Reviewed by life-j
This is maybe the most engaging recovery book I have ever read.
OK, recovery writing does not get much better than the beginning couple of pages of Chapter 3 of the Big Book. Bill Wilson has his brilliant moments. But this is different.
In Ernie Kurtz’ book Not-God we read about how it was important for early AA to not offend anyone, especially not the Catholic church. They wanted all those drunken Irishmen to join. So the Big Book wound up being quite sanitized.
Not so with this book. They call a spade a spade, and talk straight from the heart. The author, Doyle Arbogast, interviewed a number of Native Americans who were in recovery. Most of them had contact with AA to a greater or lesser degree, but eventually chose Red Road instead. Red Road is a Native American recovery program. I have gone to quite a few Red Road meetings myself though I am unlikely to have any Indian blood in me. I’m from the Germanic Tribe. Born and raised in Denmark.
Simply comparing one recovery program to the other, I think they both have their weak and strong points. I can personally not believe in The Great Spirit any more than I can believe in the Christian interventionist deity, but that much said, Native American spirituality I find, along with Buddhism and the Tao, to be much more sympathetic than the particular variant of the Middle Eastern deity I had forced down my throat as a child.
Perhaps having been force-fed on religion is part of what makes this book special to me. I relate personally and on a deep level to having had religion forced upon me as a child, as well as experiencing violence and neglect, though my own was nowhere near as bad as these people’s.
I was maybe eight years old when I looked up at that crucifix and realized there was no way I would be able to buy all that. Teachers who preached at us, made us sing psalms, and listen to child friendly sanitized stories based on Old Testament atrocities, hit us when we didn’t do things their way, and then when it was time for recess they would stand and talk with passersby while ignoring that kids were getting beat up by bullies. I was one of those whom two kids from the grade above would hold down and let a kid from the grade below beat up on. This kind of stuff went on for years. One other kid got so scared of getting beaten up that he ran out of the schoolyard and wouldn’t come back in. So the teacher went out, dragged him inside and caned him. “Caning” for those who don’t know, is being beaten with a bamboo cane. They don’t break.
I think my sense of justice – and injustice – rests in large part on this incident, even today.
Red Road makes sense for a Native American. Part of what has led so many Native Americans into alcoholism is that the conquering white society systematically and deliberately did what it could to destroy their culture and identity as a people.
Besides addressing the addiction, and the personal issues associated with the alcoholism in a manner comparable to what we do in AA, Red Road also helps Native American people restore their cultural identity, and while I have no direct experience with such a loss – the Germanic tribes were overrun by Catholic priests almost 1500 years ago – reading these stories I can tell that reconnecting with their culture in a deep, spiritual way whether through Red Road or in some other manner is a very important part of the recovery process.
So in a way I’m unqualified to review the book since I can’t personally relate to the importance of re-connecting with Native American culture, but there are other aspects to the book that make it important to me.
The Red Road was started by Rick Thomas and Gene Thin Elk. Rick’s is one of the 14 stories in the book. There are a couple of extras too, including a glossary of Indian concepts and words which is helpful for those of us who have not lived in touch with Native American Ways. This book, however, focuses on the individual stories more so than on the Red Road program per se, though occasionally we get a glimpse of the process.
Here’s part of an account from a Red Road workshop:
I made up my mind during the workshop that I wasn’t going to talk about being abused. I wasn’t prepared to do that. I was just going to sit there and listen and observe. I didn’t want to get involved. But… as I sat there and began listening to the others, I began to learn there were others that had been through some very terrible things. I was beginning to understand that I wasn’t the only one with all these feelings inside me.
When they wrote words of feelings on the blackboard, I felt every one of them. When it came my turn to share a feeling, I passed. But it finally got to me. I thought that no one knew the shame I felt. So I went up to the board and wrote the word, shame. I tried to be calm and keep my feelings inside. Before I knew it I was telling all the things that happened to me – with my back to the others. All of a sudden it was like a dam broke.
I just broke down, I never cried so hard in my life. When I finally stopped crying, I couldn’t turn around. I started crying again.
Finally I was able to turn around. Everybody was crying…
Even Rick had tears running down his face…
The workshop lasted a whole week, and Rick told me that I had to work toward forgiveness…
The story then goes into this process, the woman writing a letter to her dad… a dead man… and much else. Looks like there are many similarities to AA, but it also strikes me how the emphasis often is on forgiveness, rather than on making amends. This is one thing that strikes me because Bill Wilson’s bunch may mostly have had to make amends; they were strongwilled and powerful people who had much opportunity to do wrong. Many of the people in these stories, while they of course often had trodden in their tormentors’ footsteps, often had more issues with forgiveness. Something I can relate to myself. My 9th step process around my dad was mostly about forgiveness, and I did get to – just in time before he died.
Guantanamo Move Over!
Most of the people in these stories tell what happened to them in great detail. This is what makes the book so hauntingly alive.
