Susan Cheever on Her Father's Sober Last Days

By Susan Cheever 03/22/11
John Cheever was a great American writer—and a notorious alcoholic. But he gave his daughter a model of sobriety in his final years that she would call upon to support her own recovery. Now she gives thanks to his memory.
Susan and her father, John Cheever. Photo: ©Nancy Crampton

My first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting was on a spring evening in a Presbyterian Church parish house in 1975. I was just visiting. My father was a few weeks out of rehab, and after dinner he had asked me if I wanted to come along to his AA meeting to keep him company. At the meeting, a group of pleasant-looking suburbanites sat around a long rectory table; when one man talked about going to Yale and becoming a successful banker and being arrested for driving drunk, I felt sorry for him. I had never been arrested for drunk driving.

On the wall were two white window shades illustrated with printed lists. For some reason, I focused on one word near the top: unmanageable. I was a thirty-something woman in a prestigious dead-end job, writing for a magazine that had never had a woman at the top editorial level. I was divorced from my first husband, and involved with two married men. I couldn’t live on my income. When I saw that word—unmanageable—I knew it didn’t refer to me. It referred to sad cases like my father, who had had delirium tremens and heart attacks and dozens of people begging him to stop drinking.

My father had finally gotten sober in his sixties after years of medical emergencies and social embarrassments, “controlled” drinking that never lasted, appointments with psychiatrists, drugs to make him less anxious, and doctors’ warnings about the dire effects of too much whiskey and gin. In the decade before he went to rehab, my brothers and I got so used to visiting him in the intensive care unit of the local hospital that we made a point of stealing a “No Parking” sign from the hospital lot every time he was discharged. When he died, we joked, we would take the big “One Way” sign at the entrance.

But he surprised us, and perhaps himself. He spent 28 days in a rehab that he said he hated: Smithers, in the old Billy Rose mansion on East 93rd Street, in New York City. He threatened to walk out almost every day. Yet he emerged—it sounds dramatic, I know—a different man. He had always been a slob in the kitchen; now he asked me to show him how to work the dishwasher. He learned how to cook; he especially enjoyed the textures of the pastry and meat in Beef Wellington. He listened. He asked questions. He was kind. It was like having a wonderful father whom I barely remembered return from the dead miraculously restored. He went to a lot of AA meetings, and I often went with him for companionship.

In the years when he was sober, my father followed the teachings of AA to the letter—we should carry the message of sobriety through attraction rather than promotion, cofounder Bill Wilson wrote. Wilson was a salesman, but he knew that alcoholics can’t be told what to do. For an alcoholic, proselytizing often activates defiance. My father was very active in trying to help people he knew who had problems with alcohol. He sponsored some of my childhood friends. Yet he never mentioned to me that he thought I might have a drinking problem. Instead he showed me what the rewards of sobriety might be—largely thanks to the joy he seemed to finally find during his own storybook sobriety.

Within two years of leaving Smithers he had written his most powerful novel, Falconer, which reached number one on the New York Times best-seller list. He appeared on the cover of Newsweek. In 1979 he won the Pulitzer Prize for his collected short stories. 

Looking back in the years since his death, though, I can see that he knew I had a drinking problem. When we met for lunch, usually at the Algonquin Hotel, he always got there early, as sober people tend to do. I was always 10 minutes late, although I was coming from only two blocks away. When I arrived, my father would already have ordered our drinks—a club soda for him and a white wine for me. He knew how much it meant to me to have a drink waiting. One alcoholic to another, he understood the anxiety of having to order and count the minutes before that first sip, that first tingling feeling, that first relief.

Children of alcoholics are four times more likely to be alcoholic than children of nonalcoholics. Perhaps recovery also has a genetic or hereditary component. Are the children and grandchildren of sober men and women four times as likely to get sober? The first A.A. meeting, when Bill Wilson sat down with Dr. Robert Smith in Smith’s Akron, Ohio parlor, was more than 75 years ago. There is scant research on the results of Alcoholics Anonymous, but if I had to guess, I would say that sobriety begets sobriety. In my experience, having a sober parent is one of the finest things that can happen to a child of any age.

It took a few more years for me to stop drinking. By the time I finally had my last drink almost 20 years ago, my father had been dead for 10 years. Getting sober was not easy for me. I relapsed and had to start over. But during those dark times when I didn’t think I could ever stop drinking, I often thought of my father’s example. Seeing someone else get sober makes it easier to believe in the possibility of change—a possibility we often call hope. If second-generation recovery has its own characteristics, one of them is certainly gratitude to those who have gone before us, attracting rather than promoting.





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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. You can find her on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.