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DIGEST, Vol. 26: 70-73, August, 1962
the reformed alcoholic, there is no such thing:
it's always "the first glass"
and it leads back to disaster.
by Joseph Kessel
reformed alcoholic who is still tormented by his craving
for drink has to fight against one final false hope, the
illusion of all: "One glass can't do me any harm. Only
Alcoholics Anonymous says, "There is no such thing
'only one glass' for us. That glass is only the first. Because
the nature of our disease, it will start an uncontrollable
reaction. That first glass will become two, three, and ten;
one, two, three, and ten bottles. You'll be back where you
started: in the gutter.
don't say: 'I know to my cost what the danger is. Only
one glass, that's all.' By saying that, you're telling yourself
what you want to believe, making excuses for your craving.
won't stop. You can't."
A.A. sponsor hammers home this truth for the benefit of
the newcomer in his charge. It comes up at every meeting
recruits. It is confirmed by the life stories related at
meetings. And what stories they are!
are rebuilt after a painful struggle; material security
returns; peace of mind and happiness begin to flower again.
comes the first glass, the complete blind relapse and hell
heard many terrifying stories about that first glass,
stories that made me feel physically ill. But when I showed
horror and incredulity I felt, I was told, "Well, go
and see N. He
was really an extreme case."
is a talented writer, and I would have been glad to meet
him under any circumstances. After the war, he published
admirable novel with an alcoholic for the hero. The book
great success all over the world.
invited me to lunch with him at Ansa, one of the clubs run
by Alcoholics Anonymous. It is housed on the ground floor
Columbia University Club building. I walked down an ancient,
thickly carpeted, paneled passage hung with portraits of
professors and generous benefactors. But the club itself
decorated in gay colors and simply furnished. Everyone there
seemed friendly and cheerful.
recognized several persons I had met before; a banker, an
actor, a young woman who had tried to commit suicide three
before joining the association; and Kay, the old lady who
a long time a paralyzed tongue and vocal cords after drink
dragged her into the gutter.
short, bald, red-faced man of about 50 detached himself
from the crowd. He had a clipped mustache and wore glasses.
high forehead shone like polished copper. His fine, rather
reddish-brown eyes shone with good humor from behind his
It was N.
we had ordered our lunch, I begged him to tell me the
story of his life, with many apologies for my inquisitiveness.
for what?" he exclaimed. "Quite unnecessary, I'm
delighted. We alcoholics are the greatest show-offs in the
eyes were so full of mischief, intelligence, and good
humor that the thick lenses of his glasses seemed to sparkle.
began writing when I was sixteen," he began. "But
want to publish anything till I was 40. Meanwhile, I earned
living writing sentimental stories for the radio. Nonsense
fact. At the time I was drinking a lot. I had become a
professional alcoholic, and I was heading for disaster.
what was happening. So I stopped drinking altogether, entirely
large jovial man stopped at our table on his way out of
Jack," he said. "Will we see you tomorrow?"
said my companion. "I'm going to Texas tomorrow. I've
got to address some of our groups there."
man went out and N. took up his story.
he said, "I stopped entirely without help, by my own
will power. You can imagine what sort of reception I gave
who sang the praises of Alcoholics Anonymous to me. What
had I in
common with these weaklings who had to huddle together so
meet the shock?"
at the time your novel came out," I asked, "You
hadn't tasted alcohol in any form for eight years,"
the first time I noticed a look of deep sadness come into
I had a success," he went on, "such as I will
again. First the book, then the film, ecstatic reviews,
royalties. I bought a fine house in New York City and another
the country. I sent my two daughters to expensive private
And in spite of my success, which really might have turned
head, I still kept off drink."
eyes were twinkling again.
he said, "A.A.'s reputation was spreading all the
time. I laughed at it. What could these chattering, gregarious
people tell me - the man who had written a classic on alcoholism,
who was publicly referred to by doctors and psychiatrists
specializing in the subject? The man, who, had kept sober
years without the slightest relapse?"
cheerfully rubbed his shining copper-colored forehead, and
went on. "Thereupon, rich, proud, and very pleased
with myself. I
went off to Bermuda for a holiday. It's a paradise. But
it's very hot there. One day, simply on account of the heat,
longed for some ice-cold beer.
madness. I thought immediately; I've not touched
alcohol for 11 years! I'm not going to start now. And the
intellectual part of me replied, "Exactly, after 11
complete abstinence a glass of beer can't possibly do you
harm. Only one glass! After 11 years! Just one glass!"
went on rubbing his polished forehead, and smiling.
then?" I asked.
said the novelist, "the result of this 'one glass'
beer was that in the next 18 months I was taken 15 times
homes' in a desperate state of alcoholism. Yes, me, the
being, the man whose remarkable will power had been enough
incredible," I murmured.
that isn't all," replied the writer. "Naturally,
through all my money. The house in New York and the house
country both went the way of the bottles I'd drunk. And
children didn't go to fancy schools any more. I'd nothing
feed my family with. I had to fall back on shameless borrowing,
'touching' my friends, lies, near swindling....
last I began to wonder whether Alcoholics Anonymous
couldn't do something for me. I went to one of their meetings.
there I did make a strange discovery. The people around
certainly not intellectuals. But I shared with even the
and least educated of them a common denominator that I couldn't
find anywhere else; it was the problem of alcoholism, and
earnest, desperate desire to solve it.
left that meeting in a disturbed frame of mind. It didn't
prevent my going back to the madhouse four more times. Yes,
times - which brought the number of my cures in less than
years up to 19. And all because a successful, rich, happy
had drunk just one glass of beer in blissful Bermuda."
was still smiling. Was he smiling at himself? Or at the
horror his story was arousing in me? Whatever it was, he
19th time they shut me up, after treatment and sedatives
had restored my reason, I took a good look at the lunatics
me. I said to myself, 'you've got to be honest with yourself
and for all. Stop deceiving yourself that it's pure chance
keep coming here. If you go on drinking you will spend the
your life among these people and others like them.'
I left the hospital, the first thing I did was to join
Alcoholics Anonymous. And my problem was solved. I've lost
self-satisfaction, I feel I'm among comrades who have suffered
I have. Our common suffering makes us love each other. I
more than they need me. So much that after years of sobriety
still go to a least six meetings a week. Whenever I have
speak to distant A.A. groups all over the States."
do you earn your living?" I asked him.
I scrape along. I write for radio and television. I'm
working - very slowly - on a new book. We shall see."
writer wasn't smiling now.
really matters," he added, "and this I've learned
A.A. is not intelligence, or talent: it's the life of the
got up. He had to leave for Cleveland that afternoon, to
get to Texas next day.
crossed the dining room together. Everyone gave him a
friendly smile as he passed, and many of them added, "God
wasn't just a polite formula.