My Uncle Paul was my mother’s brother. Referring to Uncle Paul’s “problem” is terribly simplistic, but this is the way I still think of him in shorthand terms. Mother, Uncle Paul, and Aunt Susie grew up on a farm in Possum Holler (actually Hollow, but not pronounced that way) in the early part of the 20th century in Montgomery County, Tennessee, maybe sixty or so miles northwest of Nashville.

          Uncle Paul and his wife Aunt Imogene had four children, and Paul Jr. was the oldest of them. The nickname Uncle Paul gave him was “Tunior,” but the rest of the family just called him Junior. My brother Nolen Robert and I spent more time around Junior than any of his siblings.  Junior’s sisters were Anna Jean and Nina Ruth, and they had a baby brother, Roger.  I had long forgotten the names of Anna Jean and Roger, but thanks to a phone call from Possum Holler native Tony Smith after he read this story, I now have their names right. I’m grateful to Tony for refreshing my memory and helping me get this story right. 

          My memory of Uncle Paul’s family is that they were messed up in most ways, and I long believed Uncle Paul was the sole reason for it. I asked about the surviving children on my last visit to Tennessee a few weeks ago, and two older relatives who knew them well did not know where any of them were, except for Junior who died a couple of years ago and remains six feet under. The rest of them seem to have disappeared from the area, but on the other hand, that’s not too different from what I did several decades ago. Historically, I think, human migration has been a natural and good thing for the world. I think it has been good for me. 

          The “problem” I refer to is that Uncle Paul was an alcoholic, hooked in large part on moonshine made in the backwoods of Tennessee in the general vicinity of where I grew up. He lost half his stomach because of it. Uncle Paul seemed inebriated most of the time. He was highly emotional, and he could break into tears in normal conversation over just about anything, such as stifling hot weather, or his car breaking down, or one of his children having the flu.

          For decades I and almost everyone else I knew thought Uncle Paul was a huge moral failure. He made bad decisions. He should not have wrecked his family’s happiness. He was just a mess. A basically hopeless case, brought on by himself.

          Then within the past decade I learned of researchers who have found that people who become addicted to various things often began their lives with different genetic and family histories than non-addicts. These findings lead to firm conclusions that addiction is not necessarily a moral failure, but may be an outgrowth of family factors.

          Such findings strike at the heart of a lot of religious teachings and long-held beliefs. Beliefs that I was ingrained with and carried with me for much of my life. Referring to Uncle Paul’s “problem” from that point of view now strikes me as inherently unfair and narrow-minded. 

          So now I’m reporting that I have given Uncle Paul a pass, of sorts. I no longer condemn him. I am not the child of an alcoholic. I don’t know what that’s like, nor do I know how much his children–my cousins–suffered as a result, though it was obvious they suffered greatly. I no longer believe he could really control what he did after he had deteriorated so far. He could have sought help as a younger man, but he didn’t. The world is full of ifs, and they are not very helpful most of the time. 

          Apart from genetics and family history, every person of at least moderate mental ability has a will. We do make choices. We can change our minds. We can pick a new path. Many reach a point where they are unwilling or unable to do so. But I doubt that anyone knows where that point is, or when it’s irretrievably crossed.

          We know that Alcoholics Anonymous has worked for millions of people, as well as other treatment programs for millions who have been addicted to other substances. Individuals can choose to get help. Many refuse to, or are convinced they do not have a problem.

           Uncle Paul had a problem. That was just the way it was. Life is often messy. Often confusing. Sometimes heartbreaking. We all know that.