I’m at a party in Point Loma celebrating the successful conclusion of a literary event that took a great deal of time and effort to put together. Everyone involved is letting go after months of pre-planning, meeting deadlines, corresponding with finicky writers who demand this and that. We’re partying hearty, as they say in San Diego. I’m talking poetry and literature with several of the country’s best writers. The food is delicious; we’re standing outdoors on the terrace of a lovely Point Loma home with a magnificent view. Life is good. There’s just one problem. I’m drinking too much. The Chardonnay is going down like a soothing brain balm, making the night seem even more magical. I’ve got to be careful. Seven years ago I got a DUI, and that experience convinced me never again to drink and drive. But here I am at a party, drinking and having to drive home. The thought crosses my mind, “I’ll call a cab,” but it’s fleeting. “I’m not that drunk,” I tell myself.
The night continues like this, and it’s time to go. I say my good-byes and (write it!) stagger to my gold Honda Accord, enjoying the two moons that are circling above the earth tonight. “I’ll drive carefully,” I think, and I repeat, “I’m not that drunk.” I climb behind the wheel, take a deep breath, and start the engine. The streets in this part of Point Loma are hilly and winding, and I don’t know the neighborhood at all. I’ll be especially cautious. I crawl out of the parking space, make a U-turn, and head down the winding hill toward Rosecrans. Once there, getting home will be a piece of cake. But the three sisters who weave the cloth of our fate have different things in store for me on this lovely April night. Somewhere between the party and Rosecrans, a lamppost intervenes. A lamppost — not on the sidewalk, but on a center divider in the middle of one of those winding Point Loma streets. The accident happens in slow motion. Or at least it feels that way. An air bag explodes, the Honda slowly, almost gently, tilts on its side, and I find myself looking straight up at the passenger door above me. Hmm, this is interesting, I think.
I undo my seat belt and climb up toward the door, manage to get it open, and climb onto the side of the car. The night sky is luminous. I jump down onto the pavement and am almost enjoying the dream I find myself in. It is 10:30 at night, and a crowd is already forming. I think of Karl Shapiro’s poem “Auto Wreck,” which describes the feeling of people in the crowds that immediately and inevitably appear, minutes, even seconds, after an accident. (“See, I’m thinking rationally,” I tell myself, “I’m not that drunk.”)
I look up, and already the police are here, flashing red and yellow lights piercing the night’s serenity. I’m sitting on a curb trying to get my bearings. An officer approaches. He seems very young. This is one of the actualities of aging; cops look younger every year.
“Are you all right?” he asks.
“Yes, I’m fine,” I say, not even aware at the time that my knee is badly bruised, and the right answer would have been, “No, I’m hurt, I need to go to the hospital.” But who is thinking strategically under these circumstances?
“Can you stand up?” he asks me, and of course I do, intending to show him just how alert and sober I am. But the booze smell emanating from me clearly gives away the game, and he asks me, “How many drinks have you had tonight?”
“Just a couple,” I say, underestimating my total consumption by about four to five glasses of Chardonnay.
“Can I ask you to walk along this line?” he says, pointing to a crack in the sidewalk.
Since I’ve been through this before, I know the routine. This is the field sobriety test to determine whether the officer has probable cause to arrest me on suspicion of driving under the influence. I walk, placing one foot unsteadily in front of the other, feeling shaky and unbalanced. I manage to get about ten feet, swaying from side to side. Next, he stands in front of me, holds up a pencil, moves it left to right in front of my nose, and asks me to follow it with my eyes without moving my head. This seems extraordinarily hard to do. Finally, he asks me to count backwards from 100, subtracting seven each time. I think I’m doing this right, but when I later read the officer’s report, he said I began getting it wrong after 93.
