Ross Fitzgerald is one of Australia’s better known recovering alcoholics. He is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University and the author of 35 books, including his recent memoir My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey.
My Name is Ross chronicles Professor Fitzgerald’s struggle with alcoholism and other drug addiction from the age of 14 until he stopped drinking and using other drugs at the age of 24. Since then, Professor Fitzgerald has been sober, drug free, and a member of Alcoholics Anonymous – a fellowship which he still regularly attends. Ross’ memoir also deals with his work on the Queensland and New South Wales Parole Boards, the Administrative Decisions Tribunal and the NSW Government’s Expert Advisory Group on Alcohol and Other Drugs.
Recently, the British-based Dr John Sutherland, an acknowledged expert on recovery from addictions, reviewed My Name is Ross for the prestigious London Literary Review, featured below.
Barry Humphries is a man of many parts. I know him through one of his less famous ones: that of bibliophile and connoisseur of late nineteenth-century ‘decadent’ literature. On 18 March he announced the final call for what is his most famous part. Dame Edna, the world was told, would retire from the stage. Possums mourned.
There is a photograph of Humphries in ‘My Name Is Ross’, in propria persona, at the author’s wedding on 5 November 1976. Fitzgerald records the wedding present: a copy of the two-volume OED, with the wry inscription ‘For Lyndal and Ross. In case you ever have “words”.’
The fellow Melbournians had another bond between them. Fitzgerald (born in 1944) had been sober since 26 January 1970; Humphries, ten years his senior, since 31 December 1971. Both men credit AA with their ‘recovering’ (‘recovery’, for the faithful, is never achieved – only the ‘one day at a time’ journey towards it). Fitzgerald’s title begs the echo, heard from every participant at every AA meeting, ‘and I’m an alcoholic’. Barry and Ross, we apprehend – Fitzgerald is tactful as to details – drank together in their unregenerate years. Fitzgerald, as he tells us, was present at the creation of that other famous Humphries particle, Sir Les Patterson. The men were dining together. Humphries left the table for a moment (to ‘point Percy at the porcelain’, as Bazza McKenzie would say), and, a little later, the bespittled diplomat and piss-tank Sir Les lurched on stage for the first time. Like others Fitzgerald at first took Patterson for real. Both men were at the time only very recently sober. Sir Les, as Humphries says, ‘drinks for him’. He could drink for Australia. But he too, alas, has gone into retirement along with Edna and Bazza. The massage parlours of Bangkok will mourn.
The genre to which Fitzgerald’s book belongs is, in AA-speak, a ‘drunkalog’. As the founders of the fellowship, ‘Dr Bob’ and ‘Bill W’, momentously discovered in their pioneer meetings in Akron, Ohio in 1935, alcoholics can help each other back to sobriety by ‘sharing their stories’. The invention of the drunkalog preceded that of AA by twenty years with Jack London’s ‘alcoholic memoirs’, ‘John Barleycorn’. Drunkalogs are required to offer ‘unflinchingly’ honest testimony. But they must also entertain. No sermons and no tedium. Heroic exaggeration and gothic improbabilities are indulgently winked at so long as essential truths are observed. London, for example, describes drinking a workman’s bucket of beer aged five. Such episodes do not always stand up to forensic investigation, as luckless James Frey discovered when The Smoking Gun website started digging into the facts of his drunkalog, ‘A Million Little Pieces’. You can get away with outrageous bragging at the meeting – but not on live TV with Oprah.
Ross Fitzgerald was never what Australians call a ‘two pot screamer’. In the course of his twenty-year drinking career he over-indulged himself into multiple hospitalisations, ECTs (it has left his brain as riddled with holes as Swiss cheese) and jailings. Since he more than once, in his cups, took a knife to young ladies who ‘thwarted’ his desires, he is lucky not to be writing his drunkalog from behind bars (the metal kind).
It was, however, his bad luck to be a ‘coping’ alcoholic – one who could keep the show on the road while drinking ruinously. In his youth he was a gifted athlete and had he not devoted himself to the bottle rather than the bat, he could have had a career in first-class cricket. He was quick-witted and canny enough to land first-class degrees, scholarships, fellowships, and plum academic jobs. He invariably pissed them away, but found something as good elsewhere. He smoked fifty cigarettes a day ‘despite being an asthmatic’, and daily popped up to thirty barbiturates, all the while glugging enough to float the proverbial battleship.
Fitzgerald ended up in AA when he had nowhere else to go other than the closed ward, the prison, or the morgue. The first half of the book, chronicling that journey to the AA terminus, is, as drunkalogs go, top notch – in the ‘John Barleycorn’ class. I wish I’d been around to hear him tell his story in person (he apparently still attends up to five meetings a week).
The presiding tone is laconic, verging on the blackly humorous, as in the following account of his initiation into AA when, as he puts it, he was never quite sure whether he wanted ‘a fuck or a haircut’:
“Lee took me, and a German bloke, to AA meetings almost every night for three months. During this time, the German bloke blew his head off with a double-barrel shotgun and I tried to kill myself twice by overdosing, which, not unnaturally, caused my parents great distress. ”
Having had four decades of sobriety to work it out Fitzgerald is shrewd on the central paradox of alcoholism: namely that it can be a life-saver as well as a life-destroyer. ‘The truth is’, he says, “that if I hadn’t started drinking regularly at the age of fifteen, I almost certainly would have committed suicide by the time I was seventeen. But if I hadn’t stopped drinking and using other drugs at twenty-five, I wouldn’t have made twenty-six.”
Alcoholism, for those few who come out the other side, can be enriching as well as life-saving. There is an obvious impertinence in asking, but could Humphries’s art have reached the peaks that it did had he restricted himself to the statutory twenty-one units a week? Could sobriety have spawned Sir Les?
Things improved dramatically for Fitzgerald after he discovered, as Humphries puts it, that life is more stimulating without stimulants. And it lasts longer. The second half of ‘My Name Is Ross’ chronicles forty sober years. He won the hand of a former Australian Photographic Model of the Year, and they are still married. He ascended rungs of the academic profession, wrote well-received history books, and became an active participant in his country’s political life.
Drunkalogs, like good novels, should not waste space on the ‘happily ever after’. But even if it is less gripping a tale, the second half of the book has its interest. Fitzgerald nowadays worries about Australia’s drinking problem rather than his own. According to the government statistics as many as 14 per cent of the population indulge ‘riskily’. And the drinking age is plummeting. Most Australians now start drinking at fourteen. It’s a recipe for epidemic alcoholism.
What to do? Problem drinkers will tell you that raising the unit cost – as our government fatuously proposes – is not a solution. It’s a minor irritant. Most, when they are desperate, would rob a blind man’s hat if that was the only way they could get the next drink. Perhaps public flogging, as strict Muslims propose, would work. But it’s not an election winner. ‘Education’? It might work in the very long term, but the crisis is now.
Tireless advocate as he is for enlightened legislation Ross Fitzgerald is not, at heart, optimistic even about his beloved fellowship: ‘The truth is that even though AA is the most effective agency, not all that many alcoholics can stay off the booze.’ Cheers mate – but no cheers.