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Drinker, Failed and Former Spy
The Man Who Came to Breakfast

By Rich McManus

On the Front Page...

Sometimes, the mission of the National Institutes of Health is carried out by the most unlikely of emissaries.

About 10 years ago, an older gentleman began turning up on campus, generally in the vicinity of Bldg. 31's cafeteria. Despite his advanced years, and an attire that spoke more of leisure than of employment, he seemed appropriate to the scientific setting, perhaps an ex-researcher or retiree who lived nearby and took his meals here out of simple convenience.


He would typically be alone, and as he made his way along the corridors one could detect an intelligence in him, despite his silence, given away by a habit of inspecting his surroundings with curious eyes, eyes that looked around faintly bemusedly, as if owned by an alien who was seeing earthly things for the first time.

Allen Anderson
But there was also a forbidding quality; he never seemed to socialize with or know anyone, and people seemed to give him room.

Told how he appears to others, Allen Anderson curls up in helpless laughter. It is too funny to him that anyone could have constructed such a groundless biography. The retiree part, and the convenience of decent food are true enough, but he's no distracted ex-scientist here simply for the good pasturage. No, as an NIH volunteer substance abuse counselor, he's here to save lives and bring hope. He's a man on a mission.

Goodbye, North Dakota

Anderson was born 74 years ago in Minot, North Dakota, a place he says he had "sense enough to get out of." His parents, he recalls, "were hard-working honest people," and he was raised in the Episcopalian church. His dad was superintendent of production at a bakery and his mom worked at Minot Steam Laundry.

Bored by rural life, Anderson was nonetheless an excellent student, and graduated summa cum laude from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., with a degree in languages and history. Offered a Fulbright scholarship to study in France, he turned it down, confident he'd end up in France one way or another. He enrolled in graduate school at the University of Minnesota, and earned a master's degree in French and Spanish, combined with political science/international relations.

When it came time to look for a job, Anderson sought a government career and applied to the Central Intelligence Agency, which took him aboard in its Clandestine Services side. He almost failed his security clearance interview, however, when he admitted that he had attended meetings of the Communist Party while a student at Minnesota. It turns out he attended at the behest of the FBI; he had called them to complain that Reds were on campus, and the FBI had asked him to turn informant.

Anderson was sent to "isolation" for CIA training and indoctrination, which took place at Camp Perry outside Williamsburg, Va. There he learned to handle a sidearm and was taught "the tradecraft to be a field case officer in France."

Spookdom Exacts a Price

He can't talk about the next 6 years of his life; he swore upon leaving the CIA not to, though other alumni, he observes ruefully, have profited from memoirs they wrote about their experiences. He wrote one, too, but put it aside for fear of retribution.

What he can say about those spy years is this: the stress of clandestine service led to heavy drinking, usually Scotch, usually "the minute I left work." He was a solitary drinker, not a party boy, and would sometimes come to his senses after having roamed all night on foot, with no memory of where he had been. Awakening one morning at the U.S. Embassy, face down, pistol in his hand, and the office safe wide open, he realized that he was out of control. The Russian spies in town "never caught on to the fact that I was a full-blown alcoholic," he says. "Had they known, they could have exploited me easily. But they were deep in their own vodka."

Anderson had begun drinking in his mid-teens, mainly out of boredom, "but maybe also some feelings of inferiority. It was an escape, a buzz." He found later in life that his dad had been a heavy drinker, given to uncontrollable rages while drunk, but who had quit upon marrying.

Anderson had been asked, while applying to the CIA, if he had any problems with drink, but said no, and the polygraph registered an honest answer. He muses, "I thought everyone drank the way I did."

Allen Anderson says he knows "a legion of people at NIH — more than I think I knew when I was actually working in the federal government." His license plate reads "AA-1963" to commemorate the year he quit drinking. He calls himself the "un-anonymous" alcoholic — even his initials are AA. But, he says, "The tragedy of alcoholism isn't what it does to the alcoholic, but what it does to innocent, blameless loved ones."

He left the CIA "a full-blown drunk," plagued by blackouts and admittedly out of touch with reality. "They put me on a plane back home, took my gun away, but they didn't fire me," he recalls. Convinced he needed a weapon, Anderson bought a revolver, then took a plane back to St. Paul, where he had friends from grad school days.

