He Holds Desperately


“By nature touchy and suspicious, the alcoholic likes to be left alone to work out his puzzle, and he has a convenient way of ignoring the tragedy which he inflicts meanwhile upon those who are close to him. He holds desperately to a conviction that, although he has not been able to handle alcohol in the past, he will ultimately succeed in becoming a controlled drinker. One of medicine’s queerest animals, he is, as often as not, an acutely intelligent person. He fences with professional men and relatives who attempt to aid him and he gets a perverse satisfaction out of tripping them up in argument.”

Jack Alexander (1903-1975)
[John Hollis Alexander]
Saturday Evening Post, March 1, 1941,”Alcoholics Anonymous”

“Mega-talented, but self-destructive”


My friend, the wonderful Sue Tindel, of the Jackson County (Florida) Circuit Clerk’s Office, used the title of today’s post to describe someone she knew once, who ironically, was also an alcoholic (but in recovery).

The person she was describing was also, ironically, the same age as Emmett when he died of said disease.

I like this description, as I think it really sums up Emmett’s character. Emmett was an extremely talented, blessed, fortunate individual. Some newspapers (specifically, The Pensacola Journal), called him “brilliant.” Emmett had everything going for him.

And yet, his tragic character flaw was that he was self-destructive.

He had opportunities literally given to him; opportunities attached to money, prestige, fame, fortune, all of the things he wanted desperately while he was slogging away at the telegraph key as a teenager, and in law school, working his way through.

It is frustrating, sometimes, as I look back over the notes and the outline of the book. You can see the train wreck before it happens with Emmett!  Of course, it is easy to recognize problems 100 years after they’ve happened, but I have to believe that his close friends and advisors saw (at least) some of the warning signs with Emmett before they became full-blown crises. Emmett had some good advisors; he had some crummy ones, as well; maybe that was part of his self-destructive nature, in that he chose badly.

See, here’s the thing I’ve come to understand about Emmett:

He was an entirely logical thinker when it came to his work and his career. He wouldn’t let anything or anyone distract him from his main goal in life: The Florida Supreme Court bench. If it (a personal connection, a law case, a social event) would further his career, he would go for it.

Once he set a goal for himself, he threw himself into that goal, mastered the project or case, and then — and this is the odd part about Emmett — got bored with it. Next, he’d detach himself from it — mentally if not physically.

True, he understood that everything he was doing along he way was simply a set of milestones on the way to the Florida Supreme Court bench. But it seems like he couldn’t tap into the psychological stamina and patience to bear it (even when the going got boring), to find a way to enjoy it, make it his own without an external stimulant.


Was Emmett Wilson ‘brilliant’?

No. (Sorry, Emmett.)

If Emmett were truly brilliant, he’d have had more emotional/psychological maturity. Some of this wasn’t exactly Emmett’s fault: He was, according to several sources, being pushed up the political ladder faster and at a younger age than anyone before (for example, he was the youngest District Attorney in the United States in 1907), and, it was also reported, before he was ready. Emmett wasn’t quite ready, but he was listening to the crummy advisors, and doing their bidding.

If Emmett were truly brilliant, he’d have seen this, too. He’d have seen that he was being pushed beyond his experience and education.

I think Emmett did see this, now and then; that he had moments of clarity with regard to the heights he’d climbed politically, socially, professionally, with not much of a safety net beneath him, other than whoever it was manipulating the puppet strings of his life. Those moments of clarity scared the hell out him.

If he screwed up, there would be definitely be hell to pay, and his dream of occupying the same bench as his revered grandfather, would be dashed.

Emmett had the talent, definitely; he could do the work he was given. But he was mostly acting the part he was assigned.

Emmett was also, most definitely, mega-talented. He could play the role he was given; he was a good lawyer.

He wasn’t brilliant.

But he was definitely self-destructive.

In Praise of Sponsorship


As of April 27, I will have 10 years’ sobriety in AA.

Putting down the drink was the easy part of getting sober. Keeping away from the damn drink was the hard part — and I surely would not have accumulated this much time, one day at at time, unless I had some help.

But I’ve always balked at accepting help. I’m self-reliant, and I’ve always prided myself on being able to take care of myself. Looking back, I realize that was probably how I was able to survive growing up in an alcoholic household — but now, as a recovering person — I’ve come to understand that self-reliance; i.e., my best thinking, is what got me into AA in the first place.