Anyway, right after the field sobriety test, he asks me to clasp my hands behind my back, and I feel the cold, unmistakable chill of handcuffs locking closed around my wrists. The officer escorts me to the police car, lowers my head with his palm as they do in Law & Order, and nudges me into the back seat. He climbs behind the wheel and starts the car. He tells me we’re going downtown, where I will take a blood alcohol test; I have the choice of a Breathalyzer, a blood test, or a urine test. I vaguely recall from the first time that most lawyers recommend the Breathalyzer because it can be more easily challenged. But as I’m debating the alternatives in my mind, he punches my name into the computer built into the police car (Damn! Crooks don’t have a chance these days) and tells me, “I see this is your second arrest.”
“Yes,” I say, “but the other one was more than seven years ago. I thought you get a fresh start after seven years.”
“Let’s see,” he says, punching data into the computer. (I wonder what the accident rate is for people who operate computers while driving.) “Today’s date is April 2,” he says. “It looks like you’re 19 days short of seven years. Your last conviction will be seven years ago on April 21.”
I feel my stomach sink, and that queasy, empty feeling takes over my midsection. The handcuffs are digging into my wrists behind me, and I’m very conscious of them. When we arrive at the police station, I’m left in the car while the officer files some paperwork. After 10 or 15 minutes, he returns, uncuffs me, and escorts me into a small room where I’m given a Breathalyzer test to determine my blood alcohol content. Twice. Literally for “good measure.” Each time, despite my attempt to inhale as much of the room’s air before breathing out, I register 0.11%, which is 0.03% over the 0.08% that defines me as legally impaired. That figure will follow me around for the next year and a half, when one person after another in the drunk driving program I am sentenced to asks, “What did you blow”?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. For now, the 0.11 means that I’m going to spend the night in the drunk tank, and I’m going to be booked for a violation of Section 23152 of the Vehicle Code, “Driving Under the Influence,” formerly known as “Driving While Intoxicated.” The distinction is noteworthy. The state does not have to prove you were “intoxicated,” only that your driving was “influenced” by the intake of alcohol or drugs.
So the standard booking routine follows. I give up my wallet, keys, coins, wristwatch, and so on; I am photographed and fingerprinted; I’m taken to a dank and urine-smelling cell in which about a dozen men in various states of intoxication are lying, sprawling, leaning, pacing, sitting, and whining and moaning. There is a pay phone on the wall, and someone is always on it. I find a concrete bench about half the length of my body and lie down, closing my eyes, hoping to pass out and wake up to find this is only a nightmare. But of course it’s not, except metaphorically.
The hours pass slowly, very slowly. Minutes feel like hours, hours like whole days. After a while — God knows how long — my name is called and I’m taken to another holding cell outside a glassed-in office where a woman is interviewing detainees, one after the other. In about an hour, my name is called again and I’m cuffed again, this time to a chair, where I sit while I answer questions about any prescription drugs I need to take, and where I work, and do I have any health problems, and so on. While the questions are tedious, it feels like something of a relief to just be out of a cell and away from the stench of urine, even though I am handcuffed to a chair. Freedom is relative.
When this is over, I’m taken to another cell (it’s now about two in the morning) where there are about a half dozen sleeping or semi-sleeping guys. Every 15 minutes or so, someone’s name is called, and he is escorted from the cell to a small window that is visible from where I sit. At the window he signs some papers, gets his belongings back, and is released into the wee hours of the San Diego morning. This happens regularly until everyone who was in the cell before me is gone. Then suddenly it stops.
Another hour or so passes, and I call to one of the guards, “How come they’ve stopped calling names?” I ask.
“The computer’s down,” he says. “Won’t be back up until about 10 a.m. They update it on Sunday mornings.” Again, the sinking feeling, the queasiness. I lie down on the bench and pretend I’m sleeping.
After what seems like days, I discover that Hemingway was right when he (taking his cue from Ecclesiastes) said “the sun also rises,” and it actually is Sunday morning. The hours continue to crawl by until it’s finally 10 a.m., and like clockwork, the guard calls my name. I’ve never been so glad to hear it. By now, of course, I’m sober as a saint. I sign my name to various documents saying I’ll be in court at a certain day and time, get information about where my car is, get my things back, and walk out into the glorious sunlight. It’s an absolutely beautiful day. Nature has not noticed my arrest, nor anyone else’s. I live only about a mile from the downtown jail, so I decide to walk home. Actually, I don’t have much of a choice, since my car is at an auto wrecking yard somewhere.
