George Jensen, professor of English, began the ethnographic work for this book because he was “fascinated by the difference between alcoholic families that were in recovery and those that were not” (vii). What was it about narrative in Alcoholics Anonymous that allowed people to become the heroes of their own stories, while at the same time conceding a lack of control over many aspects of their lives?
Because narrators in AA honor a code of anonymity, Jensen quotes only the published accounts of alcoholics in the program. The book is no less rich for that limitation. The depth of Jensen’s immersion in the culture and practices of AA is apparent throughout; the book is based on four years of research (including attendance at many AA meetings) and analysis through a Bakhtinian lens.
Though not based on oral history interviews, Storytelling in Alcoholics Anonymous is a must-read for those who use personal narrative in their work, especially as the rhetoric of recovery permeates our culture and inflects many sorts of testimony. The opportunity to speak, or confess, before and not to an audience, Jensen notes, can be a deeply liberating experience. The story-teller in AA is not entertaining her audience, or even informing it; the purpose is not to enthrall or convince. The speaker stands up to be counted. The ritual of speaking candidly in front of those who have seen and heard it all before is essential to the process of recovery and to the group dynamic. Analysis of narrative at this level reminds us of the range of dynamics at play in all kinds of storytelling. Interviewers would benefit from understanding the power of narrative as conveyed by Jensen’s keen analysis in this book.
The AA narrative is a particular genre, of course, and it is refined as the newcomer to the program becomes an old-timer. (An old-timer is someone who has been sober, and in the program, for a long time.) Jensen notes that Bakhtin’s notions of the liberatory aspects of carnival and parody are key to the atmosphere of an AA meeting. Unlike temperance rhetoric of old, AA rhetoric allows an almost Rabelaisian alternative to the free-for-all of the barroom for those who are on the road to sobriety. Shocking narratives are shared with unshockable audiences (that is, other members of AA), and we see the transformative power of narrative when its heroes remain unfinished, unconsummated, and alive: they live one-day-at-a-time and recreate themselves thus.
When I was a teenager (the daughter of an alcoholic), I despised many things, as teenagers do; I reserved special contempt for the seeming banality of AA slogans such as Live and Let Live, Let Go and Let God, Easy Does It. As an adult, I devoured the fiction of Robert Stone, F. Scott Fitgerald, Jean Rhys, Raymond Carver, and Denis Johnson. “The program” (in AA) is part of the backtext and even the subject matter of some of this fiction, but contemporary storytelling allows for more nuance and complexity than is necessary, or even desirable, in the actual narratives of alcoholics in recovery.
With Jensen’s and Bakhtin’s help, I now see the beauty and peril of both approaches to the subject. Bakhtin and AA understand the benefits of foregoing “a surplus of vision,” a surplus necessary to literature and perhaps counter to the aims of self-making and sobriety in AA. In one of Ernest Hemingway’s stories, a prototypical young Hemingway narrator remembers his father’s gift for seeing so much, too much, too well; a gift that eventually destroyed him. (The same kind of gift may have destroyed Hemingway, an alcoholic writer who committed suicide.) The alcoholic writer faces particular challenges, of course; but Jensen’s analysis makes it clear that seeing just enough may be sufficient, even essential, to the creation of a sober, but not humorless, self. And seeing these truths in the presence of other alcoholics is essential to the combined power of these narratives to mitigate denial, shame, and artifice.
I kept thinking of Walter Benjamin’s essay, The Storyteller, as I read Jensen’s analysis of storytelling. I wondered why Jensen didn’t mention this beautiful and trenchant work. But Benjamin valorizes the endpoint, death, the moment at which “even the poorest wretch” becomes an authority, or a punctuation mark, on life and its narrative, and that’s a literary approach to narrative. Story-telling in AA (like much narrative in oral history) is not a literary form. In fact, it eschews closure and complexity while offering narrative, testimony, witness.
Bahktin provides the theory for a more open-ended approach to an analysis of life lived and told one-day-at-a-time, and in a repetitive and even formulaic approach, that now strikes me as far more complex and transformational than I realized. Jensen provides a history of temperance movements going back to the Oxford Group and analyzes the refinements of technique and approach that led to the AA way; like most simple things, it’s more complex than it seems.
Storytelling in Alcoholics Anonymous is essential reading for anyone interested in a new approach to the stake of a narrator in his or her version of a story. It is an elegant example of theoretical analysis that honors the no-nonsense approach of its subjects, alcoholics in recovery.
By George H. Jensen