The Sacred Disease: Narratives of Addiction and the Making of the Post-Secular Self

Grollmus, Denise. The Sacred Disease: Narratives of Addiction and the Making of the Post-Secular Self. 2019. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

“The Sacred Disease” explores how twentieth and twenty-first century addiction narratives employ religious discourses that challenge addiction’s pathologization and criminalization, as well as the ontological assumptions that undergird these articulations. Each chapter examines a contemporary text that routes addiction through a specific religious framework, including: a Pueblo cosmovision in Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony, a Catholic conception of original sin in Mary Karr’s memoir Lit, the Catholic sacrament of penance in Lars von Trier’s film Nymph()maniac; and Voodoo, Santeria, and Brujeria in the television show True Blood. Contrary to suspicious readings of addiction narratives – which read their use of religious and spiritual discourses as disciplinary – “The Sacred Disease” uses these frameworks’ religious hermeneutics to theorize and model modes of reparative reading that show how these stories effectively resist white, heteronormative, and masculinist demands for liberal self-governance. I argue these religious frameworks not only revise medical and moral definitions of addiction, but also reframe conventional notions of disease and agency. They do so precisely because they employ more holistic, porous, and context-dependent ontologies than dominant Cartesian dualisms. Thus, these stories express addiction and recovery as developing a syncretic (what I mean by “post-secular”) selfhood that enables life-sustaining networks of mutual aid and interdependence as opposed to self-governing secular subjecthood. While scientific models of addiction pathologize dependence and disavow the supernatural, these stories enact addiction recovery through interdependent and post-secular processes, enabling a capacious, antiracist, and holistic notion of well-being.

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