After I get home, I look through the papers I’ve been given and find out just where that junkyard is. When I call them, they tell me I will have to pay daily storage for the car until I get it out of there. First things first. I call my insurance company to report the accident and tell them where the car is so their adjuster can look at it. Then I call a friend and borrow her car to go take a look at mine.
When I arrive at the junkyard, I’m truly astonished. The car — a gold 1994 Honda Accord that served me well — is a total loss. One whole side of it is accordionized, the front is bashed in, the windshield is smashed, there’s scarcely a single square foot of it that is not damaged. Both air bags had deployed and are draped across the front seat looking like spent giant condoms. It’s clearly a total loss. So I get my things from the trunk and glove compartment and sign some paper saying that the junkyard can turn the auto over to the insurance company.
I really don’t recognize the gravity of what has happened and how deeply and widely it will affect my life until the first several days of the next week, when each day my mailbox is stuffed with letters of solicitation from lawyers who specialize in defending drunk drivers. (Okay, let me be politically correct: people who are accused of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.) In all, I receive more than 30 of these solicitations, but I am very wary of hiring a lawyer at all. After my first arrest, I hired an attorney who did virtually nothing and charged me $2000 for the privilege of having her represent me. I certainly wasn’t going to hire her again. But this is a second offense, and these solicitation brochures used all sorts of scare tactics to make it seem that if you walked into a courtroom unrepresented for a second DUI offense, you should begin thinking of yourself as certifiably insane.
Finally I decide to call one of these attorneys who calls himself Mr. DUI, and when I get him on the phone he is very supportive and promising. “The DUI laws,” he says, “have gotten out of hand. The people I represent are not criminals — they’re ordinary citizens who are often being railroaded by overly zealous enforcement of the laws. They treat people who have been arrested for DUI like lepers. A rapist or murderer gets more sympathy. You need to come in right away, and I’ll give you the best defense possible. I’ve gotten a lot of people off. I’m the only attorney in San Diego County who really limits his practice to DUI offenses. I’ve got a book filled with testimonials I can show you. I know you’re getting all sorts of letters from lawyers, but most of these guys don’t know DUI law from real estate law. When can you come in?”
Mr. DUI sounds sincere and convincing. He’s very sympathetic, which is, of course, exactly what I need, and I make an appointment to see him the following day.
This is the beginning of my interface with the DUI industry in San Diego — an industry that involves literally thousands of people from judges to lawyers, counselors, and psychologists; AA groups and drug rehabilitation programs; anti-driving/drinking organizations like MADD; Breathalyzer experts; insurance companies; state and county officials; and, much to my surprise, the San Diego State University Foundation, a so-called nonprofit organization that runs an alcohol education and counseling program for the county. This is a big-money industry, and anyone convicted of drunk driving will contribute a large chunk of his or her assets to it.
When I show up at Mr. DUI’s office the next day I find his waiting area packed, filled with several dozen people of all kinds: tall, short, fat, skinny, black, white, brown, well-dressed, sloppily dressed, men, women, young, old, etc. The DUI industry is clearly an equal opportunity operation. I am handed a clipboard and a form with various questions on it and some space to describe what happened to me. I am told to fill it out, wait my turn, at which time I will watch a video before seeing Mr. DUI himself. The secretary-receptionists are behind glass, and the whole place has more of the feel of a mini-DMV office than a law office.
After about 20 minutes, the receptionist calls my name, sits me down in a cubicle with a TV, and switches on a videotape. The video conveys a sense of what can happen to you if you get convicted of a DUI and how foolish you would be to face such a terrifying prospect without the assistance of an experienced attorney. It’s essentially a sales pitch.
