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Listening to John Berryman

john berryman addiction

John Berryman was famous as a poet and an alcoholic. After age 45, he attended at least six residential treatment centers in Minnesota, where he lived. Perhaps foreshadowing what would happen to him, he was outside Dylan Thomas’s hospital room in 1952, when the great poet died of alcoholism in St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City.

Berryman wrote his only novel, Recovery, a year before he died at age 57. It’s an autobiographical story. The main character, Alan Severance, is a professor as Berryman was. Severance had been through treatment several times, as had Berryman. Severance is haunted by his father’s suicide, as was Berryman. The author even called the treatment facility Howarden, an obvious reference to the famous Hazelden treatment center, birthplace of 12-step based treatment, which Berryman had attended.

Although the manuscript was unfinished at the time of Berryman’s death, and no doubt he would have made changes to it, the novel takes us on Severance’s daily experiences through the first four steps of the 12-step program. In many ways, the novel is a textbook on how Hazelden’s model is supposed to work in real life. We find the typical ideas underlying 12-step based treatment: confrontational tactics in therapy, the “contracts” of a behaviorist program, addiction defined as a “selfish disease.” Common are the stock sayings in the model, such as “We are as sick as we are secret,” and the ready-made answers: “One of her two alcoholic brothers had gone through treatment and rung her up drunk two days after his discharge—‘He just accepted everything,’ she told them, ‘he never surrendered,’ and, ‘He did it for his wife.’” Each chapter brings to the surface the barriers that have kept Severance sick. must overcome: coping skills and secrets that have kept him sick. He is particularly confused over step one, admitting that he is powerless over alcohol and that his life has become unmanageable. By the end, we discover that what is profoundly feeding his addiction is his unresolved feelings over his father’s suicide.

As the story progresses, Severance sheds—or, at least, gains awareness of—his personal delusions that have trapped him in sickness: arrogance with those around him, sexualized relationships with women, guilt over how he treated his three wives, avoidance of spirituality, struggles to be honest with himself, and on and on. Particularly important is his obsessive belief that it was the “missing years and his father” which damned him. Severance worries that if he can’t make sense of his father’s suicide, he will drink himself to death. In the end, he seems to reach something of an epiphany, concluding that hanging onto his confusion provides him with a reason to keep drinking.

This all sounds good, except that Berryman, himself, the notorious alcoholic, who had completed 12-step based treatment six times, got drunk one day and jumped off the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minnesota. His novel, Recovery, was published posthumously the following year. It seems as though the answers that Berryman discovered in his novel were simply not enough for the real person.

What happened? In this blog, we examine his novel and see if it offers any clues to what happened to Berryman.

Berryman Focused on the Past

In the novel, Howarden’s treatment program puts great emphasis on past behaviors. It is by examining the past that clients discover just how unmanageable their lives have become.

Much of the main character’s treatment at Howarden consisted of examining the unmanageability of his life: affairs, drunken lectures to students, little contact with his son, times when he was unsure how he acted because of the alcohol. Guilt over drunken behaviors is a big theme in the novel.

There is relatively little about his present life and what he wants to achieve in the future. It’s as if the character really has no life that offers him hope for fulfillment.

Perhaps this is one more example of the danger of focusing on the past when you don’t have much going on in the present. Such a focus seems to magnify guilt and embarrassment.

Berryman Lived in his Imagination

Berryman’s character has a habit of living in his imagination. In fact, the world of his imagination seems to be a lot more interesting and a lot more important that his real life.

As he works through the first few steps, he thinks about all sorts of insights from poets and great thinkers. Some of his confusion about his present life seems more about his struggle to live in his imagination versus in the world of work and relationships.

One has the feeling that Berryman’s character is looking for answers too high up and too far away. He would seem to be better off if his feet were planted more firmly in the real world.

Berryman Paid too Much Attention to What Others Said

What is noticeable about Berryman’s character is that he tries to make sense of his life according to Howarden’s interpretation of the first four steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Step one seems to be almost unnerving to him, as he tries to figure out how his life is unmanageable. He doesn’t trust himself, unsure whether what he is thinking is simply a delusion. If he is deluded, then how can he know whether his conclusion that his life is a mess is real or simply one more delusion?

When Berryman’s character does focus on things that are important to him, his therapist dismisses his ideas as those of an addict in denial, whose thinking is wonky.

One wonders how Berryman’s character would make sense of his drinking if he used another framework to make sense of his life, rather than Howarden’s interpretation of the steps.

Berryman Never Understood That his Drinking was a Problem of Meaning

Berryman’s character is confused and struggles to make sense of his suffering. On the one hand, he’s worked hard to be a poet, achieve fame and wealth, and gain respect from his peers. On the other hand, he is a womanizer and an alcoholic. He just can’t understand it. The only thing he figures out is that he struggles to make sense of his father’s suicide. He concludes that the key to his recovery is not to focus on this issue because it gives him a reason to drink. This all seems far too weak to make sense of his drinking.

Berryman, himself, said in an interview that he was bored with life. He seemed to accept this as a fact over which he had no control. Boredom is, as Viktor Frankl taught us, the hallmark symptom of a life that has no personal meaning.

It’s odd that Berryman never mentioned this boredom in a novel, which is all about himself.

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