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Let’s celebrate 40 years of sobriety

13 February 2010 1,040 views No Comment

Ross Fitzgerald has plenty to write about in this memoir. He is the author of 32 published books, a broadcaster, film producer, columnist, academic, outspoken opponent of Queensland’s Bjelke-Petersen regime, political commentator and current and past member of numerous bodies ranging from the NSW State Parole Authority to the NSW Heritage Council. He is also a fellow book reviewer for the Herald, although it should be pointed out that we have never met.

Despite these achievements, it is immediately obvious that the defining characteristic of Fitzgerald’s life is that he is an alcoholic, albeit one who has been sober for 40 years. So, although this book is his life story, told in chronological order, it is as much a meditation on the nature of alcoholism and the virtues of Alcoholics Anonymous as it is autobiography.

When I read on the dustjacket that Fitzgerald has been sober since he was 25, I wondered what all the fuss was about. After all, he wasn’t drinking for very long. The first couple of chapters, however, quickly exposed my naivete. Fitzgerald had a very unhappy childhood, caused, it seems, by an innate emotional fragility combined with his parents’ inability to overcome the infant death of his elder brother. His mother, Edna, appears to have responded to the death with a refusal or inability to show her living son sufficient love, care or affection. Fitzgerald’s father comes across as a much kinder but ineffectual parent.

Fitzgerald surmises that if he had not taken up drinking, he would probably have committed suicide by the time he was 17. Instead, he started on the booze at 15 and soon his idea of a Saturday night out was to sit in the local cemetery drinking a flagon of wine. It didn’t make him happy but he stayed alive. Remarkably, despite the drinking, Fitzgerald was a brilliant student, topping most subjects and gaining a vital scholarship to university. There, initially, he also had great academic success, again despite spending almost all of his time in the pub.

He must have been a charismatic and intelligent young man, because although the drinking got far worse and was compounded by addiction to prescription drugs, he managed to have relationships with several women and bluff his way into research and teaching positions in the US. There, however, his drug and alcohol use escalated to the point where he spent 15 months in mental institutions.

He was eventually sent back to Australia, where he encountered AA and at 25 began the period of sobriety that has extended to this day and enabled him to be a stable and happy husband and father, as well as sustain a remarkable working life.

The first third of the book covers Fitzgerald’s unhappy childhood and drink-soaked early adult years. It’s a sad fact that people – or perhaps it is just me – find stories about troubled lives more entertaining than those about happy and balanced people. As a narrative, the book reaches its climax a little too early. Fitzgerald’s life after he stopped drinking is amazing, full of incredible achievements that dwarf those of most people. But the pages devoted to this part of his life don’t provide the same thrill and excitement as those covering the drinking years.

However, this is a memoir, not a work of fiction. Fitzgerald couldn’t choose retrospectively to extend his drinking for another 10 years just to entertain his readers. And, importantly, in the latter pages he has many profound things to say about alcoholism and the nature of humanity. Most interesting are his thoughts on AA, particularly his experiences as an atheist within an organisation where Christianity dominates. As this fact suggests, Fitzgerald has always been, above all, an iconoclast and this book illuminates all the joy and suffering of that state of being.

David Messer, Sydney Morning Herald, February 13, 2010