There is still a wait to see Mr. DUI, but I’m told that first I would want to see Mr. Ticket, whose office was within this complex of offices. A peculiar feature of a DUI is that you need to answer to two authorities: the legal system and the Department of Motor Vehicles. You need (if you care to) to defend yourself against both. Mr. Ticket handles your case before the DMV, which schedules a hearing for you within 30 days of your arrest. The hearing is to determine whether there is probable cause to suspend your license.
I am directed to Mr. Ticket’s office while waiting for Mr. DUI. (All of this is real; these lawyers actually refer to themselves in this way. It’s on their business cards.) Mr. Ticket is on the phone with his mother, but he motioned me to sit down. I sit through about 20 minutes of a “Yes, Mom…no, Mom…maybe, Mom” phone call before he is able to hang up. “Mom likes to see how I’m doing,” he says. “She always checks up on me.”
Mr. Ticket then proceeds to lay out what is to be expected from the DMV. The police have taken my license, and most likely it will be suspended for a year unless I can show that I’m not likely guilty. (Actually, the suspension will turn out to be more than two, but more about that later.) For $299 Mr. Ticket will represent me at the hearing. However, in order to really have a chance at the hearing, he tells me, we’ll need to get expert testimony from a toxicologist, and that costs another $300. All of this sounds relatively reasonable as lawyers go, but of course, I’ve not yet seen Mr. DUI.
When I do, he is seated at the grandest desk in the grandest office in the place; the wall is decorated with photos, awards, and certificates of all kinds. During the interview, he points to one of the photographs — “That was a national DUI conference held last year in Las Vegas. Do you know, I was the only lawyer from San Diego present? It’s really amazing that these other guys represent themselves as DUI experts.” Mr. DUI tells me that the reason he gets so many people acquitted of DUI charges is that law enforcement officials at all levels make mistakes, and he pores over the files personally, looking for errors that will enable him to successfully either plea bargain the charge to a lesser offense (reckless driving, illegal lane changes, etc.) or get it thrown out altogether. He shows me a phone-book–size volume of letters encased in plastic, many of them handwritten, saying how Mr. DUI was there when this or that person needed him and saved the person from years in jail, days of anguish, fear, and trembling.
Mr. DUI, sounding like he repeats this pitch at least 20 times a day, pauses after he talks about each stage of the proceedings to be expected and asks, “Do you want to hear more?” When I finally say I’ve heard enough, he slips a contract in front of me that says his total fee, if he’s able to plea bargain the case, is $1500. I thought I had heard the figure of $900 on the videotape, and I ask him about the lower fee. “That’s for first offenses,” he says. “Second offenses are much more complicated.” I sign the paper and leave him a check for a down payment. This is the last I would see of Mr. DUI until after my case is settled, when I again make a very brief appearance in his well-appointed office to sign a long, complicated document of disclaimers freeing him from any further responsibility in my case. It must require more than a dozen of my signatures or initials on various lines.
The DMV hearing occurs a few weeks after my first visit to Mr. Ticket. He appears at the hearing with me, along with the toxicologist he recommended I hire, who had interviewed me by phone asking how many drinks I had had over how many hours on that fateful night. Based on what I told him, and on the time between the accident and my taking the Breathalyzer test, he produces a chart showing that my blood alcohol level at the time of the accident could have been below 0.08.
I testify that I did not think I was under the influence when I had the accident — that I had been distracted by some lights in my rear-view mirror (the latter was true) and did not see the lamppost. Mr. Ticket makes a motion for dismissal, saying that the state has not produced a preponderance of evidence that shows I was impaired while I was driving. The hearing officer says she needs to study the specifics of the case further, and the hearing is over in about 15 minutes. On the way out, Mr. Ticket and the expert tell me they thought it had gone very well and that I would probably hear the results within ten days.
I do. My license is suspended for a year.
Okay, I take a deep breath and steel myself for a year of becoming familiar with the San Diego transit system and reliance on friends to get me here and there. I also take refuge in a fact I read somewhere that 90 percent of individuals whose licenses have been suspended for DUI offences continue to drive anyway.
