Chapter 1: Emmettism

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I couldn’t get this handsome man’s face out of my head. It was strange. It was almost like I had embraced a whole new ‘-ism’, this time, Emmettism. Something new to replace the mania for alcohol, a feeling that comes and goes even with a few years of continuous sobriety.

The photo that got my attention.

My sponsor tells me (often) to watch out for these things, because they can take over, take you out of the living in the current moment, which is something normal to this alcoholic. “Stop for a minute. Think. What do you think is missing in your life that you think you have to throw yourself into this new project?” she asked.

At that time, I didn’t know. “I just feel this need to find out more about this guy. I don’t know what it is.”

I told her about hearing the words “tell my story” in the middle of the night while I was looking at that photo.

I told her that I think there’s something to this, and I didn’t know what it was, except to follow it for awhile and see where it lead me. ‘It’s harmless,” I said. I told her not to worry, that at least I’m not drinking, or using drugs, or doing anything unhealthful or hurtful to someone else, right?

“Yeah,” she said, a little uncertain. “Just keep me in the loop, OK?” We agreed to get together again at our weekly meeting, and I agreed to check in with her in a few days.

McKeldin LIbrary, in the heart of the University of Maryland campus, College Park.

I spent the next five days in my office, in my bedroom, in the University of Maryland carrels (where I have faculty privileges), at the American University library (where I had alumni privileges), anywhere I could link up to as many databases as possible, reading everything I could find about Emmett online. I wasn’t teaching a class at the time and I didn’t have any client work going on; so, I could throw myself into the deep end of research.

I started with the basics — his name, where he was from and the year he died, and making copious, stream-of-conscious notes in black ink in an old computation notebook with quadrille paper — the graphic organization of the blue boxes on the thick yellow tinted paper was calming and made me feel in control of this project that just seemed — for days — a lot of isolated, independent facts rooted in nothing.

At the end of the week, I’d read hundreds of articles. I wasn’t exhausted — rather, I was energized. I felt like I was onto something, but I needed more. I knew that not everything was ever online — I’d have to look locally.

There had to be a repository about Emmett in West Florida, a minimal biography or an old brown folder somewhere with information about Emmett; he was their U.S. Congressman once upon a time, I reasoned.

Next step: Repository Search.

 

 

 

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Family Disease

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My sponsor cornered me after a meeting a few days ago. She hadn’t seen me in awhile — weeks — which isn’t a good thing for alcoholics in recovery. “Where have you been? What’s up?” She asked. Demanded, actually.

So we sat down together in a coffee shop, and talked. She eventually got the truth out of me — I’d stalled out in writing about Emmett, and more critically, in my program. I didn’t realize it was happening until it just happened, I said.

My sponsor (a no-nonsense Sister of Notre Dame and psychotherapist) basically called bullshit on me. “The isolating and the procrastination with Emmett’s writing are symptoms of something else. And the problem is that something else could ultimately be a drinking trigger.”

My sponsor then told me just to start talking about whatever I thought was the beginning, and not think about it.

Here’s the paraphrased version:

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From January to May, managing Dad’s affairs because of his serious health problems and his resistance/outright refusal to take care of himself took over my life. It was damn near impossible to write when I was in the thick of everything for five months, and I hardly was able to get to meetings because of all the travel back and forth, and then, catching up on work and my family’s obligations when I was finally back home.

(Today, Dad’s health is better than it was before he was hospitalized and he’s on his own in an assisted living senior residence, as much as he can be. He hates it, but that’s a story for another time.)

By the time June rolled around, I figured I’d be back into serious work on Emmett’s chapters, and life would settle back down into normalcy. But I picked Emmett’s research up sparingly, and always with some weird dread, and when I did work on his story, it definitely was not with the same spirit and dedication.

More to the point, I wasn’t picking up anything with the same energy, feeling and spirit. I told my sponsor that I felt like I had turned into another person altogether — I snapped at everyone over things that used to never bother me, picking fights even with loved ones and friends, over inconsequential and illogical things. For instance, I got into a terrible argument with my husband, a non-Catholic, because he’s non-Catholic. We’ve been married 28 years. I dated him for 10 years before that. I’ve always KNOWN he’s non-Catholic, and it has never bothered me. But I digress.

