A Drinking Life: A Memoir

A Drinking Life by Pete Hamill is the story of one man’s struggle with alcoholism and the contributing factors that caused him to be become an alcoholic. A large part of his argument is that during his childhood and adolescence it was considered cool to drink heavily. He stated “There was a celebration and you got drunk.

There was a victory and you got drunk…part of being a man was to drink.” (p. 57) Parents have great authority over the formation of social habits of their children even if the children are not aware of this influence. “…parents and peers affect adolescent drinking through two types of social influence: modeling and social control.” (Reifman, Barnes, Dintcheff, Farrell & Uhteg, 1998)

Hamill’s father was an alcoholic so he was introduced to it at a young age. Many of his memories are of his father passed out or extremely drunk and he claims this role model gave him the idea that men were supposed to drink. Children of alcoholic parents have a higher risk to be alcoholics themselves. According to Tomori (1994) “Such adolescents use alcohol to relieve anxiety, reduce dissatisfaction and mistrust, and give vent to accumulated aggression.

In adolescents brought up in alcoholic family environments, alcohol, entering through several receptor sites, fills many gaps left over from the development period prior to separation. Their parents–either the alcoholic parent, or the partner living with him/her in co-dependency, or both of them–who are themselves filled with distress, depression, and anxiety, usually cling to their children while at the same time manifesting overt signs of resentment and rejection.

In this state of pathological ambivalence, they both reject their children and try to tie them to themselves, thus seriously hindering their separation. As a result, many children of alcoholic parents develop defensive aggression or passive resistance, or take recourse to some other inappropriate patterns of defensive behavior.”

Hamill explains in the book that he was always fighting someone. He either fought in bars or in the street, over an imagined slight or to defend himself but he was more aggressive than the usual person and it was always while he was drinking.

Much of the book is devoted to his childhood and adolescence during and after World War II. The secret drinking, which began at a young age, was the classic experimentation that many alcoholics describe as the beginning of their addiction. Hamill tells of his wish to be different from his father and not to become a drunk “and yet drinking started to seem as natural to real life as breathing.” (p. 107)

Hamill paints a picture of a rough Irish Catholic neighborhood and the drinking and fighting that were an integral part of his world. For a time he made his own money, giving some to his mother since his father lost his job. He attended high school and hung out with his friends, all the while increasing his drinking.

He did not consider it a problem at first; he believed that he was not drunk as long as he knew where he was and what he was doing. As he entered high school, the drinking increased and became less secretive, due partly to the fact that teenagers were expected to drink and act a little wildly. This, unfortunately, is not beneficial to a decent grade average and Hamill began to fail all his classes after only two years of high school.

One thing Hamill sees as a failure on his part is his lack of belief in God. While he does not attribute his addiction to this, he tells of his anger at the church for double standards regarding the poor and the fact that at least one of the priests was “like my father: a drunk.” (p. 106) This lack of respect for the church prevented him from relying on his faith as many do in times of crisis in their lives.