Trysh Travis


On her book The Language of the Heart: A Cultural History of the Recovery Movement from Alcoholics Anonymous to Oprah Winfrey

Cover Interview of January 27, 2010

The wide angle

Two phenomena led me to this project.  A number of people close to me are recovering addicts of one sort or another, and when I attended meetings with them I noticed that books featured prominently in their meetings.  Alcoholics Anonymous, written by one of AA’s co-founders and usually called “the Big Book,” was the most prominent.  But people also carried with them daily devotional readers published by AA, Al-Anon (the organization for friends and families of alcoholics), and treatment centers like Hazelden.

That’s not something you often see in depictions of AA or NA (Narcotics Anonymous) in film or on TV; there, a 12-Step meeting is only about people talking.  But in the meetings I attended people often referred to their books as they talked, highlighted and annotated passages that mattered to them, and engaged in long debates over what a passage or a phrase might mean.  As a literature teacher, these are habits I try to inculcate in my students (not usually with much success), and I wanted to find out how and why people in recovery were so intense about their reading.

At the same time that I was thinking about reading within 12-Step groups, I started to notice an increasing number of popular novels aimed at women that seemed to offer some version of recovery’s central ideas.  Powerlessness, forgiveness, the importance of self-love and of “keeping it simple”; these were all values that I was hearing espoused in meetings, and they were also popping up in mid-list fiction—not only Oprah books, but “serious” titles like Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and bestsellers like Rebecca Wells’s Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.  This made me curious about how recovery ideas had migrated out of the church basements where meetings were held and into the popular imagination.

There’s a lot at stake in that migration, I think.  When a person goes to AA, declares, “I am powerless over alcohol,” and reads daily from the Big Book to get instructions on how to live so as to remain sober, she has made a conscious decision to adopt a set of mental habits—a worldview, if you want to call it that—because she wants to change her life.  Few people sit down with a novel thinking, “I want to get some lessons in how to change my life from this book.”  But the novels I was seeing had a powerful didactic streak.  Through traditional sentimental plots involving mothers and children, they were urging readers not so much to quit using alcohol or drugs (though a few of them made that case in passing), but to quit demanding satisfaction from contemporary consumer capitalist American society, to admit they were powerless over their own lives.

There’s something very Zen in such an admission, and that spiritual equilibrium is what many people in recovery are striving for.  At the same time, as a feminist, I just couldn’t get comfortable with powerlessness and “acceptance” as the paths to happiness for women in the aggregate.  When taken out of the context of the individual pursuit of sobriety, recovery ideas seemed profoundly non-liberatory.  This puzzled me: how and why did these ideas move from one context to another, and what was it about that changed context that gave them such a different valence? To answer those questions, I decided to write the book that became The Language of the Heart.  Fortunately, as I wrote I got the opportunity to revise this fairly simple binary into a much more complex and multi-faceted picture.