I watched and reviewed When a Man Loves a Woman in this space because it was a successful movie – featuring actors who were extremely popular at the time – about how a female character’s alcoholism affected her marriage. In the interest of taking in another narrative about alcoholism within a marriage – this time featuring a male alcoholic, I picked up the more recently released (but oddly similarly titled), straight-to-DVD Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, When Love Is Not Enough: The Lois Wilson Story, a biopic about the marriage of Bill Wilson (a.k.a. Bill W, who founded Alcoholics Anonymous) and his wife, Lois, who eventually founded Al-Anon (a 12-step support group for spouses and families of alcoholics).
While there are certainly more visible, interesting movies about the founding of AA (including the documentary Bill W, which I missed the chance to see in theaters this fall), I’m curious about how concepts of addiction and recovery are portrayed in popular culture, and since the effects of alcohol on marriage and women’s lives were a popular part of temperance rhetoric, I was curious about how a recent movie by a franchise that (these days at least) mostly makes vaguely religiously themed Christmas specials would portray Bill and Lois’ marriage. And, frankly, I miss Winona Ryder, who plays Lois in the film.
The movie opens with a scene of Bill and Lois’ small, but pretty, living-room wedding, and a voiceover explaining that “statistics say the typical alcoholic brings an average of seven people into their vortex”—then and follows the couple through the next two decades, during which Bill’s drinking destroys his career as a stockbroker; he stuck out at a time when heavy, on-the-clock and after-hours drinking were normal. He tries and fails several times to quit cold turkey (always with the aid of prayer). Finally, after having a spiritual breakthrough in a hospital, Bill manages to get and stay sober for several months, keeping himself together by preaching to drunks on the street, though most have less than no interest in what he has to say, finally meeting Dr. Bob at a meeting of the Christian fellowship group Oxford Group and deciding to get together to talk about their struggle to quit drinking.
Prior to this, Lois has partly blamed herself for Bill’s drinking (despite repeated attempts to conceive, Lois had a series of miscarriages and was never able to have a child; he drinks to assuage his grief, but his drinking also prevents them from adopting a baby). Once AA is formed, the couple starts hosting AA meetings in their home—all totally made up of men. Lois starts inviting the wives inside to talk, confiding to one woman that when her husband first met Dr. Bob, she actually felt a little jealous, not because they were spending so much time together, but because their regular talks were working, where nothing she’d been able to do for him had; other wives nod their heads, adding that they initially felt threatened by the fellowship. It’s a fascinating moment for a couple of reasons: first, when Bill first met Dr. Bob, he disappeared and didn’t call Lois for several days, usually a telltale sign of a relapse, and during the early parts of his recovery and founding of the fellowship, he’s precisely as self-absorbed as he was during the worst parts of his drinking. (“I entered into our marriage with such arrogance and a sense of my own goodness,” she tells him at one point. When he chimes in to apologize, and then to talk about his drinking and recovery at length, she snaps, “I’m talking about me now, Bill.”)
Still, most of popular culture places romantic love (or maybe the nuclear family) at the center of human happiness; this scene, and the others that unfold, suggests people also need friends or community, while understanding that people (particularly women) raised to place their marriage at the center of everything might feel threatened or even jilted by their partners’ search for recovery. “They’re out there, trying to get well, while we’re in here, feeling sick,” one wife says, asking where they can find a space to heal from what they suffered while their partners drank. (Interestingly, while the founders of AA had likely never heard of it, their non-hierarchical, peer-focused structure was similar to a 19th-century group called The Washingtonians, which was actually attacked by pro-Temperance religious leaders, who suggested people trying to quit drinking seek the aid of the church instead.)
When Lois decides to form her own group of spouses affected by alcoholism—generally the wives of AA members, chatting in one room while the drunks (incidentally, the movie uses the word “drunks” far more often than it does “alcoholics”) talk in another—the male AA members are initially threatened too. “Our wives are in there having a big gossip session about us,” one complains. Bill says, “Think there’s anything they don’t already know?”
Several lines in When Love is Not Enough pay lip service to feminism or to the idea of women’s independence (Lois’ mother tells her, “You might find your own life”; a fellow Al-Anon wife says, “I think our husbands are doing the best they can for themselves, and so should we”). But if the movie means to communicate that the partners of alcoholics—maybe particularly the female partners of alcoholics (AA and Al-Anon became more gender-inclusive over time, though that process is not portrayed in this movie)—live so much at the mercy of their loved ones’ addictions that they can’t have their own lives, it does a better job than it means to. Apart from the fact that she worked as a nurse off and on to support herself and Bill; we know that she loves him, feels angry, guilty and conflicted in response to his drinking; we meet her wealthy family; but we never learn much about who Lois was as a person, about what occupied her mind time when she wasn’t pleading with or praying for her husband. Did she have hobbies, I wondered? Play the piano? Ever make a joke or own a dog? (I think the movie does portray her knitting at one point, and throughout it she displays impeccable fashion sense, but that’s as close as the film comes to giving her her own personality.)
It’s a problem narratives about alcoholism—whether they center on the alcoholics themselves, or on their families—often have: in portraying the downside of alcoholism, and how central it is to the world alcoholics inhabit. It’s not unfair, but no alcoholic I’ve ever been close to (including the ones whose drinking caused me pain) was just an alcoholic; they were likable, smart, interesting people with a variety of hobbies and interests their drinking threatened. When Love Is Not Enough has some interesting moments, but ultimately flattens its characters in the interest of letting us know its commitment to its message is unambiguous. Ryder’s performance as Lois—while not equal to her best early work, where she could be vulnerable and exasperated at the same time—is good enough that we can empathize with Lois’ pain, but the movie gives us little to sympathize with in her as a whole person.