The next step on the DUI ladder is to await news from Mr. DUI about the status of my court case. Unfortunately, the next time I call the law office I learn that Mr. DUI has had a heart attack, that he is recuperating well, but his legal staff is handling all his cases. Within a few weeks, one of these staffers contacts me, and I meet him in the office. He tells me he has plea bargained the DA’s office to waive the prior, meaning that I will plead guilty to driving under the influence and will be sentenced as if this were a first offense.
This sounds great initially, but as more of the legal drama unfolds, it turns out to be pretty much a mirage. That’s because no matter what the judge does, the DMV has my case down as a second-offense violation of section 23152 of the Vehicle Code, and there are very specific and unavoidable penalties associated with two-time losers. So I have a day or two of relief when I go before the judge and she finds me guilty and sentences me as follows: Fine: $1300 (the same amount I was fined for the first conviction, so I guess there is some minimal advantage in waiving the prior); Restitution: It will be determined if I owe the City of San Diego anything for damaging a lamppost. As it turns out I owe them nothing; the base of the lamppost was solid concrete and showed nary a trace of having demolished my Honda.
The fine and restitution are the least of the penalties. In addition, I am sentenced to enroll in an 18-month DUI program (which includes weekly participation in the program plus weekly attendance at AA meetings), to attend a presentation of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, and to have my license suspended for 90 days — a moot point, since it has already been suspended for a year by the DMV. (After a year, I will get my license back, but it will be a restricted license. For another year and a half, I can drive only to and from work and to and from the DUI program. The DMV will not issue an unrestricted license until the program is completed.)
The cost of enrolling in the second-conviction program is $1500, plus all sorts of extra fees if you need to reschedule a day or take a leave of absence. But these costs pale when measured against the largest financial setback a second DUI will trigger, and that is a huge increase in my automobile insurance rates. Before my second conviction, I had a completely clean record for nearly seven years and was paying a good-driver rate of $1634 annually for auto insurance. After the conviction, this expense soars to $3600. Over a five-year period, this night of irresponsible partying will cost me nearly $10,000 in increased insurance costs alone.
I will spare you the tedious details of various court visits certifying this or that and move first to my attendance at the MADD meeting, and second, my ongoing experience in the county-mandated second-conviction program. The MADD presentation is a one-time event, but in many ways it is the most effective part of the sentence. A lot of people — especially among those convicted of driving under the influence — have a built-in bias against this organization, viewing them pretty much as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was viewed during Prohibition — puritanical, anti-fun types who want all of us bad boys and girls to pay for our sins. After all, MADD is almost single-handedly responsible for transforming the laws in this area from what was basically a slap on the wrist, the equivalent of a speeding ticket, to the major disruption in a person’s life that those laws mandate today. Many participants I meet in the DUI program are fond of pointing out that the founder of MADD, Candy Lightner, was convicted of drunk driving. According to the MADD website, this is simply not true.
Since 1991 courts have routinely sentenced drunk drivers to attend a presentation sponsored by MADD. The one I attend is held in a large auditorium near UCSD. When I arrive, I am amazed to find more than 300 people milling about, waiting for the doors to open. It takes nearly 20 minutes to get everyone into the auditorium and seated, and this with the Gestapo-like tactics of a San Diego police officer who is doing an impersonation of a prison guard. (“Anyone not in that door by seven o’clock will be turned away. You people are here under court order. Keep your mouth shut and your feet moving.…”) As we enter the auditorium, we must pass a stern guard near a large basket that has a sign saying, “Place donations here; recommended donation $20.” We donate.
When we are finally seated, the same policeman who had herded us in called the group to order. “How many people drove here tonight on a suspended license?” he asks. Everyone looks around. One brave soul far in the back raises his hand. “Well, there’s at least one honest person here…I’m going to let him leave first.” This breaks the tension, and everyone laughs. But not for long.
