David Foster Wallace and Addiction and Recovery (and History)

Maria Bustillos, of TheAwl.com has written a thoughtful (long) commentary on the collection of carefully read, highlighted, and annotated recovery/self-help books in the newly opened David Foster Wallace Papers at UT Austin’s Harry Ransom Center.  Her  well-documented essay addresses a question about which there has been much speculation since DFW’s suicide in 2008: did he identify as a recovering alcoholic/addict, or was he simply interested in that world?  Combing through interviews, historical evidence, and the annotations in books by well-known recovery authors like Ernie Kurtz and John Bradshaw,

Granada-- or Ennet-- House

Bastillos’ answer is yes: Wallace did see himself as an addict in recovery, and Boston’s well-known 12-Step-based Granada House is indeed the model for Ennet House, the scene of a significant portion of the action in his 1996 novel Infinite Jest.

Full consideration of Wallace’s simultaneous engagement with 12-Step earnestness and postmodern irony is beyond the scope of this blog.  Points readers might, however, be interested in Infinite Jest’s depiction of what is frequently referred to as “black belt AA”: a version of the recovery program  that adheres very closely to the fellowships 12 Steps and 12 Traditions, without much tolerance for “pop” psychologizing, which is often seen as an occasion for “stinkin’ thinkin.'”  Pomo highbrows will be combing the DFW archive at UT for the foreseeable future– sometimes to good effect, as in Bustillos’s piece, but probably sometimes not.  Is it insane to hope that excitement about this archive will result in some spillover effects in the form of serious research into the history– or histories– of Alcoholics Anonymous?

7 thoughts on “David Foster Wallace and Addiction and Recovery (and History)”

  1. The ‘spillover effects’ would be welcome. This could sure open up new vistas of understanding about addiction and recovery and possibly throw more light on understanding the fellowship and its various aspects through the lens of a recovering addict.

  2. I have a general policy against puffing my own work, but in this case I’ll allow it on the grounds that it not only responds to your comment, but also draws attention to The Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, the fine traditional journal of Points‘ mothership, the Alcohol and Drugs History Society. My article in SHAD 19,”Print Culture in the AA Fellowship,” talks some about the development of different strains of AA; you can find it in pdf form at http://historyofalcoholanddrugs.typepad.com/alcohol_and_drugs_history/2008/09/david-foster–1.html. I cover similar territory in my book— but again, in pretty general terms. This issue is just beginning to be explored, I think.

  3. Prof Travis,

    When I first (cursorily) read your Loh, up through about Chap 5, I kept thinking, “This could be re-titled Lor, or Language Of Recovery, meaning, quite literally, “the LANGUAGE of addiction and recovery.” Of course, “recovery people” are often abnormally preoccupied with language per se; definitions sometimes seem to obscure any/all viable connotations. I believe that language (reads “syntax”) to some extent was indeed implicit in Bill W’s original. Therefore I may have been marginally confused.

    FTTB, there’s a stony silence that surrounds your Loh. I think that’s in part because of a category confusion.

    Here’s a for instance:

    Twenty-Four Hours A Day
    “A.A. Thought For The Day

    The Alcoholics Anonymous program has borrowed from medicine,
    psychiatry, and religion. It has taken from these what it wanted and
    combined them into the program which it considers best suited to the
    alcoholic mind and which will best help the alcoholic to recover. The
    results have been very satisfactory. We do not try to improve on the
    A.A. program. Its value has been proved by the success it has had in
    helping thousands of alcoholics to recover. It has everything we
    alcoholics need to arrest our illness. Do I try to follow the A.A.
    program just as it is?

    Meditation For The Day

    You should strive for a union between your purposes in life and the
    purposes of the Divine Principle directing the universe. There is no
    bond of union on earth to compare with the union between a human
    soul and God. Priceless beyond all earth’s rewards is that union. In
    merging your heart and mind with the heart and mind of the Higher
    Power, a oneness of purpose results, which only those who experience
    it can even dimly realize. That oneness of purpose puts you in harmony
    with God and with all others who are trying to do His will.

