Remembrance: G. Alan Marlatt

G. Alan Marlatt

G. Alan Marlatt

APS Fellow and Charter Member G. Alan Marlatt died on March 14, 2011 at the age of 69. Marlatt was a professor of psychology at the University of Washington where he founded and directed the Addictive Behaviors Research Center.

Marlatt earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of British Columbia in 1964 and his PhD in clinical psychology from the Indiana University in 1968. In 1972, he joined the faculty of the University of Washington.

As a clinical psychologist and researcher, Marlatt wrote 23 books and hundreds of articles addressing the subject of addiction. He influenced the treatment of substance abuse dramatically by insisting — even when his views were not popular — that abstinence was not the only way to treat an addiction. Marlatt was an early and passionate advocate of “harm reduction” techniques that value gradual progress in addiction treatment and emphasize patients’ dignity.

During his lifetime, Martlatt received prestigious awards including the Jellinek Memorial Award for outstanding contributions to knowledge in the field of alcohol studies, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Innovators in Combating Substance Abuse Award, the Distinguished Scientist Award from the American Psychological Association, and Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Research Society on Alcoholism and the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.

The following essays honor Marlatt’s momentous contributions to the field of psychological science as well as his great capacity for compassion, humility, and friendship.

Mark B. Sobell and Linda C. Sobell
Nova Southeastern University

Alan Marlatt played an important role in many people’s careers. In our case, he played a very important role in dealing with accusations of scientific fraud that not only affected us personally but could have negatively impacted cognitive-behavioral treatment approaches for alcohol problems. In February of 1982, we were informed about an article that was to be published in Science attacking research we had conducted over a decade earlier. We were also told that simultaneous with this publication would be a media blitz alleging that our research was fraudulent. When Alan first heard of these allegations, he was visiting colleagues in England. Coincidentally, a few weeks later, he was scheduled to give a presentation at the Addiction Research Foundation in Toronto where we were employed. As his hosts, we picked him up at the airport, and on the way to his hotel we told Alan what we had learned about the impending allegations. At that time he did not tell us that he knew about the attack. When we told Alan that we had our research records (follow-up notes, arrest records, tape recorded interviews, correspondence with subjects) from 12 years prior, he asked if he could see them. We agreed and gave him free access to our records. After Alan left, we gave his visit little thought. Several weeks later, however, we received a copy of a letter that Alan had sent to his colleagues in England telling them that he had reviewed our records and that he was convinced the allegations were groundless. He did not request that his letter be kept confidential, and we estimate that it ended up being disseminated to several hundred colleagues. Because Alan’s comments occurred before any investigation had cleared us, he put his own career in great jeopardy. Over the course of the next few years, there were multiple investigations into the allegations of fraud (a blue ribbon committee in Canada where we worked at the time, a U.S. Congressional investigation, a National Institutes of Health investigation, and an American Psychological Association investigation). While we were vindicated in all investigations, imagine Alan’s fate had they turned out otherwise. When we asked him about this many years later, with typical humility Alan said he saw the attack as an attack on the field and felt it was important to do something. We have often wondered how many others, including ourselves, would have acted similarly. In our case, while Alan could have watched from afar, he instead made a moral and honorable decision to take a stand that involved great risk. For that we are forever grateful, and it is just one of the reasons why Alan will be remembered not only for his many significant and innovative research contributions, but also for being an honorable and humble man, a man of greatness.

Jason R. Kilmer
University of Washington

Alan Marlatt was so much to so many people. Whether you were related to him, worked with him, were friends with him, learned from him, or all of the above, you knew him as a good guy — a good person who wanted to see good things happen for those around him.

Somehow, Alan found a way to do it all. Think about a quick run-down of what Alan did in the addictive behaviors field. Relapse prevention? Alan. Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students (BASICS) and Alcohol Skills Training Program (ASTP) for college students? Alan. Advancing the thinking about harm reduction in the U.S.? Alan. Mindfulness-based relapse prevention? Alan. Incredible.

When you were with Alan, you were his priority. He cared about what was happening in your life, he cared about how you were doing. As a graduate student of Alan’s, in November 1994, I attended the Association for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy (AABT) conference in San Diego, CA. Being at this conference meant that for the first time in my life, I would be away from my family for my birthday. I let Alan know that even though that felt like a petty thing to feel sad about, it was weird being away from family for my 26th birthday. Once we got to AABT, things got busy, and I think I just kind of moved on. Alan hosted a party in his room on Friday night, November 11, which happened to be the night of my birthday. As a total and complete surprise, halfway through the party, Alan arranged to have a birthday cake presented to me, complete with an enthusiastic rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

I remember calling home (on a payphone with a calling card…there were no cell phones back then) and explaining that on that night, I was with family for my birthday.

When Alan passed away, I told my friends and colleagues that I do what I do today because of Alan. Beyond all of his incredible contributions, his kindness, generosity, dedication, and loyalty have set the standard that I try to model in my work with students and colleagues. To me, he was an advisor, mentor, colleague, and friend, and I’m just so appreciative to have had the chance to work with him for as long as I did.

