I am obsessed by the novels of Charles Dickens, although this is a mild-to-moderate rather than a severe obsession, because I have not read any of them more than two or three times. Nor have I properly read more than a small fraction of the dozens of biographies and book-length critical studies published since Dickens’ death in 1870.
The recent riots in London, after the riots in Paris of a few years ago, got me thinking about Dickens’ descriptions of mob violence and mob rule in A Tale of Two Cities. The capture and execution of French aristocrats by the revolutionary Government provides an opportunity for the alcoholic and morally ambiguous lawyer, Sydney Carton, to do something unselfish for once.
I usually disagree with the view that Dickens is an overly sentimental writer of fiction, in the sense of false or distorted emotions being used for propaganda (for example, to promote a non-progressive view of the role of women). But this charge may be correct when it comes to Carton’s fate in the novel: in helping an aristocrat (who he happens to physically resemble) to escape, he deliberately gets himself imprisoned.
On his way to the guillotine, he speaks one of Dickens’ best-known lines: “It is a far far better thing that I do, than I have ever done”.
But is it? Carton’s supposedly noble action can be seen as promoting the idea that alcoholics are inferior beings who cannot change their personalities or behaviour, and do the rest of us a favour when they choose to die. Such was the hybrid of mistaken science and morality which developed in the last decades of the nineteenth century, and went even further in twentieth-century Nazi Germany.
The novel could easily have been written differently, with Carton revealing his true non-aristocratic status, backed up with a hidden physical attribute or some other identifier. Dickens had been the leading English novelist for decades, and had the skill to produce any number of original, plausible and memorable plot-lines based on Carton’s keeping, or at least trying to keep, his head.
This post was drafted by 2nd September, and published at DrNMblog.wordpress.com on 6th October
Should weight-loss surgery be rolled out widely on the NHS, when effectiveness has been shown for less than 1 in 50?
So many adults become chronically obese, and we are now so aware of childhood obesity, that an overweight person’s history of normal weight and eating, or bulimia, or even anorexia nervosa, can be overlooked. The low cost of calories, and other “obesogenic” factors such as increased screen time and reduced exercise can also lead to therapeutic pessimism, despite nearly one-third of adults having normal weight (1).
Given the apparent failure of appetite suppressants and psychotherapy to treat obesity, a more hands-on surgical approach has gained a lot of ground (2). Reviews of bariatric surgery seem to make a well-founded case for wider use of this treatment: randomised controlled trials (RCT’s), the hallmark of proper testing, have been abundant.
But, despite well-documented cases of obesity remitting and relapsing in response to a range of interventions, sometimes with long intervals (Oprah Winfey, perhaps most famously), there has never been a single- or double-blind trial of bariatric surgery, compared with a true “placebo” which would be “sham” surgery: entering the abdomen under anaesthetic but making no further intervention.
Such genuine placebo-controlled surgical trials have been performed in many disorders where psychological factors have been felt to be significant (3). The RCT’s which give an impression of “a good evidence base” for bariatric surgery are mostly of one form of surgery compared with another, or surgery compared with a perhaps dubious non-medication-based intervention.
And anyway, according to a 2009 UK government-funded and -published meta-analysis, research into bariatric surgery has established its effectiveness for only 1 in 50 people who are at risk of health problems from being overweight: “The evidence base for the clinical effectiveness of bariatric surgery for adults with Class I [BMI30-35] or class II [BMI35-40] obesity is very limited.” (4).
Although I support bariatric surgery, and tried unsuccessfully to have it considered for one of my very obese learning disabled patients, four years ago, it appears to be at risk of being over-promoted for less severe disorders. Just like many other treatments in the history of medicine.
It is possible, in my view, that psychotherapists of all kinds (CBT, psychodynamic, 12-step-orientated) have simply not tried hard enough for a group of patients that attracts negative and even punitive public attention (5). Before proper randomised controlled trials of bariatric surgery, it must make sense to keep looking for non-surgical treatments.
(1) 31.7% of English adults were “normal weight” in 2006. The clinical effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of bariatric (weight loss) surgry for obesity: a systematic review and economic evaluation. Picot et al. Health Technol Assess 2009: 1-190, 215-357. [p3]. Available at http://www.hta.ac.uk/execsumm/summ1341.htm
(2) See my Blog piece “No” to the knife, “Yes” to Ritalin? 6th August 2010: https://drnmblog.wordpress.com/2010/08/06/%e2%80%9cno%e2%80%9d-to-the-knife-%e2%80%9cyes%e2%80%9d-to-ritalin/
(3) Laparoscopic excision of endometriosis: a randomized, placebo-controlled trial. Abbott et al. Fertil Steril 2004: p878. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15482763
(4) See (1): p157. 67.1% of English adults were either “overweight” or “obese” in 2006, of which 2.2% (1.5% of the whole population) had aBMIabove 40. See (1) p3
[includes comments from the then Royal College of General Practitioners chairman, Professor Steve Field]
Drafted by 10th June 2011; published at DrNMblog.wordpress.com on 7th October 2011
Books “should, like alcohol, dissolve barriers”, according to the literary academic and journalist John Sutherland, who explored the early history of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in a short programme last week on Radio 4 (1).
But for some people (including Professor Sutherland himself, sober only through two decades of attendance at AA meetings) alcohol has the opposite effect: “drinking recreated the conditions of childhood. Solitude; myself alone” (2).
Of these two apparently contradictory explanations for excessive drinking (alcohol dissolves interpersonal barriers; alcohol creates an interpersonal barrier), the first has been widely held for decades. “Social anxiety” was seen as a cause of alcoholism (3), and a problem in itself, well before pharmaceutical companies supposedly invented it in the 1990’s (4).
Anyone with the slightest interest in English Literature is likely to have read at least one of Sutherland’s reviews, books, or introductions to classics by authors such as Wilkie Collins and Anthony Trollope. They are invariably well-organised and structured, with a light touch but not at all “dumbed-down”, so achieving their aim of engaging academics and the general reader.
Alcoholics Anonymous has the reputation of having a rather black-and-white view of addiction. This is probably helpful, even necessary, for many people with severe problems, especially those in the early stages of “recovery”.
But this academic abstainer is not afraid to explore complexity or uncertainty. For example, in his Introduction to Jack London’s ‘Alcoholic Memoirs’, he suggests that the “chronic boozer” London later brought his own alcohol intake under control “easily enough”, and then continued to drink in part “socially”, but also because of the creative possibilities gained from alcohol withdrawal (not intoxication) (5).
Therefore, for anyone looking to remove or reduce moderate or mild addictions, a period of solitude spent reading Sutherland’s extensive works is highly recommended, and is unlikely in my view to have any harmful effects.
(1) Available on the BBC’s iPlayer only until 14th November: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00vr78f/The_AA_Bible/
(2) Both quotations are from Professor Sutherland’s British Council Biography: http://www.contemporarywriters.com/authors/?p=auth519D1A75056591DEA5JxLj47A89F
(5) The whole Introduction can be read with Amazon’s “Look Inside” facility. The book’s full title is John Barleycorn: ‘Alcoholic Memoirs’.