Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Guide
ABOUT THIS GUIDE
The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for discussion for Susan Cheever's Note Found in a Bottle. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Reading Group Questions and Topics for Discussion
- One of the most striking passages in Note Found in a Bottle concerns how, as a girl, Susan Cheever came to recognize danger and mortality, even in the midst of life. Standing beside the railroad tracks, the point for Cheever and her friends "was to get as near as we could to the deafening noise, the whoosh of air, and the presence of death as the train passed. In that moment the world was blotted out, and then there was the great relief and the sharp joy of being alive." Unpack Cheever's rich prose in these lines. What happens when the world is "blotted out," and why does the "joy of being alive" become so apparent only when it is in such peril? How might this childhood adventure function as a metaphor for Cheever's life as a drinker? What did the author seek in alcohol?
- On one level, Note Found in a Bottle is a deeply revealing firsthand account of an instantly recognizable family 'type' of the mid-twentieth century: that of the white, Puritan-descended, uppermiddle class, suburban household. Discuss the familiar trappings and principle signifiers associated with this singularly American family structure. Then consider how Cheever turns many of these notions on their heads with her narrative of 1950's suburban life. "They killed themselves quietly. No one talked about it. They hanged themselves with their hats on." By evoking the dark side of suburbia, what does the author do to the myth of the nuclear family, and what is achieved with such haunting observations?
- How does Cheever describe her work in the civil rights movement? She explains, "Any injustice drew me like a magnet. This was a painful way to live, and people who live this way often need to find ways to mitigate the pain of their experience and feelings." Compare her frightening "experience and feelings" in the South with her experiences along the rail road tracks of her childhood, as well as her feelings during her violent asthma attacks. What pattern is Cheever establishing in her narrative here?
- What was the nature of each of Cheever's marriages? Compare her relationships with Robert, Calvin Tomkins, and Warren Hinckle, and then chart the simultaneous progression of the author's relationship with alcohol.
- This is Susan Cheever's third memoir. Home Before Dark explores her Pulitzer Prize-winning father, John, and Treetops is about life with her mother, Helen. What role do her parents play in Note Found in a Bottle? How does the author demonstrate the effect her father's drinking had on her own life?
- What is Cheever saying about the nature of alcoholism when, in describing her father, she writes, "He had wanted some thing so much that he had to somehow keep it from happening; the very things that he dreamed about seemed to elude him when they were tantalizing him with their closeness"? Does the author follow this pattern set by her father?
- As a girl, Cheever viewed her asthma as something that should be hidden at all costs, because it was "a personal mark of shame." She writes, "My asthma was a badge of difference, something I took with me everywhere, invisible but powerful." Contrast Cheever's asthma with the similarly "invisible" and chameleon-like disease she later harbored as a drinker. Did alcoholism come to replace asthma as the author's personal, ever-present badge? Explain.
- Considering the growing prevalence of support groups for children of alcoholics and the enduring popularity of Alcoholics Anonymous, how much would you say American culture's relationship with drinking has evolved? In this new century, what is the cultural legacy of the alcohol-saturated eras about which Cheever writes? What is different, and what remains the same?
- What do you find most appealing about Susan Cheever's voice as a writer? Which aspects of her character do you most and least identify with?
- Beginning with Cheever's accounts of how she made a habit of conducting interviews, finding stories, and fleshing out her research in the local bar while she was a reporter for the Tarrytown Daily News, discuss the ongoing relationship between writing and alcohol in Cheever's life. For instance, what were the circumstances surrounding the writing of her first novel? What does the author accomplish by placing the memories of her steadily developed and roundly acclaimed career as a journalist, novelist, and memoirist alongside her life as a drinker and recovering alcoholic?
- In a recent New York Times interview, Cheever explains, "I couldn't stop drinking by myself. And when I involved God in my effort to stop, I was able to stop....I think my principle prayer is, 'help-please.'" Discuss the ways in which the roles of religion and faith develop in the course of Cheever's narrative, from her childhood through her current existence as a single mother of two.
