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New Alateen Groups Help Children Face Up to Life With Alcoholic
in a Bitter Teen-Age Tragedy
by Herbert Brean, LIFE Staff Writer
had once been a small neighborhood store in a western town.
Now its walls were plain white, decorated by a few pictures.
Neat wicker chairs were scattered around the spotless linoleum.
A podium stood near the entrance, and coffee bubbled at
the coffee bar at the far end of the light, cheerful room.
young people who came in by ones and twos chatted gaily.
They were dressed as though for a party, the girls in fluffy
skirts, their hair carefully done, the boys in sports shirts
and jackets with the fresh-scrubbed look of teenagers. They
stood around in small, murmurous knots until that evening’s
chairman, a boy named Phil, took his place behind the podium
and announced it was time they got started. Everyone sat
Phil read a prayer: “Our Father, we come to you as
a friend. . . . We ask you at all times to guide.”
Then the assemblage of some 22 boys and girls recited in
unison: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the
things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can,
to know the difference.”
was the Serenity Prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous. These teenagers
were not meeting to have a party. They were there to discuss
a deep crisis in their lives: the fact that one or both
of their parents were alcoholics. These youngsters had formed
a chapter in a new and fast-growing national organization
called Alateens, which bands together such young people
for purposes of mutual help. This was their weekly meeting,
looked forward to and listened to with eagerness, since
it represented the best hope they had yet found for solving
problems far beyond their years. The boy named Phil, a member
since the chapter was organized, had faced his particular
problem longer than many of the others, but all the boys
and girls at the meeting could recognize their own experiences
in his story.
troubles had started three years go when his mother remarried.
She and his real father had separated when he was very small,
and mother and son had lived by themselves in modest comfort
for a decade. Then she had married an insurance accountant,
a pleasant, humorous, open-handed man named Daniels. They
took a good-looking house in a nice neighborhood and Phil,
at the age of 14, looked forward to having a father again.
Now he was 17 and it had not worked out that way.
a few months of marriage Mr. Daniels began coming home for
dinner in an exhilarated and voluble condition. Phil had
never seen anything like it. His stepfather seemed terribly
happy and good-humored, but he could undergo sudden changes,
turning into a glowering, unreasonable tyrant. It not only
-frightened Phil but gave him a permanent feeling of uneasiness.
What had he done or said that was wrong? And what could
he do to make things right?
asked his mother about it. “Oh, you mustn’t
pay any attention,” she told him with a bright, worried
smile. “He’s just been drinking. He’ll
be all right.”
he wasn’t. Phil found himself being lectured or reprimanded
or even punished without reason. Home became a place of
sudden threats and dangers against which he could not defend
himself. His mother explained that his stepfather had once
been an alcoholic but had given up all drinking for a year
before they were married. On the night of the wedding reception
drinks had been served, and he had had some. He had been
drinking occasionally ever since. She tried to explain -what
alcoholism was, but Phil could not understand her explanation.
If drinking made you ill and also irrational, why drink?
is a serious, slender, dark-haired boy with a scientific
bent. He hopes to be a doctor perhaps a psychiatrist. As
his stepfather’s behavior
got worse, Phil found it hard to study or to feel any deep
interest in school work—or in anything else. He stopped
inviting school friends to his home because he never knew
when his father might start haranguing them. He became ashamed
of his father’s appearance--his red face, rambling
speech and shambling gait. Phil began to withdraw into himself--“you
just shut up tight inside.”
father drank almost constantly now but especially on weekends.
On Mondays he was sometimes too “sick” to go
to work, but somehow he hung on to his job. Evenings were
especially bad. Then he roamed the house, often until 2
or 3 a.m., bellowing imprecations, seeking an argument with
anyone who dared talk back to him. Phil was determined to
help and protect his mother as best he could, but he did
not know exactly how. He grew nervous and apprehensive.
His school work got worse, but he didn’t care.
in a while he would plead with his father not to drink.
Sometimes the only answer Phil got was a cold stare, sometimes
it was a stumble-tongued denial of drinking, sometimes it
was a genial promise that he would stop after just one more.
Phil and his mother, a remarkably patient and religious
woman, often talked it over trying to decide what to do.
