Teaching Drugs and Alcohol II: Gene Heyman’s Socratic Method

Following up on last week’s exploration of how an undergraduate class grapples with the complex interdisciplinary construct of “addiction narrative,” guest blogger Eoin Cannon talks about how his students defended the “truthiness” of the disease concept against the choice-based model advanced by psychologist Gene Heyman.

In my last post I discussed one of the challenges of teaching about alcohol, drugs, and addiction in the humanities: dealing with the often intense– and rapidly changing– experiences, beliefs, and discursive habits that undergraduates bring to the classroom. I talked about using my course’s topic of “addiction narrative” as a comparative category, one that would allow students to gain critical distance from the language they already used for talking about addiction, as well as from the discourses I was introducing them to.

Where did They Get that Pop Therapy Discourse?

But this strategy worked better for some texts than others; I found especially that when we read contemporary memoirs, students would reach more automatically for the language and values of popular therapeutic culture.  Here I’ll describe how one addiction scholar’s visit to my classroom helped push back against this tendency in a way that shed light on how disease-model claims slide back and forth between scientific and therapeutic registers.

Gene Heyman’s 2009 book Addiction: A Disorder of Choice was one of the scientific texts we scrutinized in class, looking both at the ways it incorporates narratives of individual lives and at how it invites us to read such narratives in the future. Heyman’s argues that addiction is not constituted by a passage from voluntary into involuntary behavior (i.e., into brain disease), but can be understood entirely as a problem of faulty choice-making. Though the meat of his argument is found in a quantitative model of voluntary behavior, early in the book Heyman quotes from several drug users’ narratives to illustrate the role of choice at each stage of addiction.

The book came to my attention in a series of press and radio interviews Heyman did, which surprised me for the easygoing way the interviewers were willing to set aside the disease model to consider his arguments. I had been operating under the assumption that the disease concept had reached a kind of sacred cow status, in both popular culture and in the increasingly neurology-influenced psychological sciences. Knowing that Heyman worked near my own institution, I invited him to visit my class, and he graciously agreed.

Read more