Under The Influence by Scott Russell Sanders

The intention of “Under the Influence” by Scott Sanders is to talk about the life he had with an alcoholic father and how this influenced his life. He writes about the “corrosive mixture of helplessness, responsibility, and shame”, which Scott had to carry around with him as a son of an alcoholic.

The pathos of this piece brings the reader into proximity with the writer that is hard to capture in writing. The reader understands and can even feel the pain that  Scott Sanders carried with him throughout his life in having an alcoholic father. It evokes emotions and sympathy from the reader that can’t be shaken till the closing sentence.

The ethos can bring a trust from the reader because of Scott Sander’s situation and the very real deep emotional scar that Scott is left with. The reader is invested in the emotions and stories that are told and cannot help but trust and have faith in the writer and the personal story.

A quote that stays with the reader is,“- And my achievement would distract the world’s eyes from his humiliation. I would become a worthy sacrifice, and the smoke of my burning would please God.” This sentence portrays an image that explains the lengths that Scott Sanders would go through to please his father and keep people from seeing the father’s failings. Scott pushed himself to the brink of perfection and overworking to distract from the pain in his life.

–Addy Nichols

The intention of Under the Influence, by Scott Russell Sanders, is to inform people, with a personal narrative, of the unseen, negative effects of alcoholism on the families of alcoholics.

The arrangement of this essay, in which the tone quickly alternates between comfortable and uncomfortable, effectively maintains the interest of the readers and creates contrasts between expectation and reality that increase the strength of the message. For example, the narrator mentions the humor that is often associated with drunkenness and describes a fairly innocent-appearing fictional family of drunk people and concludes, “It is all great fun.” He then changes the tone completely and describes the reactions of the children of alcoholics to that humor. “Instead of laughing, they wince, they mourn.” This change in tone from humorous to grim clearly demonstrates to the reader that being drunk is not something to be laughed at, as they may believe, but something to be taken seriously.

Sanders also effectively uses dialogue in this essay. His uses of dialogue are very infrequent, and each time they are used to serve a specific purpose. For example, the line, “Again he lied. ‘I never touched a drop,’ he swore. ‘You’re mother’s making it up,’” demonstrates to the reader the extent of the father’s denial about his alcoholism, which further proves that his father’s drinking was a terrible problem in his life.

A memorable quote from this piece that shows the reader the extent of the psychological damage the author incurred in childhood is, “I still notice every twitch of emotion in those faces around me, having learned as a child to read the weather in faces, and I blame myself for their least pang of unhappiness or anger. In certain moods I blame myself for everything. Guilt burns like acid in my veins.” This quote shows the reader that the consequences of his father’s alcoholism never left him. The effects of his father’s alcoholism continue to cause him pain, even many years after his father’s death.

–Alex Stevens

Intention: Sanders tells the story of his father and how alcoholism impacted their entire family. Because of his alcoholic father, Sanders does not drink alcohol. This story was meant to provide background information on Sanders’ life so that the reader understands why he no longer drinks. It also provides information on the severity and seriousness of alcoholism and its effect on people.

Pathos: Sanders uses a great deal of pathos throughout this essay to make us feel connected to him and his story on alcoholism. He opens up to us readers and shares his inner thoughts on his alcoholic dad; “I lie there hating him, loving him, fearing him, knowing I have failed him. I tell myself he drinks to ease an ache that gnaws at his belly, an ache I must have caused by disappointing him somehow, a murderous ache I should be able to relieve by doing all my chores, earning A’s in school, winning baseball games, fixing the broken washer and the burst pipes, bringing in money to fill his empty
wallet,” (636). The vulnerability shown here invites the reader into Sanders’ story and allows them to understand his emotions and feel for him. He feels that it is his fault that his father is an alcoholic; the reader understands that it is not Sanders’ fault and, in return, feels sympathetic towards him.

Quotation: “My father drank. He drank as a gut-punched boxer gasps for breath, as a starving dog gobbles food–compulsively, secretly, in pain and trembling. I use the past tense not because he ever quit drinking but because he quit living,” (634). I love this quote because of the imagery it provides. Sanders’ opens his entire essay with this quote and paints a picture for his audience right away on the extremity of his father’s condition. It is a powerful image, showing his father’s reliance on alcohol, and adds to the persuasiveness of the essay.

Audience: This essay has a large audience; anyone mature enough can read and enjoy this essay. It is a topic that sadly affects many people and families; Sanders’ relates to his
audience because of this. This story is personable and that allows Sanders to establish trust with his audience. People enjoy hearing and reading stories; Sanders realizes this and therefore writes his essay in the format of a story. The audience gets to know the kid-version of Sanders and also the adult-version of him. They walk through Sanders’ journey alongside him and feel connected to him because of his vulnerability.

–Vanessa Petranek

The first few lines of the essay are powerful, and draw the audience in immediately. Sanders writes, “My father drank. He drank as a gut-punched boxer gasps for breath, as a starving dog gobbles food — compulsively, secretly, in pain and trembling. I use the past tense not because he ever quit drinking but because he quit living.” This introduction sets up the tone for the piece, and Sanders begins using pathos to establish a connection between his experiences and his audience.

