Just a few years after Bill Wilson founded the fellowship in 1939, Felicia Gizycka, daughter of editor Cissy Patterson, stumbled into a meeting.
Editor's Note: This is the first in a three-part series from Amanda Smith about the drinking life of Countess Felicia Gizycka, daughter of famed newspaper editor Cissy Patterson, and the other women involved in the early Alcoholics Anonymous movement.
In 1943, at the age of 38, Countess Felicia Gizycka "divorced" her mother, the notorious Washington, D.C., newspaper publisher and Chicago Tribune heiress, Cissy Patterson. Falling into old habits on that decisive wartime evening during one of Felicia's rare visits home, mother and daughter left the dinner table "in the middle of the night, both of us drunk as skunks," to continue drinking and bickering in the living room. When Cissy began toying with Felicia by proposing to favor others in her will, and taunting her daughter for her personal failings as she had done many times over the years, Felicia finally exploded: "God damn you and may you roast in Hell. If there is a Hell. You've already made my life one long Hell from the time I was a baby, you stupid bitch! ... And you can take all your Goddamn fucking money and stuff it!"
Felicia had lived in luxury up to that point, but in other regards her life had not been an easy one. As a toddler, she had become a pawn in the sensational international custody battle that followed the violent end of her parents' marriage in 1908. Her father, a volatile, hard-drinking Polish aristocrat, kidnapped her and held her for ransom when she was two; only after President Taft and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia intervened did Count Gizycki finally return Felicia, then almost four, to her mother. Although Cissy had fought hard to bring her child safely home to the United States, she was a critical, unpredictable mother. One particularly nasty mother-daughter "knock-down drag-out fight, which included hair pulling and clothing tearing" persuaded Felicia to run away from home in 1924, at the age of 18.
To outward appearances, Felicia and Cissy reconciled six months later, but only after Felicia allowed herself to be corralled into a loveless marriage she hoped would end her mother's authority over her. But marriage and motherhood held little interest for her, particularly after she began to realize her dreams of becoming a writer -- and discovered, at the height of Prohibition, that "if I had a drink or two, I could relax and dance, laugh, joke. And feel popular. Feel accepted." Following her first divorce, a failed love affair prompted Felicia to "get dead drunk that very night, and stay drunk for a month." Instead, the binge would last a decade. "I think I had the physical allergy right away," she reflected later of the growing reliance on alcohol she developed over the course of the 1920s and '30s. "A drink never gave me a normal, pleasant glow. Instead it was like a tap on the head with a small mallet. I was a little bit knocked out. Just what I wanted. I lost my shyness. Five or six drinks and I was terrific. Men danced with me at parties. I was full of careless chatter. I was so amusing! I had friends."
The opulent, heedless way of life Felicia led throughout the Depression (along with the substantial, tax-free allowance from Cissy that supported it) came to a tumultuous end when she and her mother had that "one last drunken row" in 1943. When Felicia staggered out of Cissy's home for the last time that night, she was conscious only that a strange, white patch of welts had arisen on her left arm ("the stigmata of the Devil?") and that she was reliving "the same feelings I had had when I'd run away when I was 18." After a lifetime's experience of maternal volatility and spite, any regret at what she had done or fear of what might result evaporated in elation and relief: "Now I was 38 years old, and free! Free!"
Felicia's growing alcohol consumption soon made a hollow victory of her newfound freedom, however. She lost partial custody of her daughter. Most of her friends fell away, alienated and confused by her immoderation, her unreliability, her raucous "naughtiness" and hilarity on inappropriate occasions, and her general disregard for those around her. Her "drunken and abusive rows" with fellow volunteers cut short her work for the war effort. Eventually, drinking consumed even her productive, daytime writing hours. "Now came the black and endless dismal night," as Felicia remembered it. But in spite of everything, she had managed to retain one source of support. "My dearest friend, whom I'd grown up with, stuck by me when nobody else did. Louise Ireland almost helped to save my life, because she got me to a psychiatrist...."
In the course of Louise Ireland's studies in child psychology and education she had come into contact with Dr. Florence Powdermaker, with whom she co-authored The Intelligent Parents' Manual, "a practical guide to the care and understanding of children from infancy to adolescence," in 1944. A former Rockefeller Fellow and medical professor, who was currently serving as a Lieutenant-Commander in charge of merchant seamen suffering from post-traumatic stress (or, in the contemporary phraseology, "war neuroses") for the United States Public Health Service, Powdermaker continued to take private patients as well.
"At first nothing happened," Felicia remembered. "I went to her once a week, and I was either terribly hungover or a little tight." Although Felicia would never be certain, she believed she must have dissipated the small nest egg she had set aside on drink. "Fat, bloated, dirty and unkempt," Felicia passed out routinely, awakening the following morning to discover that her pockets had been picked by the cab drivers who (she presumed) had delivered her home. In this state, her work with Powdermaker proceeded haltingly at best; "the more we found out about why I drank, the more I drank." After a burly Irish barkeep caught Felicia trying to steal a bottle from behind his bar, knocked her to the sawdust with an elbow to the face, and threatened to call the police, Felicia began to contemplate suicide. "I felt abysmally ashamed -- as far as humiliation goes, I think I hit bottom. How could I behave like this? I was crazy and Florence didn't want to tell me so."
In 1943, after hearing William Griffith Wilson, or "Bill W.," speak from personal experience on the almost entirely medically uncharted subjects of alcoholism and recovery, Powdermaker had been "instantly sold" on the course he suggested. She urged Felicia to read the unobtrusive navy blue volume that Bill Wilson's burgeoning fellowship had published in 1939 as Alcoholics Anonymous. The compendium of unsigned personal accounts, both harrowing and moving, was intended to "show other alcoholics precisely how we have recovered." Although Felicia balked at the "Big Book's" exhortation to surrender to a higher power as a critical step along the path to recovery (or "all the God stuff," as she put it), almost to humor Powdermaker she agreed to attend one of the group's meetings. Mortified, she ventured down to Hell's Kitchen where the organization's offices were located at the time. "Bill was tall, grey haired, with the kind of asymmetrical good looks and pleasant easy manner that inspire confidence in the shaken and afraid," Felicia was relieved to discover.
He was well dressed; he was easy going. I could see he wasn't a quack or a fanatic. He did not take out a folder or a questionnaire and say, 'What is the nature of your problem?' he said to me, gently and simply, 'Do you think that you are one of us?' Never in my entire life had anyone asked me 'are you one of us?' Never had I felt a sense of belonging. I found myself nodding my head. He now said that we had a physical allergy combined with a mental obsession, and he explained this so that I saw for the first time how this could be. He asked me if I had any spiritual belief, and when I said no, he suggested that I keep an open mind.
"I've got a dame here with a name I can't pronounce," he told someone whose number he dialed on Felicia's behalf at the end of the meeting. When he hung up, he told her he had arranged for her to meet someone named Marty. "Aha, he's passing the buck," Felicia suspected inwardly. "Now comes the questionnaire."
This article originally appeared on Points, an Atlantic partner site.