The Heroism of Recovery: Selected quotes from “San Fransicko” by Michael Shellenberger

A selection of quotes from chapter eleven of “San Fransicko” by Michael Shellenberger.

Kindle image quotes at the bottom of the page.

SF Cover

Foucault disagreed. Following the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Foucault felt that individual responsibility was a myth used by powerful people to punish and discipline others for things they could not control. None of us chose our brains and bodies, our families and communities, or our places in time and space. How could we be said to have “free will” at all? The problem with this line of thinking is that people appear to behave far better when they take responsibility for their actions than when they don’t. Subjects primed to disbelieve in free will are, for example, more likely to engage in aggressive behaviors. Disbelief in free will even seems to impair some cognitive processes. One way to think about free will is that it exists only as a belief. The more we believe in free will, the more it exists. The less we believe in it, the less it exists. “If you do call free will an illusion, it’s a useful illusion, right?” said Cory Clark, a professor of social psychology who is doing innovative research into how we think about freedom and responsibility. “Thinking through, ‘If I do X, Y will happen,’ is an important part of the process that leads to making better choices. If people thought they didn’t have to do that, they might not make good choices anymore.”

Shellenberger, Michael. San Fransicko (pp. 141-142). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

“I’m one of the least punitive people that I know,” she said. “I do feel for prisoners. At the same time, I’m not prepared to relinquish the idea of responsibility.” The lesson for anyone who cares about expanding human freedom, as opposed to trying to control others, is that we should be communicating to people that they have far more freedom, not less freedom, than they realize. The more you play the victim, the more of a victim you’ll become.

Shellenberger, Michael. San Fransicko (p. 142). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

In the mid-1960s, psychologist Eric Berne wrote a book that observed the ways in which we all unconsciously adopt roles in our relationships, whether with friends, family, or colleagues. Many dramas require a victim. One person plays the Victim, another the Persecutor, another the Patsy (that is, a person who is fooled), and still another the Rescuer. Crucially, we tend to develop role-playing patterns in our relationships, but we also switch roles as the situation changes.

Shellenberger, Michael. San Fransicko (pp. 142-143). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Notes Cory Clark, “When society says, ‘Oh, these people who’ve had these bad things happen to them are victims, and we should feel sorry for them, and should do everything we can to help them,’ people come to learn that playing the role of the victim gets them favours.” Scholars call such excessive compassion “pathological altruism,” defined as “behaviour in which attempts to promote the welfare of another, or others, results instead in harm that an external observer would conclude was reasonably foreseeable.”

Shellenberger, Michael. San Fransicko (p. 143). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

There are many versions of the Persecutor-Victim-Rescuer game when it comes to homelessness. In the mind of many progressives, the homeless person is the Victim, the police is the Persecutor, and the social workers and activists are the Rescuers. But sometimes the Victim plays the Persecutor, the Persecutor the Victim, and finally the Victim the Rescuer.

Shellenberger, Michael. San Fransicko (p. 144). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Playing the victim, or what researchers call victim signalling, appears to be working better than ever. Society’s definition of trauma and victimization is broadening, researchers find. As a result, there are more people who identify as victims today, even as actual trauma and victimization are declining. Researchers find that people are increasingly “moral typecasting,” or creating highly polarized categories of “victim” and “perpetrator.”17 And they find that people who portray themselves as “victims” believe they will be better protected from accusations of wrongdoing.18

Shellenberger, Michael. San Fransicko (p. 146). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Victim signalling is more common among those with the so-called Dark Triad personality traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy.

Shellenberger, Michael. San Fransicko (pp. 146-147). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Victim signallers are more likely to boast of their victim status after being accused of discriminating against others, or of being privileged. And so-called virtuous victims, people who broadcast their morality, alongside their victimization, are more likely to gain resources from others, researchers find, and display Dark Triad personality traits, than victim signallers who did not signal their virtue.

Shellenberger, Michael. San Fransicko (p. 147). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

The “game” puts the homeless in the role of the Child and the rest of society in the role of Parent. “The [homeless] kids were telling us overwhelmingly, ‘We want you to bring the services to us,’” said one San Francisco homeless service provider. “So we had a couple of supplies on us and would go up to kids and offer them. In a way, it was utterly natural: ‘How are you doing? Do you need some socks tonight? Do you need a snack tonight?’” Such helping-only strategies provoke a strong reaction from people in recovery from addiction. “Every time I hear somebody say, ‘Well, I just want to help people,’ I want to punch them in the face,” said Vicki Westbrook. “Those are the people that are usually harming the people the most.” “How so?” I asked. “Because they’re the ones that let people off the hook or they just want to make sure they have everything they need, but they’re not giving them their life back. Thank you for keeping them alive. I’m sure they need to eat. Give them some clean clothes and some clean socks and keep them warm. Can you do something that will really help get their life back? Is this what we’re helping them do? Live on the streets for the next twenty years till they die? What kind of life is that?”

