The Queen’s Gambit shows knowledge can’t defeat addiction

Thursday, December 3, 2020 - 3:04pm

Poster for "The Queen's Gambit." This photo is not available for purchase through The Michigan Daily.

Poster for "The Queen's Gambit." This photo is not available for purchase through The Michigan Daily. Buy this photo
With permission, this design is courtesy of John Conlon, who can be found on Instagram at @/jdarcyconlon

The period piece and limited Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit” amplifies the internal contradictions of addiction through nostalgic portrayals of a time when the battle for dominance between the then-Soviet Union and the United States was predominantly cultural. Rife with contradictions in how its nostalgic renderings and pleasingly muted color palettes fail to reflect the turbulence of the late ‘60s, the series certainly paints afresh a feel-good, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative. 

Despite this declaration making immediate indications of a scathing review, I haven’t been able to stop watching the show, and this column isn’t a review of the series as a whole. My tendency to notice one storyline embedded in the series over all the others is born of my foregrounded knowledge of addiction’s consequences. But the series offers a powerful rendition of how self-knowledge, or knowledge of the potential for hereditary diseases, doesn’t defeat addiction.

From the vantage point of our cultural moment, it is critical to engage the addiction narrative in “The Queen’s Gambit.” We could begin with the way the orphanage doses the orphans with tranquilizers to keep them manageable, and how we recently learned of McKinsey’s evil corporate scam, where the corporation knowingly preyed on victims of the opioid crisis by offering “overdose rebates” to pharmacies. We could begin by naming another example from that same legacy left by another quintessential icon, the “American scam artist,” where self-proclaimed “rehab centers” systematically scammed vulnerable, low-income families for their insurance money.

Even so, let us start with the practical and the cosmetic. About halfway through the series, Elizabeth Harmon’s addiction has clearly escalated — the expected trajectory of any active addiction from modern medicine’s understanding of it. It is additionally important that I clarify what I mean by this: Through the first half of the 20th century and beyond, addicts were regarded by Americans with characteristic ambivalence, perhaps epitomized by the United States Narco Farm in Lexington, Ky., which opened in 1935 and housed both convicted drug addicts and voluntary patients in an ultimately doomed experiment for treating addiction. Still, addicts desperate for relief even wrote letters to the farm’s directors begging to be admitted. This is despite how addiction was then ubiquitously regarded as a moral failure that could be cured by farm work alone. 

Today, addiction specialists use the term “medical model” to summarize their understanding as opposed to attributing addiction to moral shortcomings. But cue Harmon downing entire bottles of red wine at an astonishing pace with a pensive, sultry gaze. Her ensuing spiral into substance abuse has a cinematic, nearly iconic look to it. We might want to step away from imagery depicting someone’s bottom as a well-choreographed music video with only one scene of projectile vomiting, where she somehow never manages to lose the house.

She simultaneously takes incredibly strong tranquilizers, but even at the end of the series, anyone who has been in or has known someone in the throes of addiction cannot watch the final scene unfold without wondering how Taylor-Joy’s complexion has remained so lovely throughout. Dare I say, her complexion improves significantly and becomes miraculously more radiant, with not a trace of dehydration aside from the one time she downs glasses of water during her “hangover match” with the Russian. 

Even when Harry Beltik, her pursuer and competitor, notes changes in Harmon’s skin with no shortage of disgust and incredulity (and whoever did Taylor-Joy’s make-up there indeed made her look quite a bit more pallid), I’m not sure I ever noticed a difference as far as her face appearing more bloated. If you were to abuse alcohol on the level Harmon does in “The Queen’s Gambit,” your face would bloat from a combination of water retention and weight gain. Alcohol has many calories and causes a unique kind of bloating — especially and very noticeably in the face. 

I have regarded my otherwise malnourished face in a mirror, bloated to the point where my own gaze didn’t register the years-long accumulated changes. Remarkably, I didn’t drink until my first year of college, when I ran cross-country for a small Christian school. The act of taking that first drink, it turns out, would make an incision in my life resulting in my nearly losing everything. You may believe this to be an exaggeration but, very unfortunately, it isn’t. 

Addiction is structural violence within the self that tentacles into obsession, like a magnetic field that cannot be reversed or deprogrammed — think the shimmer of Jeff VanderMeer’s “Annihilation” from which you do not return the same. You may not know this, but here is a haunting and predictable piece of knowledge: Alcohol effectively affects the hominid brain in a literalized reversal of its evolution. First, it powers down the frontal cortex, then the prefrontal cortex and so on. Before it can affect the brain stem, it silences the hippocampus and therefore the acquisition of memories. Then it often triggers a stupor and a restless sleep before it can impact involuntary functions such as breathing. 

