Pitiful Creatures: Eugene O’Neill, Irish Fathers, Irish Sons

No one I can think of has better understood alcoholism through the embodiment of his art than Eugene O’Neill. The plays give us the no-exit labyrinth, the guilt, shame, resentment, grandiosity, self-pity, horror—plus a thousand other shades of psychological and existential hell—that is alcoholism, without distortion or the slightest sweetening. And then the plays go further, much further—they make us feel that this is actually the human condition, only magnified by alcoholism. We see by O’Neill’s terrifying slight of hand that the trope of addiction applies to being itself: all in this life is lost, is loss, no matter how or to what we try to hold. And what then is the place of love, O’Neill keeps asking, which comes into those lost lives with such startling and unquenchable power?

Nancy J. Andreasen, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa with a PhD in English, did a 15-year study of creative writers on the faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She found that 30 percent of the writers were alcoholics, compared with 7 percent in the comparison group of nonwriters. I was terrified that when I quit drinking I would stop writing, or not write as well, as if booze was my Samson-hair, and once shorn I would lose my powers. Counselors pointed out the irony when I told them this fear: “Well, you may not write as well when you’re sober. You may not write at all. On the other hand, you won’t write much of anything if you’re dead.” O’Neill had the same fear, as have countless artists before and since. The notion that “spirits” aid creation is an atavistic one. There may even be a grain of truth to it. But the myth has been a damming one for generations of writers. Of the Americans of his era to win the Nobel in Literature—Faulkner, Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis, Hemingway, and O’Neill, O’Neill was the only one to get sober. I held to this fact, to O’Neill’s example, in the days of my early sobriety, when what I wanted more than anything in the world was a drink. Ah, but when did I want just a drink? Never.

Was Eugene O’Neill a bad father to his children? Well. He was a good father to me.

     Compared to sons of nonalcoholics, sons of alcoholics were relatively more compulsive, insecure and fearful while being
     more subdued and detached.
     —Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs

Towards the end of his life my father would sometimes say to me, “I think I could drink now,” and given the pain he was in through his last years I would not have blamed him. But he never did. He knew—there was a stain somewhere he was trying to erase. He was sober for himself first, and after that he was sober for me, and for those still suffering out in the streets. I remember him ringing the bell for Salvation Army, year after year. I remember him loaning money he knew he’d never get back to employees he knew were drunks. I remember, in the years he was sober but I was not—not yet—how he would show me the sobriety token he kept in his pocket. He’d say nothing, just place the dull brass coin in my hand. He was a good father.