Trysh Travis on recovery and identity politics

Liam Metcalf-White interviews Professor Trysh Travis of the Centre for Gender, Sexualities, and Women’s Studies Research at the University of Florida.

CSARS Group researcher and University of Chester PhD student, Liam Metcalf-White won a Santander Universities grant to make a trip to the US in June 2019 to explore questions around masculinity, gender, religion and the secular within the Recovery Movement. Professor Trysh Travis, who is on the Board of Advisors of the Higher Power Project, was instrumental in securing access to research sites for Liam’s fieldwork in Gainesville, Florida, and also agreed to this interview, the substantial content of which is recorded below.

Prof Travis is a cultural and literary historian who teaches on the Women’s Studies Program at the University of Florida. The study of print culture led Travis to become interested in the history of alcohol and drug use and misuse.  The Language of the Heart: A Cultural History of the Recovery Movement from Alcoholics Anonymous to Oprah Winfrey (2009) is about addiction and recovery, and Travis blogs on those topics (among others) at Points: the Blog of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society.  A recent anthology Re-Thinking Therapeutic Culture (2015, co-edited Tim Aubry) extends that work on popular self-help and other “mental hygiene” movements.

LMW: Can you talk me through the importance of examining addiction and recovery using the prisms of gender and sexuality?

TT: I part company with the 12-Step belief that gendered and sexualized oppression is an “outside issue.” We live in a culture characterized by the misuse of straight, white, male, capitalist power. Alcohol and other drugs are, among other things, ways to blunt the painful effects of that power—effects experienced by those who wield it as well as those against whom it is used. When we rule out consideration of this issue in thinking about substance misuse and recovery, we miss the chance to understand a root cause—not THE root cause, but one of the most important root causes.

LMW: How does being based at the Center for Women’s Studies and Gender Research, University of Florida, shape the kinds of research questions around addiction recovery that you have asked and are currently asking?

TT: Teaching in a women’s studies program allows me—forces me, really—to use the power lens I articulate above. I think that gives me a lot of insight. Unfortunately, it puts me at odds with biomedical and public health addiction researchers, because a theoretically nuanced power frame is not where they start out from. And they find it hard to operationalize in the contexts in which they work. This means that my work on the history and theory of recovery is not widely disseminated in the practitioner community.

LMW: What kinds of methods and methodologies do you utilize and engage with when researching addiction recovery? How do they help you to answer your research questions?

TT: I’m trained as a historian, and my questions are about history: when and how did this perspective on substance abuse come into being? How did it get diffused through society? What happened as a result of its popularity? I answer these questions with archival materials and sometimes oral history interviews. These are not practitioner questions, which are focused on efficacy.

LMW: I really resonate with the following quote from your edited book, Rethinking Therapeutic Culture (2015), with Timothy Aubry: ‘When either conservative or progressive political ideas exercise too great an influence over an analytic framework, cultural critics are reduced to civic judges tasked endlessly with issuing either affirmative or negative verdicts’ (22). Could you unpack that quote for me a little?

TT: Ha! That’s my friend Tim talking—he’s much smarter than I am. Both of us have felt the pressures of the left-academic theoretical frameworks we were trained under in grad school. They’re strong and useful perspectives on culture, but we both came to feel while writing our first books that they pushed us to spend a great deal of time criticizing cultural formations not so much because they aligned with conservative politics, but because they just failed to align with radical politics. Much of the critique of therapeutic culture is that way: “it’s bad because ‘therapeuticization’ is bad”—it creates docile subjects, conditions neoliberalism, etc. etc. These things may be true. But how many articles do you want to read that draw that conclusion? What else is there to say about the cultural formations other than that they advance neoliberalism? We were trying to make a space in that book to talk about those other things.

LMW: What kinds of issues are women and LGBT+ communities, identifying as in recovery from addiction, currently facing in the United States?

TT: Chronic lack of good services. And by “good” I mean accessible, affordable, and effective. In this, I’m not sure that women and LGBT+ folks are really that different from straight male folks.

LMW: Has the current political climate in the United States affected addiction and substance use as well as the wider-recovery movement?

TT: I don’t know that the Trump administration as such is affecting hard core substance abuse—though I certainly think that the failing political economy of late capitalism has an impact there. However, I also know that in my quite liberal circles, many people speak quite casually of self-medicating with alcohol, pot, and prescription meds to deal with the stress of the Trump presidency and the unending racket on social media. Whether they are doing this to the level of “abuse” is hard to say.

