The Family Disease of Denial

Nobody thought my grandfather was an alcoholic even though he drank constantly—a perfect cue for me to recreate the dynamic in my own life.

grandpaMy grandfather wasn’t an alcoholic; he just drank all the time. My entire childhood, he sat at the head of the table in my grandparents’ kitchen with his brown bottle of Miller Lite beer tipped up to his mustachioed lips.

For years I studied his beverage with the curiosity of an aspiring sculptor: the foamy golden-brown backwash, the bottle’s long slender neck, the way the four-packs fit snug inside the refrigerator, the soft hiss of the cap as he popped it off the bottle. I remember the cigars that he held in his free hand, and the smoke that would linger in my hair long after our visit. Mostly, I remember the way my grandmother’s eyes flitted nervously around the kitchen if the supply of beer ran low. I’d recall that look decades later, when my alcoholic husband drew a bottle of half-drunken vodka from the freezer.

Growing up, it never occurred to me that my grandfather drank too much. I never saw him drinking hard liquor and I never saw him drunk. He was quiet and sensitive and kept mostly to himself. He kissed me hello and called me ‘Doll.’ He had a fiery temper, but it never lasted long. There were no bruises or bars or booze-filled fights. There were no highballs or screaming matches like in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? If anything my grandparents’ house was more like the flashback scenes in Annie Hall.

But aside from my grandfather’s drinking (which was somehow not drinking), and unless you counted the few sips of grape Manischewitz on Friday nights, Jews didn’t drink. Jews weren’t drunks. (I had a cousin who was a coke addict, but that was totally different.) Vodka was a once-a-year beverage and only at weddings or bar mitzvahs. And only when mixed with pineapple juice and served with a miniature paper umbrella. And only when We are Family by the Pointer Sisters was playing.

The word alcoholic was not part of our family vocabulary—until the summer I turned 15. I was visiting relatives in Toronto where an older cousin explained why my grandfather sat around looking sad half the time: “He became an alcoholic.”

It was that became that struck me first—as though there had been some before. What came before? What happened? Was it because my father’s sister died? Her death shaped so much of our family make-up. But it was my grandmother who talked about her incessantly. My grandfather just sat there, drinking, sucking on his cigar, barely able to say her name.

The word “alcoholic” knifed its way into my gut. Alcoholic was a dirty word; it described bad people. My grandfather wasn’t an alcoholic. He possessed none of the identifying criteria: Irish, gentile, drunk to the point of slurring his words. And his drink of choice was Miller Lite, a diet beer, barely counting as alcohol.


When I went home, I told my dad what my cousin had said. My grandfather was fine, he told me. Everything at home was always fine. The worse things got, the more fine everything became. That was how my family operated. When my mom started sneaking nips of cheap wine from the store up the street, hiding them in the mailbox; when my dad started gambling to pay off credit card debt; and then later, when my husband drank and did drugs and quit his job and we had two small kids and didn’t have any money everything was fine.

For the first six years of my marriage I could not figure out how I wound up wedded to an alcoholic. I never drank in high school, and I only got drunk once in four years of college. Only later did I develop a taste for fruity chick drinks. And only on special occasions: The night we met at his cousin’s wedding, my soon-to-be husband bought me a vodka-and-pineapple. I drank two; he drank several. Our first date involved a pitcher of margaritas. He drew long sips out of a salt-rimmed glass, pausing to puff on a cigar and stare blankly across the bar, and I was drawn to him like a magnet.

Nobody listened when I started to complain that my husband drank all the time. Leave him alone, said my dad. My mom said he was fine. My brothers said he was fine. By that point I’d long buried the word alcoholic. I knew that alcoholism was a disease, but only in the abstract, and it certainly didn’t apply to my husband. And what would it matter even if it did? I was competing against 30 years of everyone pretending that everything was . . . fine.

Only when I started going to Al-Anon did I realize that marrying an alcoholic wasn’t something that just happened, but something for which I was destined. I grew up in a world in which drinking in a corner for hours on end was normal, a world in which Miller Lite was like any other old man accessory, like the wool v-neck sweaters my grandfather wore and his collection of houndstooth cabbie hats that I inherited, the ones that decades after his death still smell like cigars. My husband didn’t just appear in my life: I chose him.

When my grandfather died—of mouth cancer and complications from heart surgery—I recited the eulogy at his funeral. I mentioned the beautiful black and white photographs he took; how in a certain light he looked like Humphrey Bogart; and how he always said “So long” instead of goodbye. Afterwards, as we sat shiva back at my grandmother’s house, my grandfather’s spot at the table achingly bare, not once did anybody mention that alcohol likely played a part in his death, because he wasn’t an alcoholic.

It would be 20 years before I finally figured it out that he was. Article Link “the fix”…

Malina Saval is the author of The Secret Lives of Boys: Inside the Raw Emotional World of Male Teens and Jewish Summer Camp Mafia. Her writing and essays have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety, the Jerusalem Post, Tablet, Flaunt and Now Write! Nonfiction: Memoir, Journalism, and Creative Nonfiction Exercises from Today’s Best Writers and Teachers.

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