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Hist Psychol. 2012 Aug;15(3):233-46. doi: 10.1037/a0025649.

Tough love: A brief cultural history of the addiction intervention.

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Department of Behavioral Sciences and Culture, Science & History, Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University.


Popular media depictions of intervention and associated confrontational therapies often implicitly reference-and sometimes explicitly present-dated and discredited therapeutic practices. Furthermore, rather than reenacting these practices, contemporary televised interventions revive them. Drawing on a range of literature in family history, psychology, and media studies that covers the course of the last 3 decades, this paper argues that competing discourses about the nuclear family enabled this revival. Historians such as Stephanie Coontz, Elaine Tyler May, and Natasha Zaretsky have demonstrated that the ideal nuclear family in the post-WWII United States was defined by strictly gendered roles for parents and appropriate levels of parental engagement with children. These qualities were supposedly strongly associated with middle-class decorum and material comfort. By the 1970s, this familial ideal was subjected to a variety of criticisms, most notably from mental health practitioners who studied-or attempted to remedy-the problematic family dynamics that arose from, for example, anxious mothers or absent fathers. After psychological professionals began to question the logic of treating maladjusted individuals for the sake of preserving the nuclear family, a therapeutic process for doing exactly that was popularized: the addiction intervention. The delayed prevalence of therapeutic interventions arises from a tension between the psychological establishment that increasingly viewed the nuclear family as the primary site and source of social and psychological ills, and the producers of popular media, who relied on the redemptive myth of the nuclear family as a source of drama. (PsycINFO Database Record


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