Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Poor Hitch: Christopher Hitchens Dies at 62.

Christopher Hitchens

“Have you heard about Hitchens?” I asked a friend one day the summer of 2010.

“What—is he finally in rehab?”

Not exactly the response I expected, but after all a logical one.

“No,” I said. “He has esophageal cancer.”

“Isn’t that the kind of cancer you get when you’re an alkie and you smoke like a chimney?” my friend asked. My friend, a poet, is an “alkie” himself and, at 47, has been sober for more than 25 years.

“Yeah,” I said. “It often has a very poor prognosis—they usually don’t find it until it’s advanced.”

Poor Hitch, we agreed, then we were tempted to take it back, because if there were anyone in the world who wouldn’t stand for anyone’s pity, it might be Christopher Hitchens.

Christopher Hitchens, just before he was diagnosed with cancer.

And now Hitch has gone. The world of language and letters and of debate will be the more impoverished for it. He was a brilliant speaker and writer.

Hitch has remained on my mind since I read about his diagnosis the summer he got sick. Just before that, I’d come across this interview with him in the Guardian, in which the writer opens with a portrait of Hitch in hangover and then, after taking him for a pub lunch:

It seems to me so evidently the case that Hitchens is an alcoholic that to say much more feels unnecessary. But for the record, he trots out all the usual self-serving, defensive evasions: “For me, an alcoholic is someone who can’t hold his drink” or, “I’m not dependent, but I’d prefer not to be without it.” The longest he has ever been was a dry weekend “in fucking Libya”, and he claims he drinks only to make other people less boring. So, presumably, he doesn’t drink when he’s with [Martin] Amis? “Er, yuh, I do.”

He was a relatively young man—only 62, not yet out of middle age—but his body had been leveled. Not only by cancer, but also by addiction, the underlying cause of the cancer. Just before he got sick, he’d been taking care of book sales and promotion for his memoir Hitch-22, flying around the world, but he’d not been taking care of himself.

Hitchens was a formidable intellect. He could worst his opponents in debate, gain the upper hand or secure the last word on panels, or engross any assembly for hours on end.  Talk-show hosts worked hard to insert toeholds into Hitch’s monologues. He reveled in performance as much as he enjoyed working out the arguments.

I remember sitting in a bar with Hitchens, listening to him regale me and our partners (Hitch and my partner had been at Oxford, at the same college at the same time) with his opinions and tales of his exploits. This was a while ago, he had just started working for Vanity Fair, and I don’t remember the details of the stories or the arguments; what I remember is his bearing, and his appearance. He knocked back glass after glass of scotch and chain-smoked, holding the cigarette in the same hand as the booze. His shirt was unbuttoned (as always) to show the mat of hair on his chest, and his sandy locks fell across his damp forehead.

I kept looking at him, wondering, Why does this guy think he’s so hot?

He had been much more handsome before the booze and ciggies went to work on him.

Christopher Hitchens as a student at Balliol College, Oxford, around 1970.

Hitch always carried himself as though he were a real dude when in truth, by the early 1990s, he looked blowsy. He wouldn’t have been much to notice had it not been for his voice. Hitch had a gorgeous voice—insistent, seductive; mellow and smooth at the front but with a deep burn at the back, like the Scotch he loved. For a man who had lived and worked in the States for 30 years, his voice was still curiously Oxonian all the way through. How Hitchens preserved his accent is an interesting question. I think Hitch’s voice was where his psyche lived (he may have said and even believed it lived between his legs, but a great part of it lived in his larynx) and I suspect he protected it.

After his diagnosis interesting discussions sprouted up on the Internet about the ethics of praying for Hitch. Should someone who disdains faith and God be prayed for? Would they want prayers? And many people wondered: Could Hitchens possibly remain an atheist, now that his life was in jeopardy?

Of course he remained an atheist, for fook’s sake. Who cares whether Hitch would or would not want anyone’s prayers?

What I always wondered was, would he ever get sober?