My sponsor listened carefully — then told me to talk to my doctor because she said it sounded as if I was going through a kind-of PTSD after all the stress of my Dad’s situation — having to keep it together for so long, without really talking about it, and certainly not talking about it in meetings, since I hadn’t been to any in awhile.

I didn’t debate her or argue about her suggestion — I got my ass to my therapist two days later. Diagnosis: Anxiety post the family drama. Totally understandable, the therapist said. Talking about it has helped me calm down tremendously.

But something else that came out in the therapy that I had forgotten about — and stuffed down — which really is at the heart of all this:

In January, I’d had a conference with one of Dad’s doctors about his condition, and the doctor revealed that all the stuff that happened to my Dad is related to alcoholism.

Although Dad says he’s not drinking, the doctor said the previous drinking history was linked to his bouts with colon cancer, as alcoholism IS a factor in the disease. And, oh yeah, something else I didn’t know until this conference January: He has cirrhosis of the liver. So, in addition to the anxiety, I’m angry.

Deep down furious.

F.U.R.I.O.U.S.

Dad’s lack of care for himself, or for anyone else, has seriously, negatively, affected me and my immediate family. And he frankly doesn’t really care. He just wants to escape whatever it is that is bothering him, regardless. It’s easy to feel sorry for someone like that, but when the alcoholic behavior affects how I’m able to care for my children and be a supportive member of my own family…..

Yeah.

F.U.R.I.O.U.S.

When the AA literature calls alcoholism a ‘family disease,’ it’s the truth. The alcoholic doesn’t think what he or she is doing bothers anyone else but themselves. That’s the key — the alcoholic isn’t THINKING, and certainly, the alcoholic isn’t in his or her right mind.

Anyway. I’m here to report that I’ve held all this shit in since January. A true constipation of the brain. No wonder I haven’t been able to write anything, or function like my old self.

But thanks to a good therapist, a good sponsor, and a good program, things are headed back to normal in Emmett Wilson book land.

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One good thing that has come out of this experience is a better  understanding about Emmett’s biography —  it isn’t just a biography of a long-dead distant ancestor. It’s also about my — our — family relationship with booze, and what we’ve done to live with it, for better or worse.

When I first started learning about Emmett and his relationships with his family members, I remember thinking rather tough thoughts about them — especially his brother Cephas and Emmett’s father, Dr. Francis C. Wilson. If you love your brother and son, and see that he is struggling, why didn’t they do something to help him? Something MORE?

And towards the end of Emmett’s life, most of his friends and almost all of his family members pretty much distanced themselves from Emmett, because he kept on drinking, even though I’m SURE both Emmett’s father, and Emmett’s personal physician advised him to stop drinking years before he died of alcoholism.

I’m sure Emmett’s family and friends were furiously angry and frustrated with Emmett, too. Emmett would always choose booze over every single opportunity that came his way.

The situation with Emmett and his drinking/health outcome is similar to the one I’m experiencing with my Dad today, 100 years later. The time away from writing about Emmett has given me a more objective view of his story, a better understanding of why family and friends acted/behaved/distanced themselves when they did. I feel as if I will be able to present Emmett’s family and friends with more understanding of the situation.

It’s not an easy situation to be in today; it wasn’t easy 100 years ago, either.

I’m sorry I’ve had this experience with Dad, but I’m also glad I’ve had it. I’ve learned a lot from it.

that which is most familiar

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“We seek out what is familiar and comfortable emotionally, even though what is familiar and comfortable may not be healthy.” — Carolyn Hax, The Washington Post, June 2018

Everyone does this, alcoholic or not.

“Fixing” Emmett’s unhealthy drinking habit would have been possible if he’d had help with a competent therapist, and, if he’d been willing to hear the truth about his disease (and not just what he’d want to hear about it). Physicians and therapists back in Emmett’s day (psychiatrists were called ‘alienists’, which probably didn’t help further the notion that talking to a therapist was socially acceptable — it’s still an uncomfortable notion even in the enlightened 21st century) understood alcoholism about as much as modern physicians and therapists do.

