Could Robert Oppenheimer be an Alcoholic?

Stanton Peele By: Dr. Stanton Peele

Posted on July 28th, 2023 - Last updated: October 6th, 2023
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In harm reduction “high-functioning alcoholic” is bullshit

The concept “high-functioning alcoholic” is nonsensical in harm reduction terms. Harm reduction focuses on functioning, not consumption. If you are high-functioning you aren’t alcoholic or any other type of addict.

Should Oppenheimer be Played as an Alcoholic?

The actor Cillian Murphy made a health confession about playing the role of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Murphy — who first starred in the British series “Peaky Blinders” — went on a radically restrictive diet to play Oppenheimer (one he wouldn’t recommend for anyone). That is, Murphy — who wasn’t pudgy to start — felt he could only play Oppenheimer if he was emaciated, like Oppenheimer himself was.

Oppenheimer got that way, Murphy noted, by subsisting almost entirely on cigarettes (which he chain smokes throughout the film) and martinis (likewise depicted).

Yet not one review that I’ve read calls O an alcoholic. Why not — and especially among Americans, whose antennae for alcoholics and addicts are more sensitive than ants’?

In the first place, the film’s director and screenwriter, Christopher Nolan, is English. (As is his wife, Emma Thompson, the film’s producer.) As noted Murphy is Irish. And while the UK is considered a temperance nation, no one can match Americans’ temperance outlook.

Indeed, the clinical definition of alcoholic/addict in the psychiatric manual, DSM-5, is pegged to functionality. That is, the manual doesn’t specify that consuming any amount of any substance (that’s right, including opioids) classifies a person as addicted. Rather, that clinical label — and every other DSM diagnosis — depends on the person’s impairment. If you’re not impaired, you’re not diagnosable.

(I’m sorry to tell you this if that label is crucial to your identity, but you are, “unfortunately,” a well-functioning, human being.)

And even Americans must be aware that amidst the nonstop smoking and drinking, Oppenheimer was not impaired. That’s what the film is about!

Oppenheimer is a genius. Oppenheimer, of course, was a brilliant theoretical physicist. Aside from that, even other geniuses in the field recognized his gift for organizing great swaths of diverse information. That’s why General Groves (Matt Damon) gave him the job of heading the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb.

Oppenheimer was a great task manager. This film could be used for instruction at the Harvard Business School (the way that I used “Citizen Kane” there). While O couldn’t know what each of the project’s geniuses knew, he had to know how all of the infinitely complex pieces of the project fit together. And he held each team and individual to the task of completing their component in the overall scheme.

Oppenheimer was a great people manager. The film shows O dealing with his high-strung, opinionated “employees” in a largely watchful way. That is, he left them to their own devices in their work. Even when there was conflict between participants, he was cautious about intervening, only springing into action when things went off track. He might then speak individually to two arguing scientists, using different messaging as appropriate for each.

Oppenheimer (everyone) was motivated. Many people observed that the project was impossible. It required hundreds of as-yet nonexistent engineering techniques and tools, each of which might take many years to develop. But they were running against a ticking clock — the Germans’ simultaneous development of the bomb. And the Nazis developing the bomb first was simply unthinkable for O and his colleagues — many of whom like O were Jewish. It would be the end of civilization.

Oppenheimer had bedrock values. The primary conflict in the film (and O’s life) was that he was a humanist who was developing an unprecedented instrument of mass destruction. This became apparent when the bomb was never used with the Germans, but instead to kill 100,000s of Japanese. O went along with that, since it was wartime. But he refused to participate in developing the hydrogen bomb. This led to a hearing discontinuing his security clearance and O’s public disgrace. (The hearing reminded me of Thomas More’s trial in “A Man for All Seasons” — it wasn’t evidence based.)

And so Americans viewing a film about someone who accomplished this monumental, crucial task integrating thousands of arcane parts — moreover someone who would not deviate from his essential values — know that, no matter how much he smoked and drank, he was not an addict.

In the Life Process Program we focus on your being the best person that you can be. This is your goal, not whether you use drugs or drink or how much. You then stand the best chance of being in control of yourself and whatever troubles you, from drinking, to eating, to loving, to drugs.

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Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele, recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.

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