Which Mother#$%?!ng Hat Are You Wearing?

SOMEWHERE near the middle of “The _______ With the Hat,” Stephen Adly Guirgis’s lacerating portrait of a couple trapped in the self-inflicted prison of addiction, it becomes clear that simply putting the cork in the bottle will not fix everything. Or anything, really.

So opens a review in The New York Times written by David Carr, himself a “recovering addict”, 12-stepper, and author of his own addiction memoir.  Thus it shouldn’t be surprising when he goes on to describe the main character, Jackie, as a:

ball of id who is doing his best to stay sober, one day at a time.

“Ball of id”, is of course a pejorative here which backs up a diseased/deterministic view of people with substance use problems (Corrected).  He continues about Jackie:

 ….he is smart enough to know that if he continues to use mood-altering substances, he will be back in jail, or in a mental hospital, or, if things get really wobbly, buried in a box.

Jails, institutions, or death.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  The entire review is colored by Carr’s standard romanticized view of recovery which he pretends not to have:

It [recovery] is grabbed with two desperate hands in spite of its limits. “Hat” demonstrates — in ways that related movies, plays and television shows often don’t — that recovery is full of holes, limits and quandaries that are enduring.

But isn’t he admitting that 12-step recovery isn’t perfect?  Not really.  He still romanticizes it in a roundabout way.  It seems like Carr uses this somewhat naturalistic comedy as a means to excuse the problems of the recovery culture, and blame them not on the 12-step message and method, but rather on the nature of the people involved.  The following quote should back me up on this opinion:

In “Finding Nemo” there is a set piece about a meeting of sharks who’ve sworn off eating fish, one arduous day at a time. The metaphor applies in part because, like addicts and drunks, the sharks are fighting against who they actually are.

“Addicts and drunks” are, in Mr Carr’s assessment, simply addicts and drunks by nature, and nothing can really change this, they can only cope with their immutable flaws one day at a time.  Thus “the program” is never to be blamed or criticized, only people are – such as another character in the play, who he practically calls the C-word:

The only thing that stands between Jackie and the promise of blissful sobriety is Veronica (Elizabeth Rodriguez), the love of his life, and, as luck would have it, a fulminating addict who will do anything to hang onto the chemicals that are baked into her daily existence.

By C-word, I meant codependent.

He also finds time to praise the methods of Dr Drew while again excusing “the program” and blaming the victims:

In Season 1 Dr. Drew Pinsky struggled valiantly and ineffectually to help Jeff Conaway an actor whose glory days date back to “Grease.” The life he chose overtook him and he ended up dead this year, like so many others in the real world.

Tragically, the former Alice in Chains bassist Mike Starr, from Season 3, did not make it either. And the drug-related arrests of other former cast members are a lesson in what happens to those who don’t go along with the recovery narrative.

“The life he chose” was as much one of involvement in the harmful recovery culture as it was one of addiction.  Aside: Personally, while I believe addiction is a chosen behavior, and that people are essentially responsible for their own downfall in it – I can never overlook the fact that they were taught to be powerless, and that they were robbed of the chance to change by authority figures who convinced them that they couldn’t stop.

How do we know when someone has or hasn’t gone along with the recovery narrative?  This statement is unclear to me – I’m not sure whether he’s talking about the idealized narrative of recovery media, or the teachings of the recovery culture itself.  This is where Carr’s take becomes murky, but he’s already confirmed agreement with quite a few recoveryisms at this point, so I assume he means it’s what happens when one doesn’t live things ODAAT, go to meetings, and listen to their sponsor.  And while we’re on sponsors:

The imperfections of the program are embodied by Ralph D., a really good sponsor and a really bad human being, upending the cliché of the sainted sponsor.

Again, Carr’s stance is murky here – throughout the entire piece he’s incomprehensibly mixing up his own views of recovery with criticism of media portrayals of recovery in a way that pretends to be unbiased.  The madness shines through though, when he is actually able to call the character of Ralph D both “a really good sponsor and a really bad human being.”  Is this possible?  Ralph’s entire involvement in Jackie’s life is what left me relieved that I hadn’t seen yet another AA puff piece.  And here’s where you need to know more about the story.

Ralph is Jackie’s sponsor.  He’s been screwing Jackie’s girlfriend, an active substance user, while Jackie was away in prison.  His own live in girlfriend was a successful high paid lawyer with a successful husband, who left her husband when she was enamored by Ralph’s status as an AA guru.  So Ralph has destroyed two relationships directly, with people he met in AA – people who looked to him for help and guidance.

