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Book Review   |    
Wasted: Tales of a GenX Drunk • My Mama's Waltz: A Book for Daughters of Alcoholic Mothers
Jeffrey L. Geller, M.D., M.P.H.
Psychiatric Services 1999; doi:
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by Mark Gauvreau Judge; Center City, Minnesota, Hazelden, 1997, 259 pages, $21.95 • by Eleanor Agnew and Sharon Robideaux; New York City, Pocket Books, 1998, 313 pages, $24 hardcover, $14 softcover

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The two autobiographical books reviewed here focus on the impact of alcohol on families. The first, Wasted, traces the effects of teenage drunkenness. The second, My Mama's Waltz, examines the consequences for women of having an alcoholic mother.

Mark Gauvreau Judge is an American-Irish Catholic born in 1964, the youngest of four children of an alcoholic father who raised the family in Potomac, Maryland. Wasted is the story of himself and his family. Judge, the product of Catholic grade schools and a Catholic high school, had his first drink at age 14. Through high school he carried the reputation of a "screwball" and "troublemaker," and he essentially drank nonstop throughout his high school career.

Judge recounts his journey from pubescent drunkenness through a young adulthood punctuated by daily episodes of alcoholic stupor. He emerges as an Alcoholics Anonymous attender and a reporter. But at the end of this tale, Judge unfortunately equivocates about who is responsible for his alcoholism and descends into a confusing recitation on the nature-nurture continuum. Ending the book on this note might exculpate Judge, the person, and vilify his genetic makeup, but it does so at the cost of weakening the book.

Wasted tends to degenerate into simply too much of the same thing. How many times does the reader need to hear about Judge and his buddies, whom he refers to as "Alcoholics Unanimous," acting out in states of alcohol-induced impaired judgment? However, the sheer weight of the repetition of how teenagers, both male and female, daily drowned themselves in alcohol might be an awakening for those in their teens and early twenties and for their parents, who might be unaware of a young person's capacity to submerge himself in alcoholic brew.

Although Wasted will not greatly further the education of professionals, it might be quite useful to them as a book to recommend to those who are at risk of becoming young alcoholics. It might also be quite useful for the families of young alcoholics, to educate them about the depth and breadth of the problem and to help them ally themselves with resources that could save their children's lives.

My Mama's Waltz, subtitled A Book for Daughters of Alcoholic Mothers, is written by two women, each of whom had an alcoholic mother. The main stories are those of the two authors. However, with those accounts they intersperse material from other daughters of alcoholic mothers, collected through 200 questionnaires, 60 telephone interviews, and a small number of personal interviews. Most of the respondents grew up in the 1950s or 1960s, although their ages range from 18 to 59 years.

Eleanor Agnew is the daughter of a psychiatrist and his alcoholic wife. She is now married, has three sons, and is a college professor. Sharon Robideaux, the daughter of a Louisiana log cutter and his alcoholic wife who was a waitress, is also now married, is the mother of two sons, and is working for her Ph.D. in English.

My Mama's Waltz is structured quite well, alternating material about the authors' own lives (in italics) with the thoughts and feelings of their contributors (in roman type). The book focuses on specific aspects of having an alcoholic mother such as body images, mother substitutes, relationships with men, relationships with female friends, and functioning as mothers themselves.

If nothing else, the reader is simply overwhelmed by the impact on adult women of having had an alcoholic mother. Wherever they are in their lives, the women seem never entirely free of their mothers. The book also points out the commonality of daughters' experiences and feelings, which are summed up by the authors as "lack of self-esteem, problematic relationships with friends, family, lovers, and spouses, memory gaps about significant childhood events, and insecurity about themselves as women."

Agnew and Robideaux make some excellent points about the difference between sons and daughters of alcoholic mothers. For example, about the role of the alcoholic daughter, they say, "In our culture, and we suspect in most other cultures, if there are both sons and daughters in the family, the sons are seldom the ones who undress the drunk mother, put her to bed, and mop up her vomit."

The authors also illustrate both the burdens and the dangers of being the daughter of an alcoholic mother by quoting a New Jersey teacher as saying her mother "was hateful and disgusting when she drank. She swore using unbelievably filthy phrases. She would start fires, walk around just in her panties, and urinate on the floor. She would spit on me and say horrible things to me. She would call people on the phone and harass them. She would argue with neighbors and yell at my father all night long until someone next door would call the police."

The authors go to great length to indicate that this book is not written with the aim of "mother bashing." It is clear that many of the women have very ambivalent relationships with their mothers. In all cases their feelings appear to be mixed, and love is intermingled with thoughts and feelings of having been, to quote the authors, "neglected, abandoned, insulted, cursed, ridiculed, slapped, scratched, pinched, choked, beaten, burned, and raped."

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is how the relationship between daughter and alcoholic mother is perpetuated throughout the daughter's life. The mother's death leaves the daughter with a cornucopia of unresolved issues. The authors state, "The aftermath of our mother's death is often painful and guilt-ridden as the unresolving issues hover in the air around us like angry ghosts. Suddenly, after a lifetime of waltzing, we are left standing alone on the empty dance floor, unsure of what to do next."

What anybody interested in substance abuse and its impact on family relationships should do next is to buy My Mama's Waltz and read it from cover to cover. It is a quick read, but an informative one. It is recommended to anyone working in the substance abuse field, to anyone treating families, to trainees not yet exposed to the cataclysmic costs of alcohol to the family, and, most especially, to daughters of alcoholic mothers.

Dr. Geller is professor of psychiatry and director of public-sector psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester.




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