Shellenberger, Michael. San Fransicko (pp. 149-150). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Stanford University addiction specialist Keith Humphreys agreed. “There’s a lot of people who have been really hurt by addicted people,” he said, “and people in the addiction field haven’t wanted to cope with this. Sometimes the field screams at people, ‘How dare you have negative feelings about addicts?’ But people are thinking, ‘I buried my child and I’m supposed to apologize?’ or ‘My nose had to be reset three times until I got a restraining order and you want me to feel bad for the guy who did it?’ We don’t honour that rage and pain and the addiction field doesn’t, either. They just say, ‘You’re not allowed to feel this way’ and ‘If you understood the neuroscience, it wouldn’t bother you that your nose was broken three times.’”

Shellenberger, Michael. San Fransicko (p. 150). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

In fact, some of the harshest critiques of radical harm reduction and drug decriminalization are coming from people like Tom Wolf, Vicki Westbrook, and Jabari Jackson, who suffered from and overcame trauma, addiction, and homelessness.

Shellenberger, Michael. San Fransicko (p. 150). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

The philosophical roots of coddling culture lie in the 1762 book Émile, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which argued that children are born good and that their education should be largely self-directed.39 The philosophy was a break from the older Christian idea that we are born with original sin and must develop the internal discipline required to resist our sinful desires. His idea was embraced in the 1960s by the new bohemians. They believed in “salvation by the child,” which held that we can only realize our full potential by getting back in touch with what some called our innocent “inner child,” changing our child-rearing, and changing our educational system.

Shellenberger, Michael. San Fransicko (pp. 151-152). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

The culture of coddling contributed to the opioid epidemic, some believe. Patients suffering pain felt more confidence demanding opioids while refusing to accept responsibility. Noted one author, “patients were getting used to demanding drugs for treatment. They did not, however, have to accept the idea that they might, say, eat better and exercise more, and that this might help them lose weight and feel better. Doctors, of course, couldn’t insist . . . [and] patients didn’t have to take accountability for their own behavior.”

Shellenberger, Michael. San Fransicko (p. 153). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Lack of discipline to delay gratification makes people fragile. The social workers told Vicki, “We don’t want to push them too much and then they fail. Then they’re going to think about failing.” Too few social workers have the right attitude, says Vicki. “I can’t tell you how many arguments I’ve gotten into with case managers, especially if they’re licensed clinicians, because they’re ‘client-centered, client-driven.’ They say things to me like, ‘Well, you know this person has substance use.’ That’s the end of their sentence. I’m like, ‘Okay. And? What’s next?’ That can’t be the end of the story.”

Shellenberger, Michael. San Fransicko (p. 154). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

I met a Dutch friend for tea that evening. I told him about my experience with Rene, his insistence on balancing carrots and sticks, and the contrasting rooms at the Rijksmuseum. He smiled and nodded. “We have an expression,” which he said in Dutch. “It means”—here he paused and looked up—“‘Soft doctors make wounds stink.’ Does that make sense?” “Do you mean doctors who are so afraid to hurt their patients fail to properly clean wounds, and they become infected and stink?” “Yes,” he said. “Do you have that expression in the US?” I told him we didn’t but that perhaps we should.

Shellenberger, Michael. San Fransicko (pp. 155-156). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Jabari, Tom, and Vicki all stressed that great social workers are both loving and tough. “My drug treatment specialist in prison was too much,” said Vicki Westbrook. “She was a [correctional officer] before she was a treatment counselor. I did not like this woman. But I’ll tell you what, I hear that woman in my head. When I’m doing something and I’m like, “Oh my God, this sucks.’ I hear her go, ‘Vicki, that’s where the growth is. Get excited. That’s where the growth is.’ I’m like, ‘Okay. That’s where the growth . . .’ You know what I’m saying? I love that woman because of the things that still go on in my head because of that.” People need help setting the right goals, and creating a plan to achieve them, which is what empowered caseworkers using assertive case management would do. “The problem isn’t setting the bar too high and not meeting it,” said Vicki. “It’s setting it too low and meeting it. People can’t imagine what’s possible for them.”

Shellenberger, Michael. San Fransicko (p. 156). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

When homeless men pursue their goals through hard work, they express happiness. “I know this sounds weird,” said Spike, one of the homeless men Gowan followed, “but I am happier doing this shit [collecting bottles and cans for recycling] than I have been in years. You get such a sense of achievement out of it. Set off in the morning with nothing, then you find all this cool stuff, and people even appreciate what you’re doing half the time. It’s like I get high from it, a real buzz. But it is a buzz that lasts, not some quick high. It puts me in a good, mellow mood all day, especially when the weather is good. . . . I’m starting to see what I’ve been missing out on in my life.”

