Back in the day, before I came to accept my powerlessness over certain substances, there would have been a tear in my beer while chugging through Don Lattin’s new book, “Distilled Spirits: “Getting High, Then Sober, With a Famous Writer, A Forgotten Philosopher And a Hopeless Drunk.”
It’s a memoir of sorts by the San Francisco Chronicle’s former religion writer, now a member of the Pacific Media Workers Guild’s freelance unit. Lattin and I were longtime partners in news and booze at the Chronicle. I specialized in science and Irish whiskey. Don concentrated on the “God beat” and vodka on the rocks. Both of us, Don especially, had a taste for cocaine.
We sobered up, and moved on, years ago, more or less around the same time. Now, in his latest book, Lattin weaves together a complicated trilogy of biographies with his own recovery and spiritual awakening.
Some parts read like an obituary for a newsroom culture that used to tolerate, even encouraged, rank besottedness. Lattin recalls how one of his first assignments was to go out and fetch three editors back to work. They were too drunk to walk a few blocks, but were in plenty fine shape to help get the paper out.
The news business, in my own experience, has always been full of liquor and drugs. I briefly knew a onetime network TV anchor who went through a fifth of vodka daily, making it through some broadcasts only by “sobering up” during commercial breaks snorting lines in the ladies’ room. At least one major East Coast newspaper reportedly hosted a regular 12-step meeting.
In this new account, the press gaggle that covered the jetsetting Pope John Paul II seems to have been looped nearly all the time. “My drinking and drugging didn’t stop when I got on an airplane to cover the pope,” Lattin confesses, shocking no one who knew him during this era. “Quite the opposite. Getting high at high altitudes was one of my favorite pastimes.”
Lattin and one pal, royally soused after hours of sucking up the free wine they got aboard the Papal Express, gave each other giggle fits pondering the questions they might ask – “Boxers or briefs?” – when the pope finally deigned to come by their seats.
This kind of thing serves mainly as seasoning tossed in and stirred with the more nutritious ingredients of “Distilled Spirits,” the bulk of which covers the intersecting lives and work of three more-or-less famous men: Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard and Bill Wilson, the “famous writer,” “forgotten philosopher” and “hopeless drunk,” respectively, of Lattin’s subtitle.
Huxley, of course, was the celebrity intellectual who wrote “Brave New World” and “The Doors of Perception.” Heard’s theories on consciousness and mysticism lay some of the groundwork for the so-called “human potential movement” that helped give philosophical shape to the 1960s. Wilson, also known as Bill W. to me and millions of my fellows in recovery, was the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Wilson and Heard actually dropped acid together. Lattin suspects the AA leader also tripped with Huxley, who became the spiritual godfather of a generation of blissed-out seekers.
There were other historical connections, which Lattin documents in a deep trove of correspondence he uncovers. The connective tissue gets stretched pretty thin, but Lattin ties it all to the fact that these guys were friends and allies in a spiritual quest, pursued sometimes through chemical shortcuts, intrigued by the notion that revelations of a Higher Power could really change a person.
Lattin, it turns out, becomes one of the changelings.
I admit to getting sleepy reading his accounts of mystical awakenings, both his own and those of his biographical subjects. Some of the spiritual stuff made as much sense to me – that is, none – as Lattin’s description of his “most revelatory LSD trip,” which occurred during his college days with a girlfriend. He was curled up like a fetus in her embrace one night at Big Sur.
“We communicated without using words,” he recalls. “Then I saw in my mind’s eye a tableau of Victorian sunbathers, painted in cranberry, which I described to her in detail as I floated peacefully in the warm embryonic fluid of the womb. She listened, and then told me that exactly the same image was printed on her brother’s favorite T-shirt. I’d never met her brother. I was her brother. I was her lover.”
Spiritual insights through chemistry, or even deep thinking about spiritual insights, were never high on my list. So I confess to flipping pretty fast through the abstract ponderings about “the common moral and mystical teachings that run through all the world’s religions,” and obsess Lattin and his chosen heroes in “Distilled Spirits.”
I lingered a little while on the parts about Bill W., a real character. He was a pickled stock analyst whose blinding “divine spark” set him on the path to sobriety just in time. Then, two decades later, he took his first LSD trip, convinced by Heard that a drug that “mimicked insanity” could help forge connections to the Higher Power for millions of fellow sufferers.
For me, and I imagine quite a few others recovering from wobbly lives in newsrooms or other such places, the most compelling parts of “Distilled Spirits” are Lattin’s first-person accounts of one reporter’s journey. It’s a clearly sincere account of how his shallow, cocaine-snorting journalist identity gave way as real sobriety took hold.
The last of the brilliant but dissipated guy we all knew as “Father Lattin” appears in an extended final chapter.
“One day I came back to the office after a long lunch,” Lattin writes. “I was tight and on a tight deadline. I needed a scriptural reference to start off my story but couldn’t find my copy of the Good Book. Other reporters were always taking books off my desk and not returning them. After frantically searching through the mountain of files, books, and other debris, I stood up and yelled out across the city room, “Who stole my fucking Bible!”
In San Francisco, at least, full time daily newspaper writers covering specialty beats like religion and science, though not quite extinct, certainly are a lot less exuberant these days.
“Father Lattin” moved on, like many of us did, through choice or otherwise. For the most part that’s all for the better. I congratulate Don for an honest exposure of his own remarkable story, wrapped in the amazing tale of these three great spirits from history.
I must also admit to a tinge of nostalgia as so many great newsrooms, and so many hard-living news people, shrink down to something altogether different. They no doubt are better now than they used to be in my fuzzy memory. Yet I lift a glass – of sparkling water now – to the passing of an era.
Photo of Don Lattin: Deanne Fitzmaurice