“I’M ABSOLUTELY HOPELESS,” Charles Jackson told an AA meeting in 1959. “I’ve written a book that’s been called the definitive picture of the alcoholic, and it did me no good.” It had been 15 years since Jackson published The Lost Weekend, 14 years since the novel had been turned into an Oscar-winning film, and about five years since Jackson had become a regular (if perpetually relapsing) member of AA.
His “definitive picture” had been a success in almost every way imaginable. Published eight years after Jackson got sober for the first time in 1936, The Lost Weekend offered a merciless (largely autobiographical) account of one bender in the life of an alcoholic named Don Birnam. It sold more than 800,000 copies over the course of Jackson’s lifetime. The New York Times praised it as “the most compelling gift to the literature of addiction since De Quincey.” Sinclair Lewis called it “the only unflinching story of an alcoholic that I have ever read.” Doctors loved it; drinkers loved it; teetotalers loved it (though Jackson didn’t love that they loved it); even the liquor industry loved it. Their trade magazine The Beverage Times ran a lengthy interview with Jackson in which he affirmed the possibility of healthy social drinking — labeling “drunks” as people with a disease effectively sanctioned drinking for everyone who wasn’t one.