As for how it’s effecting recovery, this is a great question that I don’t have a good answer to because I’m not in the rooms or in the treatment community right now. What I can say is that many folks I know in the program(s) report a troubling bifurcation along political lines—in veiled and not so veiled ways, people’s political allegiances (and dislikes) are manifesting themselves in their self-presentations and talk. This sounds like it breaks along the “Big Book-thumping” vs. “therapeutic” lines I traced in my book, with the former representing a more Republican stance, and the latter more Democrat. I have only anecdotal evidence for this, so it could be totally wrong, but it makes sense to me that it would be happening.

LMW: How can academics, practitioners, people identifying as in recovery, and affiliates of the recovery advocacy movement better address questions of sexism and homophobia as well as racism and stigma more widely?

TT: This is a tough line to walk. I believe that acknowledging the pervasive and systemic nature of oppression—rather than bracketing it off as an “outside issue”—is a key first step. But it’s only a step. People also have to take responsibility for their actions within the frame of that structured inequality.  Believing in both of these as causal, and acting on those beliefs, is quite difficult.

I’m a big believer in something I heard in Al-Anon long ago: “it’s an explanation, not an excuse.” 12-Step purists believe that any time you mention a structural cause for substance abuse, it’s an excuse. And a lot of substance abusers who are having a tough time with sobriety will mobilize it that way. But just because someone mobilizes it as an excuse doesn’t mean it’s not real. The key for the recovering person who experiences discrimination and stigma, is to understand both the structure within which they live, and their agency within it. Allies and researchers need to do the same.

LMW: Have you noticed a growth in the number of addiction recovery groups or individuals in recovery identifying as “secular” and “non-religious”?

TT: I’ve seen it, with the growth of the “spiritual but not religious” groups and conferences, but I’m not following that movement closely right now.

LMW: Your book, The Language of the Heart: A Cultural History of the Recovery Movement from Alcoholics Anonymous to Oprah Winfrey, has been massively influential for myself and colleagues. What inspired you to write it?

TT: I was writing a dissertation about print culture in the US when I started going to meetings to support friends and family of mine who were in the program. I got really intrigued by the way people talked about and used the Big Book, and about the idea in Al-Anon of “conference-approved literature.” These did not seem like your typical late-20th century relationships to print culture that these people had. So of course I thought I’d research it all just a bit, then I’d write one short article about it, then I’d go on one archive trip, etc. etc. I kept getting frustrated that no one had written the article or book that I wanted to explain what I was seeing to me. So I ended up just writing it myself.

LMW: Does identity politics threatens to fragment and disempower the recovery movement, or strengthen it?

TT: I’m not sure about this. The recovery movement is crazy resilient. I’d like to believe that a little dose of identity politics would create a strand in the larger movement where folks for whom that kind of identification and self-analysis works can find one another. I think trying to force folks who don’t get that power frame of reference that I talked about above to “get it” is a terrible idea—particularly in a recovery setting. I try and invite people to it a little bit at a time when I talk about the history of AA and its whiteness, straightness, maleness—how folks might feel excluded by the consistent denomination of the alcoholic as “him,” or a chapter called “to wives.” I’ve gotten a lot of old straight white guys to say “hmmm…I never thought about that.” Contrary to today’s trends towards loud, public, hectoring conversation on these issue, I think that’s a conversation best had by folks who have some level of connection already. The shared experience of seeking sobriety could be that connection. Recovery is a place where people can dare to be honest and vulnerable with each other—it should be, anyway. So the rooms could be a place where people could talk about and across identities. But it needs to happen organically, not programmatically. 12-Step Recovery has space within it for thinking about social justice—but it can’t become a social justice movement, I don’t think.

LMW: Can you tell me what research you are working on at the moment?

TT: I’m getting ready to start putting together a lot of diverse pieces I’ve written in the last ten years on feminism and substance abuse. What has the last 100 years of feminist thought on substance abusing women looked like in the US? Why hasn’t it been more visible? Where is academic feminism in the current discussion of the opioid crisis? The book will be equal parts history of women’s treatment and history of feminism—the two overlap in interesting ways. It’ll have a section on theorizing the woman substance user, a section on feminist approaches to treatment in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and a section on current attitudes towards feminist angles of vision on substance abuse from practitioner and from women in recovery. I have a sabbatical next year and can’t WAIT to get to work on it.

Many thanks to Trysh Travis for a fantastic interview!

The research of Liam Metcalf-White has been supported by a University of Chester International Research Excellence Award, funded under the Santander Universities scheme.


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