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A Straight Answer to the Ultimate Question

Bill Moyers and his family were onstage with me to discuss coming through the hell of addiction to the health and hope of recovery. Suddenly, a desperate cry for help came from the audience.

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The author with the Moyers photo via

By Susan Cheever

03/19/13

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When William Cope Moyers asked me to moderate a panel at the 92nd Street Y where he and his parents would talk about addiction in families, I said yes—with some trepidation. Bill and Judith Moyers are heroes of mine, TV royalty with a dozen PBS specials on literature and social justice to their credit and a handful of Emmys and Peabody Awards.

Addiction in families is a subject in which I have experience both as a wife and as a daughter. My father was an alcoholic when I was growing up, and after he got sober he had to deal with my own alcoholism. It’s hell to be an addict, controlled by destructive forces that are as confusing as they are powerful. But in some ways it is even more painful to be the spouse, parent, child or sibling of someone in the grip of addiction.

“We know that addiction is a cunning and baffling illness that isn’t easy to overcome,” William Cope Moyers writes in Now What?, his powerful new memoir and "insider's guide" to addiction and recovery, includes moving introductions by both his parents. “ What makes it uniquely different from other chronic and fatal diseases, such as diabetes or hypertension, is the flood of emotions—hate, anger, fear, frustration, shame and grief—that almost always propel us into behaviors and decisions that get in the way of finding help."

Before he was on television, Bill Moyers worked for two presidents, LBJ and JFK, and he and his wife, Judith, have been married for 58 years and have three sons. William Cope Moyers is a recovering drug addict whose five years of relapses drove his parents to the limits of their love and tolerance. He has been sober since 1994, and now works at Hazelden as vice-president of affairs and community relations helping other addicts. 

Like the Moyers, I know what it's like to love an addict. I remember the white-hot rages, the sudden waves of hopelessness, the dark confusions that controlled me when I was married to an alcoholic in the 1990s. I begged him to stop; he tried to stop. Like Bill Wilson, he made pledge after pledge; like Lois Wilson, I tried to believe him. Alcoholics are inspired liars, and I spent hours trying to pick real information out of the stories he told me. When he said he was going to drink, I counted his pours. When he said he wasn’t drinking, I considered hiring a private detective to see if he was. Instead of taking care of our children, I was reduced to being an ineffective, infuriated caretaker for another adult. I was sober, but the program that had restored me to sanity didn’t work when it came to dealing with my husband.

I came to the first question from the audience. I expected something easy. Instead someone had scrawled: What do you do if you don’t want to live?

The Moyers, like many families, have their own version of this tragedy. William Cope Moyers was a golden boy, a seemingly perfect son. He did well at school and excelled at athletics. Not until he was married with two children and a successful journalist did his addiction catch up with him. One day he disappeared. No one could find him. He called his wife, and his parents had the call traced to Harlem. His mother, by that time an acclaimed television producer, found herself wandering around Harlem in a blue linen dress with a string of pearls looking for her son in a row of crack houses. She found him and begged him to come home; he refused.

One of my jobs that night at the 92nd Street Y was to read out questions the audience had written on index cards. I came to the first question from the audience. I expected something easy about rehabs or the usefulness of Al Anon meetings for families of alcoholics. Instead, in pencil, someone had scrawled: What do you do if you don’t want to live?

The stage at the 92nd Street Y is under lights and the audience is shrouded in darkness. I sat there, frozen. Should I just put the heartbreaking question at the bottom of the pile and go on to the next? How could any of us answer a question like that? True, I had been at a point where I no longer wanted to live, and I knew William had as well, but talking about this onstage in front of hundreds of people just seemed beyond me.

The wise Bill Moyers would know what to do! I passed him the card. He read it—and quickly passed it to Judith. As William was telling the audience about his relapses, his mother looked at the card. Then she handed it to him. Fearlessly, William read the question out loud. What do you do if you don’t want to live?

“Only for a split-second was I tongue-tied,” he wrote later in his Hazelden Blog, "Beyond Addiction." “It took just a moment for me to get the spark of words down from my brain and out my mouth.” William looked out into the darkness of the audience and spoke directly to the unknown writer of the question, urging him to get help, reminding him that there were many people who could help him, asking him to stay and find William after the event.

It was that moment that showed the seriousness of what we were talking about more than anything any of us could say. Onstage at a major cultural institution were four people who had come through the hell of family addiction and were able to talk about it from the relative security of different kinds of recovery. The question, which came straight from that hell, reminded us of the desperate importance of our subject.

Later, with some difficulty, William tracked down the person who wrote the question and had a long talk with him. He is now in the third week of his stay at a treatment facility.

Susan Cheever, a columnist for The Fix, is the author of many books, including the memoirs Home Before Dark and Note Found in a Bottle, and the biography My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson—His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous. 

Home page photo via.

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