EXCERPT: Don Lattin's "Distilled Spirits"

EXCERPT: Don Lattin's "Distilled Spirits"

Don Lattin

The following is an excerpt from Chapter One of Distilled Spirits - Getting High, then Sober with a Famous Writer, a Forgotten Philosopher, and a Hopeless Drunk, published in October by University of California Press. The book, by Alameda's Don Lattin, combines a memoir of Lattin’s years as the religion writer at the San Francisco Chronicle with a group biography of the writer Aldous Huxley, the philosopher Gerald Heard, and Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. More information is available at http://www.donlattin.com.

Copyright 2012 by Don Lattin

Is there a “God gene,” a strand of DNA that brings us into this world predisposed toward metaphysical longing? Such a theory was postulated in 2004 by a geneticist at the U.S. National Cancer Institute. He claimed to have discovered a gene that predicts a person’s underlying tendency toward spirituality. Our faith, he said, is hardwired. He speculated that religious belief arises in a population because neurobiology and natural selection favor individuals with a strong sense of spirituality.

Other geneticists questioned the science behind the claim, but let’s say for a moment that there is a God gene. For if there is, we might also assume that Aldous Huxley was born without one.

Most of us begin our lives with some kind of religious heritage. My mother is Jewish. My father was Presbyterian. Neither of them did much to cultivate that spiritual legacy in their children, but that religious heritage is there, whether or not my genetic makeup has anything to do with it.

Aldous Huxley was born into a family with a legacy of doubt and disbelief. If there is a gene for skepticism, we might want to obtain some DNA samples from his progeny and run some tests.

Huxley was born on a small country estate southeast of London on July 26, 1894. He was the third son of two private-school teachers, Leonard Huxley and Julia Arnold. His genetic skepticism dates back to his grandfather Thomas Henry Huxley, a famous zoologist who coined the term agnosticism. Huxley seems to have exhibited his grandfather’s scientific curiosity at an early age.

One morning, at age four, Aldous was staring out the window into the garden.

“What are you thinking about, Aldous dear?” his mother asked. “Skin,” he replied.

Aldous Huxley’s maternal lineage includes Matthew Arnold, one of the great Victorian poets, and Thomas Arnold, Julia’s father, another Englishman infamous for switching religions long before “shopping for faith” was in vogue. Thomas Arnold was a prominent educational reformer who twice left the Anglican Church and converted to Catholicism. It so upset Julia’s Protestant mother that she smashed the windows of the chapel at one of her husband’s Roman Catholic confirmations. Being raised in a family torn by such religious strife left Huxley’s mother with what his biographer termed “a very deep faith, but perhaps no conventional religion.”

Thomas Henry Huxley, the grandfather, was widely known in England as “Darwin’s bulldog.” He was an early and fierce supporter of the theory of evolution who engaged the religious leaders of his time in spirited public debate, but he was never an ideologue. Open-mindedness was his creed, especially in matters of religion. “I neither affirm nor deny the immortality of man,” he told a friend. “I see no reason for believing it, but, on the other hand, I have no means of disproving it.”

Huxley followed his agnostic father’s example in raising Aldous and his two older brothers, Julian and Trev. They were baptized in the Church of England and given just enough religious education so they might learn “the mythology of their time and country.”

* * *

My religious upbringing was, in a way, similar. As far as I know, my father was not following the example of Thomas Henry Huxley, but he thought his children should be exposed to organized religion, much like kids should be exposed to certain childhood diseases in order to build up their immune systems.

I was baptized into the Christian fold at the First Presbyterian Church in Ramsey, New Jersey, and later sent to Sunday school, but I always knew I wasn’t supposed to really believe what I heard from the pulpit. It was America and it was the 1950s, and not going to church was a stepping-stone to Communism. My religious education abruptly ended when I was twelve. It was 1965. The times they were a-changin’. We were living in Southern California, and my parents were about to get a divorce.

My father asked me if I wanted to keep going to church. “Not really,” I replied. “Good,” he said. “Then we don’t have to take you.” Devotion to Jesus was never a big thing in our house.

We had daily communion, but the sacrament was a mystically dry gin martini.

One of the first things they ask you to do in drug rehab is to write out your substance abuse history. They ask you to try to remember when that first sip of alcohol crossed your lips and how you felt about it. My early memories of alcohol are my earliest memories, period. And they are fond memories.

Before I even started kindergarten, when I was four or five years old, I used to wait around all day for my dad to come home from work. It seemed like an eternity. I’d hide in his closet, behind the rows of dark woolen suits, forty-eight extra long, and wait to hear the sound of his car pulling up the gravel driveway outside our house in Chesterland, Ohio. We were out in what seemed like the country. It was the last place we lived that wasn’t a soulless new subdivision. There were still dirt roads on the last stretch of the way home and lots of woods to explore.

Dad would walk into the bedroom, and I’d jump out of the closet and yell, “Boo!” He always acted like he was surprised. I’d watch him pull his keys and spare change out of his pockets and carefully place them in an old ashtray on his dresser. The faded yellow porcelain tray was molded in the form of a grinning skeleton leaning back on his elbows, encouraging you to snub out your cigarette butts where his stomach used to be. I’d watch Dad take off his long pants and hang them up in his closet. Then I’d follow him back out to the family room as he faithfully approached the bar, his altar of alcohol.

That’s where Dad displayed all the shiny paraphernalia of the sophisticated drinking man—the silver cocktail shaker, cut-glass pitcher, long elegant spoons, and his solid-glass swizzle sticks of many colors. I especially liked the array of tiny golden swords he used to skewer the three olives that went with each martini. The centerpiece of the altar was a bottle of Beefeater gin glistening in the glow of the early evening.

Dad would dip a larger glass tumbler into a silver ice bucket, fill it to the brim, and then slowly pour in the gin, like a priest consecrating the wine. He’d wave a bottle of vermouth over the gin, like incense, allowing no more than a drop to fall into the frosty glass. Then he’d skewer his three olives and begin the procession over to his favorite chair. I’d climb into his lap, and I always got to pull the first gin-soaked olive off the tiny sword. It was there, in the safety of my father’s lap, that I acquired an early appreciation for this wondrous elixir.

Then Dad would unfold the evening newspaper, wrapping it around my little body like a curtain protecting us from the rest of the world. He would read me the funnies and perhaps a bit of the day’s news.

No wonder I became a newspaper reporter and an alcoholic.