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The struggle to be sober

30 January 2010 One Comment

MANY great writers were alcoholics. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, James Joyce and Henry Lawson are but a few from a very long list. Shakespeare’s drinking habits are not known, but several of his most memorable characters put away plenty of grog. The Porter in Macbeth, severely hungover, pronounces to his aristocratic betters that drink is a great provoker of three things . . . nosepainting, sleep and urine.

For Ross Fitzgerald, those three afflictions must have seemed relatively trivial. Starting at the age of 15, he drank for a decade to horrible, destructive excess. Now 65, he has been a teetotaller for 40 years. Among other accomplishments, he has built a career as a broadcaster, historian and political commentator (for this newspaper).

Incredibly, he has also published 32 books on a wide range of subjects, including an excellent two-volume history of Queensland. He played an honourable role in exposing the corruption of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen state governments of the 1970s and 80s. Yet he maintains that being sober is by far the most important fact about my life.

My Name is Ross is Fitzgerald’s blunt firstperson account of his lifelong struggle. It is a companion to Under the Influence: A History of Alcohol in Australia, a thoughtful scholarly work which he co-authored last year with Trevor Jordan.

This is a very different kind of book. According to Fitzgerald, he wrote it for two main reasons. One was to tell the unvarnished truth about himself: he hopes to atone for the many dreadful things he did when drunk and public confession is part of the ongoing process of healing and vigilance.

His other purpose is to educate. His simple message is that an alcoholic is a sick person who can recover, not a bad person who needs to get good or a weak person who needs to be strong.

A central focus of the book is the sterling work of Alcoholics Anonymous. Formed in 1935, AA has branches throughout the world and Fitzgerald has organised or attended support-group meetings on several continents. (Perhaps the most unlikely venue was a hotel in Maputo, Mozambique, in 1974. The former Portuguese colony was in the midst of violent revolution, and Fitzgerald recalls hearing the sound of shooting in the nearby markets. The meeting, he says, was small, but excellent.) Fitzgerald had first turned to AA in late 1969. He says he owes his life to the organisation and to his steadfast wife, Lyndal.

It is indeed amazing that he is still alive. During his drinking years, he abused his mind, body and soul to a staggering extent. He recounts in sordid detail many episodes of paralytic drunkenness, hospitalisation, depression, heavy drug use in addition to alcohol, and sexual promiscuity.

He writes that he often behaved obnoxiously with family and friends. He lost jobs. He once chased after a woman, wielding a knife; and he jilted another who had recently accepted his marriage proposal. He made several suicide attempts and survived being stabbed and shot at by underworld thugs in Brisbane. It’s unedifying stuff, but the saving grace is Fitzgerald’s candour.

He doesn’t spare himself, even conceding that he remains a difficult person when stone-cold sober. The truth, he admits, is that a little bit of me goes a long way.

Why, then, would anyone want to read this book? To learn.

Fitzgerald convincingly explains why he became an alcoholic (to anaesthetise himself against anxiety and deep unhappiness, to which he was genetically predisposed), why he finally decided to seek help (the booze had stopped working for me, plus he’d been impotent for a year and was hallucinating) and how he has managed to stay on the wagon (total abstinence, a day at a time, rather than dabbling with controlled drinking).

His example may well offer hope and guidance to people in like circumstances: alcoholics actual or potential and their families and friends.

Evidently, in at least one case, Fitzgerald has already been inspirational. He writes of an obstreperous Irishman with whom he went to AA meetings. The man disliked Fitzgerald intensely. Ultimately he overcame his addiction by repeating to himself out loud, as necessary, the pithy words, If that prick can get sober, so can I.

Roy Williams is a Sydney lawyer and writer. He is the author of God, Actually.

Published in The Weekend Australian 30-31 January 2010.

One Comment »

  • Chris Raine said:

    I’m currently reading ‘Under the Influence’ and really, really getting into it. Having waded through a tonne of academic research this year on alcohol (which I have to say was my initial apprehension for picking it up) I have been pleasantly surprised at the calibre of writing in this book! Well done.

    The reason I have been reading up on this subject is because I head up a community of young bloggers that are all going without alcohol for an extended period of time (3,6,12) months and are highlighting interesting insights about our drinking culture as they go along. It’s called http://www.hellosundaymorning.com.

    I would love to catch up for a coffee at some point before March to discuss this project with you and get some of your evident wisdom on the topic.

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