Our intervention with my mother, Susan Mary Alsop, took place during duck-hunting season. I flew to Washington from Maine in late October 1995. Soon after arriving in Georgetown, a familiar alarm began to ring in my brain—one that sounded whenever I was about to see my mother.
Susan Mary acquired her surname from her second husband, newspaperman Joseph Alsop. Joe was a newspaper columnist who worked in Washington most of his life. For 30 years his column, Matter of Fact, appeared in nearly 300 papers around the country. She had divorced Joe more than 20 years earlier and moved back into a house her mother owned on 29th Street in Georgetown. It was a beige house that she livened up with bright colors and Louis XVI furniture.
Mother was 77 in the fall of 1995. After leaving Joe, she had made a name for herself as an author and hostess. Leafing through Spade and Archer’s 50 Maps of Washington, DC several years ago, I found a section titled “Susan Mary Alsop’s Georgetown” with a map of one of her favorite walks. On another page she was included on a short list of the city’s “grande dames and power hostesses.”
Susan Mary drove a Honda and was generally frugal, so her elevated status had crept up on me. Perhaps I’d been living in Maine too long. During the past half century, she had established a reputation for her capacity to connect powerful people and for her discretion. I hadn’t realized how far her gift for maintaining emotional boundaries had catapulted her into stardom.
She combined an inner steeliness with the subdued elegance of a Jamesian—or perhaps Merchant/Ivory—heroine. As more than one reviewer observed about my mother’s historical biographies, she belonged in the stories she wrote. Power, diplomacy, and elegance were fused together in both her books and her life.
Mother had two address books—one for America, one for Europe. Reading through them, one sees the outline of her three “careers”—diplomat’s wife in Paris, journalist’s wife in Washington, and, toward the end of her life, successful writer. The names and addresses give credence to the assertion she once made that she wasn’t interested in living “an ordinary life.”
My mother’s stoicism was an asset in her world of artists and statesmen, intellectuals and diplomats. Her elegance was appreciated by most, less so by me. I thought of her as a brave little soldier and was always surprised when my friends told me how warm and engaging she had been with them. Her flair for attracting friends and offering her services to others was legendary. I think it was a survival skill—though she would have laughed politely at that idea and then dismissed it as pop psychology.
Until my stepfather, Joe Alsop, died in 1989, few of us had seriously worried about my mother’s drinking. Mostly our concerns focused on Joe’s. Although Joe and Susan Mary had divorced 15 years earlier and lived separately, they remained a pair. They went to parties together, went on walks together, and focused on their grandchildren together.
My mother had controlled her drinking for years, but after Joe’s death my younger sister, Anne, and I could sense her deep loneliness. When I sat down alone with my mother after lunch once and told her she needed help, she thanked me icily and left the room.
The intervention we planned had been triggered by my sister’s plan to relocate Mother to Salt Lake City, where Anne lived with her husband, John, and their two little girls. Most friends thought that uprooting my mother from Washington was a crazy idea but appreciated that Anne was taking some initiative.
In the early summer of 1995, Anne and John drove down the coast from our summer house in Northeast Harbor, Maine, with Mother to visit me in Camden. Her move to Utah seemed decided without much discussion. But when I visited her alone in Northeast Harbor later in the summer, I could tell she was terrified.
I had been pushing for an intervention for some time. Anne began to have doubts when she heard reports of Mother passing out in Northeast Harbor. As my sister began to realize how disturbing our mother’s alcoholism would be for her two little girls, we agreed to try an intervention.
Anne likes to say life is “whitewater”—a feeling that lay just below the surface of our upbringing. She once told a reporter that, growing up in Washington, we expected “the roof to come crashing down at any time.” We’re both so conditioned to the idea of Armageddon that I sometimes wonder if we don’t invite it.
We have an unusual aptitude for bilateral vision. When Anne and I are in a restaurant, we’re instinctively aware of the people around us; like camp survivors, we tend to be always on our toes, looking around corners. The center of the action always tends to be somewhere else; certainly it was never us.
In August 1995 I referred Anne to the Freedom Institute, a substance-abuse center in Manhattan. Anne called the director and liked her. She recruited three of my mother’s close friends to join us for the intervention.
When we arrived in Washington, Mother assumed we had come to divide up the furnishings of her Georgetown house, which was being readied for sale. I sensed that she had agreed to move to Utah in large part to please Anne. The evening before the intervention, Anne and I went through the downstairs dividing up furniture with yellow stickers.