"The CIA alerted its domestic security office about my disappearance," he recalls, "and issued a lookout for me, describing me as homicidal, suicidal, armed and dangerous. And they were right."

It turns out that the chief of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota had been an officer in the OSS, the precursor to the CIA, and he had Anderson locked up, twice, in the psych ward at the school's Mayo Center. But Anderson would resume drinking upon release, and eventually wore out his welcome not only with his friends in St. Paul, but also with his exasperated parents in Minot, where he had sought refuge.

The Road to Hell

Anderson returned to D.C., and was again admitted to a locked detoxification facility. Out on the street again, he found himself in a downtown YMCA on a muggy morning in September 1963, jobless and down to his last few hundred dollars. He saw a tavern across the street and yearned for a drink, but found himself uttering to an empty room, "God, I give up." And from that day to this, he hasn't had a drop of alcohol, a transformation he calls miraculous. "Forty years straight," he says, then knocks on the wood of a nearby desk.

He went to his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Georgetown — sitting on his hands to quell their shaking — where a laborer named Frank, his first sponsor in AA, blasted him with tough love. "I was so conceited," Anderson recalls. "Here I was a summa grad of Macalester, a Fulbright, and this house painter was telling me what to do. I couldn't stand the [guy].

"They (the AA's he met) weren't very genteel about it," remembers Anderson, who despite years of active alcoholism, followed by a traumatic brain injury suffered in a car crash in 1973, a heart attack in 1999, and a long bout with multiple sclerosis that began in 1976 and is now in its penultimate stage, remains erudite, lapsing occasionally into French, and even Yiddish (he had roomed with a Jewish family while in Minnesota). "The AA's attitude was, 'Do what we tell you and you'll get better.' None of this sweet talk. And that's what I needed."

Newly sober, Anderson got a job working security for the Commerce Department; the CIA had never disclosed the reason for his separation. He attended near-daily AA meetings for 6 years, then realized that "if I didn't find something in addition to AA, my sobriety probably wouldn't last."

He had no use for psychiatrists — he had been to them in the past and "hell, they couldn't do anything" (though he would later have a long-term relationship with a woman who practiced psychotherapy). So Anderson attended a meeting of Al-Anon, an organization founded 16 years after Alcoholics Anonymous that, like AA, relies on a 12-step recovery process, but is aimed at the family and friends of the alcoholic rather than the drinker himself. The meeting was at Wheaton's Hughes United Methodist Church on Georgia Ave., and Anderson found, "By God, this is what I need in addition to AA."

Finding a Mission

The Al-Anon sessions illuminated for him the damage he had done to his family and loved ones. "I couldn't believe the tragedy I had caused my family when I was an active alcoholic," he says. "My parents witnessed the destruction of my total being. It really struck me and has stayed with me ever since."

Anderson retired from a successful 32-year law enforcement career at the end of 1989 — he had topped out at the high end of a GS-14 at the Department of Justice — and moved to an apartment building adjacent to NIH on Battery Ln. on the advice of a friend. "When I moved into the Whitehall, I knew it was next to a big monolithic institution known as NIH. I wondered if it had an AA program, and thought how convenient it would be if it did." An AA brochure indicated that there were meetings on campus, in Bldg. 31, so Anderson began attending, first as a consumer of the service, then as a provider.

Throughout his working career, Anderson had attended AA meetings, sometimes as often as 6 times a week. "I would say to myself every time I went through that door, 'I need help.' And a tenet of the program is that you can't keep it unless you give it away." Today, Anderson attends and helps guide two noontime AA meetings and two noontime Al-Anon meetings at NIH (in an NIAAA conference room, he notes ironically), in addition to sessions he attends at his "home" Al-Anon group at Montgomery Hills Baptist Church ("I've been making coffee there for 25 years.") and at the Del Ray AA club in Bethesda, which now meets on Pearl St.

Between the groups, he has a wide circle of "close, close friends" with whom he keeps in touch either personally, or via email, which he only discovered a few years ago but which has become a lifeline, particularly as MS has ravaged his body. He especially credits NIAAA and the Employee Assistance Program as helpful to his stated goal as a campus volunteer: "My mission is to do what I can to bring hope to individuals whose lives have been affected adversely by alcoholism."

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