Alcohol incapacitated my desire for everything else as if a magnet had steadily gained strength and before I knew it, the temptation had become physiologically built into my everyday. My relationship with alcohol was initially complicated because, like many people on the autism spectrum, I felt socializing was impenetrably stressful, like a labyrinth — every interaction was a calculus I was notoriously bad at. The first time I was legally able to consume a glass of wine at a formal event, I remember how my anxiety shrank to a manageable level — it felt like a revelation or a mere fragment of the carefree social life I saw others enjoying. I wondered why no one had ever told me it could feel this good, or this easy.

Moreover, this was before I was introduced to cognitive-behavioral techniques for disarming some of my more annoying tics, which did not make me particularly charming and included: repetitively sounding out consonants (“-th” and“-sh”), “stimming” and tunnel vision for particular subjects that no one else cared about (admittedly, this hasn’t gone away). Small talk wasn’t something I was necessarily “disinterested” in — it confused me. I tried to understand why people did it, and then I tried to replicate it. 

In exuding oddball glamour while exhibiting some of the characteristic obsession that I can personally identify with, Harmon’s character makes rigorous, disciplined obsession alongside fiercely unapologetic female intelligence seem a glamorous performance art. Even when she wakes up severely hungover in Paris, she whips her head forward and instantly collects herself, looking like a veritable siren doll with sinuously reflective red curls magically restored to bouncing perfection — just minutes after emerging from a bathtub with pitch-black mascara bleeding down her cheeks. Every man that has been in her life saves her more than once; the show is a fairy tale without Brothers Grimm body horror or any horror to speak of aside from its tragic opening scene.

But let’s rewind a bit more, to the moment when Harmon first visualizes an upside-down game of chess on the orphanage ceiling. There is a particularly dangerous form of causality being drawn here between Harmon’s blossoming intellect — her precocity — and not just her tendency toward addictive behaviors, but her addiction to pills as well. It’s important to note the difference: It’s perfectly fine to acknowledge that sometimes yes, there is a link between an individual who harbors some kind of genetic predisposition toward addiction and their potential for greatness. But linking Harmon’s intellectual development to the tranquilizers themselves at least somewhat implies that without them, she would have never realized her talents.

In her vivid memoir, “The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath,” Leslie Jamison writes of the great modernist writer Jean Rhys, in the manner of a comparative study to her own addiction, that “the recurring heroine of Rhys’s novels is a drunk woman making a spectacle of her weeping, and her work confronts this woman not just as a mess but as an unappealing mess, an eyesore, always clutching at the pity of others — also their love, and their wallets — and degraded by her constant clutching.” Reviews of Jamison’s book seemed to find her parallel self-flagellation within it odd but to any recovering addict, this has its own intuitive logic. 

One paragraph later, Jamison adds knowingly that, “(Rhys’ character’s) lives look a lot like (Rhys’): itinerant, moving between various European capitals, often in love, often drunk, often broke. Her heroines’ drinking is never done.” I related intensely to Jamison’s meticulously researched memoir, which thoroughly dismantles the iconography of self-destruction. It became the hard nudge I needed toward the two-and-a-half years of sobriety I have enjoyed, despite unprecedented stressors — a signed hardcover copy of it remains a point of reference. Jamison maps the self-intimacy of recovery through repeated dissections of tragic figures such as Rhys. In it, I felt parts of myself rippling through the text. In many ways, I still do, because the repetitive storylines of addiction don’t leave you.

Such dissections helped me realize how the strength of recovery isn’t derived from any sense of mythic exceptionalism but from an enduring sameness, a shared fragility. Drinking devoured me like I was to relive the Sisyphean myth purporting to be the hero’s journey each night. But it evaporated every morning into the shimmer and burn of sunlight during the searing hangover. There was no residual glamour, and I was fully aware of how it was sucking me dry, but despite how the itinerant and anti-climactic outcome never changed, my drinking continued — it wasn’t done. It wasn’t going to be done until I felt desperate enough to stop. 

The day I stopped drinking, I was holding a sour beer and felt I was exhausted from this. I have no idea what else changed. When I told my then-boyfriend, he was supportive. “Sure,” he acknowledged. It was only later that he respectfully informed me he realized I was serious after three months of sobriety. Two weeks in, we saw a horror movie, “Hereditary,” and my nerves felt opened to the world — I was in no state for a horror film with a jolting soundtrack by saxophonist Colin Stetson, but I was determined. 

