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One of the less known stories in AA history is that of Sue and Robert Smith. Sue was born in 1918 to a broken family, was institutionalized for 2 years and later adopted as Robert’s sister, when both children were 5 years old. They grew up in a well-kept house in the working class suburbs of Akron Ohio, a neighborhood where the local kids would gather in the street with their fathers and play ball. Their mother was a kind, intelligent woman who busied herself with crafts and home-bound artistic pursuits and enjoyed listening to political debates and opera on the family radio. Their father was a respected, charismatic doctor, a specialist, who kept up on the new slang and was able to engage in friendly conversation with just about anyone, anywhere. Their lives were, on most levels, calm and situated. Yet, somehow, in 1935, a man shimmied down a drainpipe at their family home and chased after Sue and Robert’s mother with a butcher’s knife.
autobiographical, but was told to a third person, Christine Brewer, who has obviously done her best to preserve the language and dialect of both storytellers, which is a big part of the book’s charm.
As the children of Dr. Bob Smith, both Sue and Robert (nicknamed Smitty) were front-row witnesses to the high-jinks of early AA. The story of the man with the butcher’s knife was the end of one of Dr. Bob and Bill’s first attempt at sponsoring. The man was named Eddie R., and he and his family had been invited him into the Smith home so Bill and Bob could work with him. Sue could recall being displaced from her bedroom while Eddie settled in and tried to sober up. His attempt failed miserably. The knife incident was the result of a single tuna fish sandwich, made by Sue’s mother, Anne Smith, and given to Eddie R, who had a terrible allergy to tuna. The story illustrates the difficult beginnings of AA and the problems it caused in the Smith household.
Smitty touches on how early AA was a small, uncertain, grassroots group, consisting of his parents and Bill Wilson that just sort of took over his household. In one piece he tells how:
Nobody ever explained anything to us kids. I guess nothing was happening at first. Alcoholics Anonymous was just a gradual build-up from absolutely nothing. That’s what it started from—nothing. I think, through the guidance of a loving God, somehow the two of them [Dr. Bob and Bill] were able to put together a program.(pg. 124)
Sue also talks about how, in the beginning, neither Bill Wilson or Dr. Bob had any idea what AA should consist of:
That’s how the tomatoes, sauerkraut, and Karo syrup cure came to be. Bill thought sauerkraut cured everything. Anyone who came into AA at our house got slapped into bed and dosed with that stuff. Like Smitty said, those early ones had a rugged time. (pg. 43)
Sue and Smitty’s stories offer a more candid perspective on early AA than most books on the subject. But the book isn’t all amusing stories about the escapades of AA’s forefathers, it’s also a sobering look into Dr. Bob’s drunk years, when he needed to start drinking in the morning just to keep his hands from shaking during his afternoon surgery.
Before AA, though their household was usually respectable and financially stable, there was never a lack of dysfunction in Sue and Smitty’s lives, greatly due to their father’s uncontrolled drinking. Sue explains:
You could see mother was getting despondent and was losing her friends. They weren’t coming over anymore. They didn’t want to get in that mess. But to me it wasn’t really a mess because he was upstairs, and he wasn’t bothering anybody. He wasn’t a drunk that stuck his tongue out at the neighbors and called them names and used foul language or things like that. He didn’t do that kind of stuff. He just was not bringing the money home. And there was the worry of not knowing where he was, when he was going to come home, if he was going to come home, and that type of thing. (pg. 27)
Though Dr. Bob did have a dramatic conversion experience in his later years, reading Sue and Smitty’s story suggests that some of the damage done by Bob’s drinking may not have been healed during his later sobriety. Family dysfunction eventually led to an almost complete estrangement between Sue and her kin. Years later, Sue’s daughter Bonna committed suicide after turning the gun on her own daughter, who was just 6 years old. Sue’s telling of her daughter’s and grand-daughter’s deaths is painful, questioning, and reveals a great deal of her own stubborn will to survive in spite of heartbreak.
Children of the Healer: The Story of Dr. Bob’s Kids often sacrifices Sue and Smitty’s interesting stories if they don’t have some relation to Dr. Bob or the AA movement, and this proves to be a disappointment. There are a few key places in the book where this is most noticeable. In one, we discover that Sue was working at Kent State in 1970 and was on campus the day the national guard opened fire on the students and killed four of them. This fact is so briefly mentioned, you might not even notice it if you’re not reading carefully. Also, Smitty spends a great part of his formative years in the military and is pushed into an extended service when WWII erupts. But, his experiences overseas are barely mentioned, and we’re left wondering why this is so. Is Dr. Bob so much more interesting, that we must overlook most of Smitty’s early years for the sake of Dr. Bob’s story?
Children of the Healer is a good book for what it is: an unscholarly account of the lives of a set of people in relation to a historical figure. It’s an easy read with some real moments of insight into Dr. Bob and AA history, revealing what it was like to grow up at the heart of the movement. Yet, Sue and Smitty’s desire to tell the real story of Dr. Bob’s involvement in AA’s beginnings can feel like the frustrated, one-sided argument. This can easily leave the reader feeling put off, wishing the book was less focused on AA and more focused on the children themselves. In any case, Sue and Smitty’s discontentment is palpable, and tells a story in it’s own: it’s not easy being the children of a healer.
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