Desperate Mothers, Only Sons: The ‘Moral Reformation’ of China’s Internet Addicted Youth

Points Desp Mothers 1

Chinese gamer Sky takes an oath of good sportsmanship during the opening ceremony of the World Cyber Games in Kunshan, China

I am writing this blog post from the 2012 World Cyber Games in Kunshan, China. This international competition for professional digital gaming, also known as e-sports, is an interesting setting from which to contemplate Chinese government efforts to draw strict divisions between nationally sanctioned e-sports and “unhealthy” and “addictive” Internet games.  Indeed, during the press conference prior to the start of the competition, one of the members of China’s General Administration of Sport shared a story about a conversation she had with the Vice Mayor of Kunshan city.  The Vice Mayor had noted that she originally intended to bring her son to the event, but her husband had forbidden it for fear that exposure to digital games would negatively impact his studies.  The Sport Administration official used this as an example of the image work still needed to train Chinese citizens to have the “proper” perspective on e-sports.  If only parents could understand the positive (the actual phrase she used was “sunny” or yangguang) impact of this particular form of gaming…. Compare this attitude to the concerned mothers depicted in these images drawn from the Chinese news media.

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Points Desp Motheres 2

A mother wrestles her son to keep him from the Internet cafe

In the photograph above, drawn from the Chinese news media, a woman cries in the face of her despondent son,  despondent son responsive only to the stimulus of a game on a computer screen. In the photo to the right, a mother pins her son to the street to keep him away from an Internet café.  A third story in the news relates the tale of a mother who stabbed her own son in the leg with a knife because she could not stop him from running off to an Internet café to play games.  Rather than frame this incident as child abuse, the news anchor noted, “We can sympathize with the feelings of the parents, but we should not use disciplinary measures that are too violent.”  The frequency with which such acts of desperation appear in the press makes them seem almost natural, as the nonchalant response to this otherwise shocking incident of parental violence indicates.

A final portrait of maternal desperation that I would like to share with you is depicted in the 2007 film Net Mother.  This film, reportedly based upon true events, chronicles the valiant efforts of a handicapped mother who strives to connect with Internet addicted teens via instant messaging.  Having sustained terrible burns on her hands as a child, this mother overcomes her handicap and uses her story of struggle to convince young people to strive to overcome their own struggles with addiction.

Net Mother opens with a montage of scenes from China’s countryside: a farmer working the fields on his tractor, families and children enjoying an outdoor performance of classical Chinese opera, and women practicing traditional fan dancing in a park.  But the serene music that accompanies these opening shots takes a sudden dark and sinister turn as the scene switches to the dimly lit interior of an Internet café.  A young boy stands up woozily from his computer and stumbles out of the café, walking only a few feet before collapsing from exhaustion and, improbably, falling asleep directly on a set of train tracks in front of an oncoming train.  As unbelievable as this incident might seem, this is in fact yet another scene ripped straight from the Chinese media’s sensationalistic headlines about Internet addiction.

Sensationalism aside, what is most striking about this opening sequence is its vision of two competing Chinese cultures: there is, on one hand, the vibrant culture of Chinese tradition, and, on the other, the dangerous and foreign culture of the Internet café.  In the face of this threat, the figure of the desperate mother becomes a symbol of national moral crisis.  She can be seen as reaching out to her child, usually a son, in a frantic effort to restore tradition and protect the future of the nation in the face of corrupting foreign influences.

While the mother as symbol of the nation is not restricted to China, the image of the suffering and desperate mother has a particular resonance within Chinese history. Hsiung Ping Chen (1994) has noted that mothers in late imperial China often used their suffering as a device by which to manipulate and guilt their sons into achieving excellence.  The mother of opium commissioner Lin Tse-hsü (Lin Zexu) famously admonished her son that, “Only if you study hard and honor your parents by your success will my pains not be suffered in vain” (p. 39).  Today, the desperation of mothers in China may be compounded by the fact couples are restricted to one child, making that child what anthropologist Vanessa Fong (2004) has called the family’s “only hope.”  Fong notes that mothers thus invest everything in their child’s future, hoping that their children will grow up to be filial and successful enough to provide for them in their old age.

