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Completed Dry January? Reading fiction can help newly sober mothers decide what’s next

Kiera Vaclavik, Director of the Centre for Childhood Cultures at Queen Mary University of London, has written for 'The Conversation' on how reading fiction can help newly sober mothers decide what’s next after completing 'Dry January'

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More people in the UK have gone dry this January than ever before, so drinking, not drinking, and navigating a course between the two, is on many of our minds.

Many of those people are mothers. The pandemic saw an unprecedented escalation in domestic drinking. With the arrival of high-speed home delivery companies, alcohol became more readily and rapidly available than ever before. For many women juggling not just work and childcare but also homeschooling, alcohol may have seemed to offer a coping mechanism, a way to survive “the grind of motherhood”.

If you’ve been participating in Dry January, you may be feeling relieved, proud or anxious now that the month has come to an end. If you are wondering what to do next, there are blogs, podcasts, memoirs and self-help books on hand to offer advice. But other books can also help. Fiction offers precious – sobering – insights into the impact of alcohol in the lives of women and children.

Two works in particular stand out. Doug Stuart’s Booker Prize winner, Shuggie Bain (2020), and the short stories of American writer Lucia Berlin provide visceral, insider portrayals of the devastating effect of life with and – occasionally, blissfully without – drink for mothers and their children.

How fiction can help

What exactly do these works of fiction offer that you might not find elsewhere? Set against intimate domestic backdrops, they provide unflinching accounts of drinking as a woman and mother and where extreme addiction can take you.

One example comes from Lucia Berlin’s short story, Unmanageable, from the collection A Manual for Cleaning Women (2015). On waking – hyperventilating – during the night, the unnamed protagonist sets out on an unnerving trip to a liquor store to get the drink which will enable her to function.

She succeeds, returns home, and sets about making her children their breakfast and washing their school clothes. She is trying to hold it together and paper over the cracks and she very nearly succeeds – but the socks for her sons aren’t dry in time.

Unmanageable offers a glimpse of the experiences of children of alcoholics, as well as their parents. The protagonist’s sons take her bag and car keys in an effort to protect her, but are unsuccessful and must go to school sockless.

In Shuggie Bain, one of the things that Stuart does so brilliantly is combine and move between the experiences of the beautiful, wasted – in all senses – Agnes and her youngest son, the eponymous Shuggie. Over several hundred pages of often excruciatingly painful prose, he shows both how and why Agnes drinks and the impact of addiction on the lives of her children. This includes the astonishing range of strategies they undertake to keep her safe.

In Berlin’s stories it becomes clear that the same mother who heads out to the liquor store in the dead of night had also experienced the effects of drinking on her own mother and other family members when she herself was a child. Threading the stories together, the generational legacies become painfully clear.

An offer of hope

Neither work pulls any punches. Shuggie’s strategies are all ultimately futile. But these characters aren’t all doomed. Stuart has acknowledged that aspects and characters in the book reflect his own childhood. His ability to write Shuggie’s experiences at all – as well as his successful career working in fashion in the US – suggests there is a way through. Lives can be turned around, relationships saved.

In another short story, So Long, Berlin describes a mundane, relaxed breakfast with her adult son: “The same son I used to steal from, who told me I wasn’t his mother.” They read the papers, chat about sport and politics, then he kisses her goodbye. “All over the world mothers are having breakfast with their sons, seeing them off at the door,” she writes. “Can they know the gratitude I felt, standing there, waving? The reprieve.”

One of the key insights of these works for those wondering about their own next steps is the extraordinary and often contradictory pressure exerted by what other people think.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking scene in Shuggie Bain occurs at a golf club restaurant where Agnes’s new partner badgers and seduces her until she finally capitulates “because it’s what normal people do”. His inability to accept her as, at that point, a 12-months sober alcoholic, and her fear of what other people think, is something Agnes never comes back from.

As this scene plays out, we feel with and for her: stiffening when wine is ordered, overwhelmed with tiredness and fear just before finally giving in. These aren’t works which point the finger, but which offer insights and understanding, tenderness and compassion.

No perfect fix

As the books themselves make clear, fiction doesn’t always work or help. Shuggie’s attempts to entertain Agnes by reading to her from Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World don’t keep her sober. But for the Lucia Berlin character in Unmanageable, literature literally saves her life:

“She was shaking too hard to stand. She lay on the floor breathing deep yoga breaths. Don’t think, God don’t think about the state you’re in or you will die, of shame, a stroke. Her breath slowed down. She started to read the titles of books in the bookcase. Concentrate, read them out loud. Edward Abbey, Chinua Achebe, Sherwood Anderson, Jane Austen, Paul Auster, don’t skip, slow down. By the time she had read the whole wall of books she was better.”

Ultimately then, as those who have participated in Dry January decide what comes next, looking to the world of fiction has the potential to do a lot more good than dwelling on what other people think.

This article first appeared in 'The Conversation' on 2 February 2024.

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