- Consider the structure of this memoir. What decisions does Cheever make in consciously shaping the story of her own life into distinct chapters, passages, and scenes? What spaces and gaps does Cheever inject into her story, and why? After reading Note Found in a Bottle, what questions do you have for the author?
- How do the choices a writer makes in creating autobiography differ from those in writing fiction? What liberties are available in writing autobiography that are not available in writing fiction, and vice versa?
- Cheever's memoir joins a host of books which illuminate the alcoholic life, including Pete Hamill's A Drinking Life, Caroline Knapp's Drinking: A Love Story, Carolyn See's Dreaming, and Mary Karr's The Liar's Club. What does it say about contemporary culture -- and about American society's collective heritage, dating as far back as the Pilgrims -- that tales of addiction occupy such a central position in the currently booming genre of the literary memoir?
- Cheever has said that her goal in writing Note Found in a Bottle was to "redefine alcoholism." What does she mean? What does it mean to be an alcoholic? How does Cheever's memoir challenge, reinforce, or complicate your notions of this disease?
- Early in the book, Cheever describes in detail her earliest visions of adult life. Discuss the specific elements of her girlhood vision. What did she understand her adulthood would be like, and how might this understanding have influenced her college career, her relationships, and eventually, her marriages?
- How do Cheever's descriptions of the dual nature of suburban American life in the 1950's, with its "picture-book exteriors" and undercurrents of "brutality," challenge and inform other popular portrayals of the '50's, whether in old television situation comedies and today's nostalgic period films, or in the canonical literature of John Updike and the author's own father, John Cheever?
- As early as her sixth year, Cheever was made to understand that drinking was a given in life -- a "part of our heritage" -- and an act almost as ordinary as eating. Growing up, what role did alcohol play in your own home environment? As a child, what was your understanding of the relationship between alcohol and adulthood? In your own adolescence and adulthood, how did this childhood understanding influence your experiences with alcohol?
- What other memoirs have you read recently? What aspect of the writer's life do you think inspired the author to share her experiences with the public? Discuss the possibilities and potential hazards which come with an author sharing her most intimate secrets with the reading public.
- What, finally, can a memoir achieve for the writer? For the reader? What do you suppose Cheever seeks to capture, or lay to rest, in writing Note Found in a Bottle? How might the process of remembering, writing, and re-creating the personal past constitute a journey of self-discovery, of catharsis, or both?
A Conversation with Susan Cheever
Q: Based on your experience, to what degree would you call the process of reflecting upon and writing about the past a process of discovery? Has your relationship with your past -- your perceptions and understandings of it -- changed as a result of sharing so much with the world?
A. I think we can discover the past both through memory and through research, through talking with other people and through reading what other people have written. In writing my books I have discovered many things about myself and about other people. Each book is a journey for me, an exploration of a dark continent -- whether it be the past, or an aspect of human behavior, or the details of someone else's life. I believe that if there is no discovery for the writer, there will be no discovery for the reader.
Q: At one point in the book, you write, "Early in my life I learned to gauge others' moods and to guess what they were thinking. This is certainly a characteristic of children who grow up in alcoholic households." Why do you suppose this is such a common thread among children of alcoholics?
A. For children of alcoholics -- more than for other children -- family life is influenced by the moods of parents, moods which are often dictated by the rhythms of drinking. Since drinking moods are unpredictable and extreme, children who live with them must become experts at gauging them.
Q: You've said that the highest aim of art "is to make someone feel less alone in their situation." Particularly for alcoholics, your memoir certainly achieves this aim. What kinds of feedback have YOU received from readers of Note Found in a Bottle?
A. I've had many wonderful calls and letters from people who are recovering from alcoholism. The most moving part of publishing this book was the response I got on live radio shows as I traveled across the country. Many, many people had questions about alcoholism, and I hope I was able to help them understand the nature of this very prevalent disease. Almost half of automobile accidents as well as a huge percentage of robberies and murders are alcohol related. Alcoholism is behind most cases of personal violence. Alcoholism is responsible for a quarter of all hospital admissions. Yet alcohol is still advertised everywhere, often in ways that target children. Heavy drinking is condoned by the law and by society.