With reports that Internet addiction centers are using extreme measures such as shock therapy to treat addicts, mothers have also become the face of a different kind of treatment: moral reformation (ganhua).  Rather than framing addiction as a mental illness that brings shame to families by suggesting an internal or hereditary defect, moral reformation frames Internet addiction as an issue having to do with external forces such as proper education.  Young people are portrayed as having lost their moral compass and sense of duty to their families.  Notably, this kind of treatment was also used to address the problem of opium addiction. Dikotter, Laamann, and Zhou (2004) have called attention to the portrayal of “addicts as misguided human beings in need of help,” noting that “moral reformation” involved lectures, formal education and “wholesome leisure.”  Addicts were strictly disciplined in hope of  “correcting wrong ideas” and creating “morally good citizens.”

Today, as I watch the pomp and circumstance surrounding the opening ceremony of the World Cyber Games in China, it is clear that e-sports is being promoted as a form of “wholesome leisure” that can lead to the creation of “morally good citizens.”  The question left in my mind, as I scan the audience, is where are all the proud mothers?

— Marcella Szablewicz


Reflections on Red Ribbon Week

When my daughter came home from kindergarten talking about Red Ribbon Week, I was delighted. I proudly showed her my collection of red ribbons, proud that a consciousness-raising symbol signifying AIDS awareness had made its way into public school classrooms. No, she explained, this Red Ribbon Week was different. She had never heard of AIDS. This Red Ribbon Week was about drugs. “But,” she said, “We don’t really learn about them. We just get told “DON’T DO DRUGS!”

When she showed me her Red Ribbon Week handouts, I was bemused by the big red X’s over coloring-book line drawings of wine bottles and beer cans, syringes, pill bottles, and cigarettes. I was mildly amused at her ferocious response to my very occasional glass of wine with dinner in the post-Red Ribbon Week weeks. My own parents were tee-totalers, so I hold on to my increasingly rare social drinking as a form of no-longer-precocious resistance to authority. But as a drug policy historian, I began tugging at the thread of the Red Ribbon. Continue reading →

Lessons of the Narcotic Farm, Part VI, Reflections of an Accidental Drug Historian

It was April 2005 when I walked up to the car rental booth at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport and announced to the man behind the counter, “I’m high on cough syrup.” I had spent a year researching the history of the Narcotic Farm for a documentary with my partner JP Olsen and at that moment I felt like a test subject in the institution’s Addiction Research Center. I let loose a verbal flash flood: “I’m having trouble using my hands and things look streaky and my feet are kind of floating but that’s not what I meant to say. My name is Luke Walden. I’m really high on cough syrup.”

Addiction Research Center Inventory (ARCI)

I was close to reenacting an old story: in trying to calm a body-wracking cough, I had taken two gulps of an unfamiliar syrup called Delsym and accidently gotten high. And I kind of liked it. While my intoxication subsided by the next morning, I continued to enjoy the medicine’s apparent side effect of making tedious work (videotaping a sales conference) not just bearable but even pleasant for two full days. But suddenly on the third day I found myself bored to tears, exhausted and desperate. I considered taking more of the orange syrup and if there had been a fourth day I might have. A news segment on the tiny TV in my taxi back in New York made me glad I hadn’t. I learned that Delsym’s active ingredient Dextromethorphan (dxm) was the hot new drug of abuse among high school kids. It all seemed like a familiar story ripped from the annals of drug history.

Four years after finishing The Narcotic Farm, I find myself still hooked on the history of drugs. (Literally. I just spent two guilty hours compulsively reading old Points posts and watching YouTubers trip on dxm and salvia.) It puts me in a strange position. I am a generalist documentary filmmaker (and now mostly full time dad) who only got involved in the “Narco” project at JP’s invitation. So I am sometimes startled to find myself on stage in academic settings, being asked serious questions about what addiction is, what lessons we should take from Narco’s history, and what I learned from doing this project.

I tell audiences first that I learned to approach historical accounts and especially documentary films with a healthy dose of skepticism. Filmmaking is highly constrained by the need to engage and constantly maintain the viewer’s interest. This is usually interpreted to mean that “storytelling” takes precedence over all, that a good story follows an Aristotelian or “Hollywood” structure and is told in terms of one or two main characters’ emotional experiences. I call it the tyranny of narrative. In a historical documentary it means compressing complex ideas into sound bites and omitting important histories that interrupt the story. Documentaries are also supposed to have a clear point of view – the filmmakers’ stance on who the good guys and bad guys are. Instead JP and I tried to tell an accurate, neutral and nuanced story and were dismayed when the producer of one PBS independent film series told us our film was “too objective for public television.”

