“Nightmarish” “Horrifying”: Thomas Randall’s The Twelfth Step

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Matthew J. Raphael, a retired professor of English. Raphael is author of Bill W. and Mr. Wilson (University of Massachusetts Press, 2000), as well as other books and essays on the place of alcohol in American literature and culture. His previous work for Points includes reviewing the movie Bill W. and a review of Writing the Big Book.

At a convention in St. Louis in July 1955, Alcoholic Anonymous celebrated its twentieth anniversary. The event coincided with the release of the second edition of Alcoholics Anonymous. Bill Wilson emphasized the need for A.A. to move beyond reliance on its quasi-paternal founders and grow up. This idea inspired the title of the book memorializing the occasion: Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age (1957), the least familiar but most historically enlightening of A.A.’s canonical texts.

That same year, Thomas Randall, publishing under a pseudonym, released The Twelfth Step, which might be seen as a literary counterpart to Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age. When I stumbled upon a copy of The Twelfth Step thirty years ago, I thought it was the best A.A.-related novel I had ever encountered. I’ve just reread it, and my opinion has not changed.

Curious readers might wish to check it out.

The cover of the 1963 paperback English edition

Honk! Spoiler Alert: The book is nearly unobtainable. There are roughly two dozen copies currently for sale online, varying in format and condition and ranging widely in price. The rare American edition from Charles Scribner’s Sons, goes from $25 to $250; the 1960 English edition, from $25 to $80; the 1963 paperback version of the English edition, from $20 to $45.

Until recently (see below), nothing was known about the writer of The Twelfth Step except what’s stated on the dust jacket and in a brief author’s note, which expresses appreciation to the New Hampshire State Alcoholic Clinic, “at which I received aid when I was desperately in need of it.” The author also gives thanks to A.A. groups in Woburn and Reading, Massachusetts; Concord, Tilton, and Laconia, New Hampshire; and Mexico City.

About the author from the 1957 first edition

The back panel of the jacket, which quotes the author himself, discloses his membership in A.A. and explains his adherence to anonymity as “a facet of humility which seems necessary for the recovered alcoholic.” In fact, Randall criticizes “several well-known people who have chosen to disregard the tradition of anonymity by writing autobiographical works . . . from the viewpoint of an incident in a glamorous life.”

Undoubtedly, he was referring to the singer Lillian Roth’s mega-bestseller, I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1954), the gushing title of which anticipated Susan Hayward’s scenery-chomping performance in the 1955 movie version. (The trailer is a must-see: so far over the top that you need a helicopter to keep it in view.) Since complete honesty is, according to Randall, “impossible in autobiography,” it is only “with the cloak of anonymity which fiction affords that the subject can be covered in its entirety and without a stultifying sense of expediency and discretion.”

As for personal details, it is reported that Randall’s father was an alcoholic. After his parents’ separation, he was raised in an orphan asylum. Despite his resolution never to drink, he did so anyway: “the child of an alcoholic is filled with fear and bewilderment, is torn between love and aversion, and this later on makes him susceptible to the initially unifying and ego-inflating effects of alcohol.”

As an adult, Randall bounced from job to job — in construction and landscaping, as a doorman and an artist’s model, and finally as a tugboat hand for seven years. During this period he read incessantly and published some stories in avant garde magazines, while failing to finish several novels. During World War II, Randall’s alcohol problem became acute, leading him to recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous. Randall died in his early fifties the year after The Twelfth Step appeared.

I tried to obtain more information through an inquiry to Scribner’s in the early 1990s and a more recent attempt to glean something from the Scribner’s archive at Princeton. I was told the first time that the author’s family still wished to honor his anonymity. I learned the second time that no trace of the author or his book exists in the archive. Any editorial file — and there must have been one, since the jacket quotes from Randall’s letters — was apparently scrubbed.

Through Google and informed luck, however, I have now ascertained Thomas Randall’s identity. I have chosen not to disclose it completely here, out of respect for Randall’s affirmation of anonymity. But I will add some details about the author’s literary career.

He may have published stories in his youth, but I discovered only his first appearance as a poet. A sonnet (“The Last Dance”) and two quatrains (“The Old Man” and “Death”) were published in the March 1924 issue of Contemporary Verse: The All-poetry Magazine for America. The editor, Charles Wharton Stork, writes in his introduction that “Our new writers this month are all men. We might make a technical exception of Thomas Randall [Surname], who writes from New Concord, O., that he is only recently out of school.” This places his birthdate around 1906.

That The Twelfth Step was the author’s first and only novel is hard to believe, given its exceptional literary merit. It’s powerfully written and tightly plotted; the complex characters are fully rounded; sophisticated themes are handled at great depth. The novel, which runs 568 pages, has two parts. The first centers on a sextet of alcoholics, three men and three women, who spend a week together at Greenleaf Hill, a drying-out hospital in New Hampshire. A fourth woman arrives in such a deranged state that she must immediately be moved to the state hospital, but she reappears later.

Living in close quarters, the characters develop an intense intimacy that carries over into the second part, which follows their continuing interactions in the real world, where they all struggle, with different degrees of success, to stay sober.

Given what we know about Randall’s life, there is clearly an affinity between the author and the main character Martin Gray, the natural leader of the Greenleaf group. An autodidact and self-styled intellectual, Martin is vastly overqualified for his humdrum work as a state bureaucrat in Boston. His problem, indeed, is that he lives in his head, whereas he is ultimately redeemed through devotion to the others. Though he has no use for organized religion, Martin nonetheless has a spiritual awakening through his profound and increasingly romantic love for Abbie Reese, a booze-ravaged, thrice divorced prostitute of thirty-three. That is, Martin comes to grasp the full meaning of the twelfth step.

