Although I found many points with which I agreed, I was very disappointed in Stanton Peele's failure to distinguish between Alcoholics Anonymous and the addiction treatment industry ("Control Yourself," Feb.). There is much within the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous that libertarians can easily resonate with. Alcoholics Anonymous is a self-help, peer support network that does not rely on leaders, elites, or centralized control. Each group and ultimately each individual takes from the program what he or she finds most valuable for their own healing process.
These programs have a quite different orientation from the disease model Peele discusses and criticizes in his article. A. A. certainly does not require or encourage one to abdicate all responsibility for one's behavior. Nor are people encouraged to place themselves in the hands of medical professionals, becoming passive and taking no further responsibility for their own recovery. On the contrary, after admitting one's powerlessness over the effects of addiction in Step 1, people are encouraged to turn their lives over to the care of God in Step 3. Peele fails to mention Step 4, in which "We took a fearless and searching moral inventory of ourselves," or Step 9, in which "We made direct amends to all those we had harmed, except where to do so would cause harm to them or to others." These steps are designed to assist people in the monumental and life-long task of being accountable for their own behavior. In short, the 12 Steps are a long way from the "excuse for addiction and addictive misbehavior" that Peele suggests in his article.
Peele's conclusion that the "war on drugs" misses the point of addiction is right on target. I think it is unfortunate that his article gave such a distorted view of the one program that has had the greatest success in guiding people out of their addictions.
Associate Professor of Economics
George Mason University
Parts of Stanton Peele's article contribute to the ever-growing pile of misinformation being distributed by persons who haven't a clue as to what addiction is all about. With over a half century of first-hand experience with the treatment of alcoholism, and with a higher success rate of sustained recovery than all other forms of treatment put together, Alcoholics Anonymous still maintains that the disease is "cunning, baffling, and powerful." Peele attempts to understand the disease of addiction through the use of logic. But beyond a certain point, addiction cannot be either explained or understood with mere logic.
Peele asks, "How are some people able to turn down a fattening dessert or after-dinner cigar which they might enjoy but which they have decided is bad for them?" This is a classic misunderstanding that nonaddictive people experience when they confuse temptation with overriding compulsion. The tiny little struggle that most people experience over whether or not to have dessert is as comparable to compulsion as a picture of a lighted match is to a raging forest fire. People who are in the stranglehold grip of compulsion laugh bitterly at those who think that a little tussle with temptation qualifies them to make pronouncements about addicts' inability to "Just Say No." I would like to respond to Peele's request to "Try to say something sensible about nicotine's addictive properties as a way of explaining [drug czar William] Bennett's newfound ability to abstain from smoking." Peele's belief that Bennett has successfully quit smoking is premature. Any addict can usually quit for a short time. However, staying quit is another matter entirely, a fact that has been discovered by every perpetual dieter. The ability to quit "anytime I want" is an addict's standard defense against accusations made by others about his addiction. It keeps most addicts out there long after they should have admitted their powerlessness.
Addiction is not curable, but it is treatable. With a lot of hard work and support, shattered human wrecks can be made whole again. The path to this wholeness is clearly shown in A.A.'s 12 steps to recovery.
Sue C. Speck
Mr. Peele responds: The United States is currently undergoing an explosion of support groups modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous. While A.A. and many of these groups emphasize their efficacy and their openness, the following points need to be made: (1) referrals to A.A. are increasingly mandated by courts and employee assistance programs and violate the voluntariness on which A.A. was founded, along with the U.S. Constitution; (2) the A.A. group process itself is more coercive than supportive when it assails those who claim not to be alcoholic or addicted and accuses them of a new mental illness—that of denial; (3) A.A. now often functions as an adjunct to expensive medical treatment and operates not as a support group but as a medically reimbursable therapy; (4) A.A. performs treatment via conversion experience, with the result that many A.A. members display the zealousness of missionaries (as readers of responses to my article may detect); (5) many people do not respond well to A.A. for these reasons, yet alternative groups or treatment are not available for them.
Most important of all, A.A.—which has only rarely been subjected to systematic evaluation—vastly overstates its success. Investigations have shown, not surprisingly, that many of those who attend A.A. relapse. Indeed, the organization accepts this as proof of the lifetime nature of the disease it treats. Several studies have shown that those who quit drinking via A.A. actually have higher relapse rates than those who quit on their own. The lesson that people are powerless over an experience and that a single slip will lead them down the treacherous road of a abandoned excess often turns out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The idea A.A. and comparable groups sell that members have a lifetime malady for which only the group has the answer is more likely to create cults than cures.
Thus, although A.A. and comparable groups have become cultural icons, their public relations image is far superior to their demonstrated effectiveness (in which they resemble private treatment centers). Worse, under the guise of helping alcoholics, the personal experiences of the minority of alcoholics who remain sober through A.A. have been inaccurately portrayed as proof that A.A. and comparable groups are the answer to our addiction problems. They are not, they will never succeed with the majority of alcoholics and addicts, and their negative effects can often outweigh their positive ones for "successful" converts.
Aa a lifelong alcohol abuser, I have struggled for over 20 years with the question: Why does Jimmy drink so much? Believe me, I've run the gamut of alcoholism cures—from treatment centers to baying at the moon for relief at A.A. meetings. Nothing seemed to work.
People convinced me I had an incurable disease, through no fault of my own, yet the government still insisted punishment is the best cure. Nothing made sense to me. I saw many go through treatment, only to end up back on the bottle within a couple months.
I found the answer to my drinking problem in a book called Heavy Drinking: The Myth of Alcoholism as a Disease by Professor Herbert Fingarette. Fingarette says in his book, "once alcohol abusers themselves realize that they have not been stricken by some unidentifiable physical or psychiatric condition, they may find new cause for hope and for a more realistic self-understanding."
How true that is. Once the responsibility for abuse was shifted to my shoulders, I quit drinking.
Regarding Virginia Postrel's editorial "Sin and Decadence" (Feb.), I recently worked with a private charity selling Christmas trees to raise money for the visually impaired. Most of the people helping us did so on a voluntary basis, above and beyond their normal work routine.
But one night, a gentleman came to the lot with his teenage daughter and her girlfriend. As it was bitterly cold that evening, and we were short of help, I said that it was nice of the young ladies to come and work. He replied that both girls were honors students and that as a part of their curriculum, "they had to volunteer" a certain number of hours to a charitable or civic concern.
I believe in voluntary help. But these young girls were being taught a warped definition of voluntary. It is not enough now for bright young minds to strive for more knowledge (and volunteer when they have time and choose to do so), they also must be conscripted into community service under the redefined guise of voluntarism.
It is no wonder that Big Brother continues to pass more restricting and ludicrous laws concerning our every waking moment. Not only does the current voting generation encourage it, they are teaching our best and brightest hopes for the future to live under the thumb, unable to choose for themselves.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Letters".