#COAWeek or #COAWeek2017 just finished and highlights the plight of children growing up in alcohol dependent households. Well known faces came forward to tell their story. Politician Liam Byrne gave testimony at Parliament and a manifesto has subsequently been published. Newspapers headlined that it is not uncommon for children of alcoholics to phone helplines asking to be read a bedtime story as their parent(s) are too intoxicated to care for them.
I supported the week by sharing my favourite literature on the subject. Angela’s Ashes came first to mind but there are many others that go under the radar. Children in the womb can be the first to suffer. The effects of babies born with fetal alcohol syndrome are devastating and irreversible. Michael Dorris, the author of The Broken Cord, is married to Louise Erdrich. Her novels often include the theme of alcoholism.
The first book I ever encountered on the subject was a classic by Anne Bronte. In the Tenant of Wildfell Hall, one of the main reasons the mother leaves her husband was to protect her son from his cruel and jealous influence whenever drinking. There is a 1996 BBC dramatisation starring Tara Fitzgerald.
The father in The Shining by Stephen King is an alcoholic, though sober when the book starts. I have always said that the real star is the son Danny. Unfortunately, in the Stanley Kubrick film adaptation, it is Jack Nicholson who steals the show. Stephen King understands that the alcoholic can love their child and vice versa. It is actually this love between father and son which destroys the infamous Overlook Hotel. It is Danny who hauntingly tells us how it feels to be a child of an alcoholic;
Now, somewhere, it was coming for him. It was hiding behind Daddy’s face, it was imitating Daddy’s voice, it was wearing Daddy’s clothes. But it was not his daddy. It was not his daddy.
You can meet Danny again as an adult in Doctor Sleep. Stephen King gave his inspiration for writing the sequel in the author’s note;
Every now and then—while taking a shower, watching a TV show, or making a long turnpike drive—I would find myself calculating Danny Torrance’s age, and wondering where he was. Not to mention his mother, one more basically good human being left in Jack Torrance’s destructive wake. Wendy and Danny were, in the current parlance, codependents, people bound by ties of love and responsibility to an addicted family member. At some point in 2009, one of my recovering alcoholic friends told me a one-liner that goes like this: “When a codependent is drowning, somebody else’s life flashes before his eyes.
Set in Libya, In the Country of Men, tells the story of Suleiman and his alcoholic mother who only drinks when the father is away from home. The boy is complicit in her guilty secret;
She hadn’t fallen asleep until the sky was grey with dawn. And even then I was so rattled I couldn’t leave her side, wondering if, like one of those hand-puppets that play dead, she would bounce up again, light another cigarette and continue begging me, as she had been doing before, not to tell, not to tell.
Into The Wild is one of my favourite books but I had always felt that something didn’t fit. It was the publication of the memoir by Chris McCandless’s sister that made the puzzle complete. Chris and Carine grew up with domestic violence and alcohol – fueled rages. The relief Chris McCandless found from estrangement, standing alone and disappearing at last made sense. I was only heartbroken for the sister left alone without the brother she loved so much. Alcoholic parents can pit siblings against one another, the disease is insidious that way, but so too make a bond stronger. Carine had lost the one person who had known what it had all been like.
I knew that while I headed south, Chris was heading west. Although we had no way to keep in touch, we remained connected as we always had. Neither one of us knew exactly where we were going or what would unfold before us. But we were both absolutely certain of what we must leave behind.
These books shine a neglected spotlight on how alcoholism affects the souls of children, their culture and development.