Four months into AA, I found a sponsor. She was tough as hell on me. She told me if I was really serious about sobering up, and realize the benefits of The Promises, I’d have to follow her directions.

The AA Promises. From pages 83-84 of Alcoholics Anonymous’ big book. They do come true.

The self-reliant alcoholic in me resented another person telling me what to do. I resisted, but I also knew, deep down, that I needed accountability and structure in order to kick this disease, and my sponsor was my best chance to do that. I’d tried to sober up twice before — nothing else had worked.

I did what she said. I didn’t always want to call her every day to tell her what was going on. I didn’t always want to go to a meeting every day. I didn’t want to pray every day, especially for people in my office who I didn’t get along with, or the person who cut me off on the Beltway, or the idiot in the grocery checkout line who decides to pay with a check when I’m in such a hurry to get back to my so-important life!

But I did it anyway.

And it has made all the difference.

Are my problems *poof* gone thanks to sobriety? No.

But my life is manageable.

I still have problems with people in my office, but, thanks to the AA program, I feel more compassionate towards them. It has made a difference in my attitude and the way they act towards me.

People still cut me off on the Beltway, but maybe that person has had a terrible day, or is truly in a hurry to get to the hospital or somewhere else to help a loved one.

I realize I’m powerless over other people, places, and things. But, I do have power over my reaction to other people, places, and things.

And I sure as hell could not have arrived at any of this on my own — only through the help of a good sponsor.


Because I think that sponsorship works so well with my alcoholism, I decided to get a writing sponsor. I didn’t set out to ‘find’ one; this relationship evolved naturally.

You probably knew my first one — my dear friend Nancy. I used to talk to her almost every day about Emmett and the book, and the research. Our conversations were wonderful. I could talk to her about what I found about Emmett in the research, or about how I interpreted Emmett’s relationships with his family, for example, and she’d give me great feedback. It was clarifying and encouraging. Nancy knew my entire story, especially the AA part.

Jacki, myself, Nancy. History detective gals.

Eventually, I told Nancy that I considered her my ‘writing sponsor’, and she said she was honored that I thought of her that way — and voila, our writing sponsorship was born.

It wasn’t a one way relationship, either: Nancy also had writing and research projects underway, and she’d talk to me about them. We’d discuss research databases, research libraries, the best ways to interview reluctant sources, how to catalog articles — you get the picture. We were a team.

And when Nancy died this past January, I was devastated. I felt as if I lost a family member. I’ve really missed Nancy. It has been hard to keep up the writing and research with as much enthusiasm since she died.

But I think Nancy would have been really p-o’d if I wallowed in sadness and the listlessness I’ve felt since she died in January. She would have come up here from Florida and kicked my ass over it; no lie. Nancy would tell me, directly, to get a grip. Find a damn writing sponsor. I need one. She’s right, of course.

As of this weekend, I have a new writing sponsor.

I feel like my Emmett Wilson writing program is back on track.

Things are looking up.

Thanks to my sponsors.


Journaling & Self-Editing Finds


I’ve been posting less on Emmett’s blog this month because I’m working on Emmett Wilson-related articles to submit to two publications:


I met the representatives of the Little Patuxent Review literary journal when I was at the AWP Conference two weeks ago. Two weeks ago, they told me to submit my article.  The deadline is in two days, and my piece is in rough condition. No pressure. 😐

durmar6I also met a few representatives showcasing a new literary journal, The Ponder Review. I spoke with them about my Emmett Wilson project, and was also encouraged to submit my article; I have a little more wiggle room with their deadline, which is March 6.

And, in the midst of preparing journal submissions I am halfway finished with the first read-through of Emmett’s 450-page manuscript. So far, the quality is mixed — the first chapter is in fairly good shape. But the second chapter is awful.

Frankly, I’m not surprised at the poor condition of the second chapter, because when I look back at my notes on this section, I saw that I was complaining to myself and to Nancy mightily about how hard it was to write. In my notes, I said that I couldn’t figure it out why this was so hard, because ironically, it is one of the periods of Emmett’s life where there are relatively few information holes.


Source: Wikipedia

But now, after eight months since I drafted the chapter — what immediately jumps out is Emmett’s Jekyll-and-Hyde behavior, and I can see that I was trying to present Emmett’s behavior consistently, when in fact, there was nothing consistent in his behavior at all. He was up and down because this is when Emmett’s drinking habits became entrenched. He’s only 22 years old in the second chapter, but there’s already evidence of blackout drinking.

