Rigorous honesty

In Season 1, Bubbles and Johnny go to an NA meeting (court-ordered, for Johnny), and Bubbles picks up a 24-hour “desire” keychain, an outward symbol of an addict’s desire to try to stay clean for one day. Of course, Bubbles had fixed that morning and he would again that night, but you could see in his eyes a glimmer of that desire, of wanting a different life for himself. We saw that look again later in the season, when he sits in the park clean waiting for Kima, watching the kids and the birds in the trees and trying to ignore the dealers down the block taunting him.

I didn’t get a lot out of that 12-step meeting scene back then, since I was still an active drunk and had a pretty high degree of contempt for anything like AA. The fact that they passed out so few keychains for people with a year or more of sobriety, I felt was Simon’s way of saying “look how ineffectual and pathetic these meetings are”. Only after sitting in a bunch of meetings myself did it occur to me that if you have 10 people in a room, even if they each have decades of sobriety, the statistical probability that any one of them is celebrating an annual “birthday” at that particular meeting is around 1 in 36.

As Season 5 progresses, though, it is clear to me that Simon is using the sickness of addiction and the drama of “The Program” as a metaphor for the larger story arc of the inherent sickness in our society.

There’s a preamble read at the beginning of most AA meetings called “How It Works”, a segment taken from the Alcoholics Anonymous “Big Book” that summarizes, well, how the program works. The very first paragraph contains this ominous warning:

Those who do not recover are people who will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty.

Season 5 is this warning writ large; not about individuals, but about American society as a whole.

We see Bubbles finally get up and share in the meeting, and he tells a few funny anecdotes, junkalogues about “the junkie lean”, even made-up tales about kids hanging Christmas ornaments on him when he was on the nod in the winter. But he doesn’t dig deep, he doesn’t share anything important; nothing about losing Johnny, or losing Sherrod in the botched hot-shot scheme, or losing his son KeShawn, or losing his whole sense of where he fits in society if he’s not a junky. Kima tells him in Season 1, “What the fuck am I gonna do with a clean informant? Did you ever think about that?” Even the police don’t have use for a Bubbles that ain’t using. And that bitch addiction wants to kill him, and he won’t turn and face the bitch, because she’s big and scary and complicated. So he tells funny stories, he entertains, and he pretends that he accomplished something for his sobriety. Happens all the time in 12-step meetings. I’ve done it myself a few times.

And we see the exact same thing in the newsroom. Every effort to talk about the problems of the city in a deep and holistic manner…that you can’t just talk about messed up schools without talking about corruption, about drugs, about unemployment and welfare and the economic conditions that these kids grow up in…gets shot down in favor of “something positively Dickensian”. Management at the paper does not want to face the bitch, because she’s big and scary and complicated, and writing about her doesn’t win Pulitzers or drive up subscriber revenue. So they tell tales, they entertain, and they pretend that this accomplishes something for society.

In the same meeting we see the junky mom sharing, and she digs a little deeper. She’s willing to look at the bitch out of the corner of her eye, at least, and keep an eye on her. But later we see her slapping her kid in the church soup kitchen, and we realize that there are places in her own soul that she doesn’t want to go yet either. “Getting clean is the easy part,” says Walon in Season 1. “Life is the hard part.”

And junky girl talks about how “all the things I said I was never gonna do, I was just making a list of all the things that I ended up doing.” Which brings us to McNulty. If I could text search the DVDs I’d probably be able to find a quote from McNulty ridiculing the idea of tampering with a murder scene. It’s just not worth it. Real police don’t need to do it. Real police solve cold cold cases by keeping their eyes open until they find a bullet in a refrigerator door. Even if he’s never said it, you know it’s in his nature. Yet now McNulty is falsifying an entire homicide scenario out of one dead body, tampering majorly with evidence, doing the things he would never do. Doing whatever it takes to get his way. Self-will run riot, as they say in the program. Even Bunk is appalled.