I suppose it’s because I lost both parents to addiction that I find this the more important question. Neither of my parents was able to quit their drugs before they died.  … A prescient exchange occurred between Hitchens and Jon Stewart when Hitch appeared on The Daily Show in his 2007 promotion of God is Not Great, his book about atheism.

Stewart: Does [faith] serve a purpose to give comfort to people, because we are a species that knows we’re going to die and leave—isn’t it nice to have something that brings comfort? Is it necessarily a bad thing to have that comfort, if it doesn’t then cause us to attack other species whose comfort we don’t believe in? Let’s say it’s just for our comfort.

Hitch: That’s a very beautiful and sincere question. [audience laughter] I, myself, I’ve always thought—in the death matter—that an exception would be made in my case.

S: Really?

H: Yes. But I must look like an asshole to you when I say that.

S: Not just when you say that.

Uproarious laughter at Stewart’s last jibe. Anyone who was able to get Hitchens’s goat always earned some giggles. Hitchens himself was gracious about it—he was usually (but not always) generous with talk-show hosts who tried to spar with him. And of course Hitchens was joking about living forever, but only half-joking—the carefully chosen language of his response skirted a critical blindness. Let’s face it: his life had been in jeopardy long before he was diagnosed with cancer. You can’t drink and smoke that hard for that long without putting your life on the line. Hitchens said ages ago for the record that many great writers “did some of their finest work when blotto, smashed, polluted, shitfaced, squiffy, whiffled, and three sheets to the wind.”

Well, OK, Hitch, and how long and how well did they live?

Another thing that I noticed during this Daily Show clip: Stewart looks and sounds so calm and spiffy next to Hitchens. Because Stewart is so healthy.

I’m thinking about Hitch’s wife and kids. …

By the way, if you think it’s impossible to get sober and still be an atheist, think again. Lest it be considered in poor taste to offer up my own example, let me mention that a friend of mine turned me on to this interview with Augusten Burroughs, author of the memoir Running with Scissors: he claims to have no religious belief and to have cleaned up with a higher power that was a “cartoon version of Jesus, plucked from the manger with a pet cow.”


  1. Atheists can get sober, and I’m living proof. Imagine that!

  2. I struggle with the higher power thing all the time. I really want to believe…but? I have a question that I can’t answer. If god is omniscient and omnipotent how could I change his/her mind by prayer. Do I really have that much influence with a being, spirit,etc that I could change its mind about something it already knows? Wouldn’t it by nature be infinitely wiser than me and already know the correct thing to do in a situation. It seems that prayer just focuses our mind and doesn’t really have anything to do with a higher power. Unless,of course, there is no separation from “god” and we are really that. Which I think goes against the grain in AA. Or not?

  3. missy from the bayou

    December 20, 2011 at 9:16 pm

    incredible brilliance and incredible denial………

  4. Thank you, Guinevere, for your friendly iconoclastic review of Christopher Hitchens’ legacy. At times, I thought that I should see him as a fellow traveller and be more appreciative of his gifts but there was a certain dogmatism behind his contrarianism that always irked me.

    Hitchens had courage no doubt (though perhaps enhanced by a little “liquid courage”), no more so than in calling one of his books, God is Not Great. After all, the title (he must have known) tempts the comparison title: Hitchens is Not Great. Many atheists and theists alike do not believe Hitchens’ status as a pop culture anti-religious icon was much deserved when placed on a more thoughtful, penetrating and nuanced level. (Just so folks might find more profound atheists out there, the current French writers like Luc Ferry, Marcel Gauchet, Jean-Luc Nancy or the Slovenian, semi-pop icon Slavoj Zizek truly engage the critique of religion at a level of sophistication Hitchens was either unwilling or unable to articulate.)

    One of Hitchens’ debaters, Truthdig commentator Chris Hedges, can be heard in this CBC radio interview talking about his reaction to Hitchens’ death. Hedges combined the subjects of Hitchens’ bullying and heavy drinking with his assessment of Hitchens’ often remarkable skills, as well his inability to listen to a nuanced argument.

