Dark Shadows

A friend of mine died this week. Tracy found her. She died at home, in bed, which is probably the way she wanted it. She’d been declining for a while, and the process accelerated in the usual dismal way.

I first met Pamela Miller at an AA meeting. The year was 1988. I was probably drunk at the time. Lots of people have started going to meetings while they were still  drinking; drinking tended to take the edge off some of the more grating AA aphorisms. Old-timers understood showing up drunk, because they had probably done it themselves, or something like it. Drunks lie in many different ways.

Pamela came in just as the meeting started, and she managed to find the most comfortable seat, a flowered couch with big puffy pillows. Pamela was a big woman, and she made the most of her girth. She spread comfortably. When it was her turn, she launched into a confusing and alarming story about her “near-psychotic break” that very afternoon. The story involved a confrontation with a motorist, another with a cop (female), unwise words that were exchanged, and a small physical injury that someone had incurred. She told the story with great gusto. It was not clear how much was fantasy. She was noisy and chaotic.  She ended by saying, “but at least I didn’t drink.”

I found her terrifying.

A year later, I was sober, just out of rehab and looking for a sponsor. I was doing 90 meetings in 90 days, and every weekday I went to a six o’clock meeting in Berkeley.  Pamela Miller was there. She spoke at almost every meeting. She made sense — emotional sense, practical sense. She talked over and over again about how hard it was to stay sober in a dangerous world. She said: “Don’t drink even if your ass falls off.”

That was my koan. Do what you need to do, but don’t drink.  Eat a quart of ice cream, break up with your spouse, rob a few convenience stores — but don’t drink.

Seems simple enough. A lot of AA is simple. Newly sober drunks need simple. Eventually, if they stay in the program, they get a belief system too. Unless they reject it. Fine. Don’t drink.

After six months or so, I asked Pamela to be my sponsor. I had a therapist, and she was smart and sympathetic and calming, but I needed something else. Pamela was not calming. She took your side in everything. She cursed your villains, sometimes in terms you would not have chosen. She told stories about similar outrages she had encountered. She said “poor baby” and made tea. I drank a lot of tea.

The wisdom of the program is that men should not have women sponsors and vice versa. I can definitely see why that makes sense. On the other hand, I felt I had no choice. It was Pamela or vodka.



We usually met at her house. It, too, was chaotic. She had two children, and she loved them fiercely. She worked as a librarian at a large law firm. Her past, as you might expect, was checkered. She grew up mostly in New York. She had moved around the country. I pieced together the story over the years. I know she carved redwood burls with a chainsaw — it was her first husband’s occupation. She worked construction and knew about tools. She drank at Brennan’s, an old Irish bar right near the freeway. She adapted early to the computer revolution. She loved puzzles; she was in a club where people invented them. Her mind was quick and clever, battle-tested by thousands of double-crostics and industrial-strength anagrams.

She was a woman of strong opinions, and disagreement was futile. I once ventured the idea that male circumcision was not that bad an idea. “Mutilation,” she huffed. “Child torture.” I tried to argue. It was absolutely no good. The only thing to do was change the subject — and even then…

When a friend of mine ventured that nationally televised spelling bees put undue pressure on the children involved, Pamela disagreed. She loved spelling bees; once, when the network changed the time of broadcast and screwed with her DVR, Pamela suggested that bombing their offices might be a good idea. Pamela was not gentle with my friend. Eventually, someone, guess what, changed the subject.

But she was wonderful. I did all my steps with her. The fifth step basically involves telling your sponsor all the rotten stuff you’ve done — that you remembered, anyway — and you couldn’t lie, because you’d have that guilt-shrouded sin living rent free in your brain, making you crazy and, it was thought, more likely to drink.

You have to trust your sponsor with your secrets. “It’s your secrets that kill you,” goes the AA line, and I absolutely believe that. Honesty is a habit; the more you stick to the truth, the easier it becomes. I trusted Pamela because I had no choice.