Alcoholics in Emmett’s day were considered outcasts, both mentally and morally deficit. The idea that alcoholism was a disease, like diabetes, was new in the early 20th century. Source: Psychology Today

True, we have more pharmaceuticals available today to address the symptoms, but no one knows the cure to alcohol addiction, other than complete abstinence.

Two questions that keep coming back about Emmett, five years into the research: Did he realize he had a drinking problem? and, Did Emmett want to stop drinking?

Re the first question: He definitely realized there was a problem as of December, 1914. But it wasn’t rheumatism, as his PR posse informed the press:

Rheumatism. Really? Source: Ocala Banner, Dec 22, 1914.

Re the second question: Emmett might have liked drinking, liked the taste of alcohol. Perhaps he didn’t want to stop drinking, but I’m sure he wanted to stop being an alcoholic. Nobody wants to be an ‘alcoholic’.

The only way I’d really know is to ask Emmett directly, which, of course, can’t happen. There’s his elusive scrapbooks or journals to consult (if I ever find them), but still, even with that information, I’d probably not understand Emmett completely.

One important thing I have is a copy of Emmett’s will, in his own words, complete with typos and edits. From that, we can tell that above all else, Emmett had integrity, was trying to do the next right thing, and, that Emmett knew he was a hopeless case — well, maybe not hopeless. But by June 1917, I’m sure Emmett knew he didn’t have long.

Emmett’s will, as it appears in the Florida probate documents. Filed June 1, 1918 by his brother, Cephas Love Wilson, executor. He left the bulk of his estate to Jennie Jenkins Kehoe, who was, essentially, a surrogate mother to Emmett. Source: Ancestry.com

“We seek out what is familiar and comfortable emotionally, even though what is familiar and comfortable may not be healthy.”

To Emmett: Booze was comfortable, living with the Kehoes (instead of his own family) was comfortable, being a loner was comfortable, being a workaholic was comfortable, remaining unattached was comfortable. With most people, none of these ‘comforts’ would be considered negatives unless taken to excess, and with Emmett, all of these were taken to excess, particularly the alcohol.

I wish I knew what it was Emmett was trying to soothe with these different kinds of comforts.

He Drank “to cover up the sadness”

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When I read this article in today’s edition of The Washington Post, I couldn’t help but think of Emmett. There’s so many similarities:

From pinup…..Source: Rolling Stone/Getty Images

Both were smart, talented, in the prime of their lives — but — both addicted to success and alcohol.

I suppose it’s part of knowing what it is like to be an alcoholic, and to love fellow alcoholic family members. You don’t want to believe that your pain and suffering is common. You want to think your loved one can have a different outcome than some unfortunate fellow or woman. But in recovery, one of the first things we learn is that none of us are terminally unique. And other than abstinence, there is no cure.

It makes me sad thinking David Cassidy and Emmett Wilson  had similar struggles, both drinking ‘to cover up the sadness’; both ultimately drinking themselves to death.

…to police mugshot. I wonder if Emmett was ever arrested for public drunkenness. Source: The Straits Times

I never knew either Cassidy or Emmett personally, but surely I’m not the only one who thinks both of their early deaths a damn shame.

Cassidy, like Emmett, tried to beat his disease more than once. But then, I also know that statistically, sobriety is harder to maintain, long term. The average length of an AA’s sobriety is less than 10 years. I know Emmett was unable to string together more than a few days of sobriety at a time; this was probably also the case with Cassidy, despite what we’ve learned about alcoholism since Emmett’s death in 1918.

Even though I count my lucky stars for my own sobriety, I know it’s only a daily reprieve. There’s many other addictions available to ‘cover up the sadness’ in my life besides alcohol (social media, shopping, chocolate), and they are an everyday struggle. What I’ve learned during my time away from booze is to, somehow, get OK with the struggle part of sobering up. The only way to do it is to learn the new behavior. Honestly, it sucks most of the time. Most of us AA’s would rather drink like ‘normal’ people, but we’ve had to learn to accept we can’t ever do that. What we can do, is try, one day at a time, to learn to be OK in our own skins for who we are. Mostly of the time, it’s only halfway, but that’s better than no way at all.