    Frankly, I often felt that Hitchens was a bit of a bully but as we say in recovery: if you spot it, you got it! And it is with my own likeness to this trait in Hitchens that I want to comment.

    One of the many (surprising!) revelations that came out of my 4th Step inventory a number of years ago came from the resentment regarding my conservative, born-again Christian, evangelical upbringing as a child, continuing into my early twenties. As is often typical of those raised in this environment, I felt the emotional scarring of someone who constantly felt afraid and resentful, guilty and ashamed. I slowly moved away from a God that I ultimately perceived as domineering and overbearing, strict and judgemental, wrathful and unforgiving, petty and jealous, bullying and contemptuous, narcissistic and egomaniacal.

    No, this would not be the God I would worship and certainly not a God who was even worthy of respect let alone worship.

    A funny thing happened on my way to the 5th Step! In the final column of my 4th Step — “where was I to blame?”– I discovered that all these attributes that I resented about God turned out to be all my defects of character. Yes, I had turned into the very thing that I hated and opposed.

    So if I neither liked the God of my upbringing nor ultimately myself, I discovered that I needed a new conception of God or, as I would prefer, a new conception and priority of human values.

    I have discovered these values in the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous which, when the fellowship is at its best, reflects the spiritual values I have continued to explore and develop from sources beginning in German idealism, through to the American humanism of Emerson, Whitman, and Wallace Stevens up to the present day with the current French atheists (or “transcendental humanists” as some of these call themselves).

    At its worst, AA can be like any organization or individual that manifests the very traits of a God that the 4th step revealed to me were like my own defects. Note the current debate in the Toronto AA Intergroup over the de-listing of two agnostic groups and by what the two ousted groups describe as judgemental bullying, intolerance and religious (spiritual?) bias. (See a Toronto AA agnostic website for this issue as well as others. Especially relevant is Roger C.’s excellent piece on the history of agnostics and atheists in AA.)

    Hitchens would, of course, be on the side of the two ousted groups but he would, perhaps, wonder why the two groups would want to be affiliated with a pseudo-religious organization like AA in the first place.

    Hitchens would not, however, seem to be the kind of voice that could separate the spiritual from the religious in AA. Perhaps this kept him from the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous? Perhaps AA, when it keeps the anti-theistic, still suffering alcoholic out of its rooms with all of its God-talk, is itself in need of voices of reform and inclusiveness that will carry it into the future. Given what he wrote and debated, however, Hitchens would not have been one of these voices.

    Ultimately, the bully from within Christopher Hitchens seemed capable of only shouting louder than the bullies he spotted (with much justification) all around him.

  5. Truthfully, I don’t think that I liked him very much. Too over-blown and caustic for me. But then I am the optimist. And I like the beliefs in life such as hope and spiritual energy. Mystical shit that Hitchens would have smirked at. I am sorry for his death. But maybe he is finding out the real truth now about cosmic energy. I hope so.

  6. Hitchens said ages ago for the record that many great writers “did some of their finest work when blotto, smashed, polluted, shitfaced, squiffy, whiffled, and three sheets to the wind.” Well, OK, Hitch, and how long and how well did they live?
    Is that what really matters? Personally, I would sacrifice half of a full life in order to squeeze out truly great creative work. Some people wouldn’t; most wouldn’t, I suspect. But that’s a choice. For me, my creative output is infinitely more important to me than my own life. Maybe Hitch was the same.

    Luckily, there always have been and always will be people willing to sacrifice their health, sanity, and life in order to contribute to the rest of us. How sad would it be if everyone anesthetize their life, child-proofing every aspect of it, just to live to a ripe old age?

    It seems I can smoke my whole life, die 20 years younger than I might otherwise, and avoid the senile years altogether. Sounds like a win-win in my book. To each their own…

  7. Do you have kids?
    I’m a highly creative person. But I love my son more than I love even my best work. Just me.

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