The inconsistencies are quite telling, and an important aspect of Emmett that needs to stay in this story.

I’m kind-of surprised I didn’t notice this pattern eight months ago, when I was in the midst of writing the chapter, but then, I had a similar situation back in my dissertation days. My dean recommended that I step away from the research for about month — do something different — then come back with fresh eyes, because it would make all the difference.

Such good advice then, and now.

I should clarify that when I say ‘Jekyll and Hyde,’ I don’t want to imply that Emmett was evil; but when Emmett became intoxicated, he became a different person. Perhaps he did seem as if he was possessed by an evil spirit once he had had too much; it is clear that Emmett Wilson was a completely different person when he was sober.



I’ve made the notes and crafted a more cohesive structure for the second chapter, which I’ll rewrite after I’ve gone completely through the manuscript.


Dissecting the Message, Part II


Picking up where we left off in our last post:


Cephas’ letter to Emmett Meade (Cephas’ brother-in-law) also mentioned a woman named ‘Jeanet.’ She was not married to Jhon Burton; she never married, in fact.

Jeanet Love McKinnon (1880-1940) was a member of the Wilson family by marriage; she was the sister of Mary Catherine (“May”) McKinnon Wilson, the wife of Francis Childria Wilson, Jr., of Pensacola, Florida. According to the U.S. Census:

  • In 1910, she was a stenographer in a law office — possibly her father Daniel Love McKinnon’s law office.
  • In 1920, she was a stenographer in an ‘office’ — unspecified.
  • In 1930, she was a cashier in a Marianna insurance office.

Source: The Pensacola Journal, March 1914.

Jeanet went back and forth between Marianna and Pensacola regularly to visit her sister May; there’s several articles in The Pensacola Journal from 1900 through 1922 (the last year in the ChroniclingAmerica.gov database) that mention Jeanet’s comings and goings.

She died at age 60, on October 1, 1940 in Dothan, Alabama. The death report lists Jeanet’s residence as Marianna at the time of her death, and that she was stenographer.  I have not been able to locate her in the U.S. Census for 1940 to confirm, which is a little unusual given the lateness in the year of her death (most census data gathering took place in the first quarter of the year).

It is likely Jeanet was living with siblings in Marianna, and was perhaps visiting friends or other family members in Dothan when she died.

“…to prove how unaccustomed I am to such stuff…”

This is an interesting comment.

Cephas was not an alcoholic, although there were several active alcoholic family members, some of whom lived with Cephas and his family periodically. Cephas kept alcohol in his home (he entertained important people regularly at dinner, for instance, and was known to serve wine at least). Champagne was a special drink for special occasions.

I know from other sources that Cephas was not considered an alcoholic; the point he made in the letter that he kept the bottle for several weeks — just in case — is not something an alcoholic would do.


Lula Wiselogel Wilson. Source: FloridaMemory.com

Also interesting is how unaccustomed he is to opening the bottle — I can see him struggling to extricate the cork, and as the cork shoots out with a loud POP, the foam of the wine erupts out of the bottle, onto the carpet and onto Dood’s expensive dress —


That’s the family name for Lula Wiselogel Wilson. Cephas knew Lula from the time he moved to Chipley when he was 17 years old, newly repatriated after living in British Honduras with his family since the early 1870s. Lula’s family was wealthy, prominent, important, Republican. Cephas’ family was just starting over. Lula was smart, attractive. So was Cephas. The younger children in the Wilson household probably couldn’t say “Lula”, so they called her “Dood” and the name stuck.

I’ll finish with the rest of this section in the next post. Stay tuned!

An Unlikely Yet Profound Kinship


Although Congress had been back in session since December 4, 1916, Emmett was still in Pensacola, with no plans to return to D.C. Emmett still had four months remaining in his term as Congressman from the Third Congressional District, but it is damn near impossible to be present when one’s already checked out — mentally, physically, emotionally.

Emmett nearly died exactly two years earlier in Washington. His kidneys completely shut down thanks to full-blown cirrhosis.

He was told to stop drinking or he’d die. You are bigger than booze, they said. It can be done, they said.

Emmett may have said: It’s impossible. I don’t know how to help myself.

