I recently retired after thirty years in the Air Force. Usually people with problems too big to handle are discharged from the service, so I rarely met anyone with serious issues. As an officer, I was even more removed.
Not long ago I received a copy of The Sun. Even as a recovering alcoholic, I thought I wasn’t interested in what suffering people were doing to cope. Then I realized this was exactly what I needed to read. These were the people I had never met, the ones with unsolvable problems. I promptly subscribed.
In your Correspondence section letter writers sometimes say an article ruined their day, and they are canceling their subscriptions. I shake my head at this. At the age of seventy I’ll keep reading, even the pieces I don’t much like, because they teach me how to live.
Maia Szalavitz is correct that the tough-love approach to treating addiction does not work for everyone [“Hooked,” interview by Arnie Cooper, June 2017]. Though some people recover after “hitting bottom,” many others face homelessness and death. People deserve housing, mental-health services, and social support even if they choose to use drugs. Our current drug policy may cause as much harm as addiction itself.
Arnie Cooper’s interview with Maia Szalavitz recalled for me a doctor whose research focused on an aspect of addiction Szalavitz does not explore: the impact of society’s expectations on addictive behavior. For instance, I have lived in Spain, where drinkers are generally expected to behave themselves in public and are shunned if they don’t. In Northern Europe, however — Germany, Scandinavia, and especially England — drunk people are often laughed at or encouraged to make fools of themselves.
What was striking about Spain was not the lack of addiction — men still drank in bars all day and developed medical conditions because of this — but the lack of drunk driving, fights, and other hazards. Grandparents and grandchildren were even welcome at the sherry bars in the afternoon, as misbehavior would be less likely with them present.
The twelve-step approach, which Szalavitz rightly derides, ignores these cultural impacts and insists that only the addict controls his or her behavior.
As a member of Alcoholics Anonymous [AA] who has been sober for more than forty years, I found that Maia Szalavitz’s description of AA bears little resemblance to the groups where I got my sobriety.
Szalavitz refers to AA as if it were a monolithic organization, which reflects either ignorance or a conscious distortion of what she knows. There is no official AA hierarchy. As stated in its Twelve Traditions, “Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole.”
She also calls AA a religious organization. This is probably the most prevalent and destructive falsehood of all. In meetings in the 1970s we had atheists and agnostics in addition to those who followed a number of different religions. Like many newcomers I was appalled by the God references in the literature. But a man named Charlie once said at a meeting, “I’m an atheist, and so is my Higher Power.” AA is a very big tent indeed.
At the meetings I attend, people may use the word God to refer to their particular deity or as a metaphor for their own spiritual path, but if someone begins proselytizing, they are encouraged to redirect their sharing into a more generalized vein.
Nor does the group moralize addiction, as Szalavitz claims. AA characterizes alcoholism as being similar to a disease. Most members accept that, even though we were in the grip of a disease, we did things that were reprehensible. Making amends for these actions allows us to correct what we can, thus relieving an internal trigger for drinking again. But Szalavitz implies that AA forces such moral inventories. In thousands of meetings, I’ve never witnessed, or even heard of, that happening.
Readers who want a clearer picture of AA should go to a meeting or two.
Maia Szalavitz states, “Because AA is religious, [the courts’] sentencing people to attend meetings amounts to state-sponsored religion.”
But AA is spiritual, not religious. AA’s spirituality is “one size serves all.” Members can define God as they wish. It is, however, necessary for AA members to know that everyone has a Higher Power, and that you, the alcoholic, are not it.
Maia Szalavitz responds:
I speak about twelve-step groups based on my experience attending them every day for around five years, mainly in highly secular New York City. People say AA is “spiritual, not religious,” but the concept of a Higher Power fits most religions’ ideas about God. And when AA suggests that atheists pray to a “Good Orderly Direction” (GOD) — or even pray to a doorknob — to remove their “defects of character,” it’s promoting a view of God that originated in the Christian organization on which AA was based.
Moreover, every court that has ruled on the matter has determined that AA is religious and that mandating attendance at meetings violates the First Amendment. I don’t see how it’s possible to argue that AA doesn’t moralize addiction when “moral defects” and “moral inventory” are right there in the steps.
Twelve-step groups are wonderful self-help (everyone could benefit from a moral inventory), but they should be optional and kept separate from medical treatment for addiction. The people who do choose AA can easily “take what they like and leave the rest,” but they shouldn’t be told, as twelve-step groups claim, that the only alternative is “jails, institutions, or death.”
Joe Hutto’s communion with animals and his view of them as sentient beings with rich and important lives [“A Walk on the Wild Side,” interview by Al Kesselheim, May 2017] gives me hope. If enough of us choose not to discriminate against animals, they stand a chance of thriving in spite of the indifference and cruelty of many.
We humans are an invasive species. Can the planet’s wondrous variety of animals continue to coexist with our out-of-control population growth? Only if there is respect for the rights of nonhumans.
I don’t think I’ve ever encountered as enlightened a take on humans’ relationships with other animals as Joe Hutto’s. I was touched by the depth of his empathy and impressed that he could be sentimental when it was appropriate and avoid sentiment when it wasn’t.
Then Grover, a shelter cat I adopted several years ago, jumped into my lap and started purring. His affection was just what I needed as I took in those sad faces. It was almost as if Grover were thanking me.
David Rutschman’s short story “The Hogs, the Sow, the Wind” [May 2017] was devastating. At first I thought it would be a fable, but it is much more than that. You might say it is like a Buddhist koan: it moves you immediately, but you need to give it time to permeate your mind and heart.
Your May 2017 issue reminds us that animals are sentient beings, and that how we treat them is often less than humane. In particular I was moved by David Rutschman’s incredible “The Hogs, the Sow, the Wind.” I learn something new each time I reread it and was surprised (and then not surprised) to see that the author is a Zen priest.
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry after reading Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” [Dog-Eared Page, May 2017]. As an English teacher I love the power of stories to speak to us across generations. What a timely and chilling portrait of our current spate of “alternative facts.” Andersen’s fairy tale reminds us to listen to our children — and to the child in each of us — for the unadulterated truth.
I am new to The Sun and have noticed that the majority of letter writers in your Correspondence are of a liberal mind-set. I was mildly concerned about their frequent criticisms of Donald Trump, but I accepted them, as we each have a right to express our opinion.
I was disappointed, however, to read Anthony Varallo’s essay “That Night, That Morning” in the May 2017 issue. The author views the election of an “unacceptable” president as so dismal he can hardly bring himself to tell his children about it. This has no place in an otherwise wonderful magazine.
I beg you to recognize that even those of us who lean conservative are still lovers of literature.
As a longtime reader, I usually skip straight to the fiction, poetry, and Readers Write. But lately I’ve enjoyed the thought-provoking interviews, especially the one with Eva Saulitis [“Every Reason to Stay,” interview by Christine Byl, January 2017], who described her whale research and courageous battle with cancer. I also enjoyed the timely and important interview with Sera Davidow about rethinking mental illness [“An Open Mind,” interview by Tracy Frisch, April 2017]. Davidow is doing compassionate, paradigm-shifting work.
If you hadn’t printed conversations with these fascinating people, I would probably never have heard of them or their work.