Two other characters, David and Helen Le Grande, are on the run from the law. Davy works as a bartender, his wife as a waitress. In the novel’s gripping first chapter, they desperately drive toward Greenleaf Hill, fueled by frequent infusions of alcohol. The soul-tortured Davy winds up in jail, where he hangs himself, as his alcoholic mother had done. The distraught Helen carries on.

Ralph Hilton and Evelyn Johnson exemplify the suburban ethos of the fifties. Ralph seems to have it made amid the trappings of “success,” of which his shrewish wife cannot get enough. But he hates his mindless job as a salesman of shoe linings as much as he detests his spouse. Conforming to respectable appearances even as his marriage disintegrates, Ralph takes refuge in alcohol.

Evelyn, an elegant suburban lady, also tries to escape existential despair through drinking. At Greenleaf Hill, she and Ralph fall into an opportune affair that temporarily enlivens them. Evelyn’s marriage recovers through her husband’s new understanding of her alcoholism. Ralph’s does not, but he manages to break free by embracing the love of Alice Fairchild, a generation younger, who had entered and then exited Greenleaf Hill as a basket case.

Peripheral to the main characters are their sponsors, who counsel the “pigeons” (as new prospects once were called) and bring them to A.A. meetings, the atmospherics and procedures of which are virtually indistinguishable from those currently in practice. As the sponsors model the twelfth step by carrying the A.A. message to alcoholics who still suffer, they also impart its practical wisdom.

The thematic essence of The Twelfth Step is no better described than on the dust jacket’s front flap, very likely written by Randall himself: “It is the powerful story of men and women forced to examine painfully their own minds and souls for the true motivation behind their actions. It is the story of their attempts to help themselves and others, of their struggle to establish new ideals and standards in the place of the weakened foundations on which their lives thus far have stood.”

Notice that there’s not a word here about alcoholism per se. The novel posits links between drinking and the psychological, sociological, and spiritual dysfunctions of the time. Randall does allude in passing to the “disease concept” of alcoholism that became established during the 1940s. But he is far more concerned with dys-ease.

This emphasis is completely in accord with the original Big Book, in which the word “disease” appears only once, and in a context not related to medical categories: resentment “destroys more alcoholics than anything else. From it stem all forms of spiritual disease, for we have been not only mentally and physically ill, we have been spiritually sick.” The Twelfth Step decries the post-war American preoccupation with material advancement, at the expense of introspection and social authenticity. Drinking serves at first as an antidote to the spiritual sickness but then becomes part of it.

The implication is that overcoming alcoholism requires cultural reform as well as personal renewal. In this respect, The Twelfth Step resists the A.A. nostrum that getting sober is an “inside job with outside help”– because the outside help is still located inside the program. Randall seems to question A.A.’s quietism about truly “outside issues,” including politics.

This strategic insularity is reflected in A.A.’s subtly reductive variant of the Serenity Prayer as it was fashioned in 1943 by the activist theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr: “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” Should be changed is much stronger than can be changed. It calls for action about things that do not exist solely in the realm of the pietistic Protestantism that has undergirded A.A. from its origin.

The Twelfth Step is notably averse to the “God stuff” in A.A., in which the claim to be a “spiritual” rather than a “religious” program has been seen by some to be a distinction without a difference. In light of A.A. norms, especially during the period of the novel, Martin Gray qualifies as a heretic, long before the rise of AA Agnostica and other groups of non-believers.

For its time, The Twelfth Step was also remarkably frank about sex, which is depicted quite graphically at times. Randall suggests that compulsive sex is akin to compulsive drinking, one reinforcing the other. The point was lost on a Jesuit reviewer who was shocked and repelled by the novel. Another moralizer, in a review archly titled “The Shame of Six,” found it to be “direct . . . unashamed, explicit, and thoughtful,” but the characters to be immoral. They “have given up their bourgeois prissiness concerning sex and fidelity” as a result of their alcoholic “degradation.” Their humor “tends to be somewhat crude and scatological, just as their reticence concerning their intimate lives is wiped out by the common knowledge of how far down their shame lies” (David Karp, The Saturday Review, 16 November 1957).

Victorian temperance fiction invariably cast drunken women as sluts, if not actual prostitutes. But the concept of a female drunkard, rather than a drunken female, was nearly unimaginable because it clashed with the male gendering of inebriety/dipsomania itself. This order of things was still in place when A.A. was founded in 1935. Women still bore a residual stigma of gender depravity in an organization consisting almost exclusively of white, middle-aged, middle class men, led by a notorious philanderer.

There’s more than a whiff of this in The Twelfth Step, despite its inclusion of female characters. Abbie is literally a whore, one who can’t begin to count how many men she has laid. (“Getting laid” is often used in the novel.) She is “rescued” by the sexually abstemious Martin. While under the influence, even the staid Evelyn Johnson finds herself wantonly drawn to strangers. Her affair with Ralph, who has no idea of his attractiveness, could not have happened without her encouragement. And although Alice obviously desires Ralph, he must be talked into noticing.

Aside from its historical importance, The Twelfth Step is simply a good read. As the contemporary Kirkus review put it, the novel “retains a hold on the reader as compulsive as its subject, spikes it with the physical degeneration and moral guilt which is the alcoholic’s, but also handles it with an undisguised emotion which may be that of experience.”

Unfortunately, prospects for a reprint edition are dim — though I’m working on it and would appreciate any help or advice. But this landmark novel should nevertheless be kept in mind if not in hand.

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