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My doctor's office has old-fashioned ads on the wall of the adult exam room, pitching various kinds of snake oil. They're clearly meant to be silly, with maybe a touch of nostalgia for times when medicine was simpler. Our foolish ancestors, cheerily washing their hair in listerine (while wearing shirts!) so "infectious dandruff" would not interfere with their important war work. It doesn't bother me to see the ads for cough syrup or baby powder or generic miracle cures, even though I know they were all snares and delusions.

Some of the ads, for a particular product, push my "That's Not Funny!" button, and push it hard. Dr. Haines Golden Specific was supposed to be a miracle cure for alcoholism. The ads all described it as something the customer could use to cure her HUSBAND's alcoholism. "Any lady can use it!" She buys it, sneaks regular doses into his food, and he will magically stop craving alcohol. "Save those near and dear to you from a life of degradation and ultimate poverty and disgrace." One ad purports to be a testimonial from a man, a former alcoholic grateful that his wife saved him from demon rum and the associated moral and financial ruin. The others speak to women directly, urging them to save their husbands. It's not clear if they might also use it to save their fathers, sons, brothers, or fiances, but Dr. Haines clearly never imagined that a man might want to save an alcoholic (or that a woman might be one.)

This is so wrong it hurts. I used to be married to an alcoholic, and I flinch a lot harder from alcohol-related wrongness than most people. (Sometimes I flinch from alcohol-related stuff that isn't even wrong.) In addition to the heartbreaking fact that there is no miracle cure for alcoholism, problematic drinking is a great deal more complicated than "craving alcohol." Some people enjoy the social atmosphere, the lack of constraint, they get with drunken parties ...even though they're expensive, even though unconstrained behavior can have nasty repercussions. People with access to alcohol don't stop drinking unless they want to. The idea of fixing behavior without a person's knowledge is wrong, in the sense that it can't possibly work.

It's also morally wrong, in a couple of different ways. It takes for granted that a wife is supposed to be responsible for her husband's respectability. This is still going strong in modern advertising, and lots of people buy into it. It's not nearly as bad as it used to be, in terms of responsibility without power, but the responsibility side is still pretty bad. The Golden Specific ads target the wife of a man is not responsible for his own behavior. He is not participating in changing it, so his consent is beside the point.

"Any Lady can cure the most violent drunkard secretly at home. Let no woman despair," over a drawing of a dramatic wife-beating scene, captioned "gone mad from whiskey." The victim-blaming implications are pretty clear, for those women who got themselves beaten up by drunken husbands they failed to cure.

A different ad for the same product:
Any Lady May Do It At Home:"
"can be given secretly by any lady in tea, coffee, or food; effective in its silent work--the craving for liquor relieved in thousands of cases without the drinkers' knowledge, and against his will."

On the opposite wall of the exam room, there is a rack of little pamphlets. One has information about diabetes, another about high blood pressure, another about depression. There's one about alcoholism. Like the others, it ends on the note of, "talk to the doctor if you have any of these symptoms." I kind of wish there was one for Alanon. Even though I didn't actually like Alanon.


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March 2016



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