04 March 2024

So an alcoholism treatment therapist walks into a bar...

I'm a lifelong writer who started talking about it at the age of seven and dreamed of becoming a bestselling novelist in my twenties. That didn't happen. So in my late thirties, when my sole published output consisted of two poems (payment in copies), I started looking around for something else meaningful to do.

I emerged from Columbia University in 1985 with a master's degree in social work and a desire to work with recovering alcoholics and their families and partners as well as the usual clinical social worker's ambition to practice as a psychotherapist, or as I prefer to call myself, a shrink. I've just come across a blog post I wrote in 2007, right before my first mystery, Death Will Get You Sober, came out. Titled "Recovery and Transformation," it's still spot on about why I wanted to do what many considered an oddball kind of work.

It’s simple: recovery is transformational.

I once knew a nursery school teacher who had her class do a butterfly project every year. They’d watch the caterpillar form its chrysalis and wait for the brightly colored butterfly with its glorious wings to emerge. At the end of the term, she’d take them to the park so they could release the butterflies and see them fly free. Sometimes it’s kind of like that when an alcoholic finds recovery.

Before two drunks started Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935, alcoholism was truly a hopeless illness, whose outcomes were inevitably “madness” (depression, delirium tremens, irreversible dementia) and death. AA offered another choice: stop drinking for just one day, admit you need help, find some kind of spiritual path, get rigorously honest about your own shortcomings, make amends for the harm you’ve done others, and help another alcoholic. In other words, all you have to do is stop drinking and change your whole life.

While I was running alcohol treatment programs—the one up in East Harlem, the one down on the Bowery, the one for women at Coney Island Hospital—I would occasionally find myself bellying up to the proverbial bar on a social evening out. I would twirl around on the bar stool, grin at the bartender, and say, "Ask me what I do for a living!"

So my reaction may not have been quite the same as that of the rest of the SleuthSayers gang when I heard that we were doing an anthology whose theme was bars. My Bruce Kohler mysteries, both the novels and the short stories, are a lot of fun. But once Bruce gets sober in the first book, they're not about bars and drinking. The challenge was to join in the fun of Murder, Neat without being unfaithful to my expert knowledge that out of control drinking is not ho ho ho hilarious, but a recurring disaster that leaves shattered lives in its wake.

To write "A Friendly Glass," I turned back to a time when I myself was young and ignorant, knew nothing about alcoholism, and did think wild drinking could be hilarious. I set my story in a fictional village in the South of France. It was loosely based on a village where I'd spent a week in 1962 and a month in 1966. I drank numerous cups of café filtre on the picturesque terrasse. I sang and played the guitar in a boîte I can't remember anything about. I made two treasured women friends who, sadly, are no longer with us, and two artist friends, a Frenchman and an Englishman, who are still my friends today, sixty years later.
The village was St Paul de Vence, then completely unspoiled, a maze of narrow cobbled streets that wound up stairs and through stone arches, surrounded by a medieval wall. Alas, it's now a tourist destination with luxury hotels and high-priced shops with plate-glass windows. It's still considered artsy, but it's more of an artfully packaged artsiness. I'm glad I didn't miss the real thing.

Oh, and the fictional murderee is based on someone I thought deserved it back in the 1960s.


  1. I stayed in St. Paul de Vence perhaps 30 years ago, when it was still pretty unspoiled. You bring it all back. Elizabeth, I had no idea about your therapist background until now. If it's possible, I admire you even more. Will look forward to reading your story as soon as the books get here!

  2. Wow, Melodie. Now we really have to meet f2f for a good schmooze one of these days. I got my books on Saturday, so I hope yours will get to you soon.

  3. My copies arrived late last week, and I'm about half-way through now. In spite of the serious content, your story feels like you had fun writing it. It should always be that way, shouldn't it?

    1. I did, Steve, and it should indeed. When I reviewed what I'd written before posting it, it struck me that I took it for granted that in order to write about a bar, I had to take myself back to a time when I believed that drinking too much was basically fun.

  4. If you can't make the victim someone who in real life thoroughly deserved it, who can you make a victim? That's half the fun of writing mysteries. I so envy you a month in St. Paul de Vence... On the other hand, in 1972 I spent a month camping on the side of a mountain in Estes National Park... Hmm... I think I feel a story idea coming on. Thanks!

  5. And thank you, Eve. I haven't yet written the one about the night in Yosemite, the gorgeous young guy, and the bears, also in the Seventies.

  6. Elizabeth Dearborn04 March, 2024 14:05

    My paperback copy of Murder, Neat arrived several days ago. The whole book is fantastic! I'm reading the stories in order, one story per day, & haven't come to yours yet, Liz, but I'm sure it is yet another example of your excellent writing.

    I'm so old I remember when drinking & driving was considered cool! I started to rethink this in 8th grade, when a classmate's brother was killed by a drunk driver. I don't drink or drive, myself.

  7. Elizabeth, I worked for a couple of years with clients who were mandated to treatment after being convicted of drunk driving. After watching a very moving documentary that included interviews with the families of people killed by drunk drivers and survivors severely disabled by collisions with drunk drivers, these guys were still saying, "Oh, yeah, I had an aunt who was hit by a drunk driver." Denial is such a powerful psychological defense that they still didn't get it that they were the drunk drivers, not the victims.

  8. Elizabeth,Your SleuthSayers article could only have been written by someone who's slaved long and hard over writing. The article has an effortless and amusing glide. It was a pleasure to read.Many thanks, Mary Jo

  9. You have much more patience than I. I've twice had alcoholics in my life. I was a college sophomore, she was a senior and I was way out of my depth. I was in my 30s, again she was slightly older, and I was really, really, really out of my depth. Brilliant, smart, accomplished, she exhibited– I don't know what you call it– creeping misbehavior. She had no problem whatsoever, but she put away an entire bottle and more of wine a night, 750ml+.

    After that breakup, I worked most of a year in the South of France although I didn't pass through your hamlet. I lived mostly in Avignon and the village of Châteauneuf-de-Gadagne.

    I'm glad you do what you do, Liz. And I'm glad you joined the anthology.

  10. Leigh, one aspect of my career working with alcoholics and those who love them is that I never had to deal with drunks. The first thing they do when they pick up the booze again is blow off their counseling or therapy. Recovering alcoholics are another story and can be the most terrific people in the world.


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