You can’t be the type of “really bad human being” that he is, and be “a really good sponsor” at the same time – the two are incompatible.  The story highlights a major flaw of AA – that we shouldn’t be encouraging people with behavioral problems to build a social circle entirely made up of other people with the same problems – that it’s the blind leading the blind, or worse.

To his credit, Carr concedes that Ralph D is “part of the problem.”  Yet other reviewers, who presumably are not AA members still found no opportunity to praise the character of Ralph D as a “really good sponsor”.

Hollywood Reporter:

a scammer operating entirely according to his own agenda.

The New Yorker:

Jackie’s A.A. sponsor, the homily-spewing, vegetable-juice-drinking Ralph D.

USA Today:

Rock proves both a bold and canny choice for Ralph, a less sympathetic figure. …Rock doesn’t exude the kind of crass narcissism that the sponsor eventually reveals. But he brings to the part, in addition to the expert comic punch you’d expect, a cool joviality that actually makes Ralph’s lack of true empathy even creepier.

Ben Brantley for The New York Times:

For much of the play the power belongs to Ralph, who wields phrases like “the cycle of self-sabotage” in the style of a pistol-twirling gunslinger. As a professional stand-up seducer (which even insult comics have to be), Mr. Rock fits the part effortlessly. (You can easily imagine Ralph as a spellbinder when he testifies at support group meetings.) And Ralph’s straightforward confidence makes his logic-twisting all the more disarming.

Nor did other reviewers find time to excuse the recovery culture while blaming its victims.

Hollywood Reporter:

Guirgis takes amusing swipes at the 12-step psychological doctrines of recovery programs, and how their sanctimonious adherents can justify all kinds of self-serving, duplicitous behavior.

The New Yorker:

As the play goes on, we watch the very notion of rehabilitation unravel, too. Guirgis isn’t anti-A.A. or anti-N.A., but he doesn’t shy away from the reality that exists offstage, as it were, in a world that isn’t protected by anonymity and trust.

Yet, Carr was sure to get a quote from the playwright which praised AA while blaming the nature of it’s participants:

Mr. Guirgis did not write the play as any kind of implicit critique of programs of recovery. He saw addiction and its discontents as a good prism to observe people in extremis. It works.

“The program is perfect,” Mr. Guirgis said in a phone interview. “The people in it? Not so much. It is full of complicated people who get a 24-hour reprieve from their disease.”

Mr. Guirgis is not selling recovery or the people in it as Baby Jesus and all of the disciples, but as an[sic] practical answer to a deeply complicated problem.

Ultimately, it was a great show, and I loved it.  I thought I was gonna throw up a few minutes in when recovery was mentioned, but when it turned out to be a realistic portrayal of the 13th step complications of turning your life over to AA members, I found it quite interesting and refreshing.  With that said, I don’t know what people who know nothing of the recovery culture will take from the play.  It is quite naturalistic in that it basically says: this is real life, this is what these people’s life circumstances drive them to do, this is their nature, take what you will from it.  Thus, people will take what they will from it.  Most of my friends are comedy and theatre nerds who were mostly critical of Chris Rock’s performance, and took very little in the way of any message about AA.

What’s clear from this review though, is that an AA supporter will not see this play as AA negative – they will continue to blame the victims for the drama that AA has injected into their lives.  They will continue to see powerless people with immutable character defects.  They will not come to a conclusion that maybe it’s just not a good idea to let a screwed up person run your life for you.

  • Lucy

    Please, Steven, make your next subject Jane Velez Mitchell, whose appetite for these tell-all codependence genre books cannot be satisfied.

    Half of her coverage of the Anthony trial revolved around father Geoge’s “breakthrough” where he “threw off the yoke of family dysfynction and reached for recovery” by testifying against Casey.

  • Mona Lisa

    I second Lucy’s suggestion, particularly after listening to JVM’s coverage of the Anthony verdict this afternoon. According to her, the jurors were suffering from stockholm syndrome due to their physical proximity to the defendant and witnesses, and although they were “in denial” regarding their resulting feelings of sympathy, it was this syndrome, rather than reasonable doubt, that caused them to render a not guilty verdict.

  • Jonny Quest

    I want to hurl…

  • hulahoop

    Jane Velez Mitchell? Oh my. I find her to be such a vile person gladly spreading her misery to others who are searching for it. If she is an example of quality sobriety, then I want nothing to do with it. Thanks to her I can sort of comprehend what it means to be a dry drunk. Just say hell noooooooo! She makes me wish I could change the channel to Geraldo Rivera. Ack!