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Book Review   |    
Whiskey's Children
Caroline Knapp
Psychiatric Services 1998; doi:
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by Jack Erdmann with Larry Kearney; New York City, Kensington Books, 1997, 211 pages, $21.50 hardcover, $12 softcover

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Some things author Jack Erdmann did while drinking: married the wrong woman; alienated his children; punched holes in the walls of his home; cheated on his wife; blacked out regularly, sometimes losing up to a third of each day; fell into a bonfire at a family picnic, setting his parka on fire; bottled up decades worth of feelings about his own alcoholic father; became suicidal—and finally got help.

Whiskey's Children, Erdmann's account of his perilous relationship with alcohol, is a classic story of addictive intractability: he drank; he wreaked havoc; he continued to drink, nearly ruining both his own life and those of loved ones before he could stop. Among alcoholics, the details may change (one man's parka is another man's Pontiac), but the essential story—denial, destruction, desperation—is the same. Erdmann's is recounted with a no-nonsense clarity that captures the insidiousness of the disease, the hold it takes, and the depth of the alcoholic's resistance to change.

Readers, particularly those who work with low-bottom alcoholics and addicts, will find plenty of support in these pages for the notion that alcoholism is a family illness, handed down through generations with an inevitability that seems, in the author's telling, as psychic as it is genetic. Erdmann, now 20 years sober, came from a long line of hard drinkers—his great-grandfather, grandfather, and father were all alcoholics—and he describes in compelling detail the psychological landscape that led him as a young boy to follow their path.

His father was unpredictable, often violent. Erdmann grew up with a sense that the world was an unsafe, painful place. As an eight-year-old altar boy, sneaking communion wine in the sacristy before Mass, he discovered that drink was a transformative balm, an easy solution to what ailed him inside. The lesson stuck. By age 15, Erdmann writes, he had learned two key axioms of the alcoholic discipline: The Pain Can Be Killed, and Kill the Pain at All Costs.

Drink long and hard enough, and those axioms become deeply internalized: alcoholism, in Erdmann's account, is both a physiological state and a way of life, a powerfully ingrained method of managing, however badly, one's feelings and relationships. The strategy ultimately fails (another alcoholic inevitability), and Erdmann lands in a recovery house in California, where he takes the first tentative steps toward healing.

His depiction of early sobriety—tenuous, fear ridden, wildly disorienting—may be particularly illuminating for clinicians. The change from an anesthetized state to a state of feeling is profound, and maintaining sobriety requires an elusive blend of desperation, faith, willingness, and support. Erdmann's portrayal, which is personal and heartfelt, captures both the magnitude and the complexity of the shift.

In Whiskey's Children Erdmann does not opine about the nature of addiction, and although he's stayed sober with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, he steers clear of current debates about treatment models. He simply does, and intimately describes, the difficult, largely internal work of learning to live without alcohol. His book will be of value to readers seeking a better understanding of the dynamics that lead one to drink in the first place and of the work required to undo the damage.

Ms. Knapp, a writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is the author of a memoir, Drinking: A Love Story.

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