I found that the program worked. Not entirely, because I will always be an addict, but better. And it was Pamela who brought me that. It was Pamela who made sure I went to meetings; who framed the issues in a more useful way; who took my telephone calls at any time in the evening. I was just one of her sponsees, and her phone rang a lot, and she always had time. She was just a miracle. Her sponsees adored her. I adored her.

I didn’t drink. Stuff got better.

But things change. After 15 years or so, I slowly stopped going to meetings. Part of was the God thing; I was an atheist. “Are you drinking?,” Pamela would ask. “Then don’t worry about it. AA doesn’t care.” And, officially, it doesn’t. But then someone at a meeting says, “God never gives you more than you can handle,” and people in the metal folding chairs nod their heads and murmur, and I don’t say, “that’s demonstrably not true. Example one: death,” because even though you’re supposed to be honest, some kinds of honesty will alienate you from the group.

Pamela also stopped going to meetings. She too was a proud atheist, and she couldn’t abide the quasi-religious cant. But she, like me, was eternally grateful to AA. She took what she needed and left the rest, which is itself a AA aphorism.

Some time around there, Pamela started using her middle name as her first name. I thought “Dunn  Miller” was a militantly ugly name, but I think that was part of the point. I’m not sure, because by that time we had drifted apart. There was a fight (I no longer remember the topic), and Dunn was as bad at ordinary human interactions as she was good at sponsoring.

She was a difficult woman. She was a kind, smart woman. She was the whole messy package of humanity rolled into one explosive bundle. I loved her. I didn’t speak to her for years.

But a thing happened: Tracy became closer to Dunn, deciding to help her  because she was grateful for how much Dunn had helped me. Dunn had lost her job. Her mobility was limited. Tracy took her shopping, took her to movies. I went along once; I had lunch with her once. We were slowly making our way to some kind of understanding, but I was, you know, busy.

It’s all sad. I’ve still got to sort out the guilt, the fear, the love. It’s just there right now, sitting on my soul.

Dunn broke her femur, spent some time in rehab, came home, much demoralized, in pain. Her hard living — and she did a lot of that before she stopped — caught up with her. Tracy was buying her groceries, calling her periodically to check in. When Dunn didn’t answer the phone for two straight days, Tracy drove over to her house. Before she left, she told me, “I think she’s going to be dead.” And she was. There were no signs of any kind of death struggle; she went quietly.

My reasons for writing this are twofold. One, I wanted to tell you about Dunn Miller, because there will be no obituaries, no tributes on television. I have this tiny forum to encourage others to mourn with me.

And the second thing I have to say is: Are there people in your life from whom you’ve become estranged? Is there some argument, some outrage, some unforgivable exchange? Forgive anyway. Go to whomever and tell them how important they were, how much you appreciated what they did.  Talk to the best version of that person. Offer grace.

Tell them. For god’s sake tell them. Get the fuck out of your brain and tell them. Because they’re going to die and you’re going to die, and that silence is going to hang in the air like a noxious mist. Maybe, if you’d be willing, do it in memory of Dunn Miller.

Oh, and:  Don’t drink even if your ass falls off.



Photography by Tracy Johnston; Dunn Miller photo by Philip Cohen

Tech help by Michelle Mizera

Farewell to all that

I am writing this on Sunday, the fifteenth anniversary of the September attack on the World Trade Center. I have chosen not to watch television or noodle on the Internet, because I’m on vacation in Inverness, and I always use vacations to get away from the yammering that is usually my  constant companion.  But I did listen to the radio on my way down to get coffee, so I heard one of what I imagine were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of reverent tributes to the people in the towers. Sigh.

I don’t mean to suggest that the events were not tragic. Of course they were. They were also shocking, and they made the entire country feel less safe. Usually we are secure behind our oceans; if we want a war — and we often seem to — we go find it on another continent.

But the truth is, 9/11 was not that big a deal in California. Some of us had relatives caught in the horror of that day, but most of us didn’t. We Left Coast people are used to the idea that American history happens someplace else. It happens in Boston or New York or Philadelphia, Fort Sumter or Fort Ticonderoga or the battlefields of Gettysburg. The media are based in New York, as are the banks.