“If it gets much worse, we may have to leave,”
she would say quietly. Phil wondered how much worse it would
have to get.
never saw his father actually take a drink. He and his mother
found bottles around the house. Often there was one under
Daniels’ bed and sometimes under his pillow, and always
under the cushion of the large easy chair from which he
watched television, but Mr. Daniels was never seen drinking
from them. With the sly secrecy typical of many alcoholics,
he drank only when he was alone. It was hard for Phil to
explain to other kids in school, who invited him to parties,
why he could not invite them back. In time he grew used
to the knowledge that his classmates were aware his father
was an alcoholic, and he became calloused, if not reconciled.
But he could not become calloused to the fresh embarrassment
he felt every time someone came to the house and met his
father or saw the house itself.
two years its carpets had become stippled with bums from
half-smoked cigarets dropped heedlessly on the floor. The
kitchen and dining room bore nicks and drip marks where
his father had suddenly hurled his plate or glass in a drunken
tantrum. One night Phil came home to find a milk bottle
lodged halfway through a screen in a front window. His father
angered at his wife’s failure to come at once when
he called her, had thrown the bottle at the TV screen, missed
it and hit the window. The broken window and the stain on
the paint outside stung Phil. “Makes the house look
neat, doesn’t it?” he said to a friend.
wall-to-wall carpeting in his mother’s bedroom, of
which Phil was so proud, had become blotched from knocked-over
glasses. The family car was a mess, filled with forgotten
insurance literature in the back, the fenders dented by
uncertain driving, the seat covers filthy, the glove-compartment
door rickety from being banged open to get the bottle always
stored there. Lying in bed nights, tapping his foot almost
uncontrollably from tension, Phil thought of what other
kids had and what he was missing. He and his mother could
never plan a family outing because his father’s condition
was too unpredictable. The best they could expect was an
infrequent barbecue in the back yard.
the months passed Phil’s father got worse. Once he
tried to throttle his wife and Phil had to wrestle him to
the floor. Another time Phil had to tie his hands with a
necktie and hold him, fuming and cursing, until he finally
passed out. Still another time Phil had to knock him down,
no great feat because of his father’s condition.
Daniels began to display spells of grandiosity. ‘They
ask me to take a bigger job,” he would declaim to
the empty living room at 3 a.m. ‘They come to me on
their knees, begging. I don’t want another job, and
I tell ’em so.”
afternoon a girl he knew in high school called Phil to ask
him to a dance. His father answered the phone. Loudly and
obscenely he cursed out the young girl, then hung up. Phil
would not stay in the house that night. He slept at a friend’s
and next day went over to the girl’s house and mumbled
a red-faced apology for his father. It was one of the hardest
things he ever had to do.
Daniels’ health steadily deteriorated. At times he
needed hospitalization, and occasionally his physical condition
so alarmed him that he himself tried to slow down and “taper
off.” In this he had the advice of the family doctor
who gave him various drugs to discourage drinking. None
worked for long because Mr. Daniels went back to the bottle
as soon as he began feeling better. Some nights he would
burst into Phil’s room, wake him up by turning on
the light, and launch on a long, incoherent lecture. Phil
finally arranged the light so that it could not be turned
on at the door. His father continued to fling in whenever
he felt like it, but it no longer really awakened Phil.
“It’s like the noise of the planes passing overhead,”
Phil says. “I just don’t hear it anymore.”
he still carried the tension inside himself. His foot twitched
steadily at night as he tried to go to sleep. On weekends
he stayed away from the house as much as he could. He tried
to keep up his studies, but it was hard to get up in front
of the class to give a book report, knowing what they all
knew about him. He was morbidly self-conscious about his
appearance and about what the other kids might be thinking
boy named Jerry, who lived down the street, had a similar
problem. His father and mother both drank heavily and steadily,
although more peaceably. Common problems, including poorer
clothes and less spending money than other kids had, brought
Phil and Jerry together. Occasionally they met to compare
notes on the behavior of their parents. One day Jerry said
he had heard there was some sort of juvenile branch of Alcoholics
Anonymous, not for youthful drinkers but for the children
of heavy-drinking parents. They called up the local “AA,”
got some literature and enlisted a third boy who had an
three boys met whenever they could and talked over their
problems. After months of hiding his shame, it was a wonderful
release for Phil to talk openly. It made him feel better
to learn that other kids had the same problems he did and
could even suggest some solutions. Soon the three boys were
joined by the pretty blond daughter of an alcoholic, and
the meetings acquired a little social atmosphere.
news of the small movement spread, other youngsters joined
up, and this attracted the attention of the local chapter
of Al-Anon, a companion organization of Alcoholics Anonymous.
AA is the league of alcoholics who have joined forces to
help each other fight their mutual disease. Al-Anon is an
organization of wives, relatives and friends of alcoholics
who also meet to exchange suggestions and compare notes.