Kenneth J. Sher
University of Missouri

I first met Alan in the late 1970s when I was a graduate student at Indiana University and he was a colloquium speaker. It was a homecoming of sorts for him; he had graduated from there in the 1960s and the return to Bloomington brought back many memories of his grad student days. At his colloquium, he spoke of the surprisingly intense reaction he experienced when, earlier that day, he passed the room he had taken his (multi-day) qualifying exams in many years before. Over time, I came to appreciate how Alan deeply coded his experiences and, while living in the present, was always keenly aware of the details of his past. His colloquium on the relapse process introduced a number of novel concepts regarding the situational determinants of relapse and the events that often preceded it. Like his earlier seminal work on social learning processes in drinking and alcohol expectancy effects, this was yet another new area of research with profound clinical and public health implications that Alan was developing. He had the gift of both science and storytelling and his talk was masterful.

Prior to his visit, I had written Alan for a reprint of a recent chapter on alcohol and stress, my emerging research area. I received the reprint soon after with a brief handwritten note mentioning his upcoming trip to Bloomington and that he looked forward to meeting. It meant quite a lot to me at the time that a “famous” researcher would take the time to write a nice little note to an unknown grad student at another university. The importance of professional small kindnesses was not lost on me.

Colloquia were late on Friday afternoons — following the colloquium, grad students would host a dinner for the visiting speaker and then the speaker would move on to the “real party” with the faculty. Many visiting speakers clearly didn’t like hanging out with the students, finding it awkward and tedious. Most were very cordial and pleasant but all too happy to move on to the “real party.” Alan, however, was different; he was genuinely interested in what students were working on, our thoughts about grad school, and psychology. He also enjoyed a good party and we were happy to oblige; we almost didn’t get him to the faculty party, and I’m not sure Alan would have minded terribly if we hadn’t.

At that time, I had no idea that Alan would become a lifelong friend and valued colleague. He was many things to many people but to all he was a kind, generous, and loving human being. I am personally grateful for the advice and support he gave me throughout my career. Many others can make similar claims. He cultivated a remarkable circle of friends, colleagues, and students; many of my own closest friends today are part of that circle and are enriched by it. Although he is sorely missed, his ideas, enthusiasm for our profession, and warmth live on among those who knew him.

William H. George
University of Washington

I came from an African-American community tainted by addictions, violence, and gang rivalries, having no knowledge about the world of higher education. I entered high school to become an auto mechanic, entered college to become a “businessman,” and, after discovering psychology, entered graduate school to become a psychotherapist. These choices were pragmatic, aimed at durable employment, but hampered by a limited understanding of career choice motivation. The notion that one’s career could be a passion was particularly inaccessible. Foreign to me were the concepts that one could experience work as a love affair and not simply as a way to pay bills, and that one could experience learning as intellectual nourishment and not simply as ladder rungs to diplomas. Alan Marlatt changed all that for me!

My transformation did not follow the customary trajectory: being selected/recruited by a mentor and then apprenticed closely throughout graduate school. Instead, I entered graduate school having no idea who Alan Marlatt was. It was only through a string of coincidences that I knocked at his door midway through school, seeking a new advisor. Through taking his seminar, I had become thunderstruck by his work on the balanced placebo design and the expectancy effect. It seemed impossible that alcohol’s effects on behavior were not purely determined pharmacologically and implausible that these effects were influenced essentially by the “power of suggestion.”

Alan, with his customary generosity, welcomed my wonderment and ushered me into a fascination with paradigm-challenging ideas and eventually into a career path motivated by intellectual quests. Although he rebuffed my initial advisor-seeking requests, I kept returning to his door with dissertation plans based on his research, and he kept challenging and inspiring me to improve my work. Our encounters stirred me to think more creatively, yet rigorously so, and sometimes necessitated consultation with other departmental faculty, notably Claude Steele. This was a heady time and place to be a budding alcohol researcher, with Alan pursuing alcohol expectancy theory and Claude pursuing alcohol myopia theory. Eventually taking me under his wing, Alan chaired my dissertation, mentored me in relapse prevention research, encouraged my first grant, and championed my pursuit of academia. He always set a high bar for academic excellence, not by critique, but by simply expecting that if you have a creatively inspired idea that advances current knowledge and the requisite rigor and passion for it, then you will achieve excellence. He also modeled doing so with a spirit of self-discovery, for the benefit of self and others.

I later enjoyed Alan as a faculty colleague. Still, his earlier tutelage emphasizing creative thinking and scholarly passion remained steadfast as an exemplary model for mentoring my students and leading my intellectual life. Hopefully, I can pass it along. Like the late Bob Marley — whose music finds new fans each year — Alan’s passing marks the beginning of a new chapter of his influence. His work inspired and affected so many people that his impact on the field of addictions and clinical psychology will continue to grow.

Seema L. Clifasefi
University of Washington

Over the course of Alan’s 40-year career as a professor and academician, he has probably signed thousands of reference letters for students and colleagues (and even written hundreds of those himself!). When deciding how to best honor Alan’s memory, I thought to myself, when is the last time anyone wrote such a letter for Alan? So, I decided that I would pay tribute to my late mentor and colleague via this reference letter that I have prepared for him.

