Tonight, in a classroom in Congregation Beth Chaim in Feasterville, Pa., within earshot of the trucks rolling north out of Philadelphia on Route 132, there are 14 men at the meeting. They are mostly middle-aged, and they are squeezed into desks meant for 10-year-olds. Everything is out of scale, incongruous, like the progress chart tacked to the classroom wall indicating that the race between Debbie and Glenn for the reading achievement prize is still too close to call.
During daylight this is a bright, cheerful place. The men now assembled have lived in a dark and tormented world, which, it is to be hoped, Debbie and Glenn will never know.
The 14 assembled here are compulsive gamblers, and they are representative of at least three million Americans with that affliction. The evil irony of the disease of compulsive gambling is that it seeks out those, like Debbie and Glenn, who are brighter than average, tenacious achievers and tough competitors. And it catches them young. Most compulsive gamblers are on a course to self-destruction by their mid-teens.
Any one of the little group now in session here in Feasterville could tell you that. Each is an expert on the subject, a member of Gamblers Anonymous. There are about 12,000 people in GA, divided up into some 700 chapters like this one. GA was founded in 1957, structured along the lines of Alcoholics Anonymous, the pioneer organization in applying group therapy to fight an addiction. Tonight Jim M., dark, heavy-jowled, 30ish, takes the leader's chair. This is an honor he has earned by going 90 days without a bet. "I am Jim M., and I am a compulsive gambler," he says.
At first, the tempo is slow. Jim M. speaks modestly about his achievement. He is followed by Bill T., a hearty fellow in a Dior leisure suit, gold chains and an out-of-season tan. He says that he has been clean since '83. It looks in the early going as if the evening may not be very harrowing at all. But now Bob T. is on his feet. His tan bomber jacket is a little jaunty for his 60-plus years, but he is starvation thin and his breathing is harsh and broken. "Oh, Jesus, it's hard out there," he begins. "I made my last bet five days ago. I...I'm sorry I haven't been coming to the meetings. My wife puts pills out for me. She should put out a knife.... My son took $50 off me, to keep it for me, so now I'm painting some cabinets in the house. He took my credit cards off me as well.... Oh, Jesus, I'm sorry, but I kicked him." Bob starts to sob. Then he controls it. "I want to tell you all, it's still rough, rough...rough...out there." He sits down to a burst of warm handclapping.
John B. is next. He has gone six years without a bet, and he tells us of a fearful thing that happened this week to him. He met an old friend who was still gambling. "We didn't get juiced," he says. "We just talked till 2 a.m. Then five in the morning I get a call. He's run his car into a tree. He's killed himself."
John B. pauses. The classroom is silent. "Listen, we got to see that his family gets his money," he says. "Screw the bookies!" John B. is becoming almost hysterical. "Oh, please!" he cries to the audience. "Please! I don't want to be back in the football crazies. Oh, please, I know I'm downhearted, but I'm not crazy!"
John B. sits down. In contrast, Donald D., neat and well turned out, keeps it humorous. "Good news all day today," he says. "I agreed to a restitution schedule that I would have to earn maybe a half million a year to cover. Also, my psychiatrist called to say he has bought my home, but he'll let me stay on paying rent." Donald D. claims to be the only man in America who owned a $6,000 truck with $10,000 worth of bodywork on it. That, he says, was because whenever he took the six-minute drive home from his club after phoning his bookie, he kept running his truck into walls and street lamps. "I had numbers on my mind," he explains. Even Donald D. can't stay light-hearted for long. He says, "Once I got home, I'd switch on the TV and wait for the pre-game trash to be cleared out of the way. Then, the moment the ball was kicked, I'd know I was a loser. It was always the same. I'd just sit there and wait for the play that I knew would break my back. I did that for 10 years, and then I was ready for the bughouse."
The only new man at the Feasterville meeting is Joe B. He is in his late 20s and shaking, eyes misty, features curiously blurred. He is asked to read through the 20 prescribed questions that determine, in GA's terms, whether one is really a confirmed gambler. He is barely able to read aloud, but to 15 of the questions he answers yes. Only seven yesses are needed to qualify. Then Joe B. mumbles his confession. "Uh, I took off from work, uh, spent all my savings, $15,000, uh, blackjack and slots," he says.
It sounds cruel, but none of this is either new or surprising. You could write the rest of the script for Joe B., who is easily recognizable as having already reached the third, or Desperation, phase of pathological gambling.