It’s easy to draw analogies between McNulty’s alcoholism and the dope fiends in the projects, but that’s too easy.

12 Step programs put forth the idea that drinking and using are just symptoms of a deeper malady, an insanity, a spiritual sickness in your core that must be addressed to get sober and then maintained through constant vigilance to stay sober. We see this on an individual basis with all the dope fiends on the show. It’s true about myself as well.

With that in mind, what Simon is telling us is that the drug user and the drug trade are just symptoms. The bad schools and poverty and corrupt politicians and ass-kissing newspaper editors are just symptoms. The real story, the real problem that needs to be addressed is an insane America, a country with a spiritual sickness based on self-interest. A country that is constitutionally incapable of being honest with itself, infected with a destructive muscular form of capitalism as cultural self-will run riot. And until we are ready to turn and face that bitch, look her squarely in the eye, take responsibility for our own actions that made her what she is, and make amends, then we will keep picking up that next drink, keep putting out that new package or dropping another body, keep covering our asses to keep our careers, keep telling that one next lie, that one entertaining story to distract us from the scary bitch that we have created.


  1. A country with a spiritual sickness based on self-interest. A country that is constitutionally incapable of being honest with itself, infected with a destructive muscular form of capitalism as cultural self-will run riot.

    Excellence, thy name is Ray.

    Perhaps minor, because your point is true whether or not its her, but I didn’t think that was Dee Dee in the soup kitchen scene. We do so her later on the sidewalk with a toddler but that kid has dark hair, and the kid in the soup kitchen is a blond.

    I’ll look again. You know I have to find the answer…

  2. I think you’re right about Dee Dee, VT. ANd I know you’re right about Ray being excellent.

    I’ve been to NA, AA, and CA meetings with friends and for other reasons. The AA meetings always seemed to me to be the most honest, with NA right behind and CA a distant third. Many of the people at the CA meetings were either there by court order, or there to make new connections.

    And yeah, Ray, the context is key. Just like that Jayson Blair character can’t see just how wrong his wrong is, the editors can’t see how context makes the argument, which makes the story.

  3. Marry me. Do it right now.


  4. Watch out Ray, she throws…. stuff.

  5. I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud that something I worked on connected with someone on such a level. And I know the other writers, when I copy this to them, are gonna feel the same. The journey toward truth at the NA meetings is indeed a foil against which season five measures society’s overall commitment to same. I should have known it would take someone who knows The Program to see it.

    Ed calls recovery the hero’s journey. And Mr. Burns doesn’t throw out the word hero very often. And one of my old lines, but sincere at least, is that I only have two heros left: Fran Boyd and Woody Guthrie. And I’m not so sure about Woody.

    One day at a time, Ray. Congrats on doing what needs done.

    David Simon
    Baltimore, Md.

  6. V Tx, about the junkie chick, I’ll have to watch the episode again when I get home. I’ve been in a hotel in Austin since the season started so no chance to rewind the DVR and double-check dialog and stuff. And thanks for raising the bar with that Gods and Demons post. I thought I was signing up to write some fanboy shit, but damn, you want us to write.

    Athenae: I’ll have to clear it with wife #1 but: Yes. Now. If you autograph a book for me.

    Ashley, you are still the fucking man. I’m home this week, is Dooky Chase open for dine-in yet, or do we need to go get some trout baquet at Lil Dizzy’s?

    Mr. Simon, I’m honored to read your comments to my humble little post. The idea came to me over time after watching the show last night, and gelled while talking it through with another fellow addict and Wire fanatic when we went out for post-show ice cream and a late AA meeting. This season so far is exceeding my expectations, as they always do. You do great work, and I hope you get to follow through on that New Orleans thing. (I got a reserve stash of some high school yearbook photos of Davis Rogan and some more Marsalises in case you do.)