Alateens, made up of the children of alcoholics, is a ward
of the two main organizations. Phil’s group decided
to form an Alateen chapter. A kind-faced woman named Margaret
Wells, with long experience in Al-Anon, volunteered to serve
as guide and sponsor, but the youngsters conducted their
own meetings. In a year Phil’s and Jerry’s frail
partnership grew to 60 members, one of the largest Alateen
groups in the U.S.
meetings do not solve the basic problems and certainly do
not propose cures for alcoholic parents. They do, however,
help members live with problems they cannot solve. They
do this by offering a version of the Alcoholics Anonymous
approach, which is a mixture of nonsectarian religious faith
and personal psychological counseling. Alcoholics Anonymous
gets its members to admit to themselves that they cannot
control their disease alone but need the help of a “Greater
Power,” to whom they must turn over their lives. In
the same way the members of Alateens are encouraged to face
the fact that they cannot overcome their parents’
alcoholism, but by putting their problems in God’s
hands and by practicing understanding and forbearance, they
are taught to achieve an inward calm during a stormy adolescence.
new Alateen member is taught the AA Serenity Prayer and
the AA philosophy of trying to live one day at a time. One
of the most striking features of the movement is the quietly
spiritual attitude of the veteran Alateen member who, even
though he may not be a member of any religious faith, lives
closely and intimately with a God of his own choosing. This
unusually frank reliance on the “Greater Power”
pervades most Alateen meetings.
the recent meeting of Phil’s group, Phil invited members
to step up to the podium and discuss their experiences.
A rebellious dark-haired girl of 15 stood up and said:
know everybody says you ought to turn it over to God. But
I can’t.” She paused, then spoke haltingly.
“Maybe I should. I guess He brought me here to this
meeting . . . in a way. But tonight Dad was going to take
us to a show.
got provoked and pulled one of his stunts. He took off by
himself. I--I tried to get my brother to go to the show
anyway by himself, but he wouldn’t . . . . I’ve
learned here to try to be nice to people. But it takes time.”
asked for comment. A boy told the girl, “You can’t
just call on God when you’re in a jam. You have to
turn your whole life over to Him. My dad and I are a lot
closer now since I did that. Last night we worked together
fixing his bureau, and he doesn’t come home drunk
when he knows my pal is going to stay overnight with us.
Probably your father is under great tensions, like mine
is. You can always pray and hope it might come out all right.”
called on another girl, Annabelle. As is customary at Alateen
meetings, only first names were used and the parent was
often referred to simply as “my alcoholic.”
Annabelle took the podium to report on her progress. “I’ve
got a temper,” she said, “and when I said my
prayers last night, I told God what my problem was today,
that I had to work in the kitchen at home and I didn’t
want to. But I said I’d do my best because I wanted
to help others.”
boy of 15 with a bristly red haircut raised his hand. “I’ve
got a temper too. My mother is our alcoholic, and I have
to do a lot of the housework. When they get to arguing,
my father involves me in it. But when they start yelling
at me I just say the Serenity Prayer to myself.”
Wells said, “I’d like to add a word to this.
You all look healthy and happy and well fed to me. Maybe
your parents don’t always do as you think they should.
But they did well to get you this far. They are doing the
best they are mentally capable of at the moment. They love
you but they are almost afraid to love you. They don’t
dare. They don’t understand their children well enough.”
thin six-foot boy with a long face went to the podium. He
was a newcomer and very nervous. “Maybe some of you
have got your problems solved. I haven’t. I--I just
haven’t. I can’t take it any longer, and I’m
not going to. I have a chance to go into a foster home and--and--I’m
saying goodbye to my family.”
was close to tears.
looked around for hands. Mrs. Wells said, “Dig into
your hearts. What can we tell him that will really help?”
There was silence.
got to turn your problem over to God,” a boy in the
get a better deal out of it that way” said another.