On the nod at the ARC

I also tell people that studying the history of Lexington has educated me surprisingly well to cope with having an addict in my own extended family. This unexpected benefit first became clear when I recognized that my mother-in-law was “on the nod” at Christmas dinner. Rather than being mystified to see a normally vivacious person slumped over the ham, my study of the old Addiction Research Center lab films allowed me to confidently identify opiate intoxication. Catherine had been prescribed OxyContin after shoulder surgery and had tried to taper her dose by cutting her time-release pills in half. It was an old familiar story of accidental overdose. I thought of myself floating through Sky Harbor.

My historical research equipped me to speak matter-of-factly despite Catherine’s history of defensiveness about her alcoholism. She agreed not to drive and to see a doctor about minimizing her use of narcotics. But her entanglement with opiates didn’t stop there. Some months later I took one look at Catherine lying sick in our guest bed with her legs stirring the sheets and recognized that she was kicking cold turkey, just like the test subjects in the A.R.C. films. She had run out of her prescription but thought she just had the flu.

After several months she got clean, but she believes that the opiates “softened her up” so that depression could trigger a shockingly severe relapse to alcohol after 10 years sober in Alcoholics Anonymous. My research helped me again. When she called with crazy excuses for failing to do what she promised I was emboldened by our interviews with retired former addicts and by our study of therapeutic communities such as Matrix House to confront her. I could say, “I know you are lying to me and I know that’s what addiction makes people do. If you can be honest with yourself and with me that you have been drinking, then we can discuss the actual situation and figure out how to work on this problem together.” Her years of work in AA and my ability to compassionately confront her opened a productive dialogue. Ongoing conversations didn’t solve the problem, however, and over the next few months things deteriorated. In one three-week period she was admitted to an ER and two detox centers and spent a day in jail.

At her lowest point Catherine took comfort from one of Lexington’s lasting legacies: the definition of addiction as a chronic relapsing brain disease.  This model was proposed and debated by Harris Isbell, Abraham Wikler and others at the ARC in the 1950s and has since evolved and become entrenched as the public slogan of federally funded research on addiction. Points has entertained a lively discussion about what David Courtwright has recently called “the NIDA paradigm.” But one aspect of this idea not extensively explored in recent Points posts is how the disease concept affects people in recovery and their families.

Catherine has told me that thinking of addiction as a disease helped her to overcome deep shame so she could make the honest self-assessment necessary to get back on the path of recovery. Discussing addiction as a disease allowed me to frame it not as a problem with her as a person, which might make her feel attacked and me resentful (though inevitably there is a bit of both), but as an affliction. If she had cancer I would be compassionate even though her smoking might have brought it on. Similarly, thinking of addiction as a medical problem allowed me to set aside emotional reactions to her addictive behavior and act as compassionately as possible. Ironically, having completed outpatient rehab and with several months sober in N.A., Catherine now says she doesn’t think that addiction is a disease. That definition is no longer relevant for her and instead she thinks about recovery in terms of taking personal responsibility for her choices.

Promoting the disease model at Lexington. Photo by Arthur Rothstein, 1939.

It’s also ironic that in my own life the most useful lesson of Lexington’s forty year history is the original ideal upon which it was founded in 1935: that addicts should be treated with compassion, as “sick” people needing help. Defining addiction as a disease can be useful. It elicits compassionate behavior (and policy decisions and funding) from those who do not suffer from it. But I remain curious about how addicts themselves experience the effects of the disease definition. Do they feel liberated from shame and stigma? Or burdened with a defective brain? Does defining addiction as chronic and relapsing facilitate recovery or precipitate relapse? How would I feel about it had I gone back to the Delsym again and again and taken a journey as hard as Catherine’s?  And do these pragmatic, treatment-oriented considerations even matter for addiction researchers or historians? As an accidental drug historian I find that they matter to me.

— Luke Walden

Lessons of the Narcotic Farm, Part Five: Matrix House, continued

From the outset of the Matrix House treatment program, there were concerns among non-medical staff at Lexington that neither Dr. Conrad nor Wildes appreciated the explosive nature of allowing addicts free reign within a building isolated from the rest of society. Before long there were also signs that something was amiss inside Matrix. In my interview with Dr. Jack Croughan, Matrix’s attending physician and the only person other than Dr. Conrad with a key to the Matrix building, recalled meeting a young woman inside Matrix whose withdrawn behavior struck him as odd, particularly given the generally upbeat feel of the place — which he described as “slightly hypomanic.” But with no evidence of wrongdoing – and the denials of the woman that anything was wrong – he voiced no concerns.

Matrix House residents enjoy a little posed quiet time on the front porch.