    Prayer For The Day

    I pray that I may become attuned to the will of God. I pray that I may
    be in harmony with the music of the spheres.” -Hazelden

    Prof Travis, I think that this particular Twenty-Four Hours comes from somewhere around August. But if you ask me, “I pray that I may be in harmony with the music of the spheres,” in all seriousness, sounds not unlike, “I’ll consult an astrologer before I visit the lavatory (reads ‘take a crap’).”

    My favorite line from your book thus far: “At the same time, for radicals who believe that the most potent structures of oppression work within the mind rather than outside it, institutional reform can seem like just so much shuffling of the deck chairs on the Titanic.” True.

    I might only add, “If it weren’t for the centrist, there wouldn’t even BE a radix.” I don’t properly know what a radical or centrist actually IS; I have only a vague inkling of what proper philosophical presuppositions are. I think that’s enough.

    I guess, since I’m in possession of at least one of his texts, I’m at liberty to quote another, Gordon Melton, without spilling the beans:

    “Some of my colleagues in religious studies have complained of a sense of boredom. They tell me that nothing new has been said in their sub-discipline in recent years, even recent decades. We in New Religions Studies have no such problem. We have a monstrous landscape of unplowed [sic] pasture and new land coming into view with each acre that is cultivated. We can be secure in one fact, we will not run out of topics for our research in the lifetime of any of us here.” -J. Gordon Melton (The Rise of the Study of New Religions – Preliminary version © J. Gordon Melton, 1999)

    What I propose is: that you’ve (again) begun to unearth – and it struck me after I’d let go of my “language” fixation that topography was the thrust of Loh – the cartography of a fairly monstrous landscape of unploughed pasture. Prof Melton was apparently bereft of spell-check, but the coinage is still his.

    The provenance of AA is not a dispassionate recounting of history. No legitimate history ever is. Nietzsche wrote, in his Zarathustra, and I can quote nearly 100% verbatim, that “Scholars are sterile. They lack faith. They ignore the astral signs. They lack faith in faith itself.”

    The first portion (half) of Loh began to strike me as droll. But I was premature. Only towards the end of Chap 5 and into Chap 6 did things really get going. That’s where the writing with passion begins, and passion entails faith – even if nothing more than faith in faith – which may be most important of all; for instance Alternative Medicine and American Religious Life (Fuller, 1989), even though treating of AA fairly extensively, IGNORES the fact that Bill and Lois Wilson were married in the Swedenborg Church – that Lois’ grandfather was a Swedenborg minister. Is that to be called “scholarship?”

    I don’t think it makes sense to dwell exclusively upon what would be considered controversial. Nonetheless. There’s something to be said for incitement.

    We have from “The Haunting: Cultural Studies, Religion and Alternative Therapies”
    © Ruth Barcan and Jay Johnston:
    “Given both this multi-disciplinary academic attention and the weight of popular interest in these [‘Alternative’ or ‘New Age’] practices worldwide, it is a surprise to realize that there is a relative paucity of studies examining them from a cultural perspective. Cultural studies, in particular, has had very little to say about the New Age/therapy/alternative health cluster. This is part of the much broader exclusion of religion and spirituality from cultural studies analyses…There are, of course, exceptions, most of them biting critiques. Susan Sontag’s famous attack on metaphysical views of illness in Illness as Metaphor, while not situated within cultural studies, has been influential (see, for example, a sympathetic critique of it in Stacey). Rosalind Coward’s thorough critique of the concepts of nature and wholeness that underpin alternative health practices (The Whole Truth) and Andrew Ross’s analysis of New Age philosophy’s paradoxical relation to scientific rationality (Strange Weather) are two other important contributions. Self-help culture seems to have received more attention than alternative health practices (e.g. Kaminer, Lichterman, Rimke, Rose)—a paradoxical situation, given cultural studies’ traditional skepticism about psychology and its interest in the body…By and large, though, alternative therapies seem to have escaped the attention of mainstream cultural studies, whether as medical, bodily, or spiritual technologies. They have certainly escaped the celebratory attention it has accorded most popular cultural practices over the last few decades. As Wendy Parkins has argued, even the self-help genre (which is, perhaps, the best represented of the New Age/alternative health /therapy cluster within cultural studies) has probably received insufficient academic attention so far and the attention it has received has tended to be negative or wary at best’ (146). To take just a few examples: for Rimke, the public sphere and public responsibility ‘are negated by a life of self-help’ (73); for Coward, the emphasis on personal responsibility ‘rarely generates political empowerment’ (204); for Root, ‘much of the New Age seems almost deliberately to leave itself open to ridicule’ (87)3; for Ross, the New Age’s emphasis on either individual or universal goals means that, of necessity, it forsakes the goals of social growth (74); for Miller and McHoul, intuition, a core New Age/alternative concept, ‘is no more than the inference-making machine used by every member of “rational society”‘(126)…If alternative therapies have escaped the celebratory attention that typifies much cultural studies work, they have also largely not been accorded the detailed, contextual, localized studies that have characterized the best of cultural studies work. Some studies see them as part of sweeping social changes, such as the rise of narcissism (Lasch), while many others have chosen to focus on what diverse therapies share, rather than to analyse particular practices separately, let alone specific communities or contexts of users and uses.4 Lichterman’s study of a particular community of self-help readers is a rare exception to this tendency to generalize or aggregate.5”

