The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, July 23, 2009.
My Travels with George Vaillant - Fighting the Disease Theory from Continent to Continent
George Vaillant is a distinguished Harvard psychiatrist, famous for his life study of a group of Harvard men. In recent years the study has addressed questions of happiness over people's lifetimes, results of which were presented in Aging Well. Earlier, George investigated the life course of alcoholism.
I have interacted with George throughout my professional life (I am ten years younger than he), in part due to happenstance, in part because we share a joint interest in the natural paths of people's lives, but most distinctly because we disagree violently on the idea of alcoholism as disease. Recently, George's work and personal life have been dissected in David Brooks' column in the Times and an article in The Atlantic by Joshua Shenk.
Our differences were signaled in a way that forever determined our relationship by my review of his 1983 book, The Natural History of Alcoholism, in the New York Times Book Review. I not only panned it, but accused George of intellectual dishonesty. That is, he repeatedly claimed that "natural curative factors" determined success in overcoming alcoholism, and that 12-step treatment had no impact. After all, his own patients at Cambridge Hospital did no better than untreated alcoholics. Yet George argued that only men who attended AA religiously achieved remission.
George's misdirection was obvious: the only cases in his book of successful remission came from the minority of alcoholic men who attended AA -- all the men he discussed who didn't go to AA crashed in flames. I petitioned Harvard Medical School for George's data on AA attendance. I determined that while some of his subjects succeeded through AA, (a) many more succeeded without AA, and (b) those who attended AA were subject to violent returns to alcoholism when they abandoned the movement.
Before this development, I greatly admired George's 1977 book, Adaptation to Life, which traced how Harvard grads coped with stress and problems in more or less healthy ways. This book was psychoanalytically oriented. I was thus surprised when George abandoned these insights in order to throw in his lot with Alcoholics Anonymous and the idea that alcoholism was an inbred disease. George's advocacy for the disease theory and AA was so notable he eventually joined the Alcoholics Anonymous board.
I was aware through the grapevine that George was VERY unhappy with my Times review and my subpoenaing of his data, and that he targeted his public attacks on "controlled-drinking" advocates at me. But I still had never met him. This lacunae in my life was remedied when we were summoned by Dr. Nancy Snyderman (then with ABC, she is now at NBC) to spend an entire day in a TV studio arguing our different viewpoints. Apparently, we each succeeded in knocking the other out, as neither of us appeared on-screen in the final program.
Some years later, we spent considerable time together at a conference on natural recovery from alcoholism (the topic on which we had clashed) held in the Swiss Alps with a highly selected group of professionals. I was accompanied by my former wife, George was alone. We encountered one another not only in the daily small group conference sessions, but cross-country skiing next to the hotel. Our interactions were pleasant, if arm's length. I of course attributed this to our history, although I noticed he was always alone at the conference.
But fate had our most distinct encounter in store for us in 2006 n Victoria, Canada, where we two were each (George now in his seventies, me in my sixties) presented with lifetime achievement awards by the same existential psychology organization. Thus, our three actual meetings occurred in three different countries. As I rushed from the award ceremony to catch a flight to the mainland, I jumped in a waiting cab - only belatedly noticing someone's briefcase in the back seat. It was George's - he had returned to the hotel to retrieve something.
We shared a rather long ride to catch our flights. I told George that I was greatly influenced by his interview in Time magazine when his Natural History was published. A picture accompanying the story showed him drinking wine with his children (a policy based on a belief in the power of social customs in determining drinking habits). George good naturedly wrinkled his nose at my claim - "You've always been so compliant, Stanton."
In the course of this conversation, I tried to fathom his family life - since he told me he was headed to Australia where he shared a home with his wife. But I was aware that he had been married to a nurse with whom he worked on his research in Cambridge. George avoided the subject. His opaqueness went well beyond my snooping - the Atlantic article describes how George returned to his second, Australian wife after a tempestuous third marriage with the nurse, and at one point was unable to identify the last wife's picture!
But the Atlantic article also highlighted George's generosity - and, truthfully, he has always been gracious to me. Indeed, despite my (unconsciously) stealing his cab, we went first to an out-of-the-way part of the airport where I was to catch my water-landing flight back to Vancouver.
I wonder in which country and under what circumstances I will next meet George. I have often worked in Australia.