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S.O.S. from inside the West Wing

The staff of the Trump White House are behaving like children of alcoholics

Kevin O’Keefe is artistic director of Circus Minimus, which brings the magic of circus arts to kids and to schools.

West Brattleboro

When we were teens, my siblings and I shared a hand signal for when our mother had been drinking. It was a mimed gesture of a beer can going quickly to the mouth.

Other kids of alcoholics probably share signals like this — ways to deal with their parents’ erratic behaviors, quick workarounds to avoid conflict and maintain denial about “the problem.”

My father was sober by then and probably should’ve known better. He got into Alcoholics Anonymous when I was 8 or 9. But even he had his own denial to work through. When directly asked about my mother’s drinking, he once told my sister, “We don’t talk about that.”

It was common to find her beer cans stashed under her bed, or left in laundry piles or drawers. Her bedroom had a walk-through closet, so she literally was a closet drinker.

Whenever she had a few, we knew to keep it short. In her cups, she was lonely and chatty. To have a conversation was a kind of pure torture that went beyond teenage separation issues.

There was no accountability for anything that was said, no way to reference it at any point in the future, as much of the time she was in a blackout and would have no memory of events. The elephant was in the room, and she was smashed.

It was implicit and explicit that we weren’t to speak to anyone about “family matters.” When I finally did write a memoir about what occurred, the family circled up the wagons to protect my mother’s privacy. I was ostracized until I agreed to not publish it.

* * *

So it is with this perspective that I approach recent events in the Trump White House.

To me, that anonymous letter published in The New York Times is an S.O.S. from inside the West Wing. Contrary to the author’s opinion about there being “adults in the room,” I see this as evidence of a child’s cry for help with a rage-aholic parent.

Members of the current administration may share other traits with children of alcoholics. We are loyal, hyper-responsible, confuse love with pity, feel guilty when we stand up for ourselves, keep secrets, put others first, become addicted to excitement, fear authority, and become approval seekers, view our experience through the lens of a victim. We are terrified of abandonment, personal criticism, and conflict. (This list is by no mean exhaustive or exclusive to kids of alcoholics.)

According to The New York Times review of Bob Woodward’s new book, Fear, here are some of the highlights of the staff, in my opinion, acting like children of alcoholics:

• Reince Priebus, his former chief of staff, calls the presidential bedroom, where Trump goes to tweet, “the Devil’s Workshop,” and early mornings and Sunday nights, when Trump is at loose ends, “the Witching Hour.”

Later, he says about the White House decision-making process: “When you put a snake and a rat and a falcon and a rabbit and a shark and a seal in a zoo without walls, things start getting nasty and bloody. That’s what happens.”

Trump rarely realizes when things go missing, Woodward suggests, though he does quote the president shouting, like a boy king, “Bring me my tariffs!”

• John F. Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, is quoted as saying about the president, in a meeting, “He’s an idiot. It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything. He’s gone off the rails. We’re in crazytown.”

• There are terrifying scenes in which Gary Cohn and Rob Porter conspire to keep certain documents out of Trump’s reach.

• Mike Pence, the vice president, comes off as a glorified golf caddy who doesn’t want to rock the boat lest Trump tweet something mean about him.

* * *

It’s funny, and sad, but this last instance is the role I most identify with.

I was one of my parents’ biggest admirers and fans until I got some perspective and distance. Only as an adult did I begin to see their flawed thinking and actions (and my own).

When I started to write about my parents as characters in a book, I began to understand their motivations and intentions. Eventually, it increased my compassion.

Writing about them, along with years of psychotherapy, helped to free me (to a degree) from my family’s alcoholic pathology. Personally, the stakes were quite a bit smaller than our current situation as a country, but the dynamic resonates.

The Times op-ed writers’ motivation might also be a way to lay the groundwork for some integrity in the future. When Bob Mueller and the cops knock on the door, it isn’t going to be just Trump taken away in cuffs — the whole administration is going to be tainted.

So this effort by “the senior administration official” might be a way to ensure that the judicial process differentiates the whistleblowers from the co-conspirators and enablers.

The truth eventually leaks out. It’s good for the soul of the country when it does.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #480 (Wednesday, October 10, 2018). This story appeared on page D1.

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