In the midst of a pandemic I find myself late afternoon channel surfing and old movies always catch my eye. Today I watched the 1955 biopic, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, about the Broadway star Lillian Roth and her descent into alcoholism. Roth eventually found her path to sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous. My husband thought the movie and its formulaic ending dated and archaic, but I was fascinated. I realized how much attitudes about alcoholism have changed since 1955.
Today, alcoholism is classified as a disease, and a certain segment of alcoholics prefer to manage their addiction as opposed to fully abstain. Sixty years ago though, alcoholism was viewed as a slippery slope to Hell, a shame-filled tragedy.
Watching I’ll Cry Tomorrow brought to my mind an encounter I had with a friend of a friend, a man who’d been to rehab for alcoholism and met regularly with his AA group. I saw this man not too long ago at a gathering where the alcohol flowed. I left the party early and was surprised to run into my friend’s friend in the parking lot. He was just standing there with his hands in his pockets looking out toward the lowering sun.
“Hey,” I greeted him as I passed by on my way to the car, “That was some party, wasn’t it?”
“Yep,” he nodded, noncommittally.
I stopped and looked back at him. There was something about the tone of his voice. I added, “But I’m not a drinker—so it was past time for me to leave.” I nodded toward the horizon, “Nice sunset though.”
As I drove away I looked in the rear-view mirror and saw my friend’s friend open his car door.
Four years ago when my doctor mentioned the adverse effects of alcohol on aging internal organs, and that it was a known suspect in breast cancer, I decided to quit drinking. It wasn’t that hard for me, but I did miss having a glass or two of wine when I ate out at restaurants. I don’t really understand how difficult it is for an alcoholic to give up alcohol. But I do know a little about being human and having limitations. Like most people, I’ve had personal situations in my life where acknowledgement and acceptance were the greatest things I could do.
That was probably the most powerful part of I’ll Cry Tomorrow for me. I choked up when Lillian Roth finally went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting to get the help she so desperately needed. She stood courageously before a group of men wearing boxy 1950’s suits and women in pencil skirts, and said, “My name is Lillian Roth and I’m an alcoholic.”
My husband shook his head when he heard this. “She shouldn’t have to shame herself like that,” he said.
In a way, he was right. I taught educational psychology at a local university and I warned my students how damaging labels and labeling were. Still, for adults, confession can be good for the soul. It can be cathartic: a letting go, in order to begin anew.
In 2015 an Atlantic Monthly article criticized AA and their 12-step program, saying the program had no scientific basis. The article, “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous” said that other more modern treatments like therapy and drugs worked better. Interestingly, five years later, this past spring of 2020, the Stanford School of Medicine finally remedied the absence of research behind AA. The Stanford article entitled “Alcoholics Anonymous Most Effective Path to Alcohol Abstinence” stated:
“After evaluating 35 studies—involving the work of 145 scientists and the outcomes of 10,080 participants…AA was nearly always found to be more effective than psychotherapy in achieving abstinence. In addition, most studies showed that AA participation lowered health care costs.”
For the many people that have been helped by AA, this is probably not news. We are all individuals with our own unique paths. Sometimes though, the old ways, the solutions used by our grandparents in the 1940’s and 50’s, still have merit.