Some months after that incident, Matrix was shut down in dramatic fashion by the FBI amid allegations that members were being tortured and that bombs were being assembled in the basement. The bombs – it was initially reported – were part of a plot to overthrow the federal government. This turned out to be false; the group was in fact building pyrotechnics for a musical theater production they were intending on presenting later that year.

In April of 1973, however, Jon Wildes appeared in federal court in downtown Lexington to face weapons charges. Continue reading →

Lessons of the Narcotic Farm, Part Five: Matrix House

In 1970, four recovering drug addicts, disillusioned with their treatment at U.S. Public Health Service Hospital – aka The Narcotic Farm – started their own drug-free support group. With their pledges to stay clean through a self-motivated “heal thyself” credo, the four men quickly caught the attention of The Narcotic Farm’s lead administrator, Dr. Harold Conrad. A rising star within public health’s Washington Beltway coterie, Conrad had been sent to Lexington to shunt the institution’s mission, which had been dramatically altered by a major change in the drug laws brought about by the Narcotic Addict Rehabilitation Act, or NARA.

During the NARA years, addicts who committed felonies but were deemed by judges to be good rehabilitation prospects were allowed to enroll in federal drug treatment programs to avoid going to prison. Continue reading →

Setting the Stage for Lessons of the Narcotic Farm, Part Five: Matrix House

In 1966 Congress passed the Narcotic Addict Rehabilitation Act, a wholesale rethinking of the treatment of drug offenders. NARA rested on a forced marriage between the Bureau of Prisons, the Attorney General, and the Surgeon General. The law gave judges back discretion in sentencing. They could go for voluntary commitment, commitment in lieu of prosecution, or send offenders to aftercare.

To this day NARA remains a singular attempt to minimize criminal penalties for drug use at the federal level. For addicts, NARA was huge. Overnight incarcerated addicts became eligible for status and benefits as NARA clients. Once assessed, good rehab prospects were remanded to their hometown treatment facility. And if there was no treatment back where they came from, the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) would find an agency to provide it. Continue reading →

Lessons of the Narcotic Farm, Part Three: The Jenny Barn (continued)

Editor’s note: Today, we present the second half of Nancy’s Campbell’s “Lessons of the Narcotic Farm, Part Three: The Jenny Barn.”  You can find the first half of this post here.  Part One and Part Two of the series make useful complements to today’s post!

In addition to nutritious food, women at Narco lived on a steady diet of talk about drugs­. ‘Dope on dope’ was central to Janet’s experience:

“It’s an international exchange for information concerning dope. . . . You sit around in this dayroom . . . and tell one another stories about junk.” (1961, 220) She didn’t become any less of a junkie inside: “All is junk, and that’s all, you know; that’s the way it is. This identification of yourself as a junkie. After the first six, eight months that I was making it, I never said, ‘Well, I’m a junkie,’ as an excuse or anything. [Since Lexington] I say it constantly. I always refer to myself as a junkie, even when I’m not hooked on anything. And when you’re first introduced to somebody for the first time, the first thing you find out is whether he’s a junkie or not. It’s like belonging to some fantastic lodge, you know, but the initiation ceremony is a lot rougher.”

 Something of an amateur sociologist, Janet described “petty class distinctions” at work in the social structure of the Lexington sorority. Everybody’s first question was, “Vol or Con?” Cons stayed longer and were on top of the social hierarchy. Then came drug of choice: “The people who use horse [heroin] all look down on the people who use M and the people who use M all think they’re much better than the people who use dilaudid, and everybody looks down on demerol users as notorious fools” (1961, 219). Janet herself acquired a reputation as a “female homosexual,” because she deviated from the “one-woman-to-a-bed” rule. She disclaimed sexual feelings for other women, but described with interest lesbians bleaching their hair, dressing in slit skirts and sexy blouses, and gathering to dance after dinner—“as if every day was a holiday.”

While not enticed by the lesbian subculture, she was drawn to the jazz subculture. Unlike many of their female compatriots, Janet and May, a pregnant African-American women she befriended, were “hep” to the Chicago jazz scene (where Janet had met her husband, a trombone player, and pianist Howard Becker). On Friday nights, the women eagerly went over to the main institution for the “con” show. Concerts were an occasions for male and female patients to socialize. The inevitable illicit romantic entanglements that ensued were aided by an elaborate system of “kiting,” or messages sent between inmates by every surreptitious method imaginable.

On Stage at Lexington

On stage in the 1,200 seat auditorium at The Narcotic Farm.
(Courtesy Kentucky Historical Society)

Continue reading →