Remembering Audrey Kishline, the Founder of Moderation Management

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Remembering Audrey Kishline, the Founder of Moderation Management

By Regina Walker 01/07/15

Audrey Kishline suffered more than her fair share of tragedy, both in Moderation Management, the organization she founded and in her personal life. The Fix reports.

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Audrey Conn Kishline,  Moderation Management
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On December 19th, 2014, a 59-year-old woman almost nobody had ever heard of named Audrey Conn died in her mother’s home in Happy Valley, Oregon. Audrey Conn, however, was better known under another name: Audrey Kishline, the well-known founder of Moderation Management who later killed a 12-year old girl and her father while driving in an alcoholic blackout. Though it has not been confirmed by her family, two respected professionals in the addiction field have stated publicly that her death was a suicide.

Many opponents of Moderation Management use Kishline’s vehicular manslaughter charge as an indictment of the program itself, but, at the time of the car crash, Kishline was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous as well as other abstinence programs.

Moderation Management was founded by Audrey Kishline in 1994—it has been described by many as the first harm reduction mutual aid support group. (“Harm reduction” is an approach that seeks to reduce dangers posed by risky behavior through management of those behaviors, rather than abstinence.) Kishline identified herself as a “problem drinker”—not an alcoholic per se—and in 2006, 18 years later, said in an interview with Dateline, “Of course, after I had been there (rehab) for about a month, I said, ‘There’s no way I’m as bad as these people. They’ve lost their homes, their jobs, their this and their that. I’m not that bad. I’ve been mislabeled.'”

Moderation Management was born from her rejection of the label of “alcoholic,” and the goal of MM was to use cognitive-behavioral tools—a psychotherapy method that emphasizes practical problem-solving—to help problem drinkers achieve and sustain moderate, controlled alcohol use. And, in December of 1995, Kishline’s book Moderate Drinking: The Moderation Management Guide for People Who Want to Reduce Their Drinking was published.

The idea struck a chord with many struggling with alcohol abuse, and it grew in popularity, even leading to an appearance for Kishline on Oprah, and coverage in Time. The program offered online as well as face-to-face meetings, and Kishline was a spokesperson for the program as well as its most outspoken success story. Kishline was always careful to point out that MM was not intended for “alcoholics” but rather for “problem drinkers” and in her book said that those who were already sober were not encouraged to try MM.

Confusion and controversy seemed to be constant companions of Kishline and the MM community. Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ph.D (who wrote the introduction to Audrey's first book—now removed in reprints—and also among the founders of MM) severed all ties with Audrey and MM in 1996. Schaler had become uneasy with Kishline's apparent change of direction in response to external criticism.

Schaler agreed to be a part of the MM movement because he and Kishline were in agreement that there was no "disease" of alcoholism and all "problem drinkers" could learn to moderate. As criticism of MM grew, Kishline began to speak out that MM was not meant for alcoholics (a designation Schaler and Kishline initially opposed) and that "alcoholics" should pursue the path of sobriety. In 1998, more controversy followed Kishline and MM.

On an email listserv dedicated to MM, a member named Larry Froistad confessed to the murder of his 5-year-old daughter. Lisa Decarlo, a member of the group who had been finding some success with moderation, found the admission disturbing and contacted the police to report it. She shared the emails from the group to assist in the investigation. Decarlo then contacted Kishline seeking support, but was surprised by the response she received. Decarlo said Kishline was shocked to learn that the police were involved. Kishline admitted to Decarlo that she hadn’t wanted to go to authorities, in part, because of possible adverse publicity. "Our controlled-drinking support group was controversial enough already," Audrey responded to Decarlo. And besides, “What’s done is done. I mean, the child has been dead for a while, hasn’t she?”

Out of the approximately 200 members of the MM email group who were privy to the confession, only three contacted authorities. Instead, the group rallied around Froistad offering support and understanding and attacked those few members of the group who had contacted the police.

On March 27, 1998 Froistad was arrested and Kishline provided a public statement on the event. Audrey’s statement read, in part, that the group had initially “decided not to take any outside action. The event had already occurred, and there was no discussion about ‘planning’ to commit a crime.” She added, with evident disapproval, that “several members independently took this matter to the authorities.”

