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It’s more than just a memoir

15 February 2010 4,806 views One Comment

‘My Name Is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’ is more than just a memoir. As Ross Fitzgerald makes clear, this is a book with a message. It can be located at the end of Chapter 10 where the author writes that one of the functions of this work is to reinforce this simple message , that “an alcoholic is a sick person who can recover, not a bad person who needs to get good, or a weak person who needs to be strong.

Later on, Professor Fitzgerald comments that “alcoholism is such an insidious disease that, unless we learn to deeply remember what happened to us under its influence, it can convince us that we are OK now and that somehow, despite all the evidence, we can drink with impunity or fix ourselves up on our own.

This missive of My Name Is Ross is that it is crucial for alcoholics to remain vigilant and to learn how to live life on life’s terms , which, for an alcoholic, is particularly challenging.

I have known Ross for close to two decades. We disagree on some issues. However, before we met, I admired his article “Inside Alcoholics Anonymous which was published in Quadrant in October 1982. Previously I had enjoyed the radical leftie teacher character Craig Steppenwolf , which Ross developed with his friend Barry Humphries in 1975, the final year of Gough Whitlam’s government, for Humphries’ show At Least You Can Say You’ve Seen It.

The very funny script was published in Quadrant in November 1975 , the final scene had Craig hanging out in the Ho Chi Minh unisex toilet block at West Camberwell High where he continued his profession as a de-educational strategist.

It so happened that the cover of the November 1975 issue of Quadrant was the only book or magazine in the Henderson abode which our elder daughter Elizabeth ever disfigured when she was an infant. Elizabeth drew horns on Craig Steppenwolf , as depicted by Barry Humphries. Our younger daughter Johannah’s one act of literary vandalism in infancy occurred when she ripped pages out of the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer. Johannah left the Douay, or Catholic, version of The Bible unharmed. As Craig Steppenwolf was wont to say: “Do you read me?

Ross and I first made personal contact at The Sydney Institute quite some time ago. As Ross acknowledges in his book, he is somewhat self-absorbed, has a “personality that brings out criticism in spades from others, and a little bit of him goes a long way. Yet we get on well. He calls me “brother and I call him “Ross.

Ross can also be alarmingly frank. When a mutual male acquaintance in his late thirties, who had not married, told Ross some years ago that he was engaged to be married, Ross replied: “Congratulations. What’s his name. The person in question is now a father.

We discussed Ross’ proposed memoirs at our occasional lunches over recent years and I suggested the subtitle: “An Alcoholic’s Journey. It seemed to me that what was important about Ross’ life story is that an alcoholic can become sober and live a successful life and enjoy a successful career.

I was pleased to accept Ross’ invitation to launch his compelling book and I congratulate Phillipa McGuiness and the team at the University of New South Wales Press for the decision to publish this important memoir.

Ross Fitzgerald commenced drinking alcohol, while a student at Melbourne Boys High School, in mid 1959 , aged 14 and a half years. He had his last liquored refreshment just over a decade later , in November 1969 , and gave up abusing prescription pills on Australia Day 1970, just after his 25th birthday. Ross regards his sobriety as commencing on this date and he clocked up 40 years as a sober man on this day last week. Full recovery took some years. Well done Ross.

A reading of the early chapters of My Name is Ross reveals the young Ross as a narcissistic, alcoholic, depressive. By the end of the book it is clear that two of these conditions are in remission.

As for the narcissism. Well , Anne Henderson (who unfortunately has another commitment this evening) drew my attention to the photographic library in the middle of My Name Is Ross. It contains no fewer than two dozen images of the author.

Then there is the account of young Ross’ sporting youth. A wicket keeper for the Victorian Schoolboys team. A bowler, who opened the pace attack for a university team. A batsman who once made a century. The declaration of such achievements reminded me of an old ditty to narcissism, which I have slightly revamped for the occasion:

I am the batsman and the bat
I am the bowler and the ball
The wicket keeper
The pavilion cat
My name is Ross
I do it all.

Perhaps not quite everything. For the author reveals that he can’t cook a chop, or wash a sock, or put in an electric light bulb , but has always been able to find a woman who can handle such essential tasks. Or almost always.

My Name Is Ross is very much a tribute to the teetotal Lyndal Moor, whom Ross met when he was a recovering alcoholic and whom he married in November 1976. Lyndal is some dish and was Australian Photographic Model of the year in 1970. Like me, Ross married a non-adoring type. One of the gorgeous Lyndal’s strengths is that she does not put up with all of Ross’ crap , including his obsessive focus on his various medical conditions , all of which, reader beware, are listed in these memoirs.

In the book Partners (which Ross co-edited with Anne Henderson), Lyndal cited some of Ross’ illnesses , from “cancer of the little finger to “anything anyone else has, especially if it is in the news.

In his chapter in Growing Old (Dis)gracefully , which was co-edited with Lyndal ,Ross described Lynda as someone who is not the slightest bit interested in illnesses. So much so that, to a Ross refrain that he didn’t feel very well, Lyndall remarked: “Darling, the pyramids were built by people who didn’t feel very well.

Ross’ story of his life as an alcoholic is brutally frank. Put simply, he was a loathsome, rage-filled, drunk. Under the influence, Ross drew up serious plans to murder two women who had dumped him. He never paid bills or the rent. There were numerous suicide attempts, unsuccessful of course, including driving a stolen car off Camden Bridge in Sydney’s west. And there was time spent in psychiatric units and memory loss resulting from ECT (or shock treatment) and alcohol-induced amnesia.

