Larry Kramer, Compulsivity, Addiction and Recovery

by Lawrence D. Mass

There’s a saying one hears in the rooms of 12-Step recovery: “There are no coincidences.”

On June 25, Larry Kramer, who died May 27, 2020, would have turned 85. On June 10, 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous was co-founded by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith in Akron, Ohio. June 10 is annually and internationally celebrated as AA Founders Day. If not for the pandemic, Detroit would be hosting AA’s 85th International Convention this Independence Day weekend.

“Who looks outside dreams. Who looks inside awakes.” — Carl Jung

Many things overlap and coincidences are common. Carl Jung, the psychoanalyst who broke with Freud to spearhead his own spirituality-oriented psychology, as well as the movement of recovery based on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, believed that many coincidences also qualify as “synchronicities,” the simultaneous occurrence of events which appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection.

One of these “meaningful coincidences” is the June 2020 shared 85th birthday/anniversary of Larry Kramer and Alcoholics Anonymous. While there may be no other obvious link between Larry Kramer and Carl Jung, or with alcoholism, addiction and recovery, this intersection can serve as a touchstone for looking back at Larry Kramer in relation to phenomena of compulsivity, addiction and recovery.

In my five decades of knowing Larry, I had little sense of him being any kind of addict. He struggled episodically with cigarette smoking. And he was a “chocaholic.” Last year on his birthday I brought him a chocolate cake so we could celebrate together (my 74th Birthday was June 11), something we did in the old days. When he was hospitalized for his liver transplant in Pittsburgh, I sent him chocolate-covered Godiva cookies.

Many years ago, in opening one of Larry’s desk drawers to retrieve something for him, I noticed a standard-fare gay sex videotape. I often saw Larry at the baths, but I never knew him to be compulsively involved with pornography. Larry was acrophobic and had a history of depression, but to my knowledge, he never suffered from a compulsivity or addiction so notable it got designated as such, except perhaps, by his own assessment, to writing. So absorbed and preoccupied was he as a writer that he would evade vacations and sometimes meals.

Larry was never in a detox, rehab or in a behavioral or self-help program for addiction or compulsivity, and it was a subject he otherwise never showed much interest in, at least from vantage points of psychiatry or addiction medicine. This was in contrast to the sharp medical expertise he developed and continually displayed for most anything having to do with AIDS and other phenomena of medicine and disease. I always found this surprising in terms of his remarkable literary acuity about gay fast-lane sex. However over-the-top, his descriptions of our behaviors in Faggots are also strikingly clinical in their specificity and accuracy, albeit rendered in Larry’s own literary vernacular, without any of the jargon or reference points of medicine or psychology.

In the heyday of his plays, Larry didn’t write much about the psychoanalytic psychotherapy he had been so immersed in prior to Faggots. Perhaps he had already intuited that the psychiatry of his era was as confused, biased and suspect about most other areas of psychology and behavior as it was about sexuality and homosexuality. Not surprising when you consider the severe homophobia of that era’s predominantly psychoanalytic pathologization of homosexuality as a mental disorder, which wasn’t officially withdrawn as such from the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) of the American Psychiatric Association until 1973–4. This declassification, which took place several years prior to the publication of Faggots (1978), became a springboard of the Gay Liberation movement.

And not surprising when you consider Larry’s tribute to the last of his psychiatrists, Norman J. Levy, an openly gay, life-partnered mensch who encouraged Larry’s activism. Levy, from the more progressive psychoanalytic school of Karen Horney, was also my psychiatrist. Before me and before Larry he was my life partner Arnie Kantrowitz’s shrink, and after me, Larry’s beloved Rodger McFarlane’s. “For Norman J. Levy, who succeeded where all others failed,” reads Larry’s dedication to The Normal Heart. As someone with an unparalleled track record for having his intuitions prove right, Larry would have been, yet again, spot on in his skepticism about psychiatry as having the best answers and solutions for compulsivity and addiction.

Perhaps as well because he could only devote so much of his time and interest to so many things, Larry never wrote much about addicts as one of the major AIDS risk groups and he had little to say about addiction as a treatable condition, though his sweeping indictments of pharma in The American People include its deliberate peddling of drugs it knew to be addictive. Also in his magnum opus is a character based on Spencer Cox, the ACT UP activist who struggled with addiction to amphetamines and eventually died from AIDS after discontinuing his HIV medications.

Among the crowning achievements of ACT UP were its pioneering efforts to establish needle exchanges for injection drug addicts, who were often co-infected with hepatitis C. So addiction does figure honorably in Larry’s achievements. It’s just that he himself had little to say about it.

