8 November Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment Interdependence Day Gaudeamus Igitur. Most Boston AA meetings are speaker meetings, meaning that members of a particular group come and speak at another group’s meeting on a reciprocal basis. The White Flag Group of Enfield meets in a nursing home on Sundays. Tonight they are hosting a group from Concord, a Boston suburb. In Boston AA, sobriety is seen as a “cosmic loan” that you must pay forward to other people. The chairperson of the Concord group shares his story while Gately listens from the front row. Despite the Interdependence Day holiday, the meeting is still packed.
As this passage indicates, AA culture varies along geographic lines, even if the overall ideology remains broadly the same. This shows that there is some leeway to tailor the program to suit regional needs (if not individual ones). However, as we have seen throughout the novel, recovery in AA is still largely about submitting to a framework that has been provided by the program.
The next speaker is called John L. Ennet House requires its residents to attend meetings and encourages them to get as close as possible to the speaker in order to identify with their story. John L. talks about how he lost his job due his alcoholism, but manages to make it funny. He then describes how he lost his wife, and although he uses the same joke structure few people laugh this time. Following this, John’s life became like “a fuckin livin death.” It is at this point in an addict’s life that their addiction becomes most horrifying; they lose all sense of themselves and although it doesn’t even get them high any more, they can’t stop taking their Substance.
John L.’s speech shows how AA meetings combine performance, entertainment, therapy, and church-like testimony. While everyone’s experience varies, the takeaway of each testimony at AA is the same: that addiction will ruin your life and eventually kill you, and that sobriety is the only solution to addiction. Adding humor and other performative elements keeps the testimonies fresh in the face of repetition.
Most speakers’ stories conclude “at the same cliff’s edge,” where the choice is between death or sobriety. In a sense, every AA meeting is like a “reunion” for survivors of the same disaster. Newcomers are often skeptical of AA, and this skepticism gives way to shock when they find that it actually does help to keep you sober. Gately was actually disturbed when he initially realized that AA worked, convinced that he must be in “some sort of trap.” He didn’t get how it could possibly work, but he kept coming anyway. People in AA always tell newcomers to keep coming and so, “robotically,” they do.
This passage highlights a key similarity between recovery and tennis. Achieving success in either requires repeating certain practices “robotically,” deliberately suppressing one’s own agency. The fact that it is surprising that this works suggests that we usually think constant agency and intention are necessary in order to make changes in our lives—but perhaps the opposite is sometimes true.
AA newcomers find themselves obeying the instructions of older members as if they have no will of their own. An Irish member of the Concord group tells his story in a heavy, almost incomprehensible accent. One of Gately’s best assets as an Ennet House staffer is his skill in explaining how he came to trust AA after initially hating it. He tends to implore that no matter what you say in AA, they will not kick you out. There’s even a member of the White Flag group that chooses to worship Satan as his personal Higher Power.
The lesson of Don’s explanation that no matter what you do AA won’t kick you out is that people crave community. This is particularly true of people with addictions, who often struggle with intense isolation. Yet even those without addiction issues want to feel accepted and like they belong, which is perhaps why so many characters submit to the control of institutions.
In Gately’s first month of sobriety, he was comforted by telling everyone present at the meeting how he thought AA was “horseshit.” After this, older members would come up and pat him on the back, saying that at least he seemed “ballsy” while encouraging him to keep coming. The oldest guys in White Flag cluster together in meetings and are nicknamed “the Crocodiles.” They often discuss the countless people they’ve seen start coming to meetings and not be able to stick it out. Some return again, once more “beaten to shit” by their addiction. Sometimes they even point out men on the street who’ve tried—and failed—to come to meetings.
Though there are a handful of female characters who attend AA meetings and check into Ennet House, the culture of recovery as it is depicted in the novel—as with the rest of the narrative—is decidedly masculine. By congratulating Gately on being “ballsy,” the tough older “Crocodiles” show him that masculine bravado is respected in AA. It’s unclear if they would extend the same kindness and appreciation to a woman.
If a new member “slips” and consumes a Substance, they are not supposed to be judged but rather welcomed back to meetings. Even those who attend meetings drunk are tolerated as long as they don’t cause too much disruption. The Boston AA groups have about a dozen “basic suggestions,” which are comparable to the “suggestion” that someone jumping out of an airplane should wear a parachute. Eugenio Martinez, a volunteer staffer at Ennet House, calls addiction “The Spider” and argues that you have to Starve the Spider, which requires wanting to follow the rules of staying sober.
