Review of Helen Keane’s ‘What’s Wrong with Addiction?’ and Elizabeth Wurtzel’s ‘More, Now, Again’

By Monique Rooney

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Helen Keane’s What’s Wrong with Addiction? asks an apposite question of a banal theme: why and to what effect has addiction been demonised in modern society? Noting at the outset that it “seems almost too obvious to bother asking” (1), Keane nevertheless plays on the banality of the eponymous question which stands out in large blue and red font on the stark yellow background of the book’s cover. For the book could, at first glance, be mistaken to be one of many preachy self-help titles that have proliferated in recent years and that promise bold and definite answers to an apparently needy readership. Keane’s book does not, however, offer didactic or basic solutions. Instead it deftly analyses the ways in which mainstream and specialist discourses have unhelpfully situated addiction as a disease and a pathology that is radically other to “the domain of the clean, proper and healthy body” (8). Keane examines why it is bad to be an addict and what the wrongness of addiction is as well as how addiction is constituted through discourses concerned with its classification, monitoring, regulation, treatment and analysis. Her thorough interrogation of a range of addiction narratives demonstrates the impossibility of defining exactly how and where addiction is to be located. Addiction discourse, Keane argues, is characterised by an undecidability concerning its classification (is addiction mental, neurological, physiological, habitual or behavioural?). Compounding this lack of fixity is the problem of how to separate the body of the addict from the addictive substance.

Keane analyses the textual production of addiction in medical texts and popular literature to argue that this literature produces the addict as one whose freedom and autonomy have been compromised. What’s Wrong with Addiction challenges common representations of the addict, in this discourse, as one who fails to fulfil a responsible social role. By contrast, Keane defines the addict as one who resists proper subjectivity in a society in which the individual is “obliged to be free”. One of Keane’s purposes is to rethink contemporary ideas about subjectivity, including the question of whether or not addiction is wholly self-destructive behaviour. That the addict treats the body as an object, something to be experimented with, violated, abused, poses a significant challenge to mainstream understandings of singular individuality and the cognate belief that proper subjectivity transcends the material body. Addiction is, for Keane, not so much about lack of self-control as it is about perverse desire: “addiction is a state marked by caring too much about the wrong things, and not enough about the right things” (38). Locating addiction as a product of “a peculiarly modern regime of disciplinary power and knowledge” (7), Keane’s work is overtly influenced by Foucauldian ideas about the deviant body as one that is both produced by and marginalised within normative power structures. This argument is further complicated though the deployment of poststructuralist feminist debate, especially the work of Eve Sedgwick and Judith Butler and their work on desire, pathology and victimisation, identity politics, subject-object relations and the role of responsibility and autonomy in a consumer driven economy. Keane elegantly weaves these concerns together through a strong argument which connects social prescriptions about gender and sexuality to condemnations of addictive behaviour.

While not wanting to trivialise or romanticise the effects of drug and alcohol abuse (9), Keane’s analysis does seek to overturn conventional understandings of the addict as a victim of compulsive or habitual drives. What is wrong with addiction, Keane compellingly argues, is the way in which the addict is positioned as the polar opposite to “the model of the freely choosing individual” (4). Sometimes, however, this reading comes across as a way of endorsing an ideological position. At the end of Chapter One, for example, Keane suggests that a way of overcoming addiction is to think of the body in terms of Deleuzian “assemblage”, that is a fragmentation of parts rather than a singular, unified being. The book’s strength lies in its elaboration of addictive processes and treatments rather than in this, and the occasional other, value-laden conclusion. In particular, Keane’s deconstruction of medical texts and serious consideration of popular literature builds a complex picture of addiction narratives and forcefully demonstrates the impossibility of categorising addiction in any total way. The first three chapters examine both pharmacological and popular writing to problematise the treatment and classification of highly addictive drugs (heroine, cocaine) as a medical disorder. Keane then moves to an evocative reading of smoking as time wastage and then to an analysis of other categories—such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia, sex addiction—that are not necessarily always diagnosed as addictions and lastly to a discussion of what she terms the “recovery habit”. This narrative movement from an analysis of hard to softer forms of addiction reinforces one of Keane’s central arguments which is that the supposed objectivity of hard science is based on assumptions that are as moralistic as the therapeutic reasonings of pulp literature.