Yeah, you do, they said. Look at Frank Clark. If he can do it, you can do it.

Meet Frank Clark.

Frank Clark, Florida Congressman, well-known racist.

Frank Clark, Florida Congressman for the Second Congressional District from 1905-1925. Source: LOC.

Meet Frank Clark, U.S. Representative from Florida’s Second Congressional District. Clark served from 1905 to 1925.

The official congressional bio and the Wikipedia page (which I don’t consider ‘official’ anything) does not go in depth about him; for a guy with such a long history of public service to Floridians, that was surprising. There is no substantial biography on Frank Clark, other than a Master’s thesis by Tom Cox in the Manatee (County) Public Library in Bradenton. The kind, helpful, and professional archivists at the Manatee Public Library photocopied the document and mailed it to me, gratis, after I asked to borrow it via InterLibrary Loan. [Thank you again, MPL archive team!]

According to Cox’s research, there were two career high points:

  • Chairman of the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds, 63rd through 65th congress (1913-1919); and
  • In 1911, proposed H. R. 2582: “To prohibit the intermarriage of persons of the white and Negro races within the District of Columbia; to declare such contracts of marriage null and void; to prescribe punishments for violations and attempts to violate its provisions.” [Congress (1911), Congressional Record, 47 (1), Congressional Printing Office, retrieved 2017-01-09]

“I had no idea Clark was such a racist,” said the MPL archivist who had copied the manuscript for me. “Incredible.”

Cox mentions that Clark was outspoken, a bit brash, impatient, and had a bad temper — quite the opposite of Emmett, who was quiet, retiring, agonizingly slow at making personal (and some professional) decisions. The do not appear to have interacted very much during their congressional service, and had very little in common.

Or so I thought.

There was something else in the thesis that got my attention: Cox mentioned that Clark reportedly was an alcoholic who managed to sober up on his own — an incredible feat and example of self-mastery over 100 years ago, and even today.

The original information came from William T. Cash’s History of the Democratic Party of Florida (published in 1936). I checked out the book via InterLibrary Loan, and found the source of Cox’s information on page 99:

Cash, W. Thomas. (1936). History of the Democratic party in Florida: including biographical sketches of prominent Florida democrats. Tallahassee: Florida Democratic Historical Foundation.

Cash, W. Thomas. (1936). History of the Democratic party in Florida: including biographical sketches of prominent Florida democrats. Tallahassee: Florida Democratic Historical Foundation.

Also, on page 100:

This is on page 99. Source: Cash, W. Thomas. (1936). History of the Democratic party in Florida: including biographical sketches of prominent Florida democrats. Tallahassee: Florida Democratic Historical Foundation.

This is on page 99. Source: Cash, W. Thomas. (1936). History of the Democratic party in Florida: including biographical sketches of prominent Florida democrats. Tallahassee: Florida Democratic Historical Foundation.

Unfortunately, there is no bibliography or list of interviews, or other references in the back of Cash’s text. I would have loved to checked those sources, as I feel certain that Cash spoke and worked with primary sources to put his book together.

So, we don’t really know if Frank Clark ‘… had overcome his weakness…”, nor do we know if he was truly living a sober life, but Cox’s thesis indicates that Clark lived the rest of his life primarily ‘on the beam’, as we say in the program.

By the time Emmett arrived in Congress in 1913, Clark was probably considered 99.9 percent sober by those who knew him best.

And, Clark probably understood Emmett better than anyone else ever could among the Florida legislative cohort. Because when it became obvious that Emmett’s congressional career was done, it was Frank Clark who spoke up for him.

From Congressional Record for December 6, 1916:

“By unanimous consent, leaves of absence were granted as follows: To Mr. Wilson of Florida, on request of Mr. Clark of Florida, indefinitely, on account of important business.” (Italics mine.) Cong. Rec. 6 Dec. 1916: Proquest Congressional Publications. Web. 12 January 2014.

Frank Clark understood better than anyone else what it was like to be a prisoner of alcohol addiction.

Frank and Emmett were not exactly close, nor were they buddies, but they shared a kinship that only they truly understood — which is why I found it interesting and touching that Clark spoke for Emmett before his fellow legislators in Washington.

I have no doubt that Frank knew why Emmett was spending most of his last congressional year back in Pensacola instead of Washington, but it was important to leave the best possible impression one could. Emmett was sick. No doubt. Frank probably counseled that the record should state ‘important business.’ It was the truth; there’s nothing more important than trying to save one’s own life, which is what it was with Emmett in December, 1916.



