All of the best-selling accounts of addiction turn out to be fakes. This is true of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, and Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey through his Son’s Addiction by David Sheff. Why is that? If you read this site, you already know the answer: because addiction is a myth, and therefore any account of it must be fictional or fraudulent.
The problem is that many people believe in addiction in part due to the influence of these books. If you read one of these books, and believe it, then you have bought into the Addiction Myth. Just like if you saw the movie “Requiem for a Dream”, which is about a drug addict, you might think such a thing actually exists — and given the cinema-verite quality of the movie, you could be forgiven for that. So if we are to debunk the Addiction Myth, we must debunk these books. And we must view any new accounts of addiction with increased skepticism.
A Million Little Lies
A Million Little Pieces topped the New York Times best seller list for 15 weeks in 2005. It was the autobiographical account of the author’s struggles with alcoholism and crack addiction, and his recovery through a 12 step program. It got some very good reviews and was chosen by Oprah’s book club. I have no doubt it’s a great book and well written, and a joy to read. There was one little problem however. It was later found to be full of fabrications and exaggerations, and was even nicknamed “A Million Little Lies”. Oprah famously chastised the author and his publisher on her show, and some libraries have reclassified the book as fiction.
Personally I have no problem with shameless self promotion and even lying about details of things, as long as you’re not in a court of law or similar. If you can fool the American public and make a lot of money off entertainment, then good for you. This is a case of buyer beware: we should be naturally skeptical and not believe every thing we read. But if we are entertained then we’ve gotten our money’s worth, and don’t have much right to complain if it’s not all true.
But I do have a problem if you try to create public policy based on a myth. And the entire substance abuse treatment industry is based on the Addiction Myth. The drug war is predicated on the Addiction Myth. So if you’re going to lie about addiction then it’s important to debunk it.
However, Frey was not accused of lying about addiction. In fact, if anything people generally believe that part of the story to be true. But of course, if he lied about other things, then he’s also likely lied about addiction itself, which drove the plot of the book. With pathological liars, it’s important to question every claim, even the seemingly innocent and plausible, and there’s no easy way to separate the truth from the lies. Drug addiction would be much easier to believe in if just one honest person claimed to have it. But as yet in the course of human history that has not happened. Every addict is a liar. And it would be foolish to choose to believe the Addiction Myth based on testimony from liars. For more info, see my post: The Types of Addiction Fakers.
The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous
The Big Book was written by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith supposedly as a way to help other alcoholics overcome their addiction. It’s full of stories about alcoholics, explanations of the ‘disease’, and spiritual advice. While it’s an entertaining read, and these guys are very convincing and persuasive, a careful examination reveals serious problems. People who knew Bill W personally claim he cheated on Lois both before and after sobriety, and was guilty of other indiscretions. Again, I would not criticize someone for these pecadillos, except if you hypocritically claim not to be committing them.
3:2 My drinking assumed more serious proportions, continuing all day and almost every night. The remonstrances of my friends terminated in a row and I became a lone wolf. There were many unhappy scenes in our sumptuous apartment. There had been no real infidelity, for loyalty to my wife, helped at times by extreme drunkenness, kept me out of those scrapes.
A ‘lone wolf’ means that he was on the prowl. For what exactly? Obviously sex, though he conveniently can claim that his blackouts prevent him from remembering that. Also he claims that ‘extreme drunkenness’ helped him avoid infidelity. But he seems to have had the opportunity — ‘scrapes’ — and if so, then certainly mild drunkenness would have encouraged it. It’s illogical to claim otherwise.
And yet he claims to be “developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty” (58:1). In fact this is required by the steps 4 and 5: “Fearless moral inventory” and “admit the exact nature of our wrongs.” Perhaps he feels these steps don’t apply to him.
