Jack Kissell, 1930-2009

I read this morning of the death of Jack Kissell, a legendary figure in Southern California recovery circles, and my “sponsor” (on and off) for many years during the 1990s and the beginning of this decade.

Alcoholics Anonymous and the legion of Twelve Step programs that sprang forth from it have always insisted on, as the name implies, anonymity for its members. (In my writing, I’ve danced very close to the edge of “outing” myself, of course, but on this blog claim no membership in any particular organization.) For years, it has generally been understood that the anonymity requirement ended with death; it is common in public obituaries to note a long-standing period of sobriety in AA or other groups. Jack, who died at 79, died with 38 years sober.

In my recovery, I’ve had many sponsors. Two have stood out: my friend Jenia B., a woman just four years my senior but with (today) over a quarter century of sobriety who brought me into the heart of what is often called “the program”, and Jack Kissell, who took me through the twelve steps with insight and humor and Irish relentlessness. Jack sponsored hundreds of men and women around the country, and how he found time to talk so intimately and warmly with each is simply miraculous. For years, he and his beloved Jean lived in an apartment near the water in Redondo Beach. Time and again, I drove down to see him, to “read him my inventory” or talk about a specific problem. We always finished our conversations by moving from a discussion of sobriety to Jack’s second-favorite topic, Notre Dame football. I saw him on the stage many times in productions across Los Angeles; he was a delightful character actor who could, like so many sober alcoholics, perform both menace and vulnerability with ease.

I’ve referred to Jack before on this blog, never by his full name. It was Jack who taught me to “do the NEXT right thing”, who taught me what fidelity really looked like, and who gave me – at least for a short time — the gift of celibacy. And it was Jack who first taught me these lines:

If you want what you’ve never had, you have to become what you’ve never been. To become what you’ve never been, you’re gonna have to do what you’ve never done.

It is not the melodrama of a eulogy that leads me to note that I might very well not be alive without his wisdom, his kindness, and his love. Jack Kissell and I hadn’t spoken since 2000, after a foolish falling-out. (The fault was entirely mine, and I confess I held a entirely unjustified resentment against Jack for a long time.) I always meant to call him again, and never made the time. I am glad that while he was my sponsor, I was able to express my profound gratitude for his loving presence in my life, and glad that I am now able to give public credit where credit is due. I know that many folks have found comfort in things I’ve said or written that I learned from Jack, and they ought to know his full name.

We’re all on a journey, going through a process, and it would be far more lonely and far more terrifying without the wisdom of those just a bit further down the road. Jack’s gone farther along now, to the other country, and in due course, all whom he loved and sponsored will follow him there. But the good he did — for he was a very, very good man — will last, kept alive by the many he taught who will, over and over again, repeat his insights.