    In any case, both Barcan et. al and Travis cite Lasch and Parkins and Sontag (Travis later in Loh) which is more than coincidental IMO beings monographs can and have been written concerning the apparent “overlap of the lacunae,” for lack of a better expression, which might not be so obvious to the naked eye. Absent saying much explicitly, and intentionally, just thinking out loud, “note to self” or “food for thought” is all…apologies. Anyhow, I’m only about 3/4 finished with Professor Travis’ Loh, so I’m also mapping out the [her] territory, which thankfully is also something she has (expressly) done…From the overleaf, page 10 of her sample chapter: “Only a handful of academic researchers…have shared AA historians’ interest in giving sustained attention to the evolution of AA or its offshoots or sought fully to historicize the origins and development of the broader recovery culture to which they gave rise. Such historicizing is the goal of this book.” Necessarily, there must be a series of expeditions? Isn’t that fair? New worlds to roam? New civilizations to conquer? Personally, I like the idea.

    One begins to wonder: Is AA proper truly peripheral to New Age religiosity? If New Age forms an AA tributary, then has Travis successfully identified where and when the many AA counter-currents (recovery movements) diverge? And How they do so? And more pointedly, Why? Which are yet to be adequately mapped? Is “recovery-infused popular culture” (a la Travis) truly New Thought? Naturally, none of the answers are cut-and-dried, as she has begun to diagnose, but those questions are very much worth asking, and one of her answers is provocative to say the least:
    “…Winfrey’s is the most ‘religious’ version of recovery to
    receive widespread attention since Bill Wilson’s
    ‘alcoholic squad’ split from the Oxford Group in 1937.
    Where it differs is in its theology. To a base of 12-Step
    and feminist/womanist insights, Winfrey has added a
    significant dose of New Thought religiosity,
    foregrounding the mystical spirituality that has hovered
    in the background of recovery culture from the time
    that Wilson and Dr. Bob attended weekly ‘spook
    sessions’ together. New Thought’s belief in the divine
    within, the power of thought to shape reality, and the
    interconnectedness of human, divine, and cosmic
    life—all the things that fascinated Wilson and Smith,
    Richmond Walker, Marty Mann, Karen Casey, and Jean
    Kirkpatrick (to name just a few)—have become for
    Winfrey the organizing and central principles of
    recovery rather than simply its grace notes…”

    Now from Kurtz’ (© 1979) [subtitled] History of AA [titled] Not-God:
    “‘AA isn’t fool proof, and never can be.’ Some of the more timorous among AA’s trustees felt that after 1955 Bill Wilson himself had sent out to disprove at least one sense of this axiom. They – and he – carefully shielded from public scrutiny three areas among the cofounder’s many activities…The three areas were Wilson’s [and PIO indicates AA cofounder Bob Smith’s] interest in spiritualism, his experimentation with LSD, and his promotion of Vitamin B-3 therapy…Little is known concerning Wilson’s personal experimentation with LSD beyond the fact that it certainly occurred.6 ”

    To the “student” of history, a portion of the endnote (6) provided in N-G is telling: “The Hoffer and Osmond correspondences are closed to citation.” Are they still?