The book is full of stories of completely innocent alcoholics whose only flaw is the inability to stop drinking. Everyone looks at them and says, “He has the perfect life, why can’t he stop drinking?” And the alcoholic himself truly has no idea why he is drinking, other than he picks up a drink and next thing he knows he’s unable to stop. However, we know the reality is not so ideal. Alcoholics are often abusive and hateful. Alcoholics do dangerous and irresponsible things when drunk. And yet there is no mention of this. No beating of wives, no fighting, no neglect of children. Clearly this is an attempt to idealize the alcoholic. Modern psychology insists that addictive behaviors have underlying psychological causes. But there is none of this in the Big Book. “In their hearts they really don’t know why they do it.” 23:2
Bill Wilson’s own story of a roadtrip with his wife across the country never mentions any infidelities. However, this seemed to be the norm, as described in the New York Magazine article “Saint Booze”: http://nymag.com/nymetro/arts/books/reviews/n_9880/. Bill would often get drunk and come home very late. One can only assume he was doing more than just drinking.
To add insult to injury, the Big Book proceeds to implicate the wives in the alcoholic’s debacle (Chapter 5 – To Wives):
- We have had retaliatory love affairs with other men.
- In desperation we have even got tight ourselves — the drunk to end all drunks.
- In nearly every instance the alcoholic only seems to be unloving and inconsiderate; it is usually because he is warped and sickened that he says and does those appalling things.
Supposedly this chapter was written by the wives of alcoholics, but actually it was written by Bill W himself. It is self-serving and manipulative, and has harmed generations of women who unwittingly tolerated their husband’s cheating and abuse. The only consolation: “We alcoholics seem to have the gift of picking out the word’s finest women.” He was a master of flattery.
“God alone can judge our sex situation.” Bill was tired of being judged by his peers, and there was copious evidence that he has reason to be judged harshly. There were many other women, and this was well known and caused dissent within the organization: http://www.orange-papers.org/orange-otherwomen.html#ftnt03
Although he believes there is no psychological cause of alcoholism, there is one point in the Big Book where he gets pretty close:
It is plain that a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness. To the precise extent that we permit these, do we squander the hours that might have been worth while. But with the alcoholic, whose hope is the maintenance and growth of a spiritual existence, this business of resentment is infinitely grave. We have found that it is fatal. For when harboring such feelings we shut ourselves off from the sunlight of the Spirit. This insanity of alcohol returns and we drink again. And with us, to drink is to die. 66:1
Deep resentments are obviously a reason for drinking. If you resent something (e.g. envy of a friend, or if you are not as attractive or young as you’d like to be), then you may turn to alcohol to relieve the pain. However, Wilson prefers to believe that the reason that resentment causes drinking is that it prevents access to the Spiritual power that is the only thing that can prevent it. One wonders whether he ever considered the simpler alternative.
Above all, the book is a classic example of cult indoctrination: First admit you have a disease (Step 1: “I am powerless under alcohol”), and then follow our program which is the only cure. “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program.” (58:1) If you fail it is your own fault, you just need to try harder. Impressionable young minds, primed by early childhood indoctrination into the myth of addiction, are particularly vulnerable to this type of thinking. And yet, AA has never been shown to be effective in treating addiction, any more than going it alone. The reason is simple: drinking is a choice and people simply choose to stop drinking when they’ve had enough.
Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey through his Son’s Addction by David Sheff, is a thoroughly engaging and interesting story of his child’s drug abuse. It is very detailed and rich, and an intimate view of a liberal, affluent San Francisco family that tries to outdo itself in raising the perfectly happy child. It is most deserving of its position on the best seller list. Only problem, again, is that it’s fake. And in this case it’s fake from the very first word: Beautiful.
Unfortunately, the son is quite unfortunate looking. He has a huge nose and droopy eyes. See for yourself:
The reason for his son’s addiction is obvious: he got no alibi. Of course, you get no indication of this in reading the book. If anything he wants you to believe his son is near adonis-like. But it’s not really the case and you can understand his conundrum. (I daresay the dad is quite foxy.)
