ADDENDUM: Arrrrgh. Factual errors in this—clumsy misapprehension on my part. My apologies to Maria Bustillos for obtuseness. See below.
I read this piece on the Awl, by Maria Bustillos—
—about David Foster Wallace’s struggle to find a way through recovery, 12-step programs, and treatment for his depression, while being true to himself as an intellectual. The basis of the piece is how surprised she is to find mainstream self-help books in the library he bequeathed to the Ransom Center in Austin, TX.
She writes: “Along with all the Wittgenstein, Husserl and Borges, he read John Bradshaw, Willard Beecher, Neil Fiore, Andrew Weil, M. Scott Peck and Alice Miller. Carefully.”
I have no idea where she’s at, what she’s been through. And—like people who read this blog might know—Wallace is a writer I generally dislike. And I’m a 12-step guy and a bipolar guy who’s made it through (at least, for today), whereas Wallace didn’t, and those that loved his writing feel his loss deeply.
I was frustrated by some things I feel like Bustillos didn’t understand.
(Sidebar: I’m repeating some stuff here that I’ve blogged before)
I think my impression that she’s missing some vital research is typified by these questions that she asked him in an interview:
HERE IS MY BIG DUMB MISTAKE! DF Wallace asked her this—not the other way around! Very klutzy on my part to miss that. Ms Bustillos was very charitable in the kind way she pointed out my error. I’m nonetheless so embarrassed!
Have any national twelve-step programs to your knowledge commented publicly on this?
[she means that he’d written about 12-step programs, and his knowledge betrayed that he was himself a 12-step guy]
Why do you suppose that is?
Wallace’s answers equivocate like a motherfucker. He seems to feel like he’s been called on the carpet. (My guess would be that he hadn’t been going to meetings for more than a couple of years, and hadn’t worked out these ideas for himself? I was certainly that way—clung to the meetings for dear life, didn’t know if I should be, so to speak, an orthodox or reformed 12-stepper, was nervous about how exactly recovery worked for me philosophically)
My answer to her question would be: commented publicly? Like, through a PR agency? What she’s calling “national programs” are basically dingy offices that have trouble printing up-to-date meeting lists. There’s a few paid secretarial types, but it’s mostly volunteers pitching in klutzily. She’s got that common false impression that 12-step programs function like the ASPCA or PETA would.
To really see the bumblingness, come to a group’s monthly business meeting and watch us bicker about how the chairs are set up.
If you go to a 12-step meeting in Des Moines, in Las Vegas, a meeting in Austin, a meeting in Bangkok, a meeting in Williamsburg, in Amsterdam, in London, in Buenos Aires, you’ll encounter very different microcosms of the cultures they sit in. There’s a meeting in San Francisco called the Fuck God, No Readings group.
I’ve been to meetings in all those places, and usually hear something fascinating, even if the tenor of the meeting’s culture is foreign to me—though in some places, I’ve felt so alienated from their cultures that I thought, Wow, I couldn’t stay sober if I lived here. Other cities had meetings so inspired I wanted to move there.
You will not find somebody with a clipboard writing stuff on a blackboard.
It’s a bunch of addicts talking to other addicts about what’s often called your “experience, strength, and hope.” The 12 steps are a system of spirituality whittled to its barest essence. Atheists in Oakland make use of them, as do born again Christians in Chattanooga—in ways that are along the same lines, but wildly different.
There’s a shared culture to the 12-step cosmos, but it’s transmitted through memes—you hear somebody say something that helped them, they heard it from somebody at a different meeting, and, if it moves you—if it helps you—you might say it to somebody else. Clichéd slogans abound. Rich astuteness is often buried under the cheesiness. You might also hear a little Yeats, Zen koans—I heard a guy break down the word oblivion to the French cognate oubliez—“to forget”—and further through the Latinate chain.
I might summarize one of Bustillos’ threads, about Wallace’s struggle to balance recovery with his brain in one of those irritating, old clichés: You can’t be too stupid to get sober, but you can be too smart.
There’s a small meeting in Greenpoint I go to on Sundays—all men—where we read a cornerstone 12-step text. Dudes talk about stuff they found positive and meaningful in it, but you’ll also hear things like, “The writing is so stilted and awful.” And: “I have no idea how to relate to that.” And: “This guy’s story was really boring.” And we all talk to each other and help each other.
What’s going on is in the meetings. If you want to learn about baseball, you don’t go to MLB’s offices. Like I said, I have no idea where Bustillos is at in her life, but my guess is that she didn’t journey into the rooms and see what was going on.
Here’s what I recommend for people who want to learn about it. Find, say, seven meetings in seven utterly disparate neighborhoods—like, the Upper West Side, Rego Park, Fort Greene, Crown Heights, Jackson Heights, the West Village, Riverdale. It’s probably wise to check the website to see if it’s an “open” meeting, but I don’t think very many people care.
