Horror Stories
True Tales of Misery, Betrayal and Abuse in NA, AA and 12-Step Treatment

Rebecca Fransway
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This book is here courtesy of See Sharp Press and Rebecca Fransway, Ed.

23. Dr. Jeffrey Schaler
An Inquisition

Since 1982, I have been very active in writing about public policy issues in addiction care, and doing public service in addiction care, mainly in Montgomery County, Maryland. I was on the Montgomery County Drug Abuse Advisory Council from 1982-1988 where I was appointed by the county to be a representative for the mental health profession. In addition, I did my doctoral dissertation on controversial issues regarding the disease model of addiction, and what I call the "free will" model of addiction. I have authored several books on addiction and on mental illness.

My wife and I moved to the Philadelphia area about two years ago. The Chairman of the Graduate Psychology Department at Chestnut Hill College, about two miles from our new home, called and asked me to come and teach there. He'd seen my name around and respected my expertise. I was interviewed in the summer of 1997, and he asked me to teach a course called "The Spirituality of the 12 Steps" in the fall 1997 semester. I was not sure that he was aware of my position on the subject, but I gave him all my materials, and he was quite excited about my coming on board. One can teach such a course from several different angles, and I decided my class would examine the 12-step philosophy from an interdisciplinary perspective -- where it's looked at from historical, anthropological, psychological, and scientific point of view. This was a course in a graduate program in psychology; people were getting licensed to practice as psychologists, and I decided it was important to teach from this standpoint.

The professor who had taught this course in the past did not wish to release his syllabus. I thought this was peculiar, but I created my own syllabus and taught the course. It proved to be a very interesting fall semester. There were a couple of people in the class who had been and still are in AA. But when it became clear, in class, that many of the things taught in AA are not scientifically valid, and that AA is, in many ways, a religious program, one woman in particular got upset. She seemed intent on maintaining what she had been taught by AA about alcoholism and addiction as the truth. I said, very patiently, that there was no scientific evidence to support AA's ideas and that, in fact, there is plenty of evidence that shows AA's ideas are not true.

She then became very emotionally upset. I found out later that she complained to the chairman of the department, and to others, about me. Additionally, she wrote in the class evaluation that I was a dangerous person. My point to her was -- and I told her this on several occasions -- that if AA was helpful to her, I supported her. However, I also reminded her that she was in a graduate program and that it is important to look at the truthfulness of, and the origin of, AA's ideas. If she couldn't handle this, she probably didn't belong in a graduate program.

Another student in the class was very much in agreement with me. He was concerned about the issue of people being coerced into AA programs by the state. He was quite vocal about this, and as a result there was a marked polarization in the class between these two people and their points of view. Again, I tried to mediate so that no one was offended personally.

Anyway, the semester came to an end, and everything was fine, except for the one woman who had complained so vigorously. I was asked to teach a second course in the spring 1998 semester. The class would be called "The Foundations of Addictive Behavior." I looked forward to teaching this, because I had taught related courses at John Hopkins University and American University.

In the course, I used some of the works of Thomas Szasz, Herbert Fingarette, and Stanton Peele. We had a great class. However, we got to a point in the class where we began to look at the similarities between the drug experience and the religious experience. I pointed out how many of our current attitudes about drug users are similar to the scapegoating attitudes of religious persecutors in past centuries.

In other words,throughout history certain people have been assigned scapegoat status and blamed for different social problems. Christians, Jews, homosexuals, and blacks have fallen victim to this, and today, of course, drug users are scapegoated and blamed for any number of problems. That part of the course really wasn't very controversial. The part that stirred things up was the comparison of the drug experience and the religious experience.

There is a tendency for people who are religious to say, Oh, I know that Jesus is talking to me. When you ask, How do you know that? the answer is usually, Well, I just know it. There's no real evidence; it's simply an unsupported self-report. Many people who are on drugs believe what they imagine in a similar way. When I began to talk about this, it really seemed to upset one or two people in the class. I equated some of the drug experience with the experience of Holy Communion, where one believes one is eating the body and blood of Christ, where the metaphor is literalized. One student, a Jewish woman, said in class, But Dr. Schaler, when people take communion they know they aren't eating the literal blood and body of Christ, but that they're consuming the metaphorical blood and body of Christ One woman shot back, exploding: I beg your pardon, I most certainly do believe I'm eating the literal body and blood of Christ!

As an example, let's take people who use LSD -- their imagination of the world, what they "see" under the influence of LSD, is believed as literally true. That verges on what we in psychology and psychiatry label as psychosis. A person who can't, or won't, is incapable of, or somehow fails to differentiate what they imagine about the world from what is literally true, is said to be experiencing psychosis. In religious experience, something similar happens. If I say, God is speaking to me, that's something I imagine, and that I assert is true. However, because that's a socially acceptable delusion, I'm not going to get into much trouble. If I say, Martians are walking around on the ceiling, I will be labeled as psychotic because that's a socially unacceptable delusion. Qualitatively, there's not much difference, it's a matter of which delusion is more popular. So, we could say that people who have religious delusions are psychotic, or we could say that people we label as psychotic are, basically, having religious experiences.

