Stretching the Boundaries of “History”

Editor’s note: Today sees the final installment of the Points tribute to AA historian Glenn C.  Commentator Jackie B. graduated in 2002 with a degree in Theater and Performance Studies from U.C. Berkeley.  Sober since 2006, she is the founder and Artistic Director of Recovery Works Theater (RWT) in San Francisco. Her work has been seen by tens of thousands of recovering alcoholics and addicts throughout the United States in a range of venues from convention centers and black box theaters to county jails. Rooted in rigorous research and a reverence for history, Jackie’s plays seek to create a living connection between the audience’s personal experience and the experiences of the early members and groups of Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve Step fellowships. Her most recent work, I Am Responsible, premiered in February 2017 in San Francisco.

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In 2008, I began writing original plays about A.A. history, specifically created for performers and audiences in Twelve Step recovery. My interest in A.A. history was sparked when I was two years sober by a San Francisco old-timer during a Traditions study who shared a story about Joe McQ. of the Joe and Charlie Big Book study series. That’s how I learned that “Big Book” Joe, as he was called back home in Arkansas, was the first black man to get sober in A.A. in Little Rock. That was the night I learned about the lengths that many members had to go through to receive the same opportunity I had been so generously given, without question or demand, at my first A.A. meeting.

I was introduced to Glenn’s work while researching my first A.A. history play, In Our Own Words: Pioneers of Alcoholics Anonymous. Written in the documentary style of The Laramie Project, a tradition also known as verbatim theater, the dialogue was taken word for word from primary material, including A.A. speaker tapes, group histories, Grapevine stories and the book, Alcoholics Anonymous. The second half of the play was devoted to Third Tradition stories, stories like that of Joe McQ., and other marginalized people who paved a way inside the fellowship, creating a safe space for future members who identify as women, LGBTQ, young people and people of color.

I very much wanted to include the story of an early African-American woman in the program. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a single story from the 1940’s. Not in the Big Book or the Grapevine digital archives. Almost ready to admit defeat, I came across a mention of early black A.A. members in a 2005 book called The Factory Owner and the Convict: Vol. 1 of the Lives and Teachings of the A.A. Old-Timers by Glenn C. The text was originally written for local intergroups, to show how A.A. started in the cities and towns along the St. Joseph River, as it wound its way through Indiana and Michigan to the Great Lakes. Requests for copies came in from all around the country, and the author, a Professor of History and Religious Studies at Indiana University in South Bend, self-published it and made an excerpt available on www.hindsfoot.org. I eagerly ordered the book, and when it arrived I found a remarkable interview between Glenn and a black woman named Jimmy M., who got sober in A.A. in 1948. From that interview I was able to construct a monologue for Jimmy, creating one of the most powerful and revelatory scenes of In Our Own Words:

My little troupe of actors in recovery began to perform In Our Own Words outside of San Francisco. We traveled all over California. We performed in church sanctuaries, middle school auditoriums and jail pods. Over and over again, audience members would come up to me afterwards and thank me for sharing Joe and Jimmy’s stories, telling me that for the first time, they felt a part of A.A. history too.  That was all made possible by Glenn’s dedicated and meticulous work.  Finally, in 2010, we were given the opportunity to perform at a major international conference in San Antonio. I invited Glenn, reaching him through the AA History Lovers Yahoo Group. I didn’t know if he would make it, whether he would even get through the doors. The conference plays were so popular that year, the hotel had to shut down its elevators to keep more conventioneers from trying to get into the packed hall, far exceeding its maximum capacity. And still the conventioneers came, sneaking in through fire doors, climbing ten sets of stairs, and even stealing our set furniture from onstage to snag a seat.

After the performance, Glenn introduced himself. I wish I could remember more of that first face-to-face conversation. But I remember he hugged me and he hugged and took pictures with the lovely actress who played Jimmy. We exchanged numbers and emails and less than a week later, Glenn wrote to me, and that was the start of a seven-year friendship and mentorship that has shaped me as a thinker, writer and person in recovery.

When Glenn and his delightful wife Sue decided to winter in Fremont, California, my sponsee and I became regular guests at his new home. Anyone who has had the pleasure of spending one-on-one time with Glenn can attest to the mischievous delight he takes in the exchange of ideas and stories, everything from tidbits of oral history and classical literature, recovery wisdom and philosophical quandaries. Nestled deep in a cozy armchair, Glenn proved himself both an emphatic listener and a consummate teacher, insisting from the moment we first met in San Antonio that I am a historian.

In the foreword to my second play, a history of the Twelve Traditions called Our Experience Has Taught Us, Glenn described me as a historian of “the new generation.” For many years during our correspondence, I would counter that I was just a storyteller. Even as I began to do more rigorous primary research in archives around the country, I held back from calling myself a historian. I was a “history buff,” an A.A. history nerd. It wasn’t until I shared a stage with Glenn at the 2016 A.A. History Symposium at the Sedona Mago Retreat that I embraced the mantle of historian.  Glenn C., who is arguably the most prolific writer of recovery history, generously shared his 45-minute presentation slot with a young female artist and scholar, as we shared the experiences of early gay, lesbians and people of color in A.A., including the stories of Jimmy M. and Joe McQ. It was a moment I will never forget; my journey with Glenn had come full circle. I will cherish every moment I have spent with Glenn, every email, every phone call, and every story. I could not be more proud to call him a mentor, a friend, and a fellow traveler on the broad highway.

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