Stigma




We must, if we are to be consistent, and if we are to have a real pedigree herd, mate the best of our men with the best of our women as often as possible, and the inferior men with the inferior women as seldom as possible, and keep only the offspring of the best.


Plato

For years into recovery I held a deep and heavy shame about being an alcoholic. I felt that being an alcoholic was akin to being branded a moral, physical, spiritual degenerate. A disgrace. Not only to myself and to my family, but to humanity at large. I could have, should have, would have done something about my drinking problem if only I was a better person, a smarter person, a stronger willed person. I felt my alcoholism was a failure on my part. A weakness of character. "Just don't drink", people would tell me. As if it were that easy.

There are several people who have been in my life for ages who still do not know that I am an alcoholic. In early recovery I wouldn't tell anyone that I was a member of A.A. because of my own shame. But also because of the rampant stigma that goes along with being an alcoholic. Even, I hate to say, an alcoholic in recovery. Now, years into my sober journey, when most people ask why I don't drink, I tell them the truth. That I'm in recovery and a satisfied customer of A.A. But I don't tell everyone. There are those individuals who I sense that it’s better not to tell. Those who continue to believe the myth that addiction is the addict’s fault. These people keep the stigma alive and well. They seem to view addiction not as a disease but as some sort of weakness of character, some inherent failing, a complete lack of will power or good old common sense. There are those people who, for whatever reason, will never understand the concept of alcoholism as a disease.


But I can't really blame them. Addiction is a hard condition to wrap your mind around if you are not afflicted with it yourself. And although things are changing a bit in 2022, unfortunately some intense stigma around addicts and the disease of addiction is going strong.


Recently, I read an interesting book titled Unfit Heiress; The tragic life and scandalous sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt by Audrey Clare Farley. Funnily enough, this book was recommended to me by Amazon. That pesky artificial intelligence knew, without doubt, that these words, in bold typeface were bound to attract my attention: heiress, unfit, tragic life, scandalous. That's 4 out of 5 of my favorite book descriptions. The only catch phrase missing was mildly inbred and majorly mad alcoholic aristocrats and their fucked up lives. Mr. Bezos and his growing army of mind-reading robots obviously have my number.

The book is about the heiress Ann Cooper Hewitt who, in 1934, was sterilized (without her knowledge) by her monstrously wicked mother Maryon Cooper Hewitt. Ann, still a legal minor at the time, was told by her mother and her mother’s crooked (and extremely well-paid doctor) that she needed to have her appendix taken out. That was a lie. They sedated the 20-year-old Ann and irreversibly sterilized her, all so that her mother could grab whatever fortune was earmarked for Ann and her future children. If Ann failed to produce children, the entire Cooper Hewitt fortune would revert back to Maryon, Ann's mother.


When Ann found out what had been done to her (she overheard some nurses discussing it as she lay in her convalescence bed), she was rightfully horrified and outraged by her mother's actions. Ann decided to sue her mother to retrieve the fortune that was rightfully hers in a highly publicized and very dramatic court case. Ann won the case eventually but she never fully recovered mentally from what her mother had done to her. The book does a good job retelling Ann's sad tale but what the book is really about is the science of eugenics, the science of selective breeding. Something I knew very little about but which was, before World War II, a common and important branch of "science" - until, that is, Hitler started taking the whole eugenics idea to monstrous levels.


The concept of eugenics has been around as far back as 458 BC when Plato wrote the quote that begins this piece. The idea was to improve the human race by getting rid of undesirables through forced sterilizations. In the early 1900's the American Eugenics Society published lists upon lists of all the types of people not fit to reproduce. People that, for the good of society, would need to be forcibly sterilized. Among this group were psychopaths, imbeciles, high grade morons, low grade morons, plain old morons, lunatics, mental defectives, nymphomaniacs, maniacs, murderers, sexual deviants, pedophiles and of course... last but not least, alcoholics.


Wait...what?


At first, I thought that must be a misprint. How in the hell did I get lumped in with that lot, I asked myself, fuming? Is that a joke? You're going to put me in the same group as the Jeffrey Dahmers of the world? Just because I enjoy a little more wine than your average bear? Apparently, if the eugenicists had their way, yes.

Eugenics was not just some white supremacist crackpot theory. Eugenics was a huge scientific movement in America between the years 1900 through the 1940s supported and promoted by many well respected Americans and Europeans. In 1913, Teddy Roosevelt came out in support of the eugenics movement, writing "society has no business to permit degenerates to reproduce their kind." Other advocates were Helen Keller, Alexander Graham Bell, the economist John Maynard Keynes and even Winston Churchill who wrote in 1910 “the unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the feeble-minded and insane classes...constitutes a national danger which it is impossible to exaggerate”. I wonder if good old Winston, a man not immune to the seductive pull of booze himself, would also place alcoholics into his "they-need-to-be-sterilized-for-the-good-of-mankind" classification.

In 1927, the Supreme Court decided by a vote of 8 to 1 to uphold a state’s right to forcibly sterilize a person considered unfit to procreate. Alcoholics Anonymous was founded a mere seven years later in 1935. All told, as many as 70,000 Americans, including some alcoholics, were forcibly sterilized during the 20th century. The eugenicists believed that there was no cure for alcoholics (or chronic inebriates, as they were known at that time). These inebriates were a drain on society as a whole and therefore needed to be eliminated by whatever means possible. So it's no wonder that Bill Wilson decided to keep the whole 12 step deal anonymous. Alcoholics were looked upon not with compassion or understanding but lumped together with the absolute "worst" of society at large.



But today there is a cure for alcoholism. Or at least a way to keep it in remission, day after day, year after year. Bill Wilson and his co-founders of A.A. discovered it. All that's needed is a daily dose of a simple medicine that we can take to keep our disease from causing us to self-destruct. That medicine is the program of A.A.

Am I happy to be an alcoholic? No. Not really. It's not easy staying sober, it takes a lot of work. Although I have come to realize, with time, that living this way, this different way, is a real blessing. And I'm happy about that. And I am extremely grateful that I know what to do about my alcoholism. I have a place to go. I have my tribe. I have people that get me and that I get. And that's important in life. To be understood.

So I ignore the stigma and the judgement and I'm not that worried that the remaining eugenicists on the planet will start trying to get rid of us drunks anytime soon. Which is a very good thing. Because what I've learned in my A.A. years is that addicts in recovery and even the addicts still out there sick and suffering are some of the most wonderful people that I have ever had the pleasure to meet.


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