Q: In many ways, the definition of social drinking seems to have changed dramatically over time. For instance, martini lunches are a sort of cultural relic. In what ways, if any, do you think society's perception of alcoholism has evolved over the past four or five decades?
A. I don't know if the definition of social drinking has changed. At any rate, I see nothing wrong with social drinking. It's alcoholism, which of course is often disguised as social drinking, that I hope to unmask. Whether it's a three martini lunch -- as it was in the seventies -- or a "glass of white wine" which stretches into a bottle or two -- as it was in the nineties -- drinking is dangerous and deadly for alcoholics.
Q: The genre of the personal memoir has been called a distinctly feminine one. (In fact, Diana Fuss has even noted that the memoir has been charged with "castrating the American novel.") How do you feel about this label? Also, why do you suppose memoirs have become so prevalent, particularly in the last decade?
A. For years women told their stories to each other in kitchens, in ladies rooms, in the privacy of their bedrooms. Now these stories, which have never been publicly told before, are exploding into print. This is scary for some people, the people who counted on women's silence to obscure their own bad behavior. For the rest of us it is exhilarating and fascinating.
Q: Whether it was a husband who was hitting you, or an analyst who was sexually harassing you, you were able to rationalize your position in some very painful situations. In hindsight, how do you think you managed this?
A. With alcohol.
Q: What sorts of reactions have you gotten from the people featured in Note Found in a Bottle?
A. In writing my own story I often end up telling parts of other people's stories. I don't intend to expose then in any way, and so I limit this as much as possible. I write to bear witness to my own life. I hope to help people with my writing; I don't want to hurt them. I grew up in a family which sometimes appeared -- disguised but recognizable -- in the pages of my father's stories and novels, and I know how painful it can be to be the subject of someone else's storytelling. I let most of the people in my memoirs read them in advance, and I change anything they ask me to change -- with few exceptions. This was true for Note Found in a Bottle.
Q: "Pretending that things are not as they seem -- that you don't see what you do see, that you don't hear what you do hear -- makes children crazy." In an alcoholic household, how is it that a child learns so early to bury and to repress, to rationalize and to look away? Would you say you've overcome these ingrained instincts?
A. I'm not sure we ever overcome the patterns we establish for ourselves as children. At best we can understand those patterns. In the household where I grew up I learned to rationalize, but I also learned to confront. I am very grateful for many aspects of my childhood. As I say in the book -- I didn't have a miserable childhood, but I was a miserable child.
Q: Are you concerned about how the legacy of your alcoholism might play out in your children's adult lives? Your daughter is sixteen, and your son is nine. Do you look forward to them reading Note Found in a Bottle?
A. Since I believe that alcoholism has a strong genetic component, I am very concerned about my children. I know enough to know that children do not listen to their parents -- they watch them. I hope that I can be an example to them, an example of a life which is not polluted by alcoholism. Long before my book was published, I gave advance copies to my daughter's father and I also gave advance copies to my daughter who was sixteen. I believe that children deserve to be told the truth about their parents lives, and although I also think this has to be done judiciously and with perfect timing, I knew it was time for her to read it. When she finished I set aside time to talk with her about it. We talked about the book and about her feelings. I offered to change anything which upset her. It was a great conversation. I think, or at least I hope, that reading the book helped her understand her parents better and will help her to have complete, satisfying connections with us. I think, or rather I hope, that she understood its description of alcoholism and the ways it hides itself within the texture of life.
Q: If you could say anything to your father right now, what would it be?
A. I love you. Thank you. (I did say these things to him before he died in 1982.)
Q: In what ways has your writing changed since you stopped drinking in 1991?
A. My writing is leaner and more direct. As I have learned to write, my writing has become more purposeful.
Q: What are you working on now? What projects do you see ahead?
A. I am working on a book about raising children in which I discuss my various formulas for raising wonderful children in difficult times. The idea for the book came from the column I write about parenting for Newsday. I am also a contributing writer for Architectural Digest and I am currently teaching in the Bennington College writing seminars and at Yale University. I have begun work on a biography of William Griffith Wilson, the man who co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous.