By RonDunselman . Published by Hawthorn Press , January 2007 . Paperback , 304 pages . ISBN 1 903 458 26 9 .

Reviewed by Sarah MacLean

Youth Research Centre, University of Melbourne, Victoria

From its initial publication in Dutch in 1993 to its first English edition in 1995, this book has evidently been read and appreciated by sufficient numbers of people to warrant a 2007 reprint. The premise of In Place of the Self is, as the title indicates, that if used over time drugs fragment and replace the user's own self. Dunselman places much of the blame for drug use on the modern social world, claiming that drug use in traditional societies such as ancient Greece or the Incas was tightly controlled by custom and tradition. These traditions, he argues, not only contained drug use but also assisted people to maintain unity within their own personalities by enabling “people's ideas, customs and motives to be interrelated” (p.30). As selfhood becomes ever more difficult to maintain, people increasingly find pleasure in drugs that medicate the psychological discomforts of modern life. Dunselman links an intensification of social change in the 1960s with increasing rates of drug use over subsequent decades.

To explain how drugs work on the self, Dunselman uses Rudolph Steiner's anthroposophical claim that humans are composed of four parts. Crudely put, these are the physical body, the ethereal body (processes of growth and reproduction), the astral body (thoughts, passions and feelings) and the spirit (which produces self-awareness). The majority of In Place of the Self is devoted to exploring accounts, often from novels, of the effects of various drugs and from this, drawing conclusions as to the impact of each substance on the anthroposophical body. For instance, Dunselman writes: “LSD mainly has the effect of causing the ethereal body to separate from the physical body” and “The opiates, opium and morphine, separate the astral body from the ethereal and physical body … while heroin and methadone also remove the self from the other essential aspects to a large extent” (p.253).

Surprisingly, the book has almost nothing to say on how people might cease drug use or reverse these processes of self disintegration. Dunselman concludes only that recovery from drug use can occur when individuals become aware of its deleterious effects, usually through reaching a state of extreme despair. This is a notion that has much resonance with the abstinence-based Alcoholics Anonymous movement.

Dunselman's text may be a classic of self-help literature, but it is not a model of evidence-based public health research. Methadone is, for instance, dismissed as largely ineffective as a treatment for opioid dependency on the basis of its purportedly similar influence on the astral body to heroin. One study published in 1989 showing only a small drop in heroin-associated crime among methadone recipients is the only research evidence provided on methadone. Some of the book is also very out of date. Statistics provided to illustrate precipitous climbs in European drug use since the 1960s concern only the years prior to 1992.

Those without a personal belief in anthroposophy are likely to find many of the arguments in this book implausible or even flaky. Perhaps the value of this text for drug users and those who help them is to provide an alternative narrative explanation to that of medical science for both the intense and often ineffable physiological and psychological pleasures of drug use and for some of the observable negative effects on people's lives. As an example, Dunselman argues that the change in thinking processes associated with marijuana use is an effect of the departure of the astral body from the self. The astral body's subsequent travels, goes his argument, allow the self a greater understanding of the cosmic world than that which is generally available to modern humans. This is an idea that may appeal to those who feel that neurochemistry alone cannot adequately explain drug use experiences. When psychoactive effects of marijuana wear off, however, Dunselman cautions that the user's “constituent parts lose their inner cohesion” (p.113), leading to irritability and feelings of dissociation. Each time marijuana is consumed the self becomes more fragmented, with the drug “partly pulling the person up out of his being, away from the earth and into the cosmos” (p.113-14), making it increasingly difficult for the user to engage with other people or experiences. Thus Dunselman provides another way of explaining the apathy, changes in brain function or psychosis sometimes associated with long-term cannabis consumption.

In Place of the Self: How Drugs Work was first published 14 years ago and is showing its age. In the main, drug researchers now regard drug use on a continuum, allowing at least for the possibility of non-harmful consumption of psychoactive substances. Rather than decrying the breakdown of tradition, the search is now on to identify and bolster new cultures that regulate contemporary drug use. If anything, the success of this book shows that people appreciate the opportunity to choose between different conceptual frameworks in making sense of a complex phenomenon such as drug use.