Phyllis Theroux Essay on Family Secrets

February 21, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


PHYLLIS THEROUX: If there’s one thing that virtually all politicians in Washington, D.C., agree upon, it’s the value of the American family. And if there is a harder city than Washington in which to raise a real American family, it hasn’t been revealed.

At the low and jobless end of town, raising anything, much less something as complex and resource-gobbling as a family, is extremely difficult. At the high and workaholic end of town, many families are de facto abandoned by men and women who were too busy and ambition-driven to come home.

Yet, home is where we go for the one thing that all human beings need to feel human, intimacy. Intimacy is many things rolled into one world and word, where we feel safe, supported, and most importantly connected to an inner circle of people who are committed to the same goals that bind them together, in other words, a family.

If the family could be compared to a life raft in which its individual members sit, then intimacy is the air that holds the raft up. But if one member of the family takes out a knife and begins to slash at the raft, then the family has to choose between throwing him or her out of the boat or sinking.

SPOKESMAN: Welcome to the meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.

PHYLLIS THEROUX: That is the awful choice that millions of families have to make when somebody in them is an alcoholic or drug addict. And in Washington, D.C., where the stresses upon families are unusually high, so too is the consumption of drugs and alcohol. Every week, there are 1870 different Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings conducted just within the beltway.

Paul Molloy is 57 and a recovering alcoholic who 20 years ago had been a high-powered congressional staff lawyer, but he wound up drinking over a fifth of whiskey a day, which cost him his job, his wife, and his future on Capitol Hill. Molloy went into treatment and then a government-funded halfway house, but residents were only allowed to remain there for six months. And when Molloy was there, 11 of the 12 residents required to leave fell off the wagon within 30 days.

PAUL MOLLOY: And so you begin to think, oh, what am I going to do when my six months is up? And it never got to that point because the county decided to close the house after I was there about four months. And fortunately, the 13 of us living there were able to get a loan to rent the property from the county. And that’s where the first Oxford House started.

PHYLLIS THEROUX: From that first house rented in a suburban Maryland neighborhood in 1975 has come a whole network of houses across the country occupied by men and women who are not yet ready to be reunited with their own families but need the structure, accountability, and intimacy that a good family provides in order to stay straight. Molloy, who has been reunited with his wife, is the head of an organization called Oxford House, Incorporated. There are presently 630 other Oxford Houses in existence across the country. The rules are simple and irrevocable.

PAUL MOLLOY: We’ll go through what the requirements are, and then we have an interview with the house member.

PHYLLIS THEROUX: Everybody has one vote on who is admitted in. Expenses and chores are equally shared, and the house meets once a week to discuss any problems.

And here’s the big one: If you drink or use drugs, you’re out on your ear, which come to think of it, isn’t a bad way to run a family. The best ones, no matter who’s in them, succeed when everybody gets intimately involved.

I’m Phyllis Theroux.