Issue 522 | Correspondence | The Sun Magazine


I’ve appreciated Debbie Urbanski’s writing until her bleak, lonely, hopeless story “You Are Our Witness” [April 2019], in which Dana and Lindsay abandon their daughter, Nan, because the slow extinction of humanity is too overwhelming for them.

Whatever climate disasters and other dystopian changes come our way, I want stories with more heart. And I seem to recall that Urbanski has a sense of humor, too. I hope she can find those qualities of heart and humor in our world — and in her writing — in the days ahead.

Will Fudeman Ithaca, New York
Debbie Urbanski responds:

I understand and respect that “You Are Our Witness” was not the type of story Will Fudeman wanted to read. With the characters of Nan, Dana, and Lindsay, I was interested in examining mothers who leave their children — not because they don’t love their kids but because they are in too much pain, or the world is too much to bear. Where Fudeman finds my story hopeless, I find hope in the fact that, should humans vanish from the planet, the world will go on without us.

In response to Mark Leviton’s interview with Ijeoma Oluo [“White Lies,” December 2018], C.W. from San Francisco writes in your April 2019 Correspondence, “Ijeoma Oluo is obsessed with race.” We need only read recent headlines to find many instances of white people calling the police to report black people for ordinary activities: swimming at a community pool, having a barbecue in a park, and so on. Those encounters could end in arrest, injury, or even death for the person of color. Oluo’s fears are valid.

Dina Williams West Sand Lake, New York

The April 2019 letters in response to Mark Leviton’s interview with Ijeoma Oluo are the clearest indication that this vital conversation must continue. Please keep taking on this difficult topic.

Penny Harper Tualatin, Oregon

Halfway through Mark Leviton’s interview with Ijeoma Oluo, I called a man who had asked me to be on a Housing and Urban Development governing board.

“Is the board all white?” I asked.

He said it was, so I gave him the names of two women of color I wanted him to put ahead of mine. He was supportive and appreciative of my suggestion.

I sat down feeling all puffed up about my good deed. And then I read the part where Oluo says white people who do something right believe it’s a big gift. I laughed out loud. Busted, I thought.

Kali M. Kaliche Williams, Arizona

Jari Chevalier’s wise, succinct questions and Bruce K. Alexander’s description of our society’s consumer addiction [“Filling the Void,” March 2019] were just what I needed to hear. I have often felt alone witnessing what seems like a hopeless cycle — though others see it as living the good life. I appreciate that the interview mentions a few ways to create safe havens in the midst of it all.

Sally Burrell Bristol, Vermont

Bruce K. Alexander speaks vividly of the prevalence of addiction as the Roman Empire was collapsing, but he doesn’t mention one man who offered a way out of the chaos: Benedict of Nursia, who wrote a book of precepts on how to weave together belonging, identity, meaning, and purpose within communities. Benedict’s instructions on listening, humility, balance, and care for others are still practiced by many people around the world today. I suggest your readers pick up Sister Joan Chittister’s Wisdom Distilled from the Daily or Judith Valente’s How to Live — or, better yet, visit a Benedictine community.

Jennifer Halling, OSB Atchison, Kansas

While I agree with Bruce K. Alexander’s view that social isolation is a cause of addiction in our society, I was taken aback by his statements about using opiates for chronic pain.

He claims that since only 1 to 3 percent of patients fatally overdose, and roughly 8 percent become addicted, opiates work for 90 percent of people. But he’s wrong to assume that anyone who doesn’t overdose or become an addict benefits from the medication. As a health-care provider for the past thirty years, I have seen hundreds of people habitually use opiates and can think of almost none whose lives are better for it. The more common reality is a narrowing of people’s lives as they progress through stages of tolerance, sedation, lack of function, hyperalgesia (sensitization of the opiate receptors so that their pain is worse), and an ever-expanding list of medications to offset the side effects of the opiates.

Alexander admits that studies do not show long-term benefits, yet he believes we should continue prescribing opiates. Studies do show that 85 percent of chronic-pain patients on opiates have less pain once they’ve tapered off their medication.

Leah Schindler Ashland, Oregon

I’m Denise, and I am a recovering alcoholic.

I am disappointed that Bruce K. Alexander refers to “implicit religious and coercive aspects” of AA meetings. He goes on to say 12-step groups require “dissolving the ego and giving over a great deal of control to the group and to a Higher Power, most often the Christian God.”

I’d like to know how long Alexander has been in AA. I have been sober for more than thirty years, and I learned to live without alcohol because of AA and my Higher Power — not the Christian God. Alcoholism is a disease; everyone in my family has it. Alexander should not speak of something he has not truly experienced. I hope people who read this interview won’t let his statements about AA stop them from finding a good meeting and, yes, letting go of ego to find a Higher Power and a life filled with joy and love.

Denise E. Sun City West, Arizona

Though I enjoyed Jari Chevalier’s interview with Bruce K. Alexander, I look forward to the day we will not need animal studies like his “Rat Park” — or any others for that matter. Experimenting on animals is unethical. We should not do it, period.

Wendi Zimmerman Minneapolis, Minnesota

I agree with Bruce K. Alexander that the War on Drugs has been a huge failure. And he is probably right that cultural factors play a role in addiction. But I wish he were less dismissive of biomedical research.

He says, “Neuroscience usually doesn’t take into consideration the situational and social factors.” But neuroscientists do study interactions between biology and the social environment. Furthermore he asks, “If the neurologists are right that addiction is no more than a neurological process, why haven’t they found a cure?” Actually it would be surprising if they had found a cure; the brain, after all, is incredibly complex.

Perhaps most distressing is Alexander’s claim that the true source of drug addiction is consumer capitalism, as if there were only one way to understand this phenomenon.

Rather than solely blaming contemporary culture for our woes, we should keep our minds open to the possibility of multiple contributing factors.

Margaret Bockting Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Bruce K. Alexander responds:

To Leah Schindler: For the record, I think doctors should refuse the responsibility of prescribing (or not prescribing) opiates, except after surgery. How can overworked doctors possibly know whether their chronic-pain patients are benefitting from the drugs? Rather I think opiates should be available over the counter in a diluted oral solution — as opposed to a pill or an injectable drug — for people to use (or not use) as they need them. In nineteenth-century North America there was less addiction than today — and virtually no overdose death — because nobody could choke down enough of “Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup” (one of the brand names) to kill themselves before they started throwing it up. (See Chapter 8 of my book The Globalization of Addiction.)

To Denise E.: I support AA, although I have never been a member. It is important, however, to remember that it works for only a small minority. It isn’t the answer for everyone.

To Margaret Bockting: I hope the neuroscientists do succeed, but they have been working at it, with no real success, for a century. I think that social analysis is a more promising solution.

I recently told a friend about my three-week stay in an intensive-care unit in a German hospital and the gratitude I still feel when I think of the doctors, nurses, and staff who took care of me. A few days later she handed me a copy of Tony Hoagland’s essay “The Cure for Racism Is Cancer” [September 2018]. This was my first encounter with The Sun, and I was deeply moved.

My friend gave me a subscription as a Christmas present, and I learned in your March 2019 issue that Hoagland, the one who brought me to your magazine, had died. Again I felt deeply moved. I’ll always have him in mind while reading The Sun.

Sebastian Erlewein Hardthausen, Germany
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