For instance, an analysis of an Australian Women’s Weekly story frames the first chapter’s study of pharmacological classifications of drug addiction. This reading of an Australian girl’s “miracle recovery” from a heroine habit after using the controversial drug Naltrexone illustrates two main themes of Keane’s argument. This is, firstly, that drug classification is based on a moralistic and arbitrary division between the (good) natural and the (bad) artificial. Naltrexone is pitched in this story as the good drug that saves the addict from bad heroine. This then highlights Keane’s second point concerning the semi-religious structure of popular addiction narratives and their influence on supposedly objective assessments. The addict is generally represented in recovery narratives as a victim under the control of a dangerous, illicit substance who is eventually, through a miraculous recovery, freed and transformed and returned to a normal state. Deploying Derrida’s notion of the pharmakon, the drug that represents a meeting of oppositions (poison and cure), Keane discusses the arbitrary nature of attitudes to addiction in relation to physiological and neurological models of addiction. For example, Keane asks why it is that Ecstasy is prohibited and Prozac medically sanctioned when they are similar in both their chemical makeup and their neurological effects. She also discusses the difficulty of defining such chemicals as alien to the brain’s organic structure when the brain produces naturally occurring chemicals, such as endorphins. Addiction discourses, Keane argues, relay a modern anxiety about bodily boundaries, particularly the problem of distinguishing between the natural and the artificial. The body, in this discourse, becomes the site of discipline and regulation through which moral ideas about pleasure and order are policed. What we hold against the addict, Keane argues, “is an attachment to illusory pleasure”.

This reading of addiction as the overturning of or resistance to conventional notions of personhood worked best in Keane’s discussion of smoking. This chapter begins with an epigraph from Oscar Wilde about smoking as exquisitely unsatisfactory pastime and makes fascinating connections between the anti-smoking lobby’s obsessive calculation of time (the smoker’s loss of 5.5 minutes per cigarette) and smoking as a positive form of time wastage. Smoking is argued to be a pleasure that “connected to temporal effects, the small ritual marking the passage of time as well as taking up time” removes the smoker from “common time” and both forestalls and risks death (105-7). What smoking ultimately engenders, Keane argues, is the addictiveness of desire in its purest form: “an unsatisfied promise of fulfilment” (108). This idea of addiction as a longing for desire is further developed in the chapters on eating disorders and sex addiction. For instance, the anorexic is a “good addict and “an extremely cautious consumer” whose obsession with self-discipline is contradictorily out of control (113-23). The compulsive eater and the bulimic are more obviously addictive personalities who are fascinated with bodily boundaries and with creating their own social space (118-20). Eating disorder narratives are positioned as counter discourses to mainstream nutritional advice in which food is obsessively compartmentalised into “good” and “bad”. The sex addict, similarly, transgresses the normative model of the healthy, monogamous relationship.

Keane argues that much “recovery” literature tends to expand on medical understandings of the body as a natural, organic unit that is invaded by an artificial substance. The premise of “recovery narratives” is typically the liberation of the authentic body from an artificially controlled body. The narrative inevitably describes a downward spiral into a destructive state, followed by a conversion and transformative recovery. Images of metamorphosis are employed, in recovery literature, so as to naturalise a process informed by liberal humanist ideas about the self (163). This also promotes a religious approach to a pure and authentic body that exists beneath the diseased, addicted state. Citing Sedgwick’s work on habit and conduct, Keane suggests that a more helpful approach to such evangelical thinking is to think of behaviour in terms of habit and conduct rather than pure transcendence from the self. This approach would dissolve the inside/outside distinction and could

open up the possibilities for a range of ethical self-formations not confined by binaries of health and pathology. Addiction and recovery could be thought of not as disease and cure or problem and solution, but as different ways of marking the self and the body with grooves. (187)

Coming from a literary background, I wondered to what extent the recovery narrative owes its structure to the novel–a form that, as D. A. Miller argues, has been complicit in the cultural production of individuality and privacy.1 Keane’s chapter on smoking, in which she draws a link between the novel reader and the smoker as seekers of solitude, raises the allure of this desire for secrecy but is in tension with her concluding prescriptions for a more ethical way of reading addiction.

Cravings for narrative suspense and closure are not likely to be satisfied by More, Now, Again, Elizabeth Wurtzel’s story of her addiction to the legal drug Ritalin. On one hand, this story conforms to the generic structure of the recovery narrative, as described by Keane, in that it describes Wurtzel’s downward spiral and then recovery from addiction after her therapist prescribes Ritalin, the drug normally administered to hyperactive children. Ritalin is prescribed because Wurtzel has trouble focusing as, ostensibly unaware that the drug is highly addictive, she begins crushing and snorting them until she is eventually consuming up to forty pills a day. This substance abuse is accompanied by self-inflicted violence as Wurtzel attacks her legs with tweezers until they are covered with gaping wounds. She is eventually admitted to rehab and, after another relapse, reaches a point at which she decides to give up Ritalin. This transformation seems arbitrary and not only because her earlier book, Prozac Nation (1997), had already charted similar territory. Wurtzel’s professed motivations for her addiction are also unconvincing and not entirely revelatory. Whilst representing herself as a radical adventurer in the most hyperbolic terms, “I might as well have been Columbus discovering America while looking for India” (10),Wurtzel’s drives come across in her writing as being formulaic.

