A FAMILY DISEASE
Before the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) were fully articulated, Eugene O'Neill dramatized remarkably two of the central characteristics that make alcoholism a family disease: denial, and enabling or acquiescence in the development of the disease. In Long Day's Journey Into Night (1940), O'Neill created a family whose members reinforce each others' addictions and who use morphine, whoring, and greed as opiates analogous to alcohol.
Bill Wilson and a few friends were just beginning the famous AA self-help program for alcoholics in 1935-1941; now the program is practiced world-wide, and recovering alcoholics explain that sufferers of this disease dread and despise their loss of control even as they drink compulsively. Most go to elaborate lengths to deny their drinking problems. They hide their bottles, boast of their tolerance for booze, and pretend to social drinking patterns or even abstinence. They divert energy and money from other realms of life to conceal and support their addiction. They shift blame to others when their disease becomes hard to deny or conceal. They encourage others to join in, in an attempt to make their own addiction seem normal. Guilt progressively overwhelms them.
Each of these addictive behaviors is exhibited by Tyrone family members in Long Day's Journey. Although all three men drink heavily, Jamie is most frequently acknowledged to be a drunk. Whoring and gambling too, he has been fired from colleges and jobs, berates himself for his vices, waters his father's whiskey bottles to conceal his boozing, and blames Mary's addiction for his own. At 33, he shows physical disintegration in O'Neill's stage directions. His father, James Tyrone, though claiming he has never missed a performance, also drinks heavily throughout the day, and, according to Mary, has always spent much of his free time in saloons with hard-drinking companions. He both denies that drink is a problem to him and blames his disappointment in Mary and his sons for his indulgence. O'Neill shows James Tyrone's second addiction, greed, in his turning out of lights, compulsive land speculations, and compromises on quality in medical care, cars, clothing, servants. His impoverished childhood lends credibility to these patterns in a prosperous man, and we learn that he even compromised his acting career in hope of "easy fortune" by performing too long in a single play.
Edmund, at 23, has consumption and drinks heavily all day, declaring he'll stop after diagnosis of his lung disease; but he does not. The maids' conversations tell us that surreptitious heavy drinking is usual with both sons. As modern drug abuse therapists suggest, Mary's addiction shows similar patterns. She is guilty and secretive about her morphine use, usually denies it, blames her husband, her choice of marriage instead of a career in the church or music, her sons, the loneliness she actually seeks, the death of the baby Eugene from measles carried by Jamie, her arthritic hands, and the cheap doctor engaged by James Tyrone to heal her after Edmund's birth.
After AA groups were thriving, family members who recognized how the disease disabled them began gathering in support groups, and in 1949 Al-Anon Family Groups formed in New York City, coordinating 87 groups and individuals nationwide. In 1957, a teenager whose parents were in Al-Anon and AA formed the first Alateen Group. These organizations grew and multiplied as persons affected by other people's drinking recognized the effects on families which O'Neill had dramatized ten and twenty years earlier.
Family members also deny to themselves, the drinker, and each other the power of alcoholism in a loved one. They become diseased themselves, warping their behavior to coexist with the disease. Mounting a merry-go-round of contradictions, they acquiesce in the progression of the disease through ambivalent enabling acts. For example, they may try to manipulate an alcoholic or preach will power and quick reform, giving him excuses for escape to liquor. They may pour out or hide liquor in a futile effort to reduce the drinker's intake. They may protect the alcoholic from outsiders' eyes. They may try to solve the drinker's difficulties, like bad checks or attendance problems at work, instead of allowing him to suffer the consequences for his own behavior and reach a depth of despair at which he may resolve to change, acknowledge a higher power, and seek affiliation with recovering alcoholics who can offer companionable, but candid support.
Some family members actually have masochistic or sadistic needs that are served by alcoholics; some need to control someone else and join forces with the alcohol. Men are vulnerable through their socially-expected pride in sexual adequacy. Parents are vulnerable through their impulse to protect and nurture their children. Women, still victims of double standards, are vulnerable when their impulse to honest expression collides with social pressure to accept male views and be satisfied serving others.
In Understanding Ourselves and Alcoholism (New York, 1973), Al-Anon Family Groups describe how families shrink from public exposure of their alcoholics, try to cope with the disease secretly at home, and then feel guilty, hurt, and fearful when they fail. They obsessively listen for sounds of an addict indulging and suffer anxiety watching relatives slowly kill themselves. Simultaneously, anger seethes in family members who feel deceived and unloved, and they "want to strike back, punish, make the alcoholic pay for the hurt and frustration caused by uncontrolled drinking."
In Long Day's Journey Into Night O'Neill dramatizes convincingly these behaviors that stimulate and reinforce each other. All four Tyrones enable each others' addictions. They alternate between denying each others' drinking and drugging, accusing then excusing it, and preaching instant reform by simple will power. Although their family love binds them together and occasionally moves each to try to protect the others, like living alcoholics they are each also seen suggesting drink to one or more of the others. Pouring liquor for his consumptive brother, Jamie even says, the "dead part of me hopes you won't get well ..., wants company." James Tyrone has even spooned whiskey into his infant sons and says Mary's father was an alcoholic, despite her denial. Whether susceptibility to substance abuse is hereditary or environmentally determined, O'Neill has provided sufficient conditions to make this nest of sufferers plausible.
O'Neill makes New London
fog an emblem of the opiates in the play. Mary explicitly welcomes
fog's shroud that "hides you from the world and the world from you."
She wishes the fog would always be so thick, "All the people in the
world could pass by and I would never know."
O'Neill's intention seems plain when Jamie wails that, for addiction,
"there is no cure and we've been saps to hope," and Edmund warns Mary
to remember, always to be on guard, for they are like the foghorns
that occasionally cry mournful warnings in the mist. It is the
foghorns Mary hates and blames for disturbing her, though in Act I she
does urge Jamie to "take advantage of the sunshine before the fog
comes back." Today the sunshine of AA, Al-Anon, and Alateen does guide
some families out of the fog of addiction.
Part of O'Neill's artistic achievement for me is his early and
powerful evocation of a family struggling with this virulent disease.
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