In 1970, four recovering drug addicts, disillusioned with their treatment at U.S. Public Health Service Hospital – aka The Narcotic Farm – started their own drug-free support group. With their pledges to stay clean through a self-motivated “heal thyself” credo, the four men quickly caught the attention of The Narcotic Farm’s lead administrator, Dr. Harold Conrad. A rising star within public health’s Washington Beltway coterie, Conrad had been sent to Lexington to shunt the institution’s mission, which had been dramatically altered by a major change in the drug laws brought about by the Narcotic Addict Rehabilitation Act, or NARA.
During the NARA years, addicts who committed felonies but were deemed by judges to be good rehabilitation prospects were allowed to enroll in federal drug treatment programs to avoid going to prison.
In 1966 Congress passed the Narcotic Addict Rehabilitation Act, a wholesale rethinking of the treatment of drug offenders. NARA rested on a forced marriage between the Bureau of Prisons, the Attorney General, and the Surgeon General. The law gave judges back discretion in sentencing. They could go for voluntary commitment, commitment in lieu of prosecution, or send offenders to aftercare.
To this day NARA remains a singular attempt to minimize criminal penalties for drug use at the federal level. For addicts, NARA was huge. Overnight incarcerated addicts became eligible for status and benefits as NARA clients. Once assessed, good rehab prospects were remanded to their hometown treatment facility. And if there was no treatment back where they came from, the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) would find an agency to provide it.
Editor’s note: Following on his recent post about plagiarist Jonah Lehrer, guest blogger Stanton Peele continues his critical review of mis-spent ink on addiction science in distinguished publications by recalling additional examples. Stanton may be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/speele5.
Jonah Lehrer’s imaginative, stylized, baseless view of neuroscience and its relationship to creativity and other cognitive functions was welcomed in seminal science blogs for Wired and The New Yorker, but also at the world’s leading scientific journal, Nature, because it corresponds with their own facile but incorrect views. Given not only the highly speculative and inaccurate nature of much of Lehrer’s writing, his lying about sources, and his alleged personality defects, we might wonder what about his pedigree justified his appearance at perhaps the premier spokesperson in our era for the new brain science.
The answer: He provided lame justification for the au courant scientific meme that neuroscience accounts (not might account) for much of human behavior. That these publications are slavishly, uncritically devoted to this meme might seem remarkable, unless one considers science – certainly popular science, but actually much more – to be merely another culturally determined social institution (the constructivist viewpoint). Today this means they are agit-prop for the most untenable, reductive claims made for modern psychiatric science, particularly around addiction and drug use/alcoholism.
I. Lehrer’s Nature Blog
Lehrer actually wrote for the leading scientific publication in the world, Nature. I described in my previous post how his editors there seemed completely unperturbed by his fantastic, unbelievable assertions about the mnemonist Shereshevsky. The neuroscientist who pointed out his errors, Daniel Bor, further noted:
[O]n page 100 he writes, “This kind of thinking takes place in the prefrontal cortex, the outermost layer of the frontal lobes.” This is anatomical rubbish–the prefrontal cortex instead, as the name implies, is simply the front-most section of the frontal lobes. Layers have nothing to do with it. I expect such mistakes from less able undergraduate students, who are too lazy to read the first line of the relevant Wikipedia article, but never ever in a respected science book. Then on page 112-3, he writes “the first parts of the brain to evolve–the motor cortex and brain stem.” Where did this come from? The brain stem very probably evolved hundreds of millions of years before the much more recent cortex, which the motor cortex is obviously a part of. So this is completely wrong as well.
What Lehrer knew was that – if you assert it definitively – you can make any behavioral claims you want about the brain. His downfall was occasioned because the same can’t be said about Bob Dylan quotes. Of particular interest to me are similar claims made about addiction in prominent science publications.
Editor’s note: Guest blogger, Stanton Peele, takes aim at errant science writing and its outlets. Stanton may be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/speele5.
Jonah Lehrer, the best-selling author who specialized in reducing artistic endeavors to neurological events, was an important science writer for Wired and The New Yorker, as well as contributing to such leading publications as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times Magazine.
This matters because these publications have played a critical role in the reductionism that pervades American thinking about mental illness and addiction. Our leading scientific journals in America have placed the imprimatur of official scientism on reductionism, a endeavor whose seediness is represented perhaps most clearly by Lehrer. But his published lies really reflect the entire enterprise of reductionism in American science.
As I have noted in the Huffington Post, Lehrer became a runaway best-selling author by making outlandish, unscientific, and obtuse assertions about the nature of the relationship between art and creativity, on the one hand, and neuroscience on the other. This writing amounted essentially to making metaphoric leaps from biographical information (which Lehrer often misstated or made up out of whole cloth) or superficial artistic observations to like-seeming memes in neuroscience (e.g., great novelists describe changes people undergo, we can generate new neurons = miracle association between art, biology, and science).
Lehrer’s personal fate is now of little interest, since, his fabrications and lying revealed, he was fired immediately from his staff position at The New Yorker and his publisher ceased shipment of his runaway best-seller, Imagine: How Creativity Works. But the implications of Lehrer’s intellectual dishonesty and pandering go far beyond his making up quotes, his systematic inaccuracies, and his lies in order to cover these up. Rather, they go to the heart of recent brain science and its massive incomprehension of what psychological science comprises.
Ruminating over the crack era landscape of Oakland, California, scholar Mike Davis noted with passing interest what appeared to be a new phenomenon in his 1990 work, City of Quartz. In past years, Davis commented, aggressive law-and-order demands were “dismissed as the venom of white backlash.” In the crack era, however, a new and unprecedented “Black-lash” emerged. According to Davis this represented a “qualitatively new and disturbing dimension of the war on the underclass” manifested by “the swelling support of Black leadership” for draconian criminal justice responses to the crack problem. Before moving on to other matters of interest, Davis made one more observation which proved prophetic: “The trend is national.”
