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

106 thoughts on “Dark Shadows

  1. Thank you for sharing your great love of your wonderful friend. Humanity at its best from her. And. She taught you well. So sorry for your loss.


  2. Right on re Recovery. But Hallmark advice at end is just what (probably) gave you excuse to quit meetings. They’re not just for you you know; you can only keep it by giving it away.
    Maybe a problem with breaking your friend’s anonymity.?Such promises are not annulled by death, are they? It’s up to ‘Dunn.’


      1. Clear, concise writing. Some of us NA people (me) are still just looking for an argument. There’s always SOMETHING to criticize, right. They call it too much inventory -taking.
        One can be Clean and cynical too, can’t they.


    1. Maybe shaming people in the midst of grieving is not the best of life choices? And not knowing Dunn, you really don’t have a position from which to speak. She would have been fine with it. And grateful to Jon for the piece he wrote,


      1. My mistake: I thought the site was about evaluating writing, not soothing grieving.
        Not knowing Dunn, doesn’t
        Prevent discussion of the 12 Steps. For all I know ‘DUNN’
        Is a monicker- which does defeat my argument.


    2. Well, you know it’s always been my understanding that death does, indeed, absolve the obligation to anonymity. But then, I’ve only been sober for 35 years so I could well be wrong.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Good lord that was a powerful one Jon, thank you. Making a list of people to call, thank you Dunn and thank you Jon. No need to respond! You are awesome sauce, as 6-year-old Daphne says often.




  4. I remember Pamela well. She was fierce, loving, took up a lot space in every way. She was honest and funny and a titch bananas. She was a presence I could and did count on for years of daily meetings. Her laugh filled a room I am sad to hear of her passing, and grateful you wrote this tribute to her great spirit. I didn’t realize she was your sponsor.


  5. Jon,

    So sorry to hear about your friend. I’m reading this on Monday, and tonight my husband go to HIS meeting. He found AA “too religious” as well, but he kept searching (mostly because I was prodding him) and found another group he was comfortable with.


  6. Thank you for this wonderful portrait. I didn’t know Dunn, but Berkeley meetings – with all of the loud, smart, challenging, articulate people – saved my life. I am very grateful to have learned to try every day to live my life along spiritual lines and not drink no matter what. Good thing to remember on this debate day.


  7. This a sobering post in every sense of the word, and can’t have been easy to write — but as always, you wrote it so very well. Sometimes I wonder if “guilt” isn’t what actually separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. I don’t think chickens, cats, or horses feel guilty about anything, but we humans — all of us — act badly at times, unable to be our best selves 24/7. Then we must drag the burden of our imperfect behavior behind us, a load of baggage that seems to grow heavier with each passing year.

    They say the trick is to accept our imperfections, forgive ourselves (and others), then move on — and if I ever figure out how to do that, I’ll let you know…

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Some of the regrets that I have in life center around not hanging on tighter to friends. Beautiful article about the wonder and mess of friendship.


  9. Jon, my deepest sympathies. I love your message but hate that it had to happen this way. It’s happened to me too and I always say that if I think of someone dying and I have regrets about not squaring things away, that is my litmus test. Then I know there’s something I’ve omitted and I go back to the literature & sponsor to guide me through the action.


  10. The anonymity ‘thing’ has very odd edges. Pamela was never secretive. Anyone who knew her beyond the most brief and casual encounter would know she was an alcoholic..at least if they were listening.

    Certainly, for some folks, the hazard of being made an involuntary ‘spokes person’ can be very frightening. Everyone seems the think the publicly sober person on Oprah last week has been sent by a deity to rescue THEIR drunken son/husband/cat etc.

    So sure, I twinge for a moment, and use my standard alias. But no, I don’t think Dunn/Pamela would blink at being ‘outed’ here. Part of her heroism WAS her triumphant ‘outness,’ in all things. And her encouragement to all to live out in the daylight as who they truly are.


  11. I’m still rereading to catch the things I missed as I rushed through. The broken femur for one. I’m deeply saddened that she quit meetings. Non-dogmatic, non-conformist, non-religious AA WORKS. I hate to think of people who might not have made it because she wasn’t there.

    I’ve heard she had been going to meetings at a fellowship were her real-life sobriety might have been unwelcome among the slogan chanters and treatment-center clones. The meeting where we both met her has drifted into some strange waters that way, and I remember her discomfort, and the way we both stepped back from that group.

    No one should feel cut off from the Fellowship of AA (and it is a fellowship, NOT a ‘program’) because of some unacknowledged side affiliation that might infect a particular group. You shouldn’t have to fight for your seat in AA. Sometimes you may be fighting for the next guy…

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Jon, such a fine, warm,kind and thoughtful piece with some true wisdom at the end. I have missed your writing, and you and Tracy. So glad you wrote this piece and had someone so alive and vital like Dunn Miller in your life. All the best, Cousin Alex ( Dunne)


  13. Thank you for sharing. I was a fellow puzzler who met Dunn only a couple times in person. We were in touch earlier this year to co- solve. I loved the writing, learned new things about her, and was touched by the rememberance.