Ross relates how, during his years on the booze, he was sacked by two universities. This seems a bit harsh, on reflection. In my days as a student in the late 1960s and as an academic in the early 1970s, our alcoholic academics enjoyed permanent tenure , along with permanent access to the staff bar.

As Ross now concedes, he was an unprincipled user of young women. Readers of My Name Is Ross might well conclude that Tony Abbott’s advice to his young daughters not to screw around was soundly based. Fortunately, Ross escaped revenge attacks from the siblings or friends of his aggrieved young female victims. But as one woman wrote to Ross, when rejecting his clumsy attempt at apology some years later, “obviously, you are still the same vicious shit.

As someone who has consumed an alcoholic beverage at the Moor/Fitzgerald household while enjoying Lyndal’s fine cuisine, I can attest that Ross is not a wowser. He is comfortable being in the presence of alcohol. It’s just that he cannot trust himself to be home alone with booze. Ross understands, from painful experience, that some of us cannot successfully consume alcohol.

I have always held the view that there is something to be said for alcohol. Let’s be frank. Without some Australians having been under the influence, some of us would not be here today. I have not done any research on this (perhaps I should apply to the Australian Research Council for a grant , it funds much more trivial topics than this). However, I suspect that quite a few of my generation, especially those of Irish-Catholic background, were conceived on a Saturday night with a little help from Mr Carlton-United and/or Ms Penfolds , perhaps even a little Johnnie Walker.

This, of course, does not apply to the Fizgerald/Moor offspring , the beautiful Emily, who is here this evening. Emily was conceived when her father had been sober for over a decade. Ross relates how he was not allowed to be present at Emily’s birth , and then concedes that this did not upset him one bit. I concur. It has always seemed to me that, for men of our generation, the real challenge was to have been present at the conception , rather than at the birth. A task which is becoming increasingly challenging due to modern technology and lifestyle changes.

There are many insights into Ross in this memoir. When I first ate out with Ross, I was surprised that he insisted on ordering the dessert before entrée or main-course , and then obsessively checking with the waiter to ensure that his ice-cream was still in situ. It turns out that this is a family tradition, inherited from his father’s side.

Readers of My Name Is Ross will learn that, with at least one person, the author has enjoyed a telepathic communication. There is much to be said for this , especially for those intent on reducing their telephone bills. Also, on occasions, Ross “speaks directly to the moon and the sea and the stars. It is not clear whether any of these entities respond.

My Name Is Ross is an entertaining read with some witty anecdotes of tales told at various Alcoholics Anonymous meetings around the world. But it is also a significant work , especially for its message about the link between depression and alcohol and drug abuse and the causal connection between addiction and some suicides or attempted suicides.

Here Ross’ advice is direct. Those afflicted with alcoholism should deal with their drinking problem first and then see what’s left of any other conditions. After becoming sober, invariably they will find that their acute depression was inflamed by alcohol or other drugs.

Before Ross moved to Sydney from Brisbane, I arranged for him to make a reservation at the (then) University and Schools Club on Phillip Street. On each occasion, prior to arriving at the Club, Ross used to ensure that all liquor was removed from the mini-bar in his room. I then understood just what a challenge each and every day is for Ross. As he writes: “Each day not drinking alcohol or using other drugs is the paramount fact about my life.

Ross knows that he is still living on borrowed time because he remains powerless over alcohol. He also understands that, without alcohol, he can manage his depression. With alcohol he would revert to what he once was , a narcissistic, rage-fuelled, alcoholic depressive , and quickly die.

Lyndal Moor has been central to Ross remaining sober along with some of Ross’ friends who are mentioned in these memoirs. Ross has also benefited from the great work of Alcoholic Anonymous. AA preaches an uncomplicated faith , if a sober alcoholic does not “pick up a drink, he or she will not revert to the insidious disease of alcoholism. It’s as straight forward , and as difficult , as that.

Alcoholics Anonymous is a path-breaking organisation , all the more so because it refuses to accept public or private funding. It’s all about people dealing with, and resolving, their own problems. And it’s all about dry alcoholics supporting each other in an endeavour not to “pick-up each and every day.

Ross reflects on AA’s lack of sentimentality. He quotes George E. Valliant’s seminal work The Natural History of Alcoholism Revisited to the effect that so-called harm-minimisation by controlled drinking is but a mirage. For alcoholics, only the abstinence model works.

In his memoirs Ross wonders out loud how he became responsive to AA when so many men and women, who were and are much kinder and smarter than he, never managed to get sober for any extended time. To me this seems due to Ross’ sometimes annoying persistence. But it works.

Persistence got Lyndal to what used to be called the altar , assisted, fortuitously, by her determination never go out with a man who could change a light bulb. Persistence has ensured Ross’ professional success over four decades. And persistence has kept Ross true to the principles of AA.

Once again, I congratulate New South for publishing My Name Is Ross and I call on the author of this quite courageous memoir to make some comments. His name is Ross.

Gerard Henderson, The Sydney Institute, 2 February 2010

One Comment »

  • Helene Gaul said:

    I heard the interview with Ross Fitzgerald on the ABC late on 5 February 2012. I was enthralled by his story as my 39 year old son lost his battle with alcohol on 4 December 2011. I wish he could have been like Ross and still be alive. Congratulations Ross.