“He knows what we don’t.”
homes are no good,” said a girl.
got to try to help yourself,” said the boy who had
warned against calling on God only
when you are in a jam.
be courteous, and don’t argue.”
happens if he sends you out for a bottle
for him?” asked the boy at the podium.
don’t go,” said Phil firmly. “We’ve
talked that over. Lots of people have that problem. But
you just politely refuse. If you do it once, he’ll
ask you to do it again.”
the boy at the podium considered. “But I like to have
friends over, and I never know. . . "
golly,” said another boy, raising his hand. “Never
invite friends over without first reconnoitering. If your
dad’s drinking, just keep out of the way as much as
used to feel abused, too’
boy at the podium was replaced by a pretty, fair-haired
girl. “You can come here with any sort of problem,”
she said, addressing the newcomer. ‘That’s what
I like about it. I used to feel abused too. Sometimes one
of my friends would say, ‘We all went out to dinner
last night,’ and I’d lie. ‘I went out
to dinner with my family, too,’ I’d say. And
my friend would say, ‘No, you didn’t. I know
your father’s drinking now.’ But I found out
that if I don’t worry about tomorrow or the bad things
that happened today but think of the good things, then--well,
tomorrow can be another day to be happy with.”
girl raised her hand. “I know what you mean about
lying. I’ve got two alcoholics, both my parents. There
were lots of things I couldn’t have. So I began boasting
to the other kids. I’d say we were getting a new car
or a new dog or were going to Florida for a vacation. I
told terrible lies. Then I started Alateens. I went back
to the people I’d lied to and told the truth. I’m
a new person. I’m getting along better in school and
I’m an officer of my class.”
meeting was now more than an hour old, and the entire discussion
had dealt with parental drinking problems. Few Alateens
have drinking problems of their own. Some of them are led
through everyday association to experiment with alcohol,
and because they have seen how destructive it can be, they
sometimes believe that they have a “drinking problem.”
This is almost always juvenile self-consciousness.
the podium Phil said that if there were no other matters,
the social hour would begin. Coffee and cookies were produced.
After a collection was taken up for next week’s cookies,
audience broke up into groups, chattering as though at a
dance intermission. The tall, thin newcomer was surrounded
by a knot of others, anxious to welcome him and help.
nervous getting up at first,” someone told him, “but
after a few times they won’t be able to stop you from
talking.” ‘That’s right,” said Phil.
“And you’d be surprised how much it helps you
in school when you have to get up and make a talk to the
Soon they took their leave by ones and twos. Mrs. Wells
drove several of them home. It had been a typical Alateen
meeting, a new phenomenon in American life.
than four years old, the Alateen movement is still in its
infancy. Ninety-seven -groups are registered, and another
75 are believed to be in the formative stages. The total
membership is perhaps 2,000 members--“perhaps”
because communication between the groups and the parent
AA or Al-Anon headquarters is often scanty. Alateen is certain
to expand, for it gives the teen-aged child of an alcoholic
something he can get nowhere else: a chance to hold up his
head and talk about his troubles with others who suffer
the same way. He acquires friends who he can telephone at
night for encouragement or advice when the going gets tough,
and he also gets a chance to talk openly about other problems.
“I’m too shy” is a common complaint. “I’m
always nervous” is another problem readily understood
by more experienced Alateens who know the cause of the nervousness.
all, the Alateen member achieves depth of understanding
rare in youth, and he helps to spread a new spirit of understanding
to his whole family. Even the alcoholic parent, after a
few guilty misgivings ("Do you actually talk about
me at those meetings?“), becomes more serene and in
time may even decide to seek help himself.
far that has not happened to Phil’s alcoholic. He
still shakes the house with his occasional falls, wants
to be waited on, never apologizes. He still bellows his
challenges to nonexistent adversaries and occasionally goes
has learned to “live around” the problem. His
grades in school have again risen to a B average, and he
is determined to stick it out with his mother until he enters
college 18 months from now. He is still tense and -nerve-ridden.
When he speaks, his hands dart in quick, finger-tapping
gestures, and some nights he wriggles about uncontrollably
in bed before he can go to sleep. But he says, “I
don’t really have any problems any more. They’re
there, but I don’t fight them. No one can beat alcoholism
by himself. So I just try to be polite and helpful, and
let God take care of things.”
illustrations for this article [as it appeared in Life]
were drawn by Franklin McMahon, who attended Alateen meetings
in different sections of the country and sketched the teen-agers
as they discussed their problems. Their own words, spoken
at these meetings, serve as captions for the drawings:
Mom and I came home, Dad was hanging up a noose on the landing.
When he’s drunk he sometimes acts suicidal.”
have learned to keep my mouth shut by saying the Serenity
Prayer to myself.” "I have to keep telling myself
over and over again that the monster we were up against
Tuesday night was nothing but a great big bottle.”
come here with my older brother because he said I’d
learn how not to get excited. Now when Daddy gets drunk,
I just go on with my business.”
day we’ll have all this behind us. I keep telling
myself, I only have to take this for the next 24 hours.”
Life, February 10, 1961)