The Guardian, Wednesday October 18, 2006
Hail the revelation
A spell in 'rehab' is all the rage among public figures. But what's behind their sudden urge to get clean, and does it send out the wrong messages?
Florida congressman Mark Foley resigned at the end of last month when ABC News revealed that he had been sending sexual emails to teenage congressional pages. Almost immediately, Foley entered treatment for alcoholism, which he had discovered was a "longstanding and significant" problem for him. This might sound familiar, since virtually every US public figure recently exposed in some scandal has done the same thing. Ohio Congressman Bob Ney did so earlier in September after he admitted he had accepted tens of thousands of dollars in gifts from lobbyist and fixer Jack Abramoff.
In June, Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy checked himself into the Mayo Clinic for addiction to prescription pain killers after he crashed his car near the Capitol in the middle of the night. He was soon followed into rehab by actor Mel Gibson, arrested for driving drunk in Malibu, California.
Other great moments in rehab history include 1995, when Oregon Senator Robert Packwood confessed to alcoholism to explain why he repeatedly fondled legislative aides; 1990, when Washington DC Mayor Marion Barry sought help for drug addiction after being caught on camera smoking crack and wheedling a woman for sex; and 1974, when Arkansas Congressman Wilbur Mills ended his career with a drunken episode that saw his companion, a stripper known as Fanne Foxe, many reports say jump, some say dive into Washington's Tidal Basin.
Although initially Mills drew a facetious moral from the incident: "Don't go out with foreigners [Foxe was an Argentinian] who drink champagne," he soon turned serious about his alcoholism. After being treated, Mills found an alternative career on the alcoholism recovery lecture circuit - a profitable enterprise.
In all these cases, prominent Americans had been moved to recognise and acknowledge their addictions when their wrongdoing became public. The exception is Patrick Kennedy. Although he rushed to the Mayo Clinic as soon as he appeared on the front pages of US newspapers following his car crash, he has already been treated several times for various addictions.
With Kennedy, the question is why we should expect a better result this time. At his press conferences, Kennedy's rote recitations about the insidiousness of his disease and his susceptibility to relapse indicate that he had undergone the brainwashing that passes for treatment. His failure to stay clean is more typical than not. The Cochrane Collaboration, which reviews medical evidence, found in 2006 that research "does not demonstrate the effectiveness of AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] or other 12-step approaches in reducing alcohol use and achieving abstinence compared with other treatments."
But do public figures really care whether treatment works? Suspicions can easily arise that most have suddenly become so forthcoming about their problems and need for treatment because of their misconduct being uncovered. Their media or legal adviser must tell them: "You've got to rush into treatment. I'll inform the press that you are frankly acknowledging your problem. What is your problem?"
The roots of this process extend deep into revival Christianity in America. The temperance lecture was delivered by a former carouser who had an epiphany that his drinking was evil and turned his life over to God. There is a direct connection between the sinner's religious conversion and modern politicians and entertainers purifying themselves through treatment. This connection is the 12 steps of AA on which virtually all substance abuse treatment in the US is based. Some of the 12 steps are: we admitted we were powerless over alcohol; we came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity; we made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him; we admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Cynical observers of temperance lecturers - such as Mark Twain, who often shared a podium with them on his speaking tours - noted that reformed drunkards spoke mainly about their past shenanigans. This was the part of their talk, before the obligatory and perfunctory expression of contrition, which audiences responded most to. The same focus on bygone drunken escapades occurs at AA meetings today - AA was founded in 1935.
The fact that prominent people decide they need treatment only after being caught suggests that their substance use was fun. American TV personality Pat O'Brien went to rehab after his explicit sexual phone call offering a woman a threesome with him and his girlfriend became public. In case this sounded like a good time, O'Brien made clear to TV therapist Dr Phil how painful the episode really was. O'Brien said: "Everybody has a bottom. And I hit my bottom that horrible weekend in New York. Do I remember most of it? No. And that's where the bottom is. It was a weekend of fun, I thought, a weekend of drinking, which turned into a little bit of craziness."
For those not versed in recovery terminology, "hitting bottom" - a necessary part of the mythic alcoholism arc - means having done the absolutely worst thing possible that made you recognise your addiction. As the interview indicates, one part of this process for those now in the public eye is appearing on a television interview show to confess your sins and vow not to repeat them. But the nagging question remains: would O'Brien have happily made a similar call if the woman had said "yes" instead of sharing his phone message with the world?
Americans are more accepting than the British when it comes to alcoholism therapy and personal contrition. Oprah Winfrey has become America's most beloved and successful television personality as the godmother of sobbing confessionals. In the UK, on the other hand, you won't get many arguments when suggesting Kate Moss sought therapy not because cocaine was bad for her so much as it was bad for her modelling career.
To understand how central recovery from alcoholism is in American culture, keep in mind that when George Bush ran for governor of Texas, his Democratic opponent, Ann Richards, was a recovering alcoholic. Where she differed from Bush, who had also been a heavy drinker, was that Richards joined AA to sober up while Bush quit drinking due to a personal religious experience.
But to dry out and fly right, you don't need treatment or AA. In fact, American government research shows that a large majority of alcoholics get better without either. The idea that these are the only routes to sobriety is a bill of goods that disgraced celebrities are only too glad to buy into. But it is a fiction cooked up by AA advocates and America's vast private alcoholism treatment industry.
Stanton Peele, an American psychologist and addiction expert, is the author of Seven Tools to Beat Addiction.