Halfway through, I realized my entire body was shaking violently in a possession of known origins. My then-boyfriend asked if I was cold and I said yes. I stared firmly at the screen, clutching the sweater he gave me, shaking. After a jump scare, my lone scream pierced the theater — I was certainly embarrassed, but I had to try to stifle my laughter through relentless shaking. In the show, Harmon miraculously tosses her forest green capsule pills into the toilet on a whim, but we don’t see her withdrawals. 

In the world of recovery, every other week it seemed I learned someone I’d gone to meetings with had died of an overdose. At first, I thought I’d imagined this, but I soon realized the crude, eye-opening reality: In the world of recovery, this is normal.

At its peak, my addiction was a nightly gambling act: a game of Russian roulette. A couple of months before I gave up drinking for good and as I was trying to cut back, I was at a bar in Missoula, Mont., relaxing with my book and my journal. The thin volume of my journal from this particular time depicts a woman in varying states and degrees of shifting focus. 

I can easily see the progression and regression from drunk to sober, sometimes in the form of the two states in conversation with each other to the point of ludicrousness: “It is so hard to admit to myself that this is a distraction from the inevitable,” I wrote very pretentiously in one entry dated Dec. 12, 2017. In still other places, the recollection of hiking through the Rattlesnake Wilderness, birdwatching bald eagles and woodpeckers, animates immediate, picturesque nostalgia. In others, it is appallingly obvious how I was slowly, forcibly coming to terms with the inevitability of my bad choices.

To be clear, there is no romance there. In one entry I detailed my experience missing the tribal bus running from Whitefish to Missoula, and needing to pay someone to take me as far as Polson: “My stomach roiled like the sea, and I had to ask (the driver) to pull over so I could vomit repeatedly into six-foot high snow banks. My hands shook violently, in deep tremors.” 

In an entry from one particular night, I wrote, “My goal for the night is three drinks.” The rest of the entry consists only of six tally marks and a firm, matter-of-fact conclusion: “This confirms that I’m an alcoholic.” But a multivalent portrayal, to step back from this overly conclusive narrative of self-effacement, would include something else: The haunting self-knowledge that long preceded my reckoning with this disease. 

I do not share my experiences to invoke pity — I share because I’m far from alone. Though my journey began with happy mundanity and social drinking, it evolved into a form of harrowing self-imprisonment: one that had pooled in my genetic code and built up in its ever-evolving, epigenetic syntax. This is to say that sometimes, our most fatal desires are already encoded in our genetics.

When I was seven years old visiting family in Denver, I asked my father if we could visit my uncle. There was obvious hesitation on his part, which I’d not seen before. I was persistent in my requests so my father then agreed to take me but forewarned me that it might not be a great time. My uncle was one of my favorite parts of every trip there, and he’d forward books from the public library in Wyoming where he lived for years. But when we entered his friend’s dwelling where he was apparently staying, I recall a smell like a soaked carpet with dingy, metallic top notes and a deep musk that sharpened as it rose. But it was good that I went because after this visit he would go missing for seven years; the books stopped being forwarded, and one day I finally asked about it but didn’t get a clear answer. When he resurfaced and the news finally reached me, I was halfway through high school. When my grandmother spoke on the subject once she told me, “I’ll put it this way — your uncle is lucky to be alive.”

Even at the beginning of the series, the driving forces behind Harmon’s struggle with addiction become somewhat clear — even, it seems, to her. It is heartening that it depicts her descent into active addiction not as some fluorescent canary in a coal mine signaling weakness, mere intoxication or madness but as a sane person’s earnest attempt to cope with the inescapable burdens that led her to self-medicate in the first place.

Sometimes this is predominantly the realm of genetics, or of the unspoken and illegible traumas left for us without knowledge of how to manage them. Armed with all the self-knowledge in the world, an unenviable storm of environmental and genetic factors can cause a genetically prone person to seek relief that turns to a desperate yearning for shelter in the warm, flickering comforts of addiction until a change is necessary — or they die. In that same vein, viewers of “The Queen’s Gambit” caught by its miraculous denouements miss the shattering of possible lives; the unpalatable truths of the could-have-beens, the have-nots and the have-beens that populate the real world of addiction.

Sierra Élise Hansen can be reached at hsierra@umich.edu


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