Susan Cheever redefines alcoholism
by Johnette Rodriguez
Susan Cheever's father left her two difficult acts to
follow: his life as a writer and his life as an alcoholic. His writing brought
John Cheever the
money and status he so desperately wanted, and it stirred all three of his
children to become writers. His drinking and his recovery -- he was sober for
seven years before his death of cancer in 1982 -- gave Cheever both good and
bad models for her own trajectory.
These two roles have led to her most recent memoir, Note Found In a
Bottle (Simon & Schuster), from which she will read on Saturday, May
29 at 1 p.m. at the Brown University Bookstore (she's a 1965 Brown grad). A
deceptively simple book, written in an episodic fashion, in short, cryptically
titled chapters, Note Found In a Bottle allows the reader to dip in and
out of Cheever's tumultuous life: three marriages and many lovers; teaching
jobs, civil rights activism, newspaper and magazine jobs, her first novel;
trips with various husbands to Spain, France, England, San Francisco; and, most
significantly, the births of her two children, Sarah (17) and Quad (9).
But despite Cheever's retelling of her 30 (or more) years of drinking -- she
quit for the last time in '92 -- her book does not read like just another story
of a drinking life. It gets under your skin.
The opening chapters are evocative reminders of what it was like to be a child
in '50s suburbia, when Cheever's grandmother taught her how to make a martini
at the age of six, when the allure of her parents' drinking lay in refilling
the ice trays, popping salty olives and snitching a few nuts from the coffee
table. Looking back through the prism of time, Cheever now recognizes that her
trouble in school, with men, with money, with life decisions -- all were
inextricably tied up with the beer, wine, champagne, brandy and gin that she
was taking in almost as naturally as breathing.
"This was a very difficult book to write," she recalled, in a phone
conversation from her New York apartment last week, "because I wanted to paint
a picture of alcoholism that would change the way people see alcoholism. I
didn't want people to be able to say, `Oh, that's not me,' or `I never did
that.' I really wanted to redefine alcoholism. I don't think I did, but it was
a big task I set for myself."
Driven by her personal observation of the problems alcohol had created in her
family and determined to record the path of her own addiction, Cheever wrote
draft after draft, including one that her neighbor across the hall found in the
trash. The neighbor came upon it, started reading and couldn't stop. She rang
Cheever's doorbell to tell her that, and Cheever credits her and others like
her with giving her the support to go forward on the book.
Recently back from a a book tour, Cheever now thinks she would have written a
much stronger book if she'd realized how many people in this country had the
same story as hers -- or worse.
"I think I would write a preface that would say, `Listen up, dummies,' " she
remarked, her voice edged with anger. "Fifty percent of all traffic fatalities
are alcohol-related, and guess who's in that? Your kid, right? Twenty-five
percent of all hospital admissions are alcohol-related, so guess how much that
costs? And then domestic violence."
"Somehow an entire nation is looking the other way," Cheever continued. "Here
we are, in a country, la-dee-da, everybody's drinking. There are ads for
drinking all over the place. I'm much more worried about the ads for liquor on
television than I am about the violence on television. I mean, my kids are
being told that beer is cool, and kids in school are doing projects aping the
ads for that cool vodka. What are they doing?"
The statistics she learned from the National Council on Alcoholism just before
her book tour shocked her. She started reading newspapers and noticing that
almost every day there's an alcoholism story that isn't reported that way, from
the drunken guys who killed Matthew Shepard to the drunken Boris Yeltsin who is
killing his country. Cheever wrote a story about Alex Kelly for the New York
Times that went back through his "playing quarters" on the night of the
alleged rapes (tossing quarters into beer bottles to see who drinks the next
beer); his record of DWIs; his first arrest for pot at 13; his being "always in
Recognizing the invisibility of the issue in the daily press has reinforced
Cheever's strong feelings about the double standard set up for smokers and drug
addicts vs. alcoholics. At the many dinner parties she attends, where quite a
lot of drinking is the norm -- "two scotches, three glasses of wine and a
couple of brandies" -- smoking and drugs are absolutely not allowed.
"When you look at what we've done to people who smoke," she noted, "and I'm
not saying smoking is o.k., but drinking until you're drunk is also not o.k.
and you never hear about it. People don't drive cars off the road and kill
whole families because they're smoking. I'm just saying we shouldn't be blind
to it -- it makes me crazy."
Cheever's own wake-up call came when her children were born, and though she
didn't quit completely until her daughter was 10 and her son was three, she
understood that she had something to live for -- "they opened my heart and made
me want a different kind of life and made me not want to die." After writing a
column about raising her children for the past seven years for Newsday,
she is now tackling a book on the topic.
In addition to her children, what helped her get and stay sober, she
maintains, in just a few paragraphs of the book, was her spiritual faith, the
embracing of the Episcopal God of her youth. Yet she holds her beliefs close to
her chest, far too personal to explain: "I wouldn't believe in a God I could
describe. I think God is beyond words, so it's very hard to talk about God. I
think it's all pretty mysterious."
Cheever says that some readers didn't want to hear about faith, however. And
some readers complained that her story wasn't "dramatic" enough, as if she
should have been in jail or in the gutter, though she stresses that her whole
point was that she wasn't that stereotype.
"I just want people to pay attention," she reiterated. "I think if anyone
looks carefully at the role of alcohol in our society, they'll have their socks
knocked off. I'm not saying people shouldn't drink. I'm just saying they should
notice. I guess that's my message: `Look! Look! Look!' "
Certainly if Cheever's book alone doesn't accomplish that mission, hearing her
talk about the book will.