One can imagine the father telling the son how beautiful he is his whole life. And then one day the son realizes he’s not, he’s been told a lie his whole life, and so now he’ll inflict a lie on his family in revenge: the Lie of Addiction.
And thus begins the family’s journey through hell. The father is angry at his son for doing this, but never seems to hold him accountable — his disease was responsible for it. No doubt, he feels guilty and will not acknowledge the truth. There are basically two schools of thought on child-rearing. One is that you raise a child to be a responsible, independent, and resilient adult. The other is that you give your child a very happy childhood, and avoid any discomfort and pain at all costs. This family was clearly in the second camp. And the outcome is not unexpected.
The story begins with marital strife: “I maturely address our disagreements by falling in love with a family friend”. This is both sarcastic and misleading. For if there were disagreements, he never says what they were. No, he falls in love with the neighbor, and then decides he wants a divorce — this is more plausible. It is a vicious battle with high priced lawyers, ending with the Solomonic splitting of the child between SF and LA (school year/holidays-summers).
There are many indications throughout the book that Nic is just manipulating the family to cause them pain. For example, when he steals stuff, he always seems to steal the most important things: he needed a notebook and whoops he stole his sister’s journal. He steals the most valuable bottles of wine from the wine cellar. (In these cases he was not stealing for money, just personal use.)
Nic is taught the Addiction Myth early on: “His response to an assignment in which he has been asked if you should always try your best: ‘I don’t think you should always try your best all the time,’ he writes, ‘because, let’s say a drug atick asks you for drugs you should not try your best to find him some drugs.'”
Nic learns well, and he recognizes the importance and power of the myth for adults. It will become a tool for him to use against them. His father also recognizes the power of the drug story in the impressionable young mind:
Drug stories are sinister. Like some war stories, they focus on adventure and escape. In the tradition of a long line of famous and infamous carousers and their chroniclers, even hangovers and near-death experiences and visits to the emergency room can be made to seem glamorous. But often the storytellers omit the slow degeneration, psychic trauma, and finally, the casualties.
He is acutely aware that his son may be enticed by the addict myth. He is aware of “the sense of rebellion in lighting a joint” in part due to his own drug use. The irony is that the original stories are mostly fake exaggerations, and yet his son brings them to life even more real and vicious than originally conceived. His son is a very entertaining actor, often replaying/reciting scenes from movies. It’s not surprising that he takes on the addict character, as it is one of the most fun to play.
And to read about. As his father says:
His favorite authors have been replaced by an assortment of misanthropes, addicts, drunks, depressives, and suicides: Rimbaud, Burroughs, Kerouac, Kafka, Capote, Miller, Nietzshe, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald… It worries me that these writers, particularly when they glamorize drugs and debauchery, are so compelling to Nic.
Bingo! He’s just playing out what he’s reading. He’s a boy who is disappointed with himself and is seeking some relief in a subversively noble way. Nic is not an addict. Every so-called addict is simply acting out some version of the same story.
In this article: http://www.thefix.com/content/gay-pay-meth-addiction-nic-cheff8899 Nic describes his prostitution:
That’s why, to me, getting high and prostitution really was like the same thing for me. They were almost indistinguishable from one another. And that’s why I felt absolutely compelled to include it in my book. Because the truth about me and my addiction was that I truly, deeply hated myself and I was doing everything I knew how to do to try and feel better. I hated myself so much. The only thing that mattered was finding some kind of relief.
More than anything else, I wanted to feel beautiful. I could’ve made money in other ways. Prostitution was something I wanted to do. That sounds crazy fucked up, but it’s true.
Nic, we appreciate your honesty. And we’re sorry you felt so bad about yourself. Now we know you’d have sex with men just to get a little attention and validation. Could it be the same with your addiction? Was it all for show? Your dad tells us that you absolutely loved “Requiem for a Dream”, which you saw at age 18. Is this your real life rendition?
