Saturday, April 7, 2007

Sober for Good

By Anne M. Fletcher, foreword by Frederick B. Glaser.
ISBN 0395912016

Reviewed by Marty N.

Full disclosure: I am one of the more than 200 people whom Anne Fletcher interviewed in writing this book -- she refers to us as "masters" -- and as such I was naturally predisposed to think highly of it. The book does have a lot of good qualities to recommend it. The author works hard at thinking outside the traditional 12-step box. She points out, based on her survey results, that many of the received platitudes of recovery are not supported by experience. Contrary to accepted dogma, many people get sober without AA. Many get sober in other groups, or solo. Some are in denial, some are not. Many get sober without "hitting bottom." Some die, some recover spontaneously. Some stay sober calling themselves "alcoholics," some stay sober not doing that. Thinking of addiction as a disease helps some; thinking of it as a bad habit helps others. Some stay sober through surrender to God's will, some stay sober by taking personal responsibility. There is no cookie-cutter program that works for everybody. Everyone must fashion their own individual recovery program. And so on. The author does a competent job summing up many of the truths that most of us in LifeRing Recovery have come by now to grasp as self-evident, and which we suspect will become the platitudes of the future. Particularly commendable is her chapter on family and friends, where the author stakes out positions that seem much more helpful in important respects than Al-Anon. Fletcher also does a good job weaving research together with anecdotes to create a readable tapestry.

But -- and it is a large caveat -- Fletcher makes the strategic error of including moderation ("controlled drinking") as an option on a par with abstinence in her concept of "sobriety." From the outset she relies on a Webster's dictionary definition of "sobriety" as including not only abstinence but also moderate or occasional drinking (p. 4), far out of line with the modern understanding of "sobriety" in the recovery subculture. Thus, one of her "masters" who has four drinks a day is, according to her, "sober." This particular dictionary definition is a notorious red flag that has led more than one recovering person of my knowledge into relapse. Although Fletcher admonishes the reader on several occasions that moderation is difficult, risky, and not advisable for most people, such pro forma warning labels do little to undercut the basic message which elevates moderation to parity with abstinence, and they may even enhance the attraction. The amount of prominence Fletcher devotes to the moderationist pathway in her book is far in excess of her empirical foundation. Only one of Fletcher's more than 200 "masters" claimed to have had success using Moderation Management (p. 20). On these facts, moderation is a statistical aberration, an outlier, and should have been dismissed. The fact that the book receives accolades on the dust jacket from nearly every flag-bearer for moderation and controlled drinking on the contemporary American scene should also be a warning signal. I took one copy of the book into a treatment center recently, and let it circulate among the audience while I delivered a talk about LSR. After just a few moments of leafing through it one patient asked me, referring to Fletcher's book, whether LifeRing supported moderation. Needless to say, I have not taken the book on such visits again.

The traditional recovery establishment sees AA as the only road to abstinence, and wants to taint all the alternatives with the brush of moderation. Fletcher's book blunders into this trap. Accordingly, while this is a book I would want to have in my personal library (and not only because I'm in it), and while there are good sections that could be excerpted and circulated separately, it's not a work as a whole that I could put on my recommend list. Had I known that Fletcher intended to take that particular tack, I probably would not have agreed to participate in her project, fame be damned. 11/14/01

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