In a graduate program, it should be completely acceptable to talk about this type of thing. In my opinion, individuals in graduate programs should be developed enough to be able, at least, to talk about these ideas without becoming too upset. In my class, one or two students became extremely upset about discussing this. One of them said, The religious experience is not in any way similar to a drug experience. In other words, a religious experience was superior, and, somehow, a drug experience was inferior, according to their way of thinking. This was ironic in that on the one hand these same persons said they wanted to protect the welfare of drug users, that they cared for them a great deal, and on the other hand, they assert the view that the drug experience is an inferior experience, thereby stigmatizing drug users.

Discussing these sorts of issues in class seemed to get me in a great deal of trouble. Despite strong objections from a few students, after that course -- and I'd received very good evaluations by the majority of students in the class -- I was asked to teach yet another course in psychology during the summer. This would be another graduate course, an introduction to graduate topics in psychology. It was not a particularly controversial course; however, I did use some books by authors who did not believe in the disease theory of addiction. It is important to note that there is a faction of strong intellectual writers in the field of psychiatry and psychology who do not believe there is any such thing as "mental illness." This does not mean that some people do not do things that seem peculiar, but that these behaviors don't fit the scientific criteria for "illness."

During that time, I was getting better acquainted with other faculty members of Chestnut Hill College. While on the worldwide web, I found that one of the faculty members, a tenured professor, had a home page which had a "suggest-a-link" section, where a visitor could add a link to different psychology pages. I did not know this professor personally, and I had no idea of his orientation. I had recently created the Thomas Szasz Cybercenter for Liberty and Responsibility (http://www.szasz.com). I did not expect him to agree with me, and I did write introducing myself. I told him I was teaching at Chestnut Hill College, and asked him if he wanted to comment.

At this same time, I had contacted the webmaster at Chestnut Hill College, and told her that she could connect the college web page outline of summer courses to my syllabus, which I had up on a separate page inside the Thomas Szasz site. The webmaster said, "fine."

Meanwhile, the professor with the links page wrote back to me and said he was deeply offended by my political orientation, that given my political orientation any connection with Chestnut Hill College was unacceptable, that I had not asked permission to "do this," and that if I had asked permission, I would be denied. I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about.

After I investigated, I discovered that the Szasz site had changed hosts. The site used to be at St. John's University in New York; however, the professor of psychology there who had asked me if they could host my site for free, was moving to another location and he asked if he could take my site with him. I consented. Unknown to me at the time, he had set up a referring page so that when people went to my syllabus via the Chestnut Hill College web site, they ended up at the home page of the Szasz site. This was not intentional on my part. I figured that this is what had upset the professor at Chestnut Hill College. I apologized and explained that the whole thing was quite unintentional. I told him that to avoid further confusion I would simply ask the webmaster at Chestnut Hill College to eliminate the link. I thought that was reasonable. But then, I wasn't asked to teach again.

I kept calling the chairman of the Graduate Psychology Department, but he refused to return my calls. Finally I reached him and told him that I didn't understand what was going on. We had a meeting. I told him that I was concerned that he might not want me back because of the misunderstanding I'd had with that particular professor over the web site. I thought everything had been straightened out, but I worried that my not being invited to teach had something to do with his dislike for me and for what I was teaching.

The inquisition then began. The chairman asked me what I thought of Alcoholics Anonymous. I told him that I taught my courses from an objective point of view. He asked, What do you think of AA, personally? I said, Personally, I don't think it's a very good program. I think it goes against what we know to be true in contemporary psychological research. I think it's very destructive in what it teaches people. For example, if you teach people that they don't have the power to choose, they will believe it.

He asked, Do you think it's a cult? I replied, I do, and I've given evidence to support my position. I'm not demanding that my students agree with this, but I am asking them to look at the evidence. He then said, Well, you can't teach here. I said, Are you telling me I can't use peer-reviewed articles from sociological journals and similar academic materials in a graduate course in psychology? Are you telling me I have to toe the line according to Alcoholics Anonymous? He replied, That's exactly what I'm telling you.

Then he asked me what I believed about mental illness. I told him I was a friend of Thomas Szasz, and that I believed that much of what passes for "mental illness" does not meet the criteria for disease. I also assured him that I teach about mental illness from many different points of view, rather than only from my personal understanding. I also told him that I didn't understand how my personal opinions were relevant to my teaching abilities.

The chairman then told me, Well, (the tenured professor) told me that I must not have your name on any college literature from now on. When I told him I did not understand this, the chairman replied, Please bear with me; I don't want to upset him. Maybe I can sneak you in to teach a course on psychological theory without having your name on any of the college schedules. I will be in touch.