In the midst of his using, he writes a poem and crumples it up under his desk for his father to find: “I’m so think and frail / Don’t care, want another rail.” He is obviously just trying to cultivate the addict persona for his father’s sake.
And his father falls for it hook, line, and sinker.
In his own book Tweak, Nic describes his first experience with alcohol:
When I was eleven my family went snowboarding up in Tahoe, and a friend and I snuck into the liquor cabinet after dinner. We poured a little bit from each bottle into a glass, filling it almost three- quarters of the way with the different-colored, sweet-smelling liquid. I was curious to know what it felt like to get good and proper drunk. The taste was awful. My friend drank a little bit and stopped, unable to take anymore. The thing was, I couldn’t stop.
I drank some and then I just had to drink more until the whole glass was drained empty. I’m not sure why. Something was driving me that I couldn’t identify and still don’t comprehend. Some say it’s in the genes. My grandfather drank himself to death before I was born. I’m told I resemble him more than anyone else — a long face, with eyes like drops of water running down. Anyway, that night I threw up for probably an hour straight and then passed out on the bathroom floor.
Under no credible scientific theory could the alcoholic become addicted on the first sip. It takes time and repetition for the reward pathway to develop. Clearly Nic is trying to manufacture an addiction at age 11. He is precocious, and it is totally fake.
He claims his addiction started during high school, one summer in France, when he played the role of the ex-pat, hanging out in cafes and drinking wine (but not writing or painting — not enough time for that). When he got back to the states, there was no alcohol available, so he switched to pot. But again, these drugs activate completely different pathways. The addiction to one would not transfer to the other. It’s obvious from what he’s told us, he’s not doing drugs because he’s addicted. He’s doing them because he’s trying to suppress the pain of low self-esteem. The ‘addict’ role is the perfect solution.
And he plays it excruciatingly well. He tortures his family for years with lies, stealing, breaking in, and veiled threats of suicide. His behavior is calculated to extract the greatest degree of embarrassment to the family. During the times he was sober, which lasted up to 2 years, however, he never actually apologized for his behavior. Each time he would start to, he’d turn away. You’d think that the diseased addict would feel sorry for the things he did, and regret them, even if he didn’t feel 100% responsible for them. Perhaps the feelings are just too strong, as his father would like to believe. But if that is the case, then one can hardly expect this weak boy to stay sober. The relapse should come as no surprise. I suspect there is more to the story: why doesn’t the father and the rest of the family demand an apology? They are hiding something; they are guilty of something and don’t feel they have the right. Perhaps one day we will find out the answer.
I suspect that the child was a liar from the beginning. The reason for my suspicion is that there is no claim otherwise. The author never said that his son was honest. But with drug addicts it’s a very common theme – lying and manipulation since childhood — so it’s kind of an important issue. Also, there is a point where the boy says he got pot from a boy who was probably totally innocent, and the father believed him. Newsflash pops: your child will never tell you the truth about where he got drugs, especially if he’s hanging out with his friend when you ask him! It was probably planned out that way!
[Editors note: “I am a liar. It’s not exactly news. I’ve been a liar since as long as I can remember.” — Nic Sheff, We All Fall Down (p. 266). Thank you Nic. This is news to us!]
But despite the criticisms, the book is really good and I highly recommend it. The father is a great writer. He packs in so many good details, like the scenes in the rehab clinics, that are as exciting and dramatic as if you were actually there.
As for Nic, it seems he has a promising writing career ahead as well. And he’s married to an attractive girl, at least from the pics I saw, so at this point he has no reason to complain. Life is good. Congrats to all of you!
The Addiction Lie
The addiction narrative makes for a fascinating read, and it is very appealing to the histrionically inclined. Unfortunately it is just fiction, and should be presented as such. If there is a non-fiction account of the development of an addiction, I have yet to find it.