The presentation consists of a woman and a man, each of whom had lost a child in accidents caused by drunk drivers. These tales are told, not in the abstract, but with a great many photos of these bright, innocent, happy families before the accident, as well as pictures of the accidents themselves. The parents’ stories are heartbreaking. It is impossible to hear them without being moved. How awful it feels to realize that nearly every one of us in that auditorium was a potential killer — that instead of hitting a lamppost, I might have flattened a human being.
In the year 2000, the last year for which California Highway Patrol statistics are available, there were 1938 alcohol-related accidents in San Diego County that resulted in death or injury; 72 of those collisions involved fatalities. In 2000, 83 people died in alcohol-involved collisions in the county. Statewide for that year, there were 21,018 alcohol-related accidents resulting in death or injury, 1094 of them fatal. There has been little variation in these figures for the past five years.
Despite the stricter laws, vigorous enforcement, massive advertising campaigns, and a high degree of public awareness about the dangers of drunk driving, people continue to slip behind the wheel to drive home after a night of drinking. When we’re sober we realize that drunk driving is dangerous; but drinking impairs our judgment, and drinkers almost never think they’re as drunk as they are. Drinkers constantly underestimate the amount they have had to drink and constantly overestimate their ability to drive safely.
For example, in the recent David Westerfield murder trial, Brenda van Dam testified that she had had a few beers and several tokes on a joint before going out for the night, then four cranberry vodkas, another beer, and another few tokes on a joint at the bar the night of her daughter’s abduction. Then she had some Diet Coke and Red Bull, she said, to sober up. Brenda was the designated driver for her group of friends.
Georgi Di Stefano, the executive director of San Diego State University’s Center on Substance Abuse, administers the DUI program I have been sentenced to attend. Di Stefano is a short, ebullient woman who exudes enthusiasm about the work she does. She’s been in the field of substance abuse and chemical dependency for more than 20 years and has been clinical director of the DUI program for the SDSU Foundation for the past four. Last year she was appointed executive director as well.
“It’s all about raising awareness,” she says. “We’re not a treatment program, but we do suggest to some people that they enroll in a treatment program. The vast majority of people in our first-offender program really just need basic education to recognize the dangers of drinking and driving and become aware of their own lifestyle issues that maybe put them at risk. For instance, a petite woman goes to Old Town and orders one of those mammoth margaritas and thinks she’s fine after drinking it. Because of her body size, that single drink may cause her to be arrested. Also, there’s a fallacy and misconception in the community. People think they can drink without worrying about it as long as their blood alcohol level is below 0.08%. That’s incorrect. That’s just what’s needed for an automatic conviction. But you can be arrested and convicted with a blood alcohol content below that. We have people in here who blew 0.06 or 0.07. The key is, does the arresting officer think your driving was impaired by alcohol.”
I ask Di Stefano how many people who go through the first-offender program end up coming back. “About one-third of those become repeat offenders. They go into the multiple-conviction program, which is much more intense and long lasting than the first program. That’s because there’s a much higher percentage of people who have problems with drugs and alcohol in those programs. That’s why they become repeat offenders. The multiple-conviction program is geared to have people take a deeper look at their relationship with alcohol or drugs and to put some strong strategies in place to keep themselves and society safe by never drinking and driving. But we tell people all the time that if they have a chemical dependency, it’s not going to be treated at this facility. Hopefully you’ll become aware if you have a problem in this program, and we can refer you on to treatment.”
The 18-month multiple-conviction program I’m enrolled in is what’s called a psycho-education program and consists basically of four parts: education, group sessions, face-to-face meetings with a counselor, and re-entry. The education segment involves six two-hour sessions that are taught as a lecture-discussion class outlining the history of DUI laws, the effects of alcohol on the body, the consequences of drunk driving, and the continuum of alcohol consumption from abstinence through social drinking, then abuse, then dependency. Classes enroll about 50 students. The instructors have a tough job because nearly everyone resents being here, and a cloud of hostility hovers over some sessions. But the excellent instructor who runs my six sessions, a man I know only as Alex, patiently gets people involved and develops credibility with the class through his own history of alcohol abuse, which he freely shares with us.