    Since Kurtz we’ve seen, from Bill W (© 2000 Francis Hartigan) pgs 178-79:

    “When Bill took LSD, use of the drug was legal. He first took it as a participant in medically supervised experiments with Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley in California in the 1950’s…Sam Shoemaker wrote to Bill about the wholehearted endorsement of LSD experimentation by an Episcopal bishop, and Wilson wrote to Carl Jung, praising the results obtained with LSD and recommending it as a validation of Jung’s spiritual work. (Word was received of Jung’s death, and the letter was never sent.)… Wilson is thought to have continued experimenting with LSD well into the 1960s…Bill agreed with Huxley’s assessment of LSD’s power to open the ‘doors of perception.’ He described his first experience of the substance’s effect as being akin to what he had experienced in Towns Hospital the night his obsession with alcohol was lifted.”

    All that being said, last night (roughly a fortnight ago) was the distinguished CNN debut of _Dr. Drew_, preceded by _Dr. Drew, The Interview_ with the robust (no pun) reactions of Robin Meade. My handwritten notes included: “I’m interested in changing the culture in a healthy way: you’ve GOT to learn this stuff if you’re [ever!?] going to change,” says Dr. Drew, “I’ve had the opportunity to use media to move things in a healthy direction.” He opines on his (surreptitious/interventions) [or “12th-stepping?”] that “The richness that comes out of treating it [addiction] makes ME better…to me addiction is THE problem of our time!” -From Dr Drew: The HLN Interview with Robin Meade 2011.

    In this HLN segment Drew also feels qualified to vigorously reinforce his [TV] diagnosis of [Charlie Sheen as] “hypomanic.” He says “It’s pretty easy,” because “I know the difference between what’s healthy and what’s not…but eventually I’ll see them [i.e., addicts formerly in denial, in treatment/therapy].”

    What strikes me (and has struck me in the month since my initial perusal of Loh) is that perhaps Oprah has ceded the “general” recovery mantle to a) Jane Valez-Mitchell and b) Dr. Drew, insofar as the “therapeutic/professional” branch has begun to (again?) outshine “recovery-infused” exponents (whom are both primarily distinguished from bonafide 12-steppers, or “addicts in recovery”). Reasons? Perhaps many.

    Also, one can’t help but wonder if preoccupation with the disease “concept” obscures the symptoms: “chronic, progressive, and fatal,” whose implications, i.e., “ends are always the same, jails, institutions, and death [or Dr. Drews’ couch?]” Aside from that, Drew quickly becomes “the ubiquitous one,” or recovery-infused CNN, rather, the “liberal-infused-recovery-network,” with plenty of “opinions on outside issues,” were it not for Fox News Glen Beck’s brazen [lack of] “anonymity at the level of press, radio, and film.” In the words of Van Morrison (Brown Eyed Girl), “AA is ANYTHING but anonymous.” I wonder if it would surprise Dr. Drew that Bill W. did not attended AA regularly in his waning years, and not due to disability, or if it would surprise any besides Ernest Kurtz that careful reading of the original LOH yields a conundrum; Kurtz’ transcript of a Bill W. letter in N-G states, “Since I have begun to pray that God may release me from absolute dependence upon anybody, upon anything, or any set of circumstances whatsoever, I have begun to do so much better…”, although the (one) published LOH version claims, “I found I had to exert every ounce of will and action to cut off these faulty dependencies upon people, upon AA, indeed, upon any set of circumstances whatsoever. Then only could I be free to love…”

