A recent book is bringing Alcoholics Anonymous back into the conversations of ordinary people. But you won’t find it in the self-help section, nor that of psychology. It’s not a memoir either. Although, if you’ve stepped into a bookstore or movie theater in the last 30 or so years, you’ll probably recognize the author. Nevertheless, ordinary readers picking up Doctor Sleep will be treated to more of a 12-step crash course through fiction than any in recent memory. Perhaps ever.
The AA Mystique
What do the words Alcoholics Anonymous mean to a person who has never experienced addiction? Or, for that matter, to one who has only struggled but never had any exposure to AA as a solution?
When it comes to public information, AA is at a unique disadvantage. The 11th Tradition states, in part, that “…our public relations policy is based on attraction, rather than promotion…” In practice, this has meant that, in an age of top-flight public relations outfits with millions of dollars behind them, AA’s voice is as distinguishable as tears in the rain. The downsides of this have, of course, already been illustrated—even on this very site.
Most people are never going to attend an AA meeting out of curiosity. As many have found, it can be a monumental task just getting an alcoholic or addict in dire straits to do that. AA education is typically a thing born of necessity and desperation. So, to the general public, where does knowledge of AA come from? Like so much information transmitted in the current era, the answer is popular culture.
Movies Don’t Tell the Full Story
AA has long been depicted positively in film. Within 30 years of its two founding members meeting in Akron, its “solution” was turning up as the ending in mainstream fare like 1962’s Days of Wine and Roses. The intervening years have provided a slew of narratives about characters finding sobriety through the program, from Michael Keaton’s memorable performance in Clean and Sober to Sandra Bullock’s rehab experience in 28 Days, Anne Hathaway getting released from treatment to attend her sister’s wedding in Rachel Getting Married and the whole of Eminem’s post-2008 career, to name just a few.
But there’s a problem with these narratives. When speaking at meetings, AA members are often encouraged to share “what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now.” The problem with the examples mentioned above is that they cover only the first two categories. The story is simple: the central figure becomes addicted, bottoms out and triumphs in the end using the program. What happens after that? Nothing worth mentioning, apparently.
This is not the product of any bad intent on the part of the storytellers, nor is it unexpected. For the purposes of storytelling, it’s professionalism. A protagonist is presented with a problem that he or she struggles with before eventually coming to some resolution. Unfortunately, for real people, riding off into the sunset just means you have to get up tomorrow and face the day all over again.
Anyone with some sober experience in AA will tell you that life is only just beginning when the drinking and using stop. There’s plenty left to struggle with and the solution to that is what you’ll really find in the meetings, literature and sponsorship. But where, in the milieu of stories about combat with the bottle, is there room for this side of the sober life to shine?
Stephen King’s Spotlight on Alcoholism
Enter Stephen King. At 65, the author of 57 books shows no sign of retiring. King’s career is best known for the strange: his stories are populated by ghouls, monsters, murderers and a dog almost certain not to satisfy readers who loved Marley & Me.
Doctor Sleep, King’s latest, is a sequel to 1977’s The Shining. It focuses on Danny Torrance, the little boy menaced by a possessed father in the original story, who’s now a grown man. The book also features another character King followers will recognize: alcoholism.
Alcoholic characters have turned up in the author’s work from the beginning. The Shining is the story of Jack Torrance’s alcoholism set against the haunted-house backdrop of a cursed hotel in the Rocky Mountains. Many know the character better as Jack Nicholson from Stanley Kubrick’s film version, though Kubrick excised much of the material about Torrance’s drinking—as well as many other aspects of the book—for the film version. (King has never been shy about his low level of regard for the adaptation.)
As it turns out, King’s showcase of alcoholism wasn’t based on just casual interest in the subject. The aforementioned dog book was 1981’s Cujo. The murderous, rabid animal sold nearly three million copies and became a feature film. But want to know what’s even more interesting? King doesn’t remember writing it. In his 2000 memoir On Writing, King revealed that since he was drinking at the time, he could barely recollect writing Cujo, though he did like the book and wished he could better remember its creation.
AA and Sobriety in Doctor Sleep
In Doctor Sleep, Danny Torrance has grown up to be an alcoholic, just like his father in The Shining. However, there’s one key difference between the author then and now. In the late 80’s, King took his last drink. He’s been sober ever since.
References to AA in King’s work are not new. Most recently, Jake Epping, the time-traveling narrator of 2011’s 11/22/63, motivated himself by half-ironically remembering the AA slogans of the sober wife who has left him for a man she met him at a meeting.
Doctor Sleep is different. This is not a story that touches on AA—it is a story in the world of AA. Further, this is not the story of an alcoholic getting sober. This is the story of a sober alcoholic confronting other problems.
In the initial phases, we are taken through Danny Torrance’s journey into recovery and the events that led him there, but this is more back-story than anything else. The details of Danny’s drinking are limited to those that we need know to understand fully the emotional gravity of what’s going to transpire as the book continues.
Danny, in daily life as a New Hampshirite, splits his time between his job at a hospice and his meetings and work with a sponsor. In King’s imaginative style, the “other problems” at hand are a cult of immortal retirees traveling the country in Winnebago’s, sucking the life out of special children (those who “shine,” as Danny did) to preserve their own. When Danny connects with a young girl who shines, he must aid her in defending against the cult and their leader.
Why It’s Powerful
To state the obvious, characters in literature often struggle against forces both external and internal. Externally, the monstrous life-suckers fit the bill and then some. Internally? This is where Doctor Sleep holds special resonance for 12-steppers. Danny Torrance, despite being well into his second decade of sobriety, hasn’t been able to get honest. His sponsor warns him about the importance of working the fifth step completely but Danny simply isn’t ready. To the non-alcoholic reader, this may imply a mere will-he-or-won’t-he scenario. To those experienced in the world of AA, this scene leaps off the page to become an instantly recognizable hurdle that the character must overcome to succeed. The eventual resolution won’t disappoint either group.
Since the book’s publication in September, the press hasn’t failed to notice its recovery themes. Janet Maslin, in a review for the New York Times, pointed to King’s use of AA writings and slogans to paint Danny as a character with a past. Perhaps writing from a standpoint familiar to many who know AA only from its famous sloganism, David Ulin observed in the LA Times that this device “comes off as less cloying than a kind of code. That’s because, like all of us, Dan is looking for a way to live.” In an interview, The Guardian went so far as to question King about his own bottom.
King recently told NPR, “Jack Torrance never tries Alcoholics Anonymous. That is never even mentioned in The Shining. He does what they call ‘white-knuckle sobriety’—he’s doing it all by himself. I wondered what it would be like to see Danny first as an alcoholic and then see him in AA.” The latter is what comprises the bulk of the book. When Danny struggles with his alcoholism, it’s not the alcohol that he’s fighting—it’s his own fear and resistance against living with rigorous honesty.
In the big picture, Doctor Sleep is perhaps a drop in the bucket. Nobody can reasonably believe that misconceptions about the program will be eliminated by genre fiction. But perhaps there exist a few horror fans that, after reading the book, will hesitate before asking a sober friend or loved one, “Why do you still go to those meetings? You’re not drinking anymore.”