The group sessions are the heart of the program and can be a mixed bag. These require weekly attendance for a year and often consist of bitching and moaning about how uncomfortable the chairs are, how cold the room is, how screwed up the system is, how unfair the police are, and so on. Jeanne Nelson, the counselor who runs the group I am assigned to, is also a former drug and chemical abuser. In fact, Jeanne did jail time as a methamphetamine dealer and made a remarkable recovery. “I’m a walking miracle,” she says on more than one occasion.
The groups include a strikingly diverse cross-section of society. I can see this range by observing people’s shoes. By far the largest number are well-worn athletic shoes, but there are smatterings of shined Ferragamo loafers, occasional Birkenstocks, and a few scattered Rockports. I’m speaking, of course, of men’s shoes. Men outnumber women in the program by nearly eight to one. This ratio reflects the conviction rate in San Diego County. In 1999, the last year for which there are complete figures, 11,456 people were convicted of driving under the influence: 9707 men and 1749 women. The folklore, widely discussed in the groups, is that the police are much more lenient with women than men. Another explanation may be that fewer women drive while intoxicated.
One major problem with the group sessions is that there is little continuity. People join and leave groups regularly. As anyone who knows anything about group dynamics will tell you, it takes time for a group to bond and feel a sense of trust about its members. Just when that trust begins to develop, three people finish their group sessions and two others are signed up, and the entire dynamic of the group is changed. Nevertheless, despite the complaints, despite the turnovers, despite the resentment, this group experience has a strong impact on me, as I know it does on some others I meet along the way.
There is Robert (I’ll change all the names), who begins hugely overweight and sullen and ends, a year later, 100 pounds lighter, getting hold of his life, quitting drinking altogether, and enrolling in a weight-loss program. It is simply astonishing watching Robert become more animated and alive, and thinner and thinner each week. Bruce, a construction worker, finds the humor in every situation and regularly tells hilarious stories about going out to sea in his boat. Bruce seems the most friendly soul among us, until he gets very upset one week when a new participant in the group takes his regular seat near the door. He demands it back. When the newcomer refuses to cede it, Bruce storms out, and I never see him again.
Then there is Nina, who is struggling to stop drinking, attending (as we all have to) regular AA meetings, and grieving over the breakup of her relationship. “I’ll just let God be my boyfriend,” she says during one session, and immediately the lyrics of a country and western song emerge whole in my mind. And there’s Paul, trying to give up smoking as well as drinking, who talked about the nightmares stimulated by wearing a nicotine patch and who remains steadfast in freeing himself of his addictions, even though he has to deal with the death of a close friend while he is enrolled in the program.
And there are sadder cases, like José, a young man who is busted for drug dealing while in the program and now faces a second drug conviction. And dark, lost, deeply cynical souls like Mauré, who hardly ever says a word, but during a session on the evening of September 11, 2001, when we all are stunned by the horror of the World Trade Center crumbling, blurts out, “Why should I be upset about that? It don’t affect me.”
I ask Georgi Di Stefano if she can show me some of the anonymous group evaluation forms participants fill out as they leave the program. She pulls a batch from her file, and while there are some negative responses, by far the majority are highly favorable. Tears well in her eyes as she reads from one of them, “It’s hard to believe I’m saying this, but I’m actually glad this happened to me. It absolutely changed my life. Thank you so very much.” I think, for all the complaining that goes on about it, a lot of participants in the multiple-conviction program would say the same thing.
The most difficult and tedious part of my sentence is mandatory attendance for 18 months at AA meetings, which is in addition to the 18 months in the county-run program. I have nothing against AA; in fact, I admire the organization for how it has supported people and helped them on their journey from alcoholism to recovery. Many people owe their lives to it, and there is probably no other organization in the country that has done so much for public health and awareness of the devastating effects of alcohol on an individual life. It’s just not for me.