  7. […] Slow train a comin’ Published January 15, 2008 The Wire! I am approaching the end of a horribly busy work period.  I have several posts cooking.  The writing over at Got That New Package has been beyond superb.  We have gotten another superlative from David Simon, the man himself.  This time it was for Ray in New Orleans, a post called “Rigorous Honesty“. […]

  8. […] country with a spiritual sickness based on self-interest.” This comes from an article callled Rigorous Honesty from The Wire fan blog Got that New Package! The Wire creator David Simon responds in the comments. […]

  9. VT, I did see David Simon’s comment on Ray’s “Rigorous Honesty” post. As a matter of fact I forwarded it to my husband and my sons. I am a child of an alcoholic who, like Bubs, often had in his eyes “a glimmer of that desire, of wanting a different life for himself,” but could never quite face that “big and scary and complicated” bitch of addiction. He too told funny stories about how he was “an educated alcoholic” after having received a mandate from his government job to complete AA or lose the hand that partially fed us. They never said anything about him SUCCESSFULLY completing the program however. I still have his Certificate of Completion and class photo.

    For a long time I thought, “how ineffectual and pathetic these meetings are” because my Daddy wasn’t getting well. He was just pretending he was, hiding his pints everywhere imaginable. He couldn’t or wouldn’t dig deep either. He lost his whole sense of where he fit in society if he wasn’t a drunk. He died 26 years ago while I was pregnant with my oldest son.

    Though not a “writer” with credentials, I worked in a small South Florida newsroom as the assistant to the editor when the paper changed hands (that scene announcing coming lay-offs as well as the one with Twigg packing up was like deja-vu all over again!). After three months, the editor asked me if I could write and I told her I had only done the diary/journal thing but that was it. She asked me to pen something for her, I did and shortly thereafter – Voila! I had my own column on the Opinion Page and a seat on the editorial board for the rest of the time I worked there (gave the editorial board seat up after awhile though – working 3 jobs and getting paid for one just didn’t sit well with me for some reason.). The fact that there’d been no minority columnists at that paper in more than 40 or so years and they didn’t want to pay a real one may have had something to do with it.

    Your newsroom analogy here is dead-on. I’m not sure what they expected me to write, but rookie-me thought the job of the Fourth Estate was to give voice to the voiceless and shed light on issues that were either covered up or went otherwise ignored. I talked about the problems of the city “in a deep and holistic manner” and messed up schools, corruption, drugs, a living wage, affordable housing, the homeless, etc., etc., while the credentialed journalists concerned themselves mostly with “something positively Dickensian” and what clips to submit for what awards. Management at that paper never wanted to “face the bitch, because she’s big and scary and complicated, and writing about her doesn’t win Pulitzers or drive up subscriber revenue.” So they told tales, entertained, pulled Jayson Blairs like Scott Templeton and they pretended “that this accomplishes something for society.” The most important thing I took from that experience was the need to keep rookie-writing and pursue some credentials of my own because I don’t mind facing the bitch at all.

  10. Hi Deb,

    I’m sorry about your dad. I have a lot of alcoholism in my family, too, and for the most part they are either already dead from it or are choosing to die from it. I’ve come to terms with that, I think, but it’s hard when it’s somebody close like a father.

    I also lost a friend just last week who chose suicide over sobriety. He just couldn’t get the hang of the program, and didn’t want to drink any more, so I guess he saw no other way.

    Sadly, medical science hasn’t given us the magic pill or the magic surgical cure yet, so all we have is an emotional and spiritual program and a lot of luck to keep us sober, and that kind of program only works for people who really desperately want it to work. My family members don’t want it bad enough and probably never will.

    Thanks for commenting, and, uh, “keep coming back”, as they say.

  11. […] country with a spiritual sickness based on self-interest.” This comes from an article callled Rigorous Honesty from The Wire fan blog Got that New Package! The Wire creator David Simon responds in the […]

  12. […] Morris is a committed motherfucker Last winter I wrote my post, Rigorous Honesty, after watching Bubbles struggle and stumble his way through an NA meeting and then after talking […]

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