    Interesting. What would Dr. Drew think? He’s fond of “diagnosing” the symptoms of the untreated “self-will-run-riot” (dry-drunk), but in Bill W.’s case, did he have “to exert every ounce of [self]will[run riot?] and action to cut off these faulty [AA!?] dependencies?” Or, contrariwise, would Drew attribute Bill’s “release from AA dependence” to prayer (i.e., the grace of God) or perhaps “service to others.”
    One might hope that such “legalistic mapping” (means brute force exegesis) could be forgiven in light of a careful examination of the Language of recovery (Lor). However, it seems that Travis’ aim isn’t necessarily an explication of 12-step philosophy, in favor of an emphasis on “post 12-step theory” and praxis geared toward cultural innovation; however, inescapable is the philosophical ground – or in some cases an apparent lack thereof – in a language that sets the wheels in motion. The implications for the expression of other “types of recovery” are less transparent. Those taken together might comprise an expression of “freedom from unnatural/unhealthy dependence” (upon AA as well!) especially when viewed from Bill W.’s very overtly and expressly “wholistic” or “holistic” mind/body/spirit or mind/body/self-help (mutual-aid) tripartite perspective. “When will AA begin to treat the whole person?” is adduced from another of Wilson’s letters in Kurtz’ N-G.

    *When will academia begin to treat the whole recovery movement?*

    *Including AA vernacular for starters?

    For example: AA vernacular has it: “Once you’re a pickle, you’ll never go back to being a cucumber,” i.e., “Once recoverING, always recoverING, even though the very subtitle of the AA basic text, Alcoholics Anonymous, is “The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have RecoverED From Alcoholism. Judging by its appearance, the title of a textbook or how-to “manual” ought to convey something of the philosophical ground, the requisite technique(s), and the desired outcome – in the language, I mean, or at least try to avoid confusion. If it says in the past tense, then hopefully it means it.

    From Ringwald’s (@ 2002) The Soul of Recovery : “A man recalled for me complaining, early in his recovery, that the AA program amounted to brainwashing. His leathery sponsor shot back, ‘If anything needs washing, it’s your brain.'”
    Using the principle of substitution, which is entirely appropriate; “A man recalled for me complaining, early in his recovery, that he wasn’t sure if he believed in a higher power. His “Traditionalist” (a la Travis) leathery sponsor shot back, ‘If anything needs to be said, it’s that, THERE IS A GOD – AND YOU’RE NOT HIM!'”

    Am I the only one who sees the irony that the only “comprehensive,” scholarly AA history book is called Not-God, yet NEVER mentions the above AA slogan? Trysh? ANYBODY?

    Needless to say, I don’t watch Oprah with any frequency, but I’m duly impressed by Prof Travis’ work. I’d have written it myself if I hadn’t written another – The Truth About AA: Recovery & the Zodiac in the New Age © Paul Petersen (in two volumes).

    Only the manuscript to the first volume, simply called Recovery & the Zodiac © Paul Petersen is fully complete. Trysh’s work seriously incites the completion of volume two. I think one must have some “believer” (or at least heretic) in one’s self to lend passion to these kinds of writing. Presently, I haven’t any strong inclinations “pro” or “contra” AA, “Traditionalist,” “GSO,” or else-wise, or the Recovery Movement(s) in general. There was a time (and there still may be) when I’d considered a chapter “Confessions of an AA Heretic,” but I strongly suspect that “It works if you work it.” Kind of like just about any form of dance. But you’ve got to “work it,” ya dig?


  4. PS
    I may have meant ‘slight category confusion possible’ because some of the categories are still fluid…meant to say there’s lots not being said…the long Ruth Barcan and Jay Johnston citation above tries to speak to (some) of that (on an impersonal level).

    Meant to say it took courage (the good kind) for Trysh to write Loh.

    I think it either takes lots of courage, or gall, or both, to write most books.

    The recent PBS Mark Twain history TV show is really something. In many respects it is a show about (financial) “obsession,” and claims, rather overtly, that a literary history in the US more or less begins with Clemons. I believe that’s an oversight – to ignore Melville – whose masterwork was (at least) about – you guessed it obsession. I’m not saying that’s (obsession is) a master narrative. But it is worth saying there does seem to be a “human condition,” and there also seems to be a prevalent attempt at an “antidote.”