Just know this: if you don’t go to a meeting, you absolutely will not understand what it’s about. I’m sure there’s plenty of interviews with Jackson Pollock to Google, but you have to see the paintings.
I heard a piece on This American Life in which the essayist tells the complex story of her Iranian parents’ volatile togetherness. In the end, her father reads Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, and uses it to find an understanding of his wife, and repair their marriage. The essayist’s reaction is, “Whoa! He read this corny self-help book, and it worked! Whoa! Unbelievable!”
She doesn’t say Maybe there’s something worth examining in this book. She doesn’t quote it—the piece ends on that Well doesn’t that beat all! note.
I’ve read/heard/watched, and have been moved, and helped by, some of the corny canon: my faves include Wayne Dyer’s PBS specials, David Richo’s How to Be an Adult, Alan Watts’ The Book. I read out a passage in Yogananda’s Metaphysical Meditations to a photographer, and he shrunk away from me, grimacing. I endorse corniness wholeheartedly, but I’ve experienced that aversion myself.
Bustillos calls Wallace’s self-help collection “stuff of the best-sellingest, Oprah-level cheesiness and la-la reputation.” But she delves into them, focussing on the passages that Wallace highlighted, and his notes in the margin. She implies that maybe this stuff is worth taking seriously, after all, but she’s kind of weaselly about it: “I left the Ransom Center wondering whether one of the most valuable parts of Wallace’s legacy might not be in persuading us to put John Bradshaw on the same level with Wittgenstein. And why not; both authors are human beings who set out to be of some use to their fellows.”
I wonder if that’s along the lines of saying, maybe the Dungeness crab served at the French Laundry is on the same level as Spaghetti-Os, in the sense that both will help you not die.
This is utter, utter, utter speculation here, but I wondered if Bustillo read the books, or mostly just what Wallace highlighted.
ADDENDUM! I’m wrong again! She indeed read everything, and The Awl vetted it with knowledgeable persons—and her point is indeed that we might want to drop the snooty act and consider these books seriously—as DF Wallace absolutely did.
Bustillos refers to what are called the 12 traditions: number eleven is, “Our public relations policy is based on attraction, rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.”
It was written in the 1940s. The irreverent retort is: it doesn’t say anything about TV or the internet!
I want to point out the first part of that, which I, and a great number of other people, think is the most important part: attraction rather than promotion. I didn’t get sober because I got yelled at or buttonholed. I met a bunch of people who were sharp, vital, and imaginative, and I (as the cliché goes) wanted what they had.
Anonymity also implies a consciousness that you’re just human, that you can be right-sized, you can give yourself a break from the need to feel important, you are free to be a person among other people. The twelfth tradition is: “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.”
Increasingly, people are public about being in the 12 step world. I hear celebrities jabber about it (and then, often, go get wasted, which is another good rationale for public anonymity). Dr Drew—and I’m pro-Drew—said in passing on an episode of Celebrity Rehab, “The patients came back from their Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.”
My personal loophole is that, while acknowledging that I’m in the thing, I’m not talking about the specific fellowships I’m in. Yeah, yeah, that’s weaselly, I know. I do believe it’s absolutely necessary to protect the anonymity of others. I’m comfortable being open about it, and I do my best not to harangue—I hope that if someone, who might be kind of like me, sees the dynamism I feel in art and life, they might be inclined to check it out if they want to.
Attraction, rather than promotion.
I don’t know how Wallace felt about this. The quotes that Bustillos includes mostly show him hemming and hawing. Maybe he didn’t want to be pigeonholed, maybe he didn’t want to be a 12-step spokesmodel. (If the latter is the case, he was tragically prescient) Maybe he felt something along the lines of what I heard Michael Stipe say in interviews when journalists started feeling comfortable in asking about being gay—essentially, What do you mean I hid it? Didn’t you see what I was wearing?
One last thing. People get infuriated when you suggest this, but if you recoil at/rail against/are fascinated by/debunk 12-step programs, there is a possibility it’s because you have a messed up relationship with drugs or alcohol. Maybe you owe it to yourself to check it out? Go, sit in the back, be disgusted, then go home and call it hooey.
I don’t care if you don’t want to get sober. Seriously, I don’t. It’s nobody’s business but your own. And if you want to stay sober, but dislike meetings, I wish you well—sincerely, humbly, with all my heart.
If you do want to jump into it, and I met you in a meeting, I’d give you my number and bother you with cheerful texts and cajole you to go to more meetings and ask you how you felt. Because people did that to me, and if they didn’t I might be dead—the best case scenario would be the life of quiet desperation. The people who helped me did it because it helped them to help another addict, and that’s a vital means of keeping myself from getting wasted, too.
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