In closing, it’s a little ironic that David Cassidy kind-of sums up the sentiment in an old Partridge Family song, “I’ll Meet You Halfway.” I know he was singing about a love relationship, but I think it applies here, because we have to find a way to love ourselves so that we can save ourselves.

I’ll meet you halfway, that’s better than no way
There must be some way to get it together
And if there’s some way, I know that some day
We just might work it out forever

I wish Cassidy, and Emmett, had been able to work things out for themselves differently.

Following the Money

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One of the things I’ve always found curious about Emmett Wilson’s life was why he never lived on his own, never owned a house, never had his own apartment in which he was responsible for everything (food, furniture, utilities and the like).

Emmett was a bachelor with an active and upscale social life and a good job. According to an interview in the Sterling (Illinois) Daily Standard in 1905, Emmett said he was always anxious to be on his own, to prove himself in the legal profession, to be his own man as soon as he could, because he was ready for it.

But according to different editions of the Pensacola City Directory, the U.S. Census for 1900 and 1910, and several articles in Florida contemporary newspapers, Emmett never really was on his own in the true sense of the word.

908 N. Spring Street, Pensacola. Source: Google Maps

In the 1900 U.S. Census, Emmett was enumerated at his father’s home in Chipley, then he moved that same year to his brother Cephas’ house in Marianna. Emmett had roommates both in college dorms and boarding houses while a student at Stetson University; when he moved to Pensacola, he lived with friends at a boarding house, then with the Kehoe family from 1911 onward. Obviously, he paid rent at the boarding houses (In 1908, 124 W. Belmont, today an office building, and in 1909, 908 N. Spring Street, still standing).

Was it money? Couldn’t Emmett afford it?

Sure he could.

Source: Who’s Who in America, Volume 4, 1906, p. 1201

It wasn’t that Emmett didn’t make enough money to live on his own. For example, in 1906, when Emmett was a clerk, then temporary Assistant District Attorney (a part-time position while he also worked in his uncle Evelyn Croom Maxwell’s law office). Emmett eventually became Maxwell’s partner in 1908. But in 1907, Emmett’s salary was $1,500 a year (the average salary for a family of four in the U.S. was about $600 in 1907), in addition to whatever he was making as a private attorney.

Emmett was named to the clerkship, then temporary assistant district attorney in 1906, which terminated in 1907. The image is hard to capture, but you can see the original at this link.

Source: Annual Report of the Attorney General of the United States, 1907.

Emmett also lived with the Kehoes from 1911 onward — he may have paid something towards rent or household costs, but it probably wasn’t substantial, and because Jennie and Walter Kehoe considered Emmett a member of their family, I doubt they would have accepted much, if anything from Emmett towards rent. He made good money, and he had plenty of opportunities to save it.

In 1908 Pensacola, the average rent at a good boarding house was $5 a week, which included room, board, electricity and laundry services.

According to the Inflation Calculator, $5 a week in 1908 has the same purchasing power as $124.56 today — about $500 a month in rent. That was a bargain, considering Emmett’s rent included board and laundry services. Try finding that kind of rent package deal today.

I know that Emmett had to spend a lot of his own money on his political campaign in 1912. He complained in a speech after he won the primary in June, 1912, about how expensive it was — campaign spending records for 1912 show that he spent over $2,000 of his own money leading up to the primary — which is the equivalent of $50,074.14 in today’s dollars, according to the Inflation Calculator. Expensive, indeed.

So, although Emmett certainly would have been able to afford a home of his own by 1912, it seems he put his money towards his political ambitions. It was a gamble, but it makes sense.

But it is too bad that Emmett didn’t invest in real estate, or have something to call his own. Real estate ownership was considered a solid, sound investment. Also, owning a home conveyed the appearance of reliability, consistency.

Even sobriety.

And perhaps the last point was the other stickler.

By 1913, we know Emmett was a full-blown alcoholic, and booze was costly: For example, ONE gallon of nine year old Kentucky whiskey cost $9 in 1913. In 2018 dollars, that’s $225. I doubt Emmett limited his drinking to a gallon a week. It was likely SEVERAL gallons.

Emmett was also a member of two prominent men’s clubs in Pensacola: The Osceola Club and the Elks. The Osceola Club was a fancy society club where one could read, meet and socialize with select and prominent Pensacolians, and drink (although that was not publicized). Membership in The Osceola Club was approximately $500 a year, not including your bar tab, if you had one. And Emmett had one, for sure.

