a whole has welcomed its offspring, if not always with a wild
exuberance, at least with a warm tolerance. What is probably a consensus
was well stated by AA's official publication, Grapevine, in an approving
article by an initially suspicious member. "This reporter had heard
about these goings-on," the piece says, "and, like many a smug
assumed they were mere knitting circles. I was lured into one of their
meetings recently. If I came to sneer, I remained to pray. This was no
sewing bee but a spiritual force at work. I guess I was expecting to
hear long complaints about how they'd been put upon by our boozing.
There was none of that. They were examining not us but themselves!"
Whatever "the program" may
be, there is no longer much question that in
many cases it can reunite families, sometimes beyond reasonable
expectation. I talked with a father of five children who had spent nine
years in a state penitentiary for bad-check passing, an activity that
invariably accompanied his drinking. There was an AA group in the prison
and he joined. When he found that it worked for two years "outside," he
got in touch with his wife, who meanwhile had divorced him, and began
second courtship. Part of his wooing was introducing her to Alanon.
They've now been remarried two years.
Then, of course, there are the cases where it has not quite worked,
these are the sad ones. While I was in Des Moines, Ray H., the lawyer,
took me down to the courthouse one afternoon when a family case was set
to be tried. "Just so you can see what can happen when we miss," he
explained. Both the father and mother in the case were alcoholics and
there were six children, eighteen to four. The continued destructive
drinking of the father produced a home unfit for children. County
welfare had worked with the family for years and given up hope, and now
was asking the -court to take the children from the father and mother.
This was done, and I shall not soon forget the tear-stained face of the
fifteen-year-old daughter or the way the four-year-old kept looking into
people's faces, trying to understand. There are such scenes in all the
courthouses all the time, and not all of them, we now know, are beyond
hope. There is need for AA's new present to all the family.
Volunteers at the Clearing House--all AA wives--don't have to be told
this need-they read their mail. One day they let me read some of it.
jotted down the closing words of one letter: "My husband is an
alcoholic, but will not ask for help. He thinks he can work it out for
himself. He's not doing it, but what can I do? Is there anyone in the
world who can help us or will try to? Please, for God's sake, can you
Source: The Saturday Evening Post, July 2, 1955Discuss this article