Chris Gift


We have a holiday tradition, here in Emmett Wilson Book Land.


The Festival of Lights, at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Kensington, Maryland, just a few miles north of the D.C. line.

This has been our annual family holiday ‘thing’ at the Mormon Temple, ever since my oldest daughter (now 14, in the white jacket) was a baby. It’s popular, and free to the public. I’ve only missed two years in all the time we’ve lived here. The Temple is only about two miles from our house, and you can see the spires, including the angel Moroni (the statue at the very top of one of the spires) from our house, especially now that the trees are bare. We stopped by for a visit on Monday the 19th.


I would say that just about every tree and shrub is all tricked out for the holidays.


If you look at the spires of the temple, that’s Moroni lit at the top of this photo.


Intense pinks and purples. A few times, it felt like my retinas were on fire. 




After about 20 minutes walking around the campus, I started looking for a tree or shrub with bare branches — something for retinal relief. This display made me think of a friend I used to have years ago during my drinking days as an undergrad — she was one of the ‘beautiful people’, intense, vibrant. A lot of energy in one package. Everyone was attracted to her, wanted to be around her, to gawk at her, and especially so when we would go to parties. She was a nice person, too.

But after awhile, you just wanted a break from her, because she was too much.

My friend Chris Brewer used to sit right below this green shrub every night, every year, decked out in a Santa hat with lights.

You couldn’t miss Chris — he was huge, both literally and figuratively. He sat there, on a stool greeting visitors, without fail, every day, every year. Seeing him was grounding for my kids, and for me. He was one of the reasons my kids loved to visit the Temple. He was one of my dearest friends; you know him, too. I’ve written about him before in the blog.


The portrait of Chris at the Mormon Temple at Christmas. This portrait was displayed during Chris’ memorial service in February, 2015.

Chris was one of the first AA’s who reached out me very early in my program, when I was internally shaking, angry at the world for handing me a life sentence of having to deal with problems without anesthetizing myself anymore. Chris literally held out his hand to me in that early meeting, and in doing so, probably saved my life. Had he not done that, I’d likely have gone back out again, and never returned.

One of the reasons I hadn’t been back (my family hasn’t skipped any visits) was because Chris wasn’t there. In 2014, Chris was too sick to sit outside; he just couldn’t do it anymore. Chris died February 8, 2015. The Temple staff hasn’t replaced him as their Santa. But then, no one could replace Chris.

This year, I went to the Temple with my family. Now, you’re going to think this sounds cliche and corny as hell, but it felt like Chris was there, as we walked and looked all at the lights. I swear it did. I thought about Chris the entire time, and how much I missed him and his friendship. It was a little sad, among all the lights and festivity there, but it was also cleansing.


On Wednesday, I was asked to lead an AA meeting at a club that was new to me. The new-to-me meeting has been going on for 40 years in the WAIA group; I’ve never been to it mostly because traffic is hell to get to it from my neck of the woods.

Like a good AA-er, I showed up about 15 minutes early for the meeting to meet the leaders and some of the members — I recognized many old and familiar and wonderful faces. But this is a HUGE meeting — about 80 people. The guy who enlisted me to speak came over and we chatted a few minutes. I said, “I’ve got the 12th Tradition all ready to go,” I said, proudly, showing him my well-marked-up  book, with reference notes, and so forth (I’m a teacher. I always over prepare. I’m proud of that).

“Er…it’s actually the 12th Step that we’re discussing today. But since you have time in the program, I’m sure you can wing it just fine. And feel free to put a few Tradition things in there, too.”


I felt my blood pressure rising — not in anger but in anxiety. Yeah, I know the 12th step, but dammit, this alcoholic always overdoes things, even the ‘good’ things, and anything less just makes me feel less than. You know what I mean? I panicked.

So, I took my book with me outside in the crisp, cool air, to the columbarium next to the church. I had a few minutes. I opened the chapter, and read the section about our spiritual experiences, and carrying the message to those who may need it via our actions and words and deeds. I took a deep breath. I felt better.

And I looked around where I was. I read a few of the names…

…and then I saw this:



He was right there. All this time.

I went back inside and shared on the 12th step. And it was a great meeting.


Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Holidays from Emmett Wilson Book Land.