Kurt Vonnegut opens his novel Mother Night with some tricky advice: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” This advice warns against pretense, suggesting that it quickly and imperceptibly creeps into reality. That can be problematic, particularly for people who trade in pretense, like actors or con-artists. But there is another way to look at this process, and it is embodied in the common expression “fake it till you make it.” In this version, pretense is a first step towards the active creation of a new reality. This is probably why Vonnegut uses the phrase “be careful.” There is great power in pretense.
One organization that sees this is Alcoholics Anonymous (along with other 12-step programs), which has adopted the “fake it till you make it” as an informal piece of advice to give to new arrivals. There is no progress without the pretense of progress, because this pretense taps into the power of the mind to imagine a better future. This is exactly how Bubbles takes his first staggering steps along the long, dead-soldier-strewn road to recovery. It starts out with a fake, and it’s not even his own.
We rejoin Bubbles early on in “One Arrest,” in the aftermath of Johnny’s unlucky bust following their triumph with the Copper House caper. Bubbles uses his connection with Kima to spring his friend from jail. Johnny was opposed to Bubbles’ snitching, but now, sitting in a courtroom in chains and an orange jumpsuit, he is all too happy to use police influence for his own ends. Kima negotiates with the prosecutor, who reads a comically-lengthy list of Johnny’s past arrests (dope, coke, dope, theft…). Then she goes to Johnny and explains the arrangement to him with the tone of a kindergarten teacher. “Shake it off in treatment, go to some meetings and pee when they tell you to pee.” Johnny replies simply “Ok.”
He is all too happy to play nice when he is facing jail time, but as soon as he gets out, he jumps right back into his old game. The only difference is that now, he needs to meet some basic legal requirements to stay free: meetings and clean urine. He has to play clean.
So Bubbles tags along as Johnny goes to his first NA meeting. They don’t even plan on staying–Johnny hopes to get his form signed and then take off. The man who signs the papers has another plan. He puts Johnny’s form onto a large stack of other parolees’ and says “You get it back when the meeting’s over. And if you don’t stay, we don’t sign. That’s how it works.” It is a simple way to ensure legal compliance from a group of people looking to game the system. Poor Johnny is crestfallen. He walks reluctantly to join the other addicts.
Bubbles has a different attitude. Always upbeat, he says “Come on, I want to see the show.” It is an optimistic view–since they are stuck here, he might as well enjoy it for whatever entertainment value it might offer. It also suggests the detachment of a passive audience member. As a woman recites the last three of the 12 steps, Bubbles struts down the center aisle of the hazy, smoke-filled chapel, greeting people he knows from around the way, and plops down comfortably in the front row.
Barely audible, the woman recites the eleventh step: “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.”
Bubbles has an interesting exchange with Johnny as the meeting gets started. “I ain’t seen some of these faces in so long, thought they were dead.” “Same thing, ain’t it?” Johnny asks. Bubbles sees these people as if they have been resurrected, but for Johnny, heroin is life. It is the spiritual essence that keeps him going from day to day. Deprived of that, he sits through the meeting with a bitter slouch and a sour face. He is like a child being sent to Saturday detention, upset about missing out on time that he could better spend working on his next high.
Bubbles is more open to the meeting, and that openness become even more pronounced when Walon steps up to tell his story. As this stranger recounts a lifetime battling addiction, the camera cuts to close-ups of the faces of the addicts scattered throughout the meeting. They are young and old, black and white, male and female. They all look broken in some way, but also alive. And whenever we cut back to Bubbles, he looks almost hypnotized by Walon, entranced by the recognition of his own story in that of the friendly, tattooed man at the podium.
It is a great piece of storytelling, full of catchy phrases and powerful imagery and a sincere delivery. “I want to be clean today more than I want to be high,” Walon says, describing sobriety in terms of a battle of desires. He goes on to enumerate the physical, psychological, and social toll that addiction has taken on him. The physical part is reminiscent of the details Bubbles describes when critiquing Sydnor’s undercover costume: scars on his hands and feet, endocarditis, hepatitis C. Then Walon describes what he has lost: “a good wife, a bad girlfriend, the respect of anyone who ever loaned me money or did me a favor. I pawned my pickup, my bike, my National Steel guitar, and a stamp collection that my grandpa left me.” It is interesting that as the size and value of the losses decrease, the emotional value increases. The small losses are the worst.
Then Walon starts to talk about God, which is appropriate to the church setting. After all of his relapses and downfalls, he tells himself “Walon, you’re doing good.” It is a perfect motto for the delusion that fuels addiction. He explains: “I thought I was God’s own drug addict, and if God hadn’t meant for me to get high, he wouldn’t have made being high so much like perfect.” Like Johnny, the addict within Walon frames the high as a type of religious experience, a mystical awareness of all that is perfect in the world. If he can experience that perfection, that godliness, even for a few minutes a day, then the rest of it, the family, the friends and the possessions, all become insignificant.
The meeting ends with a ceremonial distribution of keychains to signify periods of sobriety. The leader starts with people who have 9 months clean, but nobody steps up for one. “Keep coming back” everybody chants, and then he drops it to 6 months. “Keep coming back.” Finally, at three months, a woman walks up to proudly collect her chain, and then a few more step up for one month clean. It is a full room, but there are far more people who are faking it than there are people who are making it. And yet, somehow, those few who do stand up seem like triumphs, like people who have found some sort of key.
Finally, the man says “for the most important person in the room. Is there anybody with 24 hours or a sincere desire to live?” A few people stand up to receive their keychain, and suddenly Bubbles is up too, collecting his own keychain and flashing a toothless Cheshire Cat grin. Johnny rouses for the first time in the scene and gleefully applauds his friend, but he is also confused. “We shoved off this morning,” Johnny says, using a wonderful nautical metaphor for getting high. Bubbles is too busy considering his prize to respond. The meeting ends with a ritual recitation of the serenity prayer. “God give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.”
So maybe Bubbles didn’t really earn that keychain with a day of sobriety, but as Walon will later tell him, “you stood up.” He was willing to play the part of a recovering addict, even in the most modest form. And there really was no faking about it anyway. Johnny was probably not paying enough attention to realize that the white plastic keychain was not just a reward for 24-hours clean. A person “with a sincere desire to live” could also claim one. For the first time, Bubbles makes an attempt to redefine “living” in terms that don’t come in a vial.
It is in no way a clear victory for Bubbles. In fact, the next scene begins with a depressing still-life of dopefiend despair: a table littered with a spoon, a needle, a mini-bottle of Canadian Club whiskey, a pack of Newports. And that white keychain. It quickly falls out of the shot as Bubbles picks up the spoon and begins to prepare another blast.
Johnny teases Bubbles, calling him “Mr. One-day Man” and asks him to sign the form for a second NA meeting that never happened. Bubbles replies “God have mercy when they piss you, boy.” And Johnny’s retort shows that he was paying at least a little attention to the meeting. “You mean the God of my understanding?”
It is a distortion of the 11th step, sure, but it is a telling one. No matter what a person’s religion, no matter what they believe in, it is always a God of one’s understanding in a sort. Everybody looks for a way to make life bearable, to create meaning in a meaningless world. Whether that meaning comes to a person in a church, an NA meeting, or a vacant row-home, the only way to change is to develop a new understanding of both God and life.