In Los Angeles, the influential South Central Organizing Committee (SCOC)—a church supported affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF)—became a major voice calling for greater police deployment against drugs and street youth. In New York, the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC) held countless marches, protests, and vigils to demand police initiatives like Operation Pressure Point and the Tactical Narcotics Team (TNT) as well as harsher sentencing. The Reverend Wendell Foster, a member of the city council, co-founded the United Black Church Appeal (UBCA) with his celebrity friends Dick Gregory and Ossie Davis to aid in the crusade against crack. A virtual chorus line of traditional liberal, pro-black voices formed to demand more police and harsher sentencing in order to “take back” their streets from pushers and users. The NWBCCC, in fact, called their campaign against crack in their communities the “take back our streets” campaign for a time.
What surprised Davis, and what should surprise any critical observer is the absence of dissenting opinion. In her work The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander laments that groups like the ACLU and NAACP virtually ignored the move towards incarceration under crack era reform in favor of issues more pertinent to black middle class interests, such as affirmative action. This however, is only part of the problem. The crack era environs of what Davis dubs “Black-lash” also unleashed the fury of prominent minority leaders who typically opposed law-and-order solutions. For example, Congresswoman Maxine Waters—now well known for her attacks on law enforcement—endorsed police sweeps and “street terrorism” laws designed to crackdown on drug-related crime. Black Power advocate Harry Edwards, organizer of the famous 1968 Olympic Project for Human Rights told the San Francisco Focus, “I’m for locking ‘em up, getting ‘em off the street, put ‘em behind bars.” Edwards added further detail on his designs for sentencing: “As long as the law will allow, try to make it as long as possible.”
Editor’s Note: Laura Schmidt is Professor of Health Policy in the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco and the Co-Director of UCSF’s Clinical and Translational Research Institute’s (CTSI) Community Engagement and Health Policy Program. A Phd in Sociology, she also holds Master’s degrees in Public Health and Social Welfare. She is the author of dozens of articles on the complicated interrelationships among gender, race, poverty, addiction, and women’s and family well-being, including (with Constance Weisner) the ground-breaking “The Emergence of Problem-Drinking Women as a Special Population in Need of Treatment,” which tracked the efforts of the Women’s Alcoholism Movement (WAM) to de-stigmatize and fund treatment for female problem drinking (Recent Developments in Alcoholism, Vol 12: Women and Alcoholism, 1995). As part of her project on feminism and addiction, Points editor Trysh Travis talked with Laura Schmidt about the legacies of WAM.
Your article charts the development of women-centered alcoholism treatment within the “special populations” paradigm that emerged with the founding of NIAAA in 1970 (311). Briefly, what’s happened to the notion of “special populations” within the policy and treatment communities?
I think the special populations paradigm is still very much alive and well. In fact, it has expanded into new areas, most notably, the debates around racial/ethnic disparities in addiction treatment, attention to which has actually outpaced that paid to women since early 2000.
The discourse around racial/ethnic disparities has many resonances with the one around women addicts. First, it derives from an equal rights frame, with all the accompanying tensions around defining a socially disadvantaged group as uniquely prone to addiction while attempting to medicalize the problem in an effort to neutralize the stigma. “The Emergence of Problem Drinking Women” argued that two assumptions define a special population: 1) it is ”underserved” in the sense that the need for treatment exceeds the supply, and 2) it has “special needs” for culturally tailored treatments that are currently unmet. Both of these assumptions fundamentally frame the current debate around ethnic disparities in treatment just as they did the Women’s Alcoholism Movement. And as with the special population of women addicts, the data on ethnic disparities in treatment don’t support many of the assumptions underpinning this debate.
Writers’ social groupings feature prominently in literary history, whether in intentional, tightly knit circles, or in more amorphous, but still influential, “scenes.” In some of the more famous sites, the social element has depended on heavy drinking or drug use, not only as a binding ritual, but also as a medium of the intellectual endeavor: opium and absinthe among certain Romantics; heavy drinking by expatriate modernists in Paris; speed and weed among the Beats on both coasts. The point is not about “writing under the influence,” but that these drugs’ rituals and effects symbolized important aspects of those intellectual and artistic systems. Further, writers’ relationships with each other on such scenes influenced their literary outputs, as illustrated by the presence of fictionalized versions of one another in their work. They produced texts that are hard to understand without some knowledge of these relationships and their milieus. Several such scenes have been mined exhaustively by scholars, artists, and fans alike, even living on as reading-and-drinking themed tourist destinations.
But many writers, too, have been changed, as writers, by their recoveries from alcoholism and/or drug addiction. And many also must have done so in conversation with one another. Recovery is a process that tends to take over a person’s life for a time, and change it irrevocably. And especially in its twelve-step varieties, it binds people together in social rituals, through which they develop, somewhat collaboratively, new theories about self, society, and world. In other words, recovery as a social and cultural practice would seem to be the kind of “scene” from which could flow new forms of literary production. Have there been literary recovery circles, and if so, how might we define them? And what might they have to teach us about literature and about addiction?
I’m not talking about private print culture, or therapeutic writing groups, though one can easily imagine published work emerging from such origins. I mean relationships among vocational writers that are informed strongly by their recoveries, relationships which shape their subsequent writings. This is not a phenomenon that I have researched closely, nor that I have any strong theories about. Here I want merely to trace one such set of textual “recovery relationships” and discuss briefly what significance they might hold. One fairly jumps off the pages of Mary Karr’s 2009 recovery memoir, Lit.