    What “inspired” me to comment at THIS juncture was:
    http://www.pbs.org/wnet/tavissmiley/archive/201104/20110407_king.html?vid=1873522991#video as well as the mention of the David Foster Wallace (Addiction and Recovery related portion of his) archives.

    If you read between the lines, “Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure” by Tavis may read a little bit like the Recovery Movement master narrative. The other possibility is that I watch too much infotainment TV.

    For instance:

    “Tavis: No, you don’t encourage it, but you can’t avoid it, either. The truth of the matter is anyone who’s successful, I think, Larry, in any field of human endeavor, if they’re being honest, will tell you they’ve learned much more from their failures than they ever learned from their successes. The problem is when you get to be Larry King or Tavis Smiley or whoever, nobody wants to show their warts [obsessions?].”

  5. Last Thought…

    “We don’t think our way to right action, we act our way to right thinking.”
    -AA vernacular

    How common or prevalent that type of vernacular is in AA meetings in The States would be difficult to ascertain. My own personal belief is that it’s very widespread.

    Whenever New Thought is considered as “influential” upon AA (in the broadest possible sense) it almost always has to be weighed against this persistent colloquialism. OTOH, when considering a “Bill W. type AA,” – in action if not thought – almost anything is possible. It would be fairly interesting to determine how many AA’s well versed in (post 2000?) general AA history would regard Bill W. as a truly reliable “role model.” Might it even be legitimately argued that the very plasticity of the “GSO” (a la Travis) model evolved in response to Bill’s own personage? That begs the question of whether Travis’ “Traditionalist” and “GSO” mappings are categorically correct, even remotely so. If anything, I’m struck by the New Age or New Thought leanings of non-Conference Approved AA literature more than any, which in the light of the “Huxley-infused Bill W.” and “perennial wisdom” he seemed to endorse, renders extremely ironic. And that provokes further review of Kurtz’ Not-God, which analyzes AA in the context of the history of religious ideas – as most historical instincts would dictate.

    I think that it would be fair to guestimate that AA (and the broader Recovery Movement) have changed, and are changing, the modes of study – including ethnography and cultural history, not to mention religious history. How many “alternative” religion scholars are aware that Peter and Eileen Caddy, co-founders of the Findhorn community, “the most important New Age centre on the planet,” (Bloom, 1991) actually met one another in the MRA (Oxford Group)? Apparently, “Caddy had been courted by Eileen’s [then] husband husband for recruitment to MRA following the publication of a short essay he had written calling for ‘spiritual as well as military rearmament of the nation’ and invoking Jesus Christ as a ‘model leader.'” (Caddy, 1996, Sutcliffe, 2003)

    AA history provides access (a la Access to Western Esotericism by Antoine Faivre) to so much: esotericism, occultism, ethnography, cultural history, and the history of (new) religions, to name a few. The extant categories, or rather, models to mapping AA history are finite; the possible models myriad. Perhaps something similar could be said of the Recovery Movement(s): for this reason Travis’ Loh is important – and Gordon Melton is still correct? … Aldous Huxley called Bill W. “The greatest social architect of our time.” Gordon Melton has referred to the 12 Traditions (almost verbatim) as “the only successful incidence of pure anarchy that has ever existed.”

    Whatever else could said, there was A LOT of “proto-New Age” going on in Bill Wilson’s head.

  6. I had to sleep on it, for a few hours.

    With Trysh Travis, it is finally possible to speak legitimately of a (the) RECOVERY MILIEU; this is the same as the pluralization of Recovery Movement: whether or not something similar can be said of a “feminist recovery philosophy” remains to be seen, perhaps. I need to finish her book – like anyone genuinely interested in the decidedly American Recovery Mileiu.

    I think it should also be possible to speak of a BRITISH NEW AGE INVASION.

    “Historicizing,” yes, that’s the spirit of the thing. It STARTED with an “Oxford” group, no?


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