Review of Trysh Travis, The Language of the Heart: A Cultural History of the Recovery Movement from Alcoholics Anonymous to Oprah Winfrey (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010) xvi + 376 pp.
Academics are professional skeptics. Among other things, we have learned to be wary of the book introduction, burned too many times from single-digit page numbers that over-promise and under-deliver. Trysh Travis's recent monograph, The Language of the Heart: A Cultural History of the Recovery Movement from Alcoholics Anonymous to Oprah Winfrey, is the rare book that more than lives up to its promises: the rich contents of this book far surpass the vague claim on the dust jacket, which tells us that Travis will argue that "what unites these varied cultures of recovery is their desire to offer spiritual solutions to problems of gender and power." Travis certainly takes gender seriously, but her cultural history is both more sweeping and more nuanced than a formulaic feminist Foucauldian analysis might allow. In Travis's introduction, she makes clear that the primary aim of her book is not to deconstruct facets of the recovery movement, but to lay the groundwork for establishing an "adequate sense" of what the term means (p. 3). Her second stated purpose is to "establish recovery--its history, its organizing principles, and its culture--as a legitimate subject for sustained scholarly analysis" (p. 8). She capably accomplishes both goals.
The first section of the book, "Addiction and Recovery," establishes a working definition of recovery culture(s) by making the crucial distinction between Alcoholics Anonymous and the professional treatment industry. Without ignoring the ways in which the theories put forth by associations were in concert (both in seeking public recognition and in developing a "distinctive rhetoric"), Travis begins with the implication that future studies of recovery would do well to make a primary distinction between voluntary associations like AA and the recovery industry based on 12-step principles or models. In this section, the "distinctive rhetoric" that would later become the "language of the heart" of the book's title, begins with a discussion of the "disease" concept of alcoholism. Rather than attempting to debunk this concept, Travis historicizes it, tracing its development as well as its uses, as it was alternately put forth by various actors throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. This genealogy of the disease concept of addiction is traced through: the language of Alcoholics Anonymous and its founders; the theories of the Yale School of Alcohol Studies and Marty Mann's National Committee for Education on Alcoholism; the policies of the federal government, beginning in 1963 with the Community Mental Health Centers Act; and the agendas of "process" addiction advocates, who expanded the "disease" concept to many aspects of modern life, including sex and food. After historicizing how "addictions" of various sorts came to be understood as a "disease" on par with type one diabetes, Travis turns her attention to the "antidote" as offered by Alcoholics Anonymous: "surrender."
The second chapter illustrates how AA's concept of "surrender"--and AA itself--can be traced to AA's theological roots in both New Thought mysticism and Protestant (Oxford Group) evangelism. It also traces its roots biographically, in the life stories of its founders, Bill Wilson, Bob Smith and the largely white, Protestant, middle-class men who formed the earliest AA groups. While much of the content of this section will be familiar to historians of addiction, Travis's careful delineation between the various historical actors who contributed to the "diseasing" of America, and her introduction of a new conceptual framework from which to view the early AA paradigm of "surrender," are worthy contributions to the available scholarship.
At the end of the first section, Travis coins the phrase "alcoholic equalitarianism," situating it as a response to Victorian success ideology and an offshoot of Christian equalitarianism, a movement that held that salvation was available to "all who would seek it, irrespective of rank or station" (p. …