Reading Lolita in Recovery.

21 January, 2015, London. As a writer, artist, historian and adoptee, the onus is on me to venture into forbidden territory to weed out the truth behind the status quo. As an adoptee, I am particularly prone to be like a Steppenwolf, part of, but at odds with society; inclined to observe the world as an outsider, to ask the questions many will not ask, to dare to seek the knowledge and stories that ‘they’ tell us are forbidden.

One such story is Nabokov’s Lolita. The infamy surrounding Lolita needs no explanation. It joins a litany of banned, burned, and forbidden works and authors that threatened the social order of various generations for a wide variety of reasons — The Grapes of Wrath, Madame Bovary, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Satanic Verses, Tropic of Cancer, Candide, Frankenstein, Fanny Hill, and Elmer Gantry to name but a few. It is a rather uncomfortable read. I considered reading it several times in the past, but there was always this voice that warned me against it. Now, exiled from my kids, stranded in the hinterland, my inner defiant streak finally repelled that ‘socially acceptable voice’ and I read it. Now I know why it is considered a classic, not just smut. Peppered with guilt-inspired dark humour, Lolita is a gem.

Now I find my defiant self sitting here in an open group discussion of a community-based addiction treatment agency, trading experiences, insights and stories that swirl around the drinking of alcohol. As I listen and share, there comes a thought that we’ve somehow crossed an imaginary line, and are now all banished from our families, friends and previous lives. It is followed by a daring thought that drinking really isn’t as evil as we’re being made to feel. It’s 2015 for God sake! There’s devastating white-collar crime, terrorism, deadly epidemics, serial killers, child molesters, rapists and sadists lurking around every corner, and here we are, trying to get a handle on a habit that’ll kill us, not likely anyone else, just us. Are we really a threat to society? What is it about societal responses to alcohol and its effects that label us deviants?

An answer to this may be as simple as looking at the various translations of the word, “Cheers”.

Sláinte, Ziveli, Na zdravje, Salud, Prost, Zum Wohl, Skål, Lechaym, Nush, Budmo.

Various languages toast ‘to your health’, ‘to life’, ‘to live’. No matter how you say it, drink is equated with living, really living! It’s as if drinking is the very essence of life. Perhaps it is. Perhaps this is the line we’ve crossed when we slip into the realm of really, really enjoying the stuff. To drink in excess is not to drink ‘to life’, but ‘to death’. We’ve abused the nectar of life, and for that, there are dire consequences.

In his insightful book, The Punisher’s Brain, Morris Hoffman asks,

Why do we punish people? Just to punish them, to deter them and others, to cure them of their criminal tendencies, simply to get them away from us for a little while, or all of the above? (p. 334, Hoffman)

Punishment falls under four classic theories: retribution, rehabilitation, deterrence, and incapacitation.

Punishment under any of these categories is a kind of moral exchange intrinsic to the social contract. Wrongdoers, having lost this social standing by defecting, must now suffer the consequences or punishment as “the price for returning to the fold.” (p. 334, Hoffman)

If only Eve hadn’t bitten the fruit. Whether the fruit was symbolic of knowledge, sexual desire, consciousness, or just our need to steal protein from other living things, it was irresistible. The choice that Eve and then Adam made in giving in to their base impulses, their defiant natures, their ‘humanness’ – whether to cooperate with God or cheat – is a choice humans have faced since our emergence from the slime.

19th century Visions of Drunkenness
19th century Visions of Drunkenness

In choosing to give into our base impulses, our defiant natures, our ‘humanness, by choosing cheating over cooperating with each other, we have been placed outside society where we must rehab to be accepted back into the fold. The accepted norm is one of balance and this is the kernel of the threat. The concept echoes back to the Golden Mean celebrated by the teetotalers of Ancient Greece. History is rife with battles between abstinence and drunkenness. Excess upsets the social order. At one time, it threatened the survival of the small group, later the progress of society, and at certain times, the comfort of the bourgeois. Story research into the 19th-Early 20th centuries leaves me with the unmistakable impression that the period was one of heightened social anxiety caused by threats to the status quo from everywhere — mass immigration, industrialization, grossly overcrowded urban centres, and the crumbling of the approved gender and family roles.

Parallel to this upheaval came the drunkards/extremists of the late 18th c., still drowning in the readily available cheap gin after centuries of the choice of beer or wine. Now, with many more choices and, in contrast to the rural idyllic, the drunkards were crammed into close proximity to those attaining the comforts of upper and middle class living that came with adhering to the social contract. Those overcrowded streets, darkened alleys, noise-infested pubs became feared dens of iniquity, filled with drug addicts, the impoverished, prostitutes, thieves, killers — an underworld of the destitute, Orwell’s kingdom of ghosts.

We are social animals highly attuned to the behaviors of others, constantly monitoring, evaluating, and predicting those behaviors. We instantly recognize behaviors that don’t make sense, that by their very irrationality and unpredictability threaten us or our families. (p. 6, Hoffman)

As Hoffman points out in his Introduction,

Evolution built us to punish cheaters. without that punishment instinct, we would never have been able to live in small groups, and would never have realized all the significant benefits that small-group living conferred, including mutual defense, cooperative hunting, property, divisions of labor, and economies of scale. In fact, to a large extent our notions of right and wrong,  of empathy and compassion, of fairness and justice, all come from the tensions of group living, and thus owe their very existence to punishment. (p. 1, Hoffman)

Our punishment instinct is not so much a sword ready to fall as it is a finely tuned balance. Intentional cheaters and transgressors get most of out punishment; the careless ones, get most of our ‘punishment attention.’ (p. 1, Hoffman)

The question then becomes, are alcoholics purposeful transgressors, or unfortunate souls? Is alcoholism a disease/disorder and therefore not the drinkers fault, and therefore curable? Or is the alcoholic making a conscious choice to reject the social contract and live outside society? On the moral spectrum, the contract killer is evil, there is no debate; but the inattentive driver who kills a pedestrian, it matters so much more about the wrongdoer’s state of mind than we do about the actual harm his wrong has caused — we ‘care’ whether wrongdoer’s are evil or just careless.

The Steppenwolf and the Flock.

As drinkers who have reached the point of seeking help, we have often reached the nadir of our psychic and physical beings where we have embraced the outside. As we recover, we may not want to go back the darkest part of abyss where we swam in quicksand, but having sipped the nectar of the extreme, do we really want to be accepted back ‘into the fold’? So many in recovery talk of how boring it is, some run screaming from the blandness of the norm. Boring is one thing, but others who took to drink to mask and erase horrific memories refer to it as ‘battling sobriety’. Other talk of drinking styles that mimic committing suicide.


Alcohol, Drinking, Drunkenness: (Dis)Orderly Spaces / Mark Jayne, Gill Valentine, Sarah L. Holloway, 2011

The Punisher’s Brain: The Evolution of Judge and Jury / Morris B. Hoffman, 2014


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