Shellenberger, Michael. San Fransicko (p. 156). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Becoming a hero means taking responsibility for what one did in the past. “I’ve just destroyed people’s lives with some of the actions that I’ve done,” Jabari told me. “It’s not cool, man. It’s not cool, because if somebody did that to me and mine, I’d be ready to kill somebody for doing that to me and mine. Who the fuck am I to walk around here and gloat, that I did that to the next person? With every action comes recourse from it, and I understand that.”

Shellenberger, Michael. San Fransicko (p. 157). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

For Jabari and Vicki, learning different forms of psychotherapy was liberating. It gave them awareness and a sense of control over their trauma. I asked Jabari if his recovery was focused around the twelve-step program. “You know what?” he said. “I’m a sponge. I do twelve-step. I do attack therapy. Because different ones work for me in different ways.” “What’s ‘attack therapy’?” I asked. “Attack therapy is behavioural modification,” he said. “It’s not harm reduction. They’ll call you on your shit. They’re going to tell you when you’re doing wrong. When you’re trying to minimize stuff and manipulate something, they’re going to call you on it. If people continue to call me on my shit, yeah, it breaks me out of that mode and that habit.”61

Shellenberger, Michael. San Fransicko (pp. 157-158). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Vicki said her drug recovery, including her time in prison, improved her life in ways beyond sobriety. “My life was bigger in prison than it had been when I was out on the streets using and dealing,” she said. “What do you mean by ‘bigger’?” I asked. “More expansive,” she said. “Possibility. Experience. I had a job in prison. I was doing all these classes. I was a leader in my treatment community. I was helping other women, so much more robust of a life than I had then. That never would have happened if I kept using.”62

Shellenberger, Michael. San Fransicko (p. 158). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

“I am a better person now,” Paneez said. “I understand and appreciate life more. I was a little shallow. I was a little spoiled. I appreciate what I have more. I understood that leading with love suits me better, regardless of what they do to me. I became more spiritual. More calm. More centered. There are a lot of things I can’t control. I can only control my actions. And now I know that if, God forbid something bad happens again, I won’t be as affected.”63

Shellenberger, Michael. San Fransicko (p. 158). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Heroism is not the absence of victimization but the overcoming of it.

Shellenberger, Michael. San Fransicko (p. 158). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

The psychotherapeutic philosophies and techniques that belonged to a tiny elite of psychotherapists in the 1960s are today so prevalent that they constitute the positive alternative morality to victimology. “I like the [twelve-] steps [program] because the steps helped me get closer with my spirituality,” said Jabari. “And I like to hear the stories of other people. It builds a community.”64 The twelve-step program and other drug recovery efforts help people accept the ways in which they were initially shaped by their parents, neighbourhoods, and other circumstances but then overcame them. “You let that shit go when you work the twelve steps, if you do it right,” a former addict told Gowan. “It’s no good looking outside of you, and it’s no use blaming. For me, I had to accept that my mother was an addict, and I have always been an addict, since I was a little kid.”

Shellenberger, Michael. San Fransicko (p. 159). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Vicki’s time in prison, particularly her psychology training and her personal journey, allows her to see through the lies her substance-abusing clients told her. “They couldn’t run game on me because I had already been there,” she said. “I would have young dealers coming in trying to make changes and they come into my office suited. I’m like, ‘Dude, I got you your job. I know how much money you make. This is not twenty bucks an hour. Stop doing that. You can’t have a foot in both worlds.’ They’re like, ‘No, Mom. Not doing it.’ Then, I don’t know, a week and a half later, I’d find them somewhere slinging dope in the city. I was like, ‘Man, you don’t got to lie to me. You got to make a decision.’ “I worked with people on a very different kind of level than I think they were used to sometimes,” said Vicki. “I don’t deal in, ‘This is right’ and ‘This is wrong.’ I deal with like, ‘Tell me where you want to go, and I’m going to tell you what supports that goal and what doesn’t. If it doesn’t support that goal, then you’re either lying to me or yourself, or you need to knock it off and let’s do something to get to where you really want to go.’”

Shellenberger, Michael. San Fransicko (p. 160). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Said Humphreys, “The only people who get the hurt caused by addiction are the twelve-step people. They all get that part of getting better is atoning for the shit things you did, [against] this sort of lefty view that no one should have to apologize. The twelve-step people know that if you pass out at your daughter’s twelfth birthday and humiliate her, and she gets made fun of for the next five years, you have to apologize. They get that. You can’t just say, ‘It’s a brain disease, honey. Stop being angry.’ But there isn’t a broader way to let people atone without punishing them horrifically. And so, we handle it by throwing them in prison and ruining their lives, which doesn’t make us feel better, either.”

Shellenberger, Michael. San Fransicko (pp. 160-161). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

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