The toxic charm of the alcoholic

NOBODY can make you feel sorry for them faster than an alcoholic on a power trip

NOBODY can make you feel sorry for them faster than an alcoholic on a power trip. Nobody can manipulate and seduce you quicker - even if they have hurt you in the past. Just ask the business people who allow despotic alcoholic colleagues to rise to power and the battered wives who succumb to their husbands' charm and continue to let them back in the door. Why is it that such toxic charm can be impossible to resist?

The reason is that most of us are so "alcoholism naive" that we fail to see the alcoholic's manipulative behaviour for what it really is. Alcoholism causes egomania, argues James Graham in his new book, The Secret History of Alcoholism. And worse - the egomania persists even after the alcoholic stops drinking.

"We are blind to alcoholism. We give these dangerous, sick people great power. We elect them to high office, ignore their presence in the cabinet, and watch blindly as they run, and sometimes ruin, large business enterprises. We give them the power to investigate, arrest, and prosecute and when they abuse that power we never connect the alcoholism to the abuse," writes Graham, an American science writer who spent more than 20 years researching alcoholism.

He argues that alcohol is a genetic disease, not a symptom of a traumatic life, and that alcoholism causes psychiatric disturbances rather than developing in response to them.


"Alcoholics do not deliberately acquire bloated egos; egomania develops from profound psychological processes beyond their control. It is rooted in the insecurity and tension caused by addiction. From the beginning of the addictive process, the alcoholic's self image is battered and assaulted - daily - by his failure to do something that most other people do with ease: deal with alcohol on a take it or leave it basis. In response to this profound humiliation, the alcoholic, to quote Dr Kathleen FitzGerald, who has studied the question of alcoholism and genetics, assumes the omnipotence of an infant, the ego expanding and filling the psychic horizon."

Alcoholics are different from you and me - and they are all alike, abusive, dangerous and often more likely to be successful. Thirty per cent of creative writers, 38 per cent of male film stars and 22 per cent of female film stars are alcoholics, according to research. Ireland is well known for its alcoholic writers. Graham argues that creative writing is an egocentric occupation, offering young alcoholics with alcoholism created egomania precisely the sort of short term ego gratification which they seek. Of the seven Americans who won the Nobel Prize for literature, five were alcoholics (Sinclair Lewis, Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck and O'Neill). The writer Lillian Hellman is another American writer who can be mentioned in this context.

Alcohol was also the main factor behind the behaviour of a succession of spies, such as Anthony Blunt, Graham argues.

The alcoholic's chief characteristic is their desire to gratify their own booze soaked egos by destroying other people, Graham believes. "Family members, friends, a movie star at the next table, complete strangers - anyone who comes in contact with an alcoholic can be attacked. The danger zone increases dramatically if the alcoholic acquires political power; empowered alcoholics can harm more people."

While dominating the public stage is the alcoholic's goal, "the power abuse begins in the family", Graham says. "Families bear the brunt of alcoholic nastiness and bullying and if alcoholics never attacked anyone other than close relatives, the disease would still warrant society's intense concern.

The monstrous way in which a charming alcoholic like Joan Crawford can behave when away from public view was graphically described by Christina Crawford in her book, Mommie Dearest.

Joan's repertoire included forcing her young son to sleep every night in a canvas harness that prevented him from going to the bathroom. Being the child of an alcoholic is never easy.

Graham offers a list of telltale "power symptoms" to help readers identify the power mad alcoholics in their midst. First on the list is "denial": "No matter how well educated, no matter how high the IQ, no matter what he has accomplished in his chosen occupation, the alcoholic will deny his alcoholism to the point of absurdity."

Next comes deceit. For alcoholics "life is one long lie" starting with lying about drink, and quickly proceeding to lying about pretty much everything. "The alcoholic soon learns that lies empower. Telling a falsehood places the liar in a position of superiority over others: he knows that he is lying and they do not. Turning others into fools (for believing the lie) is raw meat to the alcoholic ego," Graham writes.

Over achievement is another giveaway, since "their strong need to compensate for the destructive power of the addiction frequently causes alcoholics to rise quickly in their chosen profession." These young over achievers who tend to be compulsive and perfectionistic often become middle aged wrecks.

Lying, infidelity and generally unethical behaviour are symptoms of the inflated alcoholic ego's inability to accept normal boundaries set by ethical norms, Graham believes.

Most of us are duped by such people because the alcoholic develops a "crafty, cunning nature", which he or she uses initially to enable drinking. Before long, this craftiness carries over into other matters, which is why alcoholics excel at manipulating people in order to "make their own sick egos feel better".

They do this by tearing down innocent people through false accusations the most Machiavellian of the power symptoms. "A sick ego gains nothing by attacking someone whose behaviour has already earned widespread disapproval; you cannot ruin the good name of someone who doesn't have one," says Graham.

Most of us are more likely to confront such false accusations in the realm of pub talk when alcoholics may falsely accuse others of crimes such as adultery and child abuse. We are also likely to be victimised in the workplace, where alcoholic bosses "will accuse their most efficient subordinates of incompetence and, as has been shown, alcoholics with persecutorial and investigative authority will attack the innocent with all the power at their command," Graham warns.

Other power symptoms include grandiose behaviour (like ordering taxis when you have no money); multiple marriages and divorces aggressive sexual behaviour; unreasonable resentments; rejection of friends; exaggerated fault finding and superficial emotions.

"The same people who get extremely upset over imagined slights and have crying jags when drinking are incapable of normal emotional responses to real events. Perhaps one of the most disturbing things about alcoholics, is that they seem incapable of grief," says Graham. When Kim Philby, one of a long line of alcoholic spies, heard that his wife had died he said, "You must all drink to my great news! Aileen's dead!"

The notion that a genetic vulnerability is at the basis of alcoholism is yet to be proven, despite Graham's confidence that this is the case. In support of his belief, he claims that young alcoholics always remember the sensation of their first drink, whereas normal drinkers do not - surely not a scientific argument if, indeed, it is true. He also cites research which suggests that alcohol sets off a series of reactions in the limbic system - the portion of the brain which controls rage.

While the scientific evidence is still inadequate, the social evidence is indisputable. Many who have lived in the poisonous' shadow of the alcoholic can attest to the damage they experienced.

But what can society do about it? Graham opposes prohibition. Most of us who drink do so responsibly, he believes. But we can at least start reacting to other people's alcoholic behaviour responsibly, too.

The traditional view of alcoholism is that alcoholics are victims of their disease, and of the social circumstances which may have led them to drink in the first place: we have tended to be less aware of the other side of the picture the suffering of people who are victimised by them. Are all alcoholics lying, manipulative, destructive and superficial charmers, as Graham believes?

Graham does hold out the hope that alcoholics who genuinely give up their bloated egos and go into recovery through Alcoholics Anonymous will become normal. Still, his insights are bound to be controversial, although whether you agree with him or not, there is no doubt that by highlighting the harm which alcoholics can do he is making a valuable contribution.