Meanwhile, however, and again to my knowledge, 12-step recovery as a widely accepted option for self-help is not something Larry promoted or opined about as an option for the many within and on the periphery of ACT UP who might have benefited from it. Rather, his perceptions and advice were more general and along the lines of American practitioners of “the power of positive thinking,” like Norman Vincent Peale or Louise Hay’s “You Can Heal Your Life,” though I don’t recall his ever expressing himself about Hay as the AIDS community’s own leading self-help guru.

In truth, one could intuit Larry’s feelings about compulsivity and addiction as being not so unlike those he parodied in Nancy Reagan in his farce, Just Say No. “Just say no” was her notorious answer to the complex problems of drug addiction. That was what he felt gay men needed to do for the compulsive sex and drug use that placed us at risk for AIDS and other STD’s. Get your act together was Larry’s advice, rather than specifically urging people to seek professional help or to go to Alcoholics Anonymous, Sexual Compulsives Anonymous, Crystal Meth Anonymous or other recovery programs.

In one of our email exchanges in 2012, our erratic discourse on this came to a head. Larry berated me for being overweight. Why couldn’t I just get on the stick of dieting and caring better for myself? Once again, I tried to raise the issues of compulsivity and addiction as they had manifested themselves in my life in multiple areas — food, sex, alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana. “Cross addiction” is common among compulsives and addicts, who are often differentiated from one another only by degree, and I worked recovery programs for those in my own life.

Was Larry sexually compulsive, like the rest of us in those heyday years of early gay liberation? To read Faggots is to share some of the most incisive depictions of sexual compulsivity anywhere. And as the name of the lead character, Fred Lemish, suggests, Kramer was presciently aware of the risks and dangers, for himself and the rest of us, that characteristically attend phenomena of addiction and compulsivity: self-absorption, disinhibition, hedonism, isolation, intoxication, irresponsibility for oneself and others, paranoia, harm to oneself and others, and death by suicide or from crime.

Apart from a vividly rendered overweight alcoholic in an early short story, and despite my repeated efforts to engage him on this subject, however, Larry had little more to say about compulsive behavior or substance abuse, or about any of their periodic scourges in the gay community — e.g., our recurrent, sometimes explosive epidemics of crystal meth abuse and dependence.

For me, this neglecting of context was as well a challenging aspect of his portrayal of me in his composite character of Mickey Marcus in The Normal Heart. Like me, Mickey ended up on the flight deck, the psych ward at St. Vincent’s Hospital. But the significant role my incipient alcoholism played in that circumstance was neither rendered, nor, apparently, considered.

In Larry’s orbit were many who struggled with compulsivity and addiction. But these are problems that Larry, not unlike Jung, saw as more spiritual — personal, communal, societal, political — than psychopathological. Jung believed that what alcoholics and addicts were seeking was spiritual recovery rather than medical or psychiatric treatment. No pills or psychotherapy were going to cure alcoholism, he felt, just as Larry intuited that no pills or psychotherapy were going to effectively treat gay self-hatred. These were maladies of the soul and society that needed spiritual solutions. Only awareness and action, self-discipline and service, honesty and willingness, changing oneself and one’s world via caring, love and commitment, courage to change, and, yes, anger, from the inside out.

In this, as in most everything else, Larry was prescient and on target. In terms of what he saw and foretold of gay people and our liberation, of AIDS and its cure, of the American People and our sickness of values, of what we needed to do and “HOW” (Honest, Open-Minded, Willing), as they speak of it in recovery, Larry Kramer’s prophetic vision might well be compared to Jung’s.

A question Larry would often ask people, including me, was “Why aren’t you more angry!?” My answer, after entering recovery in 1984, was always the same. When Larry acted up and out with anger, it always turned to gold. As a person in recovery, however, if I tried to do what Larry did the way he did it, I would more likely do more damage than good to myself and the causes we believed in and were fighting for.

While Larry’s emphasis was on being in touch with and marshaling one’s anger and shunning forgiveness, and recovery’s emphasis is more about being wary of self-righteous anger and resentment and nurturing forgiveness, in both cases, cultural change is envisioned as an inside job from which the personal has the power to transform the political.

As their stars cross on what would have been Larry’s 85th birthday and the adjoining 85th anniversary of Alcoholics Anonymous, we are comparably indebted to Carl Jung and Larry Kramer for the great spiritual movements of recovery they inspired.


Lawrence D. Mass, M.D. is a specialist in addiction medicine in New York City. He is completing On The Future of Wagnerism, a sequel to his memoir, Confessions of a Jewish Wagnerite. He is the author/editor of an anthology, We Must Love One Another Or Die: The Life and Legacies of Larry Kramer.


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