Sanders continues to use pathos to get his intention across by telling how his father’s alcoholism affected him, and still affects him today. He describes his feelings as a child by saying, “He would not hide the green bottles in his tool box, would not sneak off to the barn with a lump under his coat, would not fall asleep in the daylight, would not roar and fume, would not drink himself to death, if only I were perfect.” The belief that if he were perfect his father wouldn’t drink is something Sanders now knows is not true. He understands that his father was consumed with a disease, but he still carries those feelings he had as a child with him.

One important thing Sanders discusses is how drunk people are portrayed and viewed in the media. He talks about how when a drunk person comes on screen during a movie, “it is all great fun. But if in the audience you notice a few laughing faces turn grim when the drunk lurches on stage, don’t be surprised, for these are the children of alcoholics.” This is effective in showing how alcoholism affects not just the alcoholic, but their family as well. The quote gives the audience a small insight into Sanders’s life, and the life of a child of an alcoholic.

–Kayla Gay

Pathos: The words and imagery that he uses to convey the accounting of his childhood really makes the audience realize what it’s like to live in the house of an alcoholic parent. For those that don’t know what it’s like, they are able to gather insight and understanding; for those that unfortunately have and/or still do experience that lifestyle, it is all too real, yet strangely gives them comfort to know that their experience is not one they’re alone in.

Tone: His voice is very serious and melancholy, as is appropriate for such a heavy topic. He doesn’t say things like “this and this happened, but it was in the past and I’m better now” but instead he is very diligent in letting it be known that this is something that still affects him heavily today.

Arrangement: The way it is written is chronological and gradient, starting off with his younger childhood when he didn’t understand alcoholism, to his current life as a father himself when he becomes afraid to drink a single can of beer. This shows how, when you’re younger, you don’t notice the bad things that are happening in your life, but when you get older, you understand, reflect, and see just how badly it set you up in your modern life. Also, it shows how alcoholism progressively gets worse and worse, but also how those declines in condition stand out even more when you age.

–Skyler Houser

Sanders uses great imagery to paint a picture of his drunk father as something other than human.  Sanders writes, ” all evening, until our bedtimes, we tiptoe past him, as past a snoring dragon…Left alone, our father prowls the house, thumping into furniture, rummaging in the kitchen, slamming doors, turning the pages of the newspaper with a savage crackle, muttering back at the late-night drivel from the television.”  Through his appeal to pathos, readers are able to feel the fear Sanders felt.  This use of pathos emphasizes the intention of the piece and connects the reader in a very real way.

Although this is a longer piece, Sanders keeps his readers engaged.  The audience is able to stay awake through the entire piece when Sanders switches from past to present.  The tone of the past versus the present is very different and keeps the reader actively engaged.  The tone is obviously different because he switches from childhood memories to adulthood thoughts.  When he is speaking about the past, there is a more tense and chilling tone.  When Sanders speaks in the present however, there is a more realistic tone.  As a child, Sanders was fearful of his father and felt that his father’s drinking problems were his own fault.  However, as an adult, Sanders realizes that the drinking was not his fault and tells readers a separate story about his own drinking.  The difference between childhood and adulthood shines through in the two tones of the piece and is what keeps the audience from falling asleep.

The amount of pressure Sanders felt he was under, even as a little boy, is something everyone can unfortunately connect with.  This connect is one of Sander’s appeal to pathos.  Sanders invokes a sense of sypathy for himself when talking about how much he felt like a failure.  This piece is so powerful because it is something a lot of people can relate to.  It would have been enough to tell his story about an alcoholic father for people to relate to, but Sanders went further and talked about how he felt it was his fault.  Sanders talks about the immense burden he felt when he states, “I was flung back into boyhood, acting as though my father would not drink himself to death if only I were perfect.”

–Samantha Smith

The word that Sanders used to describe his dad is “father”. There are dozens of words to describe one’s paternal figure, and “father” is the most impersonal. This speaks volumes because it sums up their relationship in one commonly-used word. A father is someone who donated sperm, but a dad is someone who was there to raise his child.

Sanders develops a strong sense of context in the beginning of the essay. Not only does he include dated objects into the story, such as his father’s 1951 Pontiac, but he includes dialogue that seems dated for the present day. For example, the first thing Sanders’ father says is “What’s up, buddy?”. The use of context in Sanders’ essay is important because without a timestamp, his family dynamic would not have been accurate. In the 1950’s, it was common for a women to hide her husband’s faults from her church/church friends out of fear of being judged. However, in 2017, women are not typically expected to hide their husband’s discretions from the church.

A quote that really stuck out to me is “Why can’t a free man drink one beer after a lifetime of hard work? and I see his arm reaching, his fingers closing, the can tilting to his lips… I watch the amber liquid pour down his throat, the alcohol steal into his blood, the key turn in his brain.” Sanders says this when his father is in the hospital. The key phrase within this paragraph is “free man”. It’s a juxtaposition because although Sanders’ father is a free man by law, he is completely under the will of alcohol. I loved this quote because it’s a great example of people ignoring all meanings of a word. Sanders’ father proved that it’s possible to be free, but not free at all.

-Lauren Wetsch


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