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magazine home > archives > summer 2003 > features

U of M professor Linda Bennett is taking aim at a serious problem that can destroy an individual's life and tear families apart. It is an issue that touches most Americans in some way.

Sobering Research
by Monica Whitsitt

Dr. Linda Bennett

Dr. Bennett's research has led to breakthroughs in how alcoholism in today's society is understood.

Alcoholism is more commonplace than some people might think. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence cites 18 million Americans as having "alcohol problems." Tackling the issue head-on might seem daunting, but it is a journey Dr. Linda A. Bennett is unafraid to take.

Bennett was awarded the 2003 Board of Visitors Eminent Faculty Award for her research on alcohol abuse, as well as her other focus areas, including adoption. The $20,000 award was presented to the U of M professor of anthropology in March at the University's annual Faculty Convocation. Bennett is the 11th winner of the award, which was established to recognize faculty members who bring distinction and honor to the University.

"Dr. Bennett has established herself as a valued teacher, adviser and mentor to students in the University's anthropology program," says Larry Papasan, award presenter and an executive of Smith & Nephew Inc.

Bennett has been active in the anthropology field since receiving her master's degree from Indiana University in 1966. She received her doctoral degree in anthropology in 1976 from American University in Washington, D.C., and has been published countless times. She has collaborated on numerous books, ranging in topic from alcoholism in families to bio-cultural contrasts in Croatian communities. Bennett also has written magazine articles, contributed chapters for books and published reviews for the books and films of her colleagues.

Throughout her career, Bennett has focused much of her attention on alcoholism in families. She most
often works with Americans, Croatians and Serbians. She collaborated as an anthropologist on the highly
regarded books The Alcoholic Family and The American Experience with Alcohol soon after completing her

"The intent of the studies was to identify significant explanations for why some children who grow up in alcoholic families become alcoholics themselves, while some do not," Bennett says.

With colleague Dr. Steven Wolin, a psychiatrist, she identified and found support for two significant family-culture factors in alcohol transmission through generations. The first hypothesis states that families who retain rituals such as dinner and holidays in the midst of parental alcoholism are less likely to transmit the disease to the children in comparison to families whose rituals become destroyed or seriously altered.

The second hypothesis surmises that couples who enter into marriage with a clear concept of what kind of life and family they want are far less likely to fall into traps of alcoholism than were couples who have no clear plan. The descriptions and results of these studies were published in The Alcoholic Family. "I try to be reasonably modest in terms of what I can claim from the results of my research," Bennett says. This is essential because she works on a highly sensitive topic about which people hold strong opinions.

"It's very interesting — as well as very troubling — how many people are affected by alcoholism," she says. "Almost everyone has some connection to it."

Her work on these projects established her as an alcohol researcher and provided her with the opportunity to work in the former Yugoslavia. While there, Bennett studied how alcohol abuse was treated in a communist society. To do her research, she took a "fly on the wall" approach. The purpose of the study was to examine effective methods of alcohol treatment with a strong family therapy component while taking into account special aspects of the cultural setting.

In 1992-93, Bennett helped conduct a cross-cultural, nine-country study of the diagnosis and classification of alcohol and drug use for the World Health Organization. She is still analyzing the data and publishing results from that study.

"I have attempted throughout my career to conduct research that has the potential for application to human problems," Bennett says.

It was her own "human problem" that led to Bennett's research on adoption and to the publication of her 1997 work, A Russian-English Language Guide for Adopting Families. When Bennett adopted her daughter Natasha from Russia, she was faced with an unexpected challenge. Her adopted child, who was 5 at the time, spoke Russian; Bennett did not.

"We used Croatian as our common language," Bennett said. "They are similar languages, but they are not as similar as they seemed to be at that time. I always estimated that we had about 70 percent comprehension."
Because of the lack of literary resources available to Bennett, the single mother was left to her own devices to communicate with her new child.

"I looked widely for a language guide with family-friendly and child-relevant phrases," Bennett says. "None existed."

According to Bennett, language guides are written primarily for tourists, students or businesspeople — not for adopting families. Because of the "impressive number of somewhat older children" who have been adopted from Russia by American families, she designed and wrote one of the first-ever language guides intended for adopting families.

Bennett does not speak Russian, but she is moderately fluent in Croatian and Serbian; she learned to type in Russian Cyrillic in order to complete the guide. The adoption agency with which she collaborated on the project, Williams International Adoptions Inc., plans to reissue the book and tape later this year.

The professor plans to look even closer at adoption issues in a study to begin this fall. She will examine the special needs of internationally adopted older children who might have challenges such as emotional adjustments, language learning issues, parental history of alcoholism effects and learning disabilities. Bennett wants to develop a resource guide for families with these types of adopted children.

The majority of Bennett's work, though, concerns substance abuse. She currently is co-authoring two publications with psychologist Dr. Laurel Kiser that deal with the topic in regards to family and neighborhood rituals and routines in Memphis.

"I wanted to do a project that demonstrates a commitment to taking academic and anthropological expertise and applying it to a specific community need," Bennett says.

It's research she says is worth doing — research that will make a tremendous impact as she continues to unravel the mysteries of alcoholism.

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