Dear “Review Committee,”

I write this letter in support of Dr. G. Alan Marlatt, a mentor, colleague, and friend whom I have had the honor of knowing and working with over the last decade.

There are many wonderful aspects of Alan’s character worth noting, I would like to highlight four:

1) His power to inspire people to rise to the challenge
2) His gift of connecting people and spreading ideas
3) His compassion and kindness
4) His willingness to accept and be himself

One. Alan had a gift of making people feel incredibly special and helped them realize their own strengths; he truly saw the best in people. He did this through the power of expectancies (one of his early areas of research). He expected that you would rise to the various challenges that would come your way, and so you did. He expected that you would come up with great ideas or solutions to problems, so you did, and he expected that you would write that million-dollar grant in 48 hours and get it funded…well you get the point.

Two. Alan the super connector. Alan created space both literally (through the Addictive Behaviors Research Center) and figuratively (through his gentle and non-judgmental manner) for people to come together, be creative and tap into their own brilliance. Working with Alan also meant you were welcomed into the rich web of talented individuals who had trained or worked with him before. He truly brought people together and created amazing opportunities.

Three. Alan the compassionate soul. Alan believed strongly in the dignity of every human being, no matter what their background or experiences. Alan accepted people wherever they were in their lives. This philosophy, I suspect, is what made him such a strong advocate for the harm reduction movement.

And this leads me to my fourth and final point: Alan also accepted himself and did not try to hide who he was. Alan was not perfect. This fact was one of the greatest lessons that he imparted to me. Here he was this larger-than-life figure, brilliant, ultra-successful, an individual responsible for changing the face of psychological science in countless ways, and yet he did not attempt to hide his struggles or shortcomings. I loved Alan for this, and sometimes wish I had appreciated this quality more during his life.

In conclusion, I give my highest recommendation to this amazing and inspiring individual. Please do not hesitate to contact me with any further questions.

Mary E. Larimer
University of Washington

I first met Alan as a sophomore at the University of Washington, enrolled in his Personality Psychology class. I was still casting about for what I wanted to be when I “grew up,” having recently decided that medicine was not for me. Toward the end of the class, Alan talked about the (then newly developed) concept of relapse prevention. At the time, I had a family member in addiction treatment for the third time and had been told only the week before (in the ubiquitous “family meeting”) that they didn’t even talk about relapse with patients in this very expensive and highly rated facility, because it was “very rare, and talking about it might set them up to do it.” With this nonsensical but very typical (for the time) response fresh in my mind, I sat enthralled in Alan’s class as he illustrated the cognitive-behavioral model of relapse and the many choice-points along the path to relapse where people could be taught to take a different action. I could see immediately the impact this would have on long-term treatment success and how revolutionary an idea it was. On that day, in that lecture, I had a visceral sense of recognition not only of the brilliance and optimism of this line of thinking, but that this was what I was meant to do with my life — conduct research to improve prevention and treatment and reduce the enormous suffering related to addiction. Thus, in a very real way, Alan was responsible for the course of my entire adult life.

If Alan’s influence had stopped there, I would still have been better off than before I met him, and certainly there is not a researcher in the addictions field today who hasn’t been positively influenced by Alan’s work. In my case, however, I had the honor and privilege of continuing to work with Alan for the next 28 years, beginning as an undergraduate research assistant and eventually serving as Associate Director of his Addictive Behaviors Research Center for more than 15 years. Throughout this time, Alan was my advisor, mentor, faculty colleague, and friend, and the lessons he taught me are so numerous that it would not be an exaggeration to say that practically everything of importance I know today I learned from him.

Alan was an intellectual giant, a true innovator, a rigorous scientist, an incredibly hard worker, and a gifted communicator. Although this combination of talents allowed him to make tremendous contributions to the field of addictive behavior, it was the quality of his character that made the biggest impact on those whose lives he touched. Alan was a model of approachability, as eager to talk to a first-year undergraduate as the top scientist in his field, and as respectful, collegial, and supportive (if not more so) with the former as the latter. His door was always open and his e-mails always answered — with inquiries about his work from complete strangers often followed up with an offer to visit the lab in person to learn more. This extraordinary generosity was also reflected in his mentoring. Alan showered his students and trainees with opportunities, and expressed supreme confidence in their (our) ability to make the best use of these gifts. As a result, time and time again even the least prepared individuals would rise to the occasion, in the process becoming more than they might otherwise have been. Alan was also intensely loyal, and if he viewed you as being under his wing in any capacity, ever, you were guaranteed a lifetime of support and whatever influence he could bring to bear on your behalf. Finally, Alan was deeply human, aware of his own flaws and tolerant of those of others, enormously compassionate, and passionate about making a difference. His wisdom, courage, humility, warmth, and generosity (not to mention his keen sense of humor) are greatly missed, and the hole his absence leaves in my life and that of many others is enormous.

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