While leaving, I picked up a schedule of classes for the fall, and I saw that all the courses I had taught were being taught by other adjunct faculty members. Apparently, the chairman had been dishonest with me. It had already been decided that I would not teach at Chestnut Hill, most likely because of my views on Alcoholics Anonymous. The reason he did not get back in touch with me for so long is that he'd already picked others to teach my courses.

I wrote a letter to him saying that he'd been dishonest with me, and that it looked as if the college policy was that peer-reviewed articles are not acceptable, and that the AA line must be followed in order to teach psychology there. I thought that was an outrageous and cowardly abridgment of academic freedom. I sent a copy of the letter to the president of the college. Then the shit really hit the fan.

The chairman called me up and said, You might as well have hauled off and hit me in the face. I replied that he had been cowardly and deserved it. I wanted to bring this out in the open.

The president of the college assigned the matter to the vice president of academic affairs, who was also the dean of faculty. He wrote me a letter and asked for a meeting. The three of us -- the dean of faculty, the chairman of the Graduate Psychology Department, and myself -- had a meeting in June or July of 1998. During that meeting I recounted everything that had gone on. The dean of faculty was able to witness my interaction with the chairman of the department. I also repeated that my dismissal was a blatant infringement on the principles of academic freedom, and that I was going to have the AAUP -- the American Association of University Professors -- investigate this matter.

(The AAUP is an organization which, in the 1940s, coined the term "academic freedom," which means that professors must be free to talk about controversial issues, and that a college shouldn't endorse [or suppress] any point of view. Academic excellence is based on this principle, and, generally speaking, academicians feel very strongly about this. Academic freedom must be protected at any cost. Any college that tries to limit academic freedom risks being censured by the AAUP.)

After going over all the material, the dean of faculty decided that my academic freedom had been infringed upon. He said, I come from a background of history and political science. This case is similar to that of a department that was primarily Marxist excluding someone who represented a free-market capitalist point of view. That's unacceptable. We dont' have to agree, but you should have the right to present your pont of view, and you have been excluded precisely because of your point of view, and that is unacceptable. I said that I appreciated his decision. He asked me what I would like.

I told him I wanted a guarantee that I would not be discriminated against on the basis of my political orientation or point of view. His response was a gracious apology, and an assurance that I was considered a member of the faculty. I stated that I appreciated this, that I wished, as well, to put the problem behind us, and that I looked forward to teaching there.

During that time I had asked the AAUP to investigate, so I wrote a letter to them stating that there was no need for an investigation because the matter had been resolved. That was a year ago. Since then, I asked the chairman of the department for the student evaluations of my teaching from my last course. He wouldn't send them. Finally, in February, I did receive them after many letters. They were all outstanding evaluations of the course and my teaching.

I wasn't hired for the fall of 1998; I was't hired for the following spring; I wasn't hired for the summer; and I wasn't hired for the fall. In July, I wrote a letter to the dean again and summarized the situation, stating that it had been a year since he had apologized and had assured me that my academic freedom would not be further infringed upon. Nevertheless, despite his assurances, I had not been given classes to teach. I had called off the AAUP investigation because I'd trusted him, and now he'd apparently betrayed me.

I heard nothing from the dean in response. I then decided to place the situation in the court of public opinion. I posted all correspondence about this situation on my web site, and titled it "Todschweigen [a German word meaning "death by silence"] at Chestnut Hill College." It's a way of shunning people by just not responding to them.

A few weeks later, I got a call from a senior writer at the Philadelphia City Paper, and he did a big article on the situation. Soon after this, American University, which has always been very protective of academic freedom, did a major story on me in their faculty newspaper. They mentioned the inquisition at Chestnut Hill in the story, and also discussed one of my books on addiction. The story was also picked up by The Chronicle for Higher Education, a very prestigious academic newspaper. They did an entire story on academic freedom, and mentioned several instances of controversial topics being squelched in colleges around the country. Some colleges do this by hiring adjunct faculty -- untenured instructors -- semester by semester, as a way to control course content. That way, colleges and universities don't need to fire someone if they don't like their views. If the adjunct professors' ideas are impolitic, they are simply not rehired.

Since then, I've written once more to the AAUP and requested a formal investigation. In their most recent letter to Chestnut Hill College, the AAUP strongly requested an explanation as to why I was not rehired.

That's where the matter stands. I feel satisfied that others are publicizing the issue, because there's not much else I can do. I can't sue, because any private university has the legal right to make decisions like this. But I can make the problem public: You say that you subscribe to the principles of academic freedom, but, in fact, you do not, and the world should know about it.


My web site is at

The "Todschweigen" article is at

The book discussed in the Philadelphia City Paper is Addiction Is a Choice, by Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ph.D. Chicago:OpenCourt, 1999.