  14. Jon, I don’t know what moved me the most…..The heartfelt, poignant and very powerful tribute to your dear friend; the sometimes backhanded, often conflicted, but clearly unmistakable gratitude toward your Program and Recovery; or your simple plea that we overcome whatever pigheadedness is keeping us from the people we once loved…. pretty cool. Thank you, sir, for the lift. (Weighing in on the “anonymity” issue, far be it from me (or any other reader) to use this forum to try to take your inventory .. I have enough on my plate taking my own)

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Gad, its hard to stop remembering odd—or important—details that I don’t know if anyone will care about.

    Pamela’s size is mentioned a lot. She certainly always weighed more than I did, even at my peak weight. But that was only when Jon and I knew her. She’d been a 5’10” 120 pound construction worker, and I’ve lost a picture of her in early sobriety where she was not carrying any extra.

    She did have a full-tilt, not-expected-to-come-back psychotic break a couple of years before we met her. At the insistence of an employer, she’d gone to one of the Big ‘change your life in a hotel ballroom’ group things. She landed in Herrick psych ward in 4 point restraints. In the next year she gained 100 pounds, and we both recognized that she used this as a kind of armor against the world.

    It was during this low point that people began to ask her to sponsor them. Once again, her heroism was the thing that shone. While living on welfare she began her intense connection with so many others. Many in terrible mental/financial shape themselves.

    Sorry to go on here. But I’m still devastated and don’t know where else to say anything.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Jon…..Publishing yourself as an AA member violates AA traditions of remaining anonymous at the level of press radio TV, etc., which you either do not know or respect, sorry to see that!


    1. AA has no rules, there is no ‘chain of command’ and nobody gets to tell ANYONE what to do. At least the AA in which I met Pamela/Dunn and Jon.

      There are very good reasons to keep one’s AA membership close to the vest. But the co-founders went back and forth on the issue. AND…there’s no hint that one’s alcoholism is supposed to be secret.

      Every body knows who William Griffith Wilson and Robert Holbrook Smith were. And there are many sober alcoholics who do a terrific job of being ‘out’ as alcoholics, without putting themselves under the ‘spokes’-hat.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. John thanks for your response, I know there are some in the program who do not agree with the tradition of anonymity at the level of press radio TV and so on, on the other hand personal honesty about involvement at the program on individual one on one basis is entirely acceptable and in many cases invaluable don’t you think?


    2. I am not in fact an AA member. i was for a long while, but no I’m not, so that traditions are to me just suggestions. (They should be to everyone, in my view). I have never cared for taking other people’s sobriety inventory — the whole “we’re not judging you but actually we are judging you” thing is one of the reasons I left.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Y’know? I stayed, and battled my way through it (that judging thing). Because I needed to in order to support my recovery (also went through a stretch of eight or ten years where I attended maybe one or two meetings a year, tops). Also battled my way past the God Squad as well. Because it’s MY goddamn seat if I say it is, and nobody is going to keep me from it.
        But one of the things I have “gotten” very clearly over the years, is just how much stuff is none of my business.
        If you’re my kind of drunk, and it sounds like you are, I’m just glad as hell you’re sober today. And however you make that work for you, well, I’m all for it.
        These days, I’m pretty sure I scandalize a lot of those “inventory takers”. But the funny thing is, those are the same folks who are somehow impressed or intimidated by “time”. So, coming up on 35 years, they doubtless talk behind my back — not my business again — but they are most reluctant to directly f**k with me. And I’m fine with that.


  17. When I think of all the >non<AA people out there who might see hope from Jon's piece — and from most of the comments — I think that some rules need to be broken in the name of hope.
    Bruce the Bald


  18. As usual your writing goes right to the bone. I have missed you at the paper one of the few things worth reading. A close relative died while we were estranged (in a formal no argument tight association way). Of course I now regret my cowardice. Thank you John, so glad to know you’re still writing.
    And the petty comments about AA procedure shine a light on the reasons why many people can’t stand the meetings with their secret language and pride of doing everything that’s in the book -written by a white man at a time when white male privileges were assumed and taken for granted.

    Liked by 2 people

  19. Dear Jon, thank you for continuing to write. I was devastated when you left the chronicle. So glad to have your words again!
    Carole in the Upper Dimond


    1. jon – I’m so slow to react to this. no. wrong. I reacted (strongly) to it immediately. I’m just slow to communicate about it.
      it’s beautiful. it got me in the kishkas (being more-than-usual sensitive these days.) you bring us from the presentation of a complex person (who’s died, prompting you to reflect) to the simplest takeaway, and the takeaway has remained, even weeks after the posting.

      x judith / in NYC


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