As well as subscribing to the broader ideology of AA, many people in recovery develop their own personal philosophies. This is a good example of mixing submission to institutional control with maintaining a sense of one’s own independence and agency. Indeed, this combination seems to be vital to successfully maintaining sobriety.
It’s strange that clichéd truths exist, suggesting that “the truth is usually not just un- but anti-interesting.” One of Gately’s jobs as a live-in staffer is to be on “Dream Duty,” taking care of people new to sobriety who have horrifying, traumatic dreams. Gately himself once had a dream about AA whose meaning was almost embarrassingly obvious, and it was at this point that he finally decided to fully surrender to the meetings. At the same time, there are still some things about Boston AA that bother him. There is too much silly jargon, and the meetings are too long.
Gately’s feelings about AA show that one does not have to like or agree with every aspect of an institution in order to submit to it. In fact, it is useful to have some critical distance from the institution of which one is a member. Overidentifying with the institution could jeopardize one’s own sense of self.
Gately is fond of Ken Erdedy, who is at Ennet House to tackle his marijuana addiction. Kate Gompert, who is rarely able to leave her bed, is also there because of weed. Gately used to smoke weed “like it was tobacco,” but now he doesn’t really miss it. Gately is now speaking with Erdedy and Joelle van Dyne. There are a handful of veiled people from U.H.I.D. there that night. Joelle has just moved into Ennet House after a grisly overdose and Gately is unsure how to treat her. She seems to have made a special arrangement for her treatment with Pat that involves no minimum-wage “humility job.”
Joelle’s place within social hierarchies is difficult to determine. Before the incident that left her deformed, she had a certain amount of social power due to her extreme beauty—though considering that she was so beautiful no one spoke to her, perhaps not as much as we would expect. Similarly, her fame as Madame Psychosis seems to bring her advantages, but it’s unclear if people actually know that this persona is her.
Erdedy is attracted to Joelle, partly because of her gorgeous body but also because of her veil. Joelle says she finds it odd that people say they are “here But For the Grace of God,” because “But For the Grace of God” is a subjunctive phrase and thus should introduce a conditional clause. Hearing her voice, Gately feels like he’s met her before. He thinks she’s expressing her denial through this kind of intellectual posturing.
Once again, the novel suggests that high intelligence and a tendency to analyze situations makes recovery more difficult. Instead of accepting the clichés that are a part of recovery, Joelle overintellectualizes them, which makes it difficult for her to properly take part in the program.
A brief note mentions that the Statue of Liberty holds a product in her raised arm, and each year on January 1 this product is swapped by workers hoisted up there on cranes.
This is another example of the extent to which the world of the novel has become a horrifying (and hilarious) corporate dystopia.
The next speaker at White Flag is overly rehearsed and affected. He is followed by a man who speaks in an anxious, pained manner, yet who receives a better reception because what he’s speaking his own truth. Irony is not tolerated at Boston AA meetings, and neither is blaming one’s addiction on some particular factor or other. A young woman now speaking blames her addiction on the fact that she was a teenage sex worker, that she’d been fostered by crazy parents who were in denial that their biological daughter was brain dead. The father would molest the daughter’s lifeless body in a twisted ritual.
AA’s policy about not blaming one’s addiction on external factors might seem surprising, considering it is the total opposite of what is usually done in many everyday discussions about addiction. Yet even if there are obvious factors in a person’s life that have influenced their addiction (as this woman’s story shows), blaming these factors can make it difficult or impossible for addicts to get sober.
It is not considered acceptable to blame one’s addiction on personal circumstances like this, no matter how terrible the personal circumstances are. People in the meeting react to the story with awkward discomfort. Boston’s “classically authoritarian” dictum has been carved into the men’s room: “Do not ask WHY / If you dont want to DIE / Do like your TOLD / If you want to get OLD.”
Again, this passage reinforces the message that while submitting to an “authoritarian” institution certainly has its downsides, in the case of addiction it is necessary. This is because of the likelihood that recovering addicts will simply die if they do not totally submit.