The conversion narrative is part of our American culture (we’re not the only ones, but it helps to narrow things down sometimes). These are personal stories of redemption that we tell each other over and over again, for a few of reasons: first, they serve to instruct the wayward, second, they reinforce the tie that binds the community, and third, they serve to bring the teller into (or back into) the fold: they are proof that the teller has renounced sin and embraced the standards and beliefs of the community. Early American literature is rich with these personal testimonials, most notably, the Captivity Narrative.
Captivity Narratives were written, usually by women settlers, who were captured by Native Americans and ultimately “rescued” (I put “rescued” in quotes because in many cases these women facilitated their own escape, but decorum – and the formula – dictate that they be rescued). Upon their restoration, their first order of business was to write their stories, which invariably follow a standard outline: Times were tough, but I was dutifully or complacenly minding my own business; the savages attacked, and though I fought like hell, I was captured; I ended up in the belly of the devil and was subjected to all manner of debasement at the hands of heathens (not actual defilement, though, in case you were wondering); but I never forgot God; and finally I was rescued; and now that I am home, I am an even bigger Christian than I was before, because I know the difference now; Amen.
I don’t mean to sound so dismissive of these narratives, because I realize that the subtext is usually much more complex than they were intended to be. These ex-captives’ very survival depended on their getting the story right. In fact, another common element of these narratives is that the writing is, without exception, lorded over by a member of the clergy – usually the one and only Cotton Mather. For this reason, they adhere strictly to form: clueless complacency, utter debasement, redemption by the grace of God, transcendence.
This basic redemption narrative outline survives in so many niches, but most pointedly in the conversion narratives of Born Again Christians: I once was lost, but now I am found. If you have the stomach for it, you can see numerous personal conversion narratives at Precious Testimonies (http://www.precious-testimonies.com/General/a-e/BornAgainIndex.htm). You will notice that they follow the script: Here’s me, dorking along through life, until I find myself sucked into a life of profound degradation. But, then I was rescued, an angel in disguise brought me to church and I embraced the light, and now I am redeemed. And not only am I redeemed, but because of where I have been, I am more aware than most of how precious my redemption is.
These days, it seems, the conversion narratives is hardwired. We all know how it goes:
Innocence, Complacency, Debasement, Grace, Redemption, Transcendence .
And we no longer need a member of the clergy looking over our shoulders to make sure we get it right. The self-censorship within communities is extremely effective in making sure that these stories remain true to form. Furthermore, to this day, the conversion narrative serves exactly the same purpose as the old time Captivity Narratives: To instruct (and affirm the teller’s place in the community) and to redeem the teller, to bring him or her “home.”
Despite their unique ability to drive most people into a state of existential nausea, the drunkalogs we’ve all heard time and again in AA meetings and from AAs everywhere, are interesting in that these personal testimonies are, in fact, conversion narratives, which serve the same purpose and adhere precisely to the form. It’s interesting to me, just as a bit of academic trivia. Being kind of a nerd, I can’t help noticing it. And it might not be worth hauling you all through this lecture if – aside from my own interest – the form of the drunkalog didn’t also serve to reveal something important about AA.
Many years ago, I was walking through town with a friend of mine, who had recently extracted himself from a Born Again Christian cult. The story is that when he was 17, he was tripping with some friends, and they decided it would be super funny if, in that altered state, they snuck into a revival tent that was set up in the fairground. Well, they got him, and he ended up living on some compound, marrying a member of the cult, and 20 years later, he’s wandering around town with me, utterly lost, with enormous regrets, scrambled eggs for brains, and no faith in himself. So, we round the corner, and run into the street preacher, who hollered some shit into our faces. My friend answered him quietly, in code, and then rattled off a date. They exchanged a few more words, and the preacher graciously waved us on with a smile and without the fire and brimstone.
I was all, “Whoah! How’d you do that?” This preacher worked the corner across from my apartment building, and I had never seen him give anyone a pass. My pal told me that you just have to know the right thing to say, and the date he gave him was the date he was born again. I haven’t dared to try this trick on my own, because I don’t know the code – except for the date part. Knowing the right thing to say is the key to acceptance, and, similarly, the drunkalog is the right thing to say. It opens the door.
Drunkalogs vary, but only in personal detail and speaking style. These variations are just embellishments to the basic strict form, which does not ever vary. The form of the drunkalog cannot vary because it is a code, the key to acceptance, the correct instructive. And the form is exactly the form of any other conversion narrative – even all the way back to the Captivity Narrative.
Anyone who’s ever abused their turn with the talking stick by taking the opportunity to question or offer alternative paths to redemption will learn quickly that they have overstepped their bounds. They’ll be snubbed; they’ll be passive aggressively admonished (“Some people think… But we know…”); they’ll get a good talking to from their sponsor… Variation from form doesn’t just get to stand there, sucking up the atmosphere.
I’m not going to go mining for examples of drunkalogs. We’ve all heard them – and if you’ve heard enough, the connection will be immediately clear. There are some in the comments sections of our blog, and all over the web. If you’re curious, go look at the Born Again testimonials I linked to above, and have a look around The Grapevine. And if you still have your Early American Literature textbook from college, go check out the Captivity Narratives that will be on the first onion skin pages of the anthology.
The very fact that the AA drunkalog exists and persists as an example of a unique and rich literary tradition illuminates the fact that AA’s purpose is to perpetuate itself as a fellowship, community, program, organization – as is stated plainly in the 12 Traditions. The drunkalog (I once was lost, but now I am found) is the password for entry into community, not into sobriety, which is incidental. Being abstinent without AA does not earn you sobriety, anymore than “good works” will earn you salvation without belief. True sobriety is your reward. So, the drunkalog has to be strictly about achieving redemption through the program – and thus, sobriety.
Back in the Captivity Narrative days, when community literally meant survival, the ex-captives had no choice but to testify. These women could not survive unless they could find a way to credit the belief system, the foundation, of their community for their restoration. And what’s more, they had to justify the fact that they even survived it – that they lived to tell their tale. Their survival in the belly of the beast calls into question everything their community stands for. How could they have survived without compromising themselves? They have to answer for their very life. The Captivity Narrative serves this purpose.
This seems extreme. It is. Those were the days. But the present day drunkalog serves the same purpose.
AAs are very specific about the definition of “real alcoholics.” The bona fide alcoholics are the ones for whom AA works, and who would die in a gutter without it. Thus, the drunkalog is about survival and salvation, as much as any redemption narrative is. It’s a way of proving one’s bona fides, a way of justifying one’s survival outside the fold. Get the drunkalog right and the community embraces you. Get it wrong, and you will be pitied, patronized, frozen out – and if you are a “real alcoholic,” being frozen out is a death sentence.
The pervasiveness of the drunkalog is a testament to the fact that AA is about AA, and only incidentally about the suffering alcoholic. It teaches the way, reinforces membership, and most importantly, serves to bring the wayward into the fold – if they get it right. And it is yet another clear sign of the fact that this is not recovery from addiction; it is not a program; it is not about sobriety; it is about acceptance and the perpetuation of a religious community.