We are far from the action; we have our own action, but that’s different.  So after a few years, the memory of that day begins to fade. We were not there to hear the noises, see the smoke, smell the unspeakable odors. The crumpling of the towers became like the fall of Saigon or the attack on Pearl Harbor, historical tragedies that were part of our common narrative.

But September 11 seems to have grown in the national memory rather than fading away. And I have come to see the memorials on that day in a more sinister light. It’s part of an epidemic of forced patriotism and the militarization of the police departments and the perfunctory thanking of every member of the military for their service — even as we cut basic social services that helped their families stay healthy and get them an education.

It seems like we want a war.

It seems like the whole world wants  war.



I have been reading To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild, an account of World War I concentrating on the  stories of the men and women who welcomed the war and the men and women who opposed it. There were a lot fewer people in the latter camp. Patriotic fervor was high, and many people thought that war would have a “sanitizing” effect on their country, a welcome blast that would (of course) end inevitably in victory.

The coming of the war was not a surprise. The assassination of an archduke provided a useful excuse for a rickety Austro-Hungarian empire to invade Serbia, and for the Kaiser of Germany to help his great friend Emperor Franz Joseph, and also to invade Russia and Belgium. Then France joined in to protect virtuous Belgium, and Britain came aboard, and Italy, and the Ottoman Empire joined the Germans, and oh what fun they all had.

They invented modern warfare.  Modern warfare meant that civilians were now fair game. How many dead? Depends on how you count. Some nations disappeared, and with them the records of the dead. The great flu epidemic of 1918 was a direct result of the war; shall we count the 50 to 100 million who died from it? The Russian Revolution came about because of the war; shall we count the 50 million killed by Stalin?

The United States is already at war. One day last week, we made bombing runs in six separate nations.  We have the most powerful army in the world; our military budget is $610 billion. That’s more than the next nine nations combined. Does it seem like we’re preparing for war kinda maybe?

The carefully fueled outrage that followed 9/11 led directly to the war in Iraq as well as the war in Afghanistan, alleged home of arch-villain Osama bin Laden, who was eventually found and killed in another country entirely. The President has awkwardly but constantly bragged of this feat, although it did nothing in particular to advance the cause of freedom. Revenge, it turns out, is not all that sweet.

We lost over 3000 people in Iraq; we lost 3000 people when the World Trade Center collapsed. Does that seem useful? A total of 35,000 died in Iraq, a jingoistic invasion to search for imaginary weapons of mass destruction. Utterly pointless.



Innocents die. That is the nature of modern warfare. In the towers or in the villages; innocents die. And yet mankind seems addicted to conflict. Too much peace makes the armies restless;  too much peace makes the politicians restless.

And, not to be too cynical about it, war is a money-making proposition. The fixers, the smugglers, the arms-makers, the civilian consultants all make hay while the sun dims. To the victors go the spoils, of course, but some of the vanquished make out pretty well too. The drumbeat of profit is a more lasting motivation than the bugle call of patriotism.

Here’s my personal opinion: We are one well-timed assassination away from chaos. Suppose an Islamic extremist kills Putin; suppose a North Korean operative kills the American president, or one of the presidential candidates. Or suppose an emboldened China decides that Hong Kong needs a lesson in discipline. Or the Kurds and the Turks, or the Saudis and the Iranians — everyone gets drawn in, and…it can happen here. It has happened here; four hundred thousand Americans died in World War I, even though they had to cross an ocean to get there.

So you will forgive me if I do not wax patriotic about the Twin Towers. Forgive me if I look away when football field-sized flags are unfurled. Forgive me if I support our troops by fervently hoping that they do not die. I am sorry that the institutions supporting peace are so weak and the institutions supporting war are so strong.  I am sorry for it all.

It’s a foggy afternoon here. Tomales Bay is calm. The oak tree has blue-gray leaves that match the sky. I’ve been tending a fire in the fireplace all afternoon. I am enjoying the blessings of peace. But somehow, improbably, the human animal desires more. It desires blood.


Photography by Tracy Johnston

Long distance help by Michelle Mizera