Up into the early sixties many children were taken away from their homes, often alcoholic homes, or given up by parents who knew nothing of the hell that was waiting for their children in the Catholic Indian Missions. The passage below, from “George Speaks”, is by no means the worst, and far from the only one. It gets worse. The whole book is full of accounts like these. The vividness of the accounts makes the book hard to read from time to time. By the time you’re halfway through “Serene Speaks” it is almost unbearably painful to read. The women tell about the sexual abuse, and you lose a sense of how many times they were raped. Violence in general is a thread through the stories, just like in most alcoholic homes, but here it is told straight from the heart, and in such detail that it makes it more real than any other “what it was like” stories I have ever read or heard. We may note in passing that Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools were often as bad as the Catholic schools.
Here is one childhood account:
It was about 5 o’clock in the morning. Right after the alarm went off those damn nuns would come walking down the aisle by each bed to check and see who wet the bed. There were a number of us who wet the bed. Then they would make us take our sheets off our bed. They herded us down to the basement where there were rows of sinks. In front of the sinks there were some bar stools. All the boys who had wet the bed had to sit on the stool in front of their sink and put a urine soaked sheet over their heads. You had no way of knowing whether or not you had your own sheet because they were all mixed up. We had to sit there for an hour with these sheets over our heads. We couldn’t talk or anything. And we had to miss breakfast. After an hour, you had to walk to the sink and wash out the sheet and hang it up. After this we could go to class, and we were usually late.
In spite of all the abuse at the missions some of the kids would internalize the Catholicism.
I still feel some resentment for my second sponsor. I think it’s because he was so representative, a summary if you will, of everything that had been so repressive in my life. I was attracted to how solid and comfortable he seemed. He had seemed to reach some goals in his life that I wished I could reach. Having grown up in the Catholic faith I had some trust in him because he was also Catholic. His implied behavior and comments were prejudiced, but I think he would have denied it if I would have told him so… I think he feared that he would lose me to the Indian ways and then feel rejected. Indirectly on more than one occasion he was critical of our people. I was always uncomfortable when he did that. I was a nice guy and didn’t say anything. I had been taught all my life that the Indian religion and traditional ways were paganistic and wrong. I feared ever becoming close to it. Yet I had this secret curiosity about my people’s ways. But I didn’t dare get too close to it or else I would go to Hell when I died…
I stopped attending AA meetings on a regular basis around 1986. I was becoming convinced that AA was not “the” answer for me. I still had no relief from the incredible fear that I carried… But most of all what I heard over and over was “If you will just work these twelve steps you will get better”… I think that some of the people in AA were blinded by AA itself as if it were a cure-all. They couldn’t see or didn’t want to admit, that I needed some help outside of AA. After all, they seemed to believe that my fear of going crazy was a result of my alcoholism.
Not the first time that we in AA have put the cart before the horse. In so many instances the alcohol was not initially the problem but the cure for our underlying problem, so long as it worked, and years later, while arresting the ensuing alcoholism is bound to make much of life less complicated, we know full well it will not fix the underlying problem.
Bill Wilson and his bunch of alcoholics were Type A personalities, well educated white business and professional men who had been in positions of power. This is not the case for many of us. For many of us the struggle is not with strong egos that need to be deflated, but with fears so strong that no ego was left, and if anything, egos needed to be built, not deflated.
Having suffered years of abuse in a Catholic Indian Mission or in severely alcoholic homes or, in some of the cases, downright evil foster homes appears to not have left much ego to deflate for some of these people.
This is one of the reasons this book is so powerful to me. These are bottom of society people whom I identify much more with than Bill Wilson’s bunch. Sure, many of those wound up in the gutter, but one often gets the feeling that part of their project was to restore upper middle class losers, as much as it was to restore alcoholics. They were out to help their own kind.
What it was like
One wants to use the adjective “unbelievable” about these stories. But that’s just it: No matter how horrendous they get – they aren’t. And while we in AA have this idea that people should curb their drunkalog, and while even talking about our bad childhood is discouraged because we are now supposed to take responsibility for our life, so there’s no point in talking about what’s water under the bridge, this book gets into both, full bore. And I like that. While it is true that we can’t change what happened in the past, we can only take responsibility for the present, I think AA nowadays discourages talking about it to such a degree that it often becomes difficult to process it in a meaningful and helpful way.
A newcomer recently said that she was grateful a couple of us had talked about what our drinking was like – made it much easier for her to identify. It can be much more useful than when stuffy old-timers talk about “the solution” – newcomers can’t identify with that yet.
It makes me forget “what it was like” when I don’t hear anyone talk about it.
I probably wasn’t that bad, just had a couple of years with bad luck…
This book confirms what we have known for a long time: We can’t do it alone, and we don’t have to try to do it alone. It’s once we admit that we’re in over our heads, and that we need help, that recovery begins. And that’s no different here than in any other recovery program that works.
Wounded Warriors: A Time for Healing, by Doyle Arbogast, was published in 1995. It is available at Amazon.
life-j got sober in Oakland in 1988. He’s been involved in service work of every kind ever since, but now thinks the most important work is to help atheists and agnostics feel safe and welcome in AA. He’s spent parts of his life as a building contractor, part as a technical translator, and has dabbled a bit in art work and writing.
He has written a number of articles for AA Agnostica, including:
- A Grapevine Book for Atheists and Agnostics in AA (September 7, 2014)
- Yet Another Intergroup Fight (March 2, 2014)
- My Path in AA (June 30, 2013)