Yes, that’s $500 a year.

In 1913 dollars.

Or, $12,518, according to the Inflation Calculator in 2018 dollars.

I don’t have Emmett’s receipts, of course, but it seems obvious to me that spent most of his money on his political campaigns in 1912 and 1914, and booze.

And when Emmett died in 1918, he was in financial trouble. Emmett’s brother and executor of his estate, Cephas Love Wilson, stated in a letter that Emmett didn’t have anything of value in his belongings except a life insurance policy worth about $13,000, and that Emmett had already borrowed $3,000 against it (that he knew of). In the end, there wasn’t much, if anything, left of Emmett’s estate.

 

 

 

“The Hardest Ride a Man Can Take”

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Maximilian Foster was a famous author and playwright when Emmett met him at an intimate dinner party given by his friend, Billy Crawford, in March 1908.

Maximilian Foster. Passport photo from 1918, via Ancestry.com

In 1908, Foster’s oeuvre was mostly what I’d call low density literature — it doesn’t require a lot of deep concentration, and is something you could finish while lolling on the beach or on your Metro commute. Foster was an entertainment writer, an escape writer.

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But today, I found this:

Whoa. An example of cold-turkey sobriety in the days before AA. Source: McClure’s Magazine, August 1915, page 25 via books.google.com

I am floored. And amazed.

An escape article by Foster about alcohol — Emmett’s (and my) escape drug of choice.

Foster’s article is an amazing and gripping piece — not because it discusses folks trying to sober up 100 years ago on their own  (that’s been going on forever) — but because he captures a modern-sounding struggle with booze, from Emmett’s day, when folks didn’t talk about this struggle openly at all.

If they did, they faced possible social ostracism, even institutionalization — and perhaps that is the reason the speaker is anonymous, even though he is (as of this article) five years sober.

The speaker is a man like Emmett, who would have run with Emmett in his social circles.

It is compelling. I could not put it down.

Could Emmett have been the speaker? He did go through an intervention around New Year’s Day, 1915 — but no, the speaker has five years as of this writing (August 1915).

Did Emmett keep up with Foster? They might not have corresponded, but Foster was a hugely popular writer — surely he read Foster’s articles in the contemporary magazines.

In January 1915, Emmett’s family conducted an intervention of sorts with him — is it possible that Emmett might have picked up this magazine in August, read his colleagues’ article? He would have certainly read McClure’s Magazine. And Emmett knew Foster. If he read McClure’s Magazine, he’d have seen this article. (Foster was published frequently in the Saturday Evening Post, for example. McClure’s Magazine was just as popular as the Post.)

Would Emmett have seen himself in the narrator?

I wonder.

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Interestingly, is this follow-up letter to the editor of McClure’s about this essay. It gives wonderful insight to the thinking about alcoholism during the early 1900s.

Judging Favorably

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Today, I learned about the Judaic concept of “dan l’kaf zichud,” or, about the obligation to judge others favorably.

In a nutshell, it is about giving someone the benefit of the doubt, not assuming a value judgment immediately about anything and everything. Given all the crap that goes on in the news, and on different social media platforms, and let’s face it — in all of our everyday interactions with people, no matter what we are doing — it can be hard not to automatically assign a value.

Even with Emmett Wilson’s research, I find myself judging him, his actions, his behavior 100 years after the fact. That’s problematic; it reveals that I don’t automatically look at him and his actions objectively, as a true social scientist should.

Maybe it is because I’ve gotten close to him, maybe it is because as a fellow alcoholic, I understand the warped thinking that comes with our disease.  Although I believe I have an accurate understanding of him after four years of studying his life, I didn’t know the man personally. I wish I did.

I don’t always think to give others (living and/or dead 100 years) the benefit of the doubt. But I admit that always assuming the worst of someone, or something, poisons one’s interpretation of information. Or of the person. And then, we miss out on the gift that other person, or that different information, can bring to us.

And that can be unfortunate.

This was an important and valuable lesson today.

(A tip of the hat to Jake Tapper for inspiring me to learn more about this important concept.)