Those unfamiliar with the scope and breadth of AA might be astonished by the sheer number of AA meetings in San Diego County on any given day. The organization’s website (aasandiego.org) lists 54 daily AA meetings, starting at 5:30 a.m. and ending just before midnight. In addition to the meetings you can go to any day of the week, there are other groups that meet just once or twice a week. In all, AA sponsors hundreds of meetings everywhere in the county every day of the year.
If you begin to attend a variety of these meetings, you will notice a paradoxical quality about them. First of all, each meeting has its own distinctive attributes, and second, all of these meetings are exactly alike. A lot of these individual qualities have to do with where the meeting is held: in La Jolla and Del Mar you get an upscale crowd, usually well dressed and articulate; in Hillcrest, you’ll find lots of openly gay and lesbian participants; downtown, you’ll encounter a motley bunch, many of whom look grubby and are literally taking it a day at a time. But the second aspect of AA groups that drives me nuts — you will hear the same stories recounted in the same language in each of them. Phrases like “higher power” (often personalized to “my higher power”), “a day at a time,” “hit bottom,” “these rooms,” “fearless inventory,” “I was in denial,” and many others punctuate each meeting with the reliability of a metronome. As I listen to one sad story of alcohol abuse and suffering after another, one thought dominates my mind: Don’t these people ever get tired of hearing the same thing over and over? Apparently not, for at each meeting someone proudly announces 5 or 10 or 15 or 20 years of sobriety and that they have been coming to meetings all that time and “working the steps.”
I suppose I shouldn’t carp at an organization that works so well for so many people, but I resent my weekly AA attendance, and if I had some spare bucks at my disposal, I would challenge the state’s authority to sentence anyone to a year and a half of religious instruction. The third step of the famous 12 steps of AA is to turn your will and your life over to God. AA participants are quick to point out that by God they mean God “as you understand Him.” One participant tells me that he understands God as AA itself — a Group Of Drunks. Of course, however you define God, it’s a religious concept, and our democracy prides itself on the separation of church and state. To be fair, the court does not insist that those convicted of DUI offenses go exclusively to AA. There are other possibilities, such as START and Rational Recovery, neither of which is a religious organization, but these meetings are few and far between compared to the easy availability of AA.
I was surprised to learn recently that at least some courts agree with me, that AA is a religious activity. A 1996 decision of the New York State Court of Appeals in the case of Griffin v. Coughlin states, “There is no firmer or more settled principle of…jurisprudence than that prohibiting the use of the state’s power to force one to profess a religious belief or participate in a religious activity.” While AA members insist the organization is not religious but spiritual, this court held that the principles and practice of the 12 steps are religious activities, since “followers are urged to accept the existence of God” and to seek such a God through “prayer, confessing wrongs, and asking for removal of shortcomings.” Apparently California courts have not yet come around to this view.
I am nearing the end of my sentence and will shortly have my unrestricted license back and once again be driving among you on a regular basis. But of course there’s the stigma associated with people who are stupid enough (as I was) to operate a motor vehicle after drinking. Mr. DUI was not altogether exaggerating when he said that we are regarded something like lepers. That stigma made me hesitate about writing this, and certainly about signing it with my real name. But writing about the experience has been cathartic in a way and a sort of penance in another way. I had a lot of misconceptions about drinking and driving before going through this long ordeal, even though, in many ways, I came to see it not as an ordeal at all but an opportunity. And it’s important, I think, to accept responsibility for our actions, however mistaken they may have been. What I did was wrong, dumb, and irresponsible, and to do it twice was unconscionable. But to paraphrase Omar Khyyam, the moving finger moves on after it writes, and all my regret will not cancel half a line. I can promise you, however, that you will not see an article by me about what happens to three-time offenders. n
— Fred Moramarco
Fred Moramarco is editor of Poetry International and teaches American literature and creative writing at San Diego State University. He is currently at work on A Man’s World: An International Anthology of Male Poetry.