For instance, Wurtzel promotes her “addict” role as if it has become a cliché in the late twentieth century. Whilst Helen Keane’s theory of addiction makes a case for revaluing the addict’s refusal to comply with social norms, Wurtzel represents herself as a self-conscious addict. She puts her body on display and cashes in on postmodernism’s validation of such exhibitionism

There is a special kind of denial that is completely postmodern, something that only awareness of addiction—whether it’s via public service campaigns or from seeing Betty Ford interviewed by Larry King—can produce: the nondenial denial. It used to be that you’d actually say that you weren’t a drunk, sometimes you had a few too many, but nothing outlandish. Nowadays you can’t get away with that; knowledge of the nature of dependency is too pervasive. So you start to have people like me, people who say, I am an addict and I like it, try and stop me. (59)

This claim that the prevalence of addiction discourses have made the addict unstoppable is belied by the book itself which is premised on the spectacle of Wurtzel’s addiction and which follows the conventional moralistic tract of the recovery narrative. “All I ever wanted was to be good” Wurtzel writes “and it’s all turned out so bad” (20). Wurtzel thus contradictorily proclaims a hyper-awareness of the addictive condition at the same time as she plays the victim role. Although at times she employs self-parody to good effect, Wurtzel is also capable of evincing a stunning lack of sensitivity about her own privileged position. Neither here nor anywhere else in the book does Wurtzel consider that her celebrity status facilitates her celebration of substance abuse. This blindness to her privileged social standing is reinforced when Wurtzel describes her upper middle-class aspirations as if such opportunities are universal:

I took it for granted that I would be married with kids, that by then I’d have made partner in some law firm, or I’d have tenure in some tweedy university, or I’d be mayor or congresswoman or thinking about my bid for presidency. Or, more likely, I’d be some kind of artist, a painter or writer, but my husband would be a more conventional type, maybe he’d be a law partner or professor or elected official. We would have little adorable daughters or bratty, athletic sons. We would be lovely. (23)

This (only partly parodic) self confidence about professional and creative potential is not matched by evidence of intellectual productivity or curiosity. For instance, her references to her music journalism career lack both irony and genuine interest in the field. “For the life of me” Wurtzel writes ” I do not understand why musicians want me to listen to their demos. I don’t write about music anymore. Even when I did it was only about big, huge bands” (54). Despite this sense of failing conviction, More, Now, Again demonstrates just how keen Wurtzel is to insert herself in a literary and musical family. The book is dedicated to Bruce Springsteen and contains many quotations and epigraphs of writers of addictive experiences, such as Sylvia Plath and her favourite poet, Anne Sexton.

Sadly, in More, Now, Again, Wurtzel seems unable to live up to the stardom thrust upon her after Prozac Nation became a bestseller. The book not only reveals that she is dependent on drugs but suggests that this and the therapeutic process have become the sole motivation and theme of her writing. Not that drug dependence necessarily leads to bad writing. From Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s (1797) and Thomas DeQuincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821) to William Burrough’sJunkie (1953) and James Ellroy’s My Dark Places (1997), the addiction motif has been deployed for the exploration of sub- and/or counter cultures. More, Now, Again‘s description of addiction also tracks Wurtzel’s concurrent writing and proofreading of her previous book, Bitch (1999). However, Wurtzel confesses that Ritalin was having a negative effect on this process: “it manufactures so many different ideas that it is impossible for me to concentrate on any one thing” (41). This sporadic focus is confirmed by the many reviews of Bitch that generally found it lacked rigorous argument.

This self-portrait might be of interest as an illuminating discourse on the pressures of populist writing if it weren’t for the fact that Wurtzel’s outlook, about herself and others, often lacks objectivity. For instance her astounding response to the trial of Timothy McVeigh is to compare the suffering of the Oklahoma bombing victims to her own: “the victims are a dispersion of ordinary voices of pain, and I have been hearing about pain all my life”. Her opinion on the O. J. Simpson trial is equally uninformed: “Even O. J. Simpson, who should almost be put to death for being such a gross idiot, only deserves life without parole” (73). There are moments of self-clarity, such as in the section in which Wurtzel describes a round of disastrous television and radio interviews she gave to promote Bitch. During one appearance on the talk show Politically Incorrect, the host Bill Maher’s response after she is unable to provide coherent answers is “Let’s go to a commercial … and we’ll see if you can form an opinion” (234). This and other self-deprecatory moments tend to be attributed, however, to the effect of the drugs rather than to the fear of failure that at least partly explains her addiction. It seems that, in Elizabeth Wurtzel’s case, addiction could be a way of resisting the obligation to be free or a useful device for shedding responsibility.


Monique Monique Rooney completed her PhD on “passing for white” in American literature and film in 2001. She is currently lecturing in American Literature at Massey University, New Zealand.

Helen Keane, What’s Wrong with Addiction? Victoria: Melbourne University Press, 2002. ISBN 0 522 84991 1; and Elizabeth Wurtzel, More, Now, Again. London: Virago, 2002. ISBN 1 86049 918 X


1 D. A. Miller, The Novel and the Police (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 200.

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