What would become clear in the years following the founding of MM, however, was that Kishline’s own drinking—MM’s growing popularity and the success of her message notwithstanding—was “out of control.” By January of 2000, Kishline recognized—publicly—that despite MM’s philosophy and methods, for her, at least, it wasn’t working. She posted a message to an official MM email list, saying that she had concluded that her best drinking goal was abstinence, and that she would begin attending Alcoholics Anonymous, SMART Recovery, and Women for Sobriety meetings, while continuing to support MM for others. Her email read:

“Hello Everyone, fellow MMers,

I have made the decision recently to change my recovery goal to one of abstinence, rather than moderation.

 As you all know, Moderation Management is a program for beginning stage problem drinkers who want to cut back OR quit drinking.

 MM provides moderate-drinking limits based on research, and a fellowship of members who work the program's steps together. Some of our members have been able to stay within healthy limits, some have not. Those who acknowledge they cannot stay within moderate guidelines have always been encouraged to move on to an abstinence-based program. 

I am now following a different path, and to strengthen my sobriety I am attending Alcoholics Anonymous, but will also attend Women for Sobriety and SMART Recovery. I am sure I can learn much from all of these fine programs. 

Initial results from a National Institutes of Health funded study on MM out of Stanford University show that indeed members of MM are highly educated, have jobs, families, and most of their resources are intact. It is also very unlikely that they would define themselves as 'alcoholic' and, in fact, shun any program that would label them as such. But they are concerned about their drinking. They are attracted to MM because they know they will be allowed to take responsibility for making their own choice of recovery goals. 
For many, including myself, MM is a gateway to abstinence. Seven years ago, I would not have accepted abstinence. Today, because of MM, I do. Whether abusive drinking is a disease or a learned behavior does not matter. If you drink too much and this is causing problems in your life, you need to do something about it. We're intelligent people, but sometimes we need to quit debating in our heads, and look at what's in our hearts.
 If you, like myself, find eventually that you cannot stay within our guidelines there is no shame in admitting this. In fact, it is a success.
 A big success, because you have found through our program what you need to do to really live life to its fullest. As Dr. Ernest Kurtz, one of the foremost experts on AA who wrote the forward to our handbook, once predicted 'MM will one day refer more people to AA than any other program.' He may be right!
 My heartfelt best wishes to each and every one of you as you discover your own recovery goal.

-- Audrey Kishline; Founder, Moderation Management”

Two months later, on the way from her home outside Seattle to her father's home in Spokane, Kishline drove her truck the wrong way down an interstate in Washington State. She hit another vehicle head-on, killing both the driver and passenger in the other car - Richard “Danny” Davis, 38, and his twelve year old daughter LaShell. Kishline's blood alcohol content was 0.26 – more than three times the legal limit, and she admitted to "driving a hundred miles an hour in a total blackout," causing the vehicular manslaughter.

In the 2006 Dateline interview, Kishline reversed much of what she’d said publicly about her own drinking in previous years, and during the rise of Moderation Management:

Dateline: As you look back on it, was MM something you devised to give yourself license to drink because you didn’t want to abstain?

Kishline: I do think that deep down as an addict that was the purpose.

Dateline:  All the good research that you did and the presentation of it to a national audience, it was really to justify it for you as a drinker.

Kishline:  It would legitimize my drinking.

Kishline was released on parole in August 2003, after serving 3 ½ years, but was unable to resist the temptation to drink, and one night, walked into a liquor store; a friend called her parole officer, and as any drinking was a violation of her parole, she returned to prison for 42 days. Kishline later said that this marked the end of her life with her family, although her marriage had already been crumbling prior to the accident. She and her husband divorced, and she began to live alone in Portland, Oregon. As a convicted felon, finding work was a struggle and it was only after months of fruitless searching that she finally found her first job—at a dry cleaner’s, a half-hour walk from her home. (Kishline was forbidden by the terms of her parole to drive, but she said that at the time she vowed never to get behind the wheel of a car again.)

In 2007, Kishline and Sheryl Maloy—the wife and mother of accident victims Richard Davis and 12-year-old LaShell—co-authored the book Face to Face, which chronicled both the fatal accident and the subsequent forgiveness and friendship that grew between the two women (Maloy had visited Kishlane in prison). In the book, Kishline frankly admitted that she was still drinking regularly.

Little had been heard from Kishline publicly in recent years. She continued to live in Oregon, and maintained a Facebook page under the name Audrey Conn.

On August 15, 2014, Kishline posted on her Facebook page “Trivia. Dust. Depression. My desk is weighing down the corner of my room. Really. Now, if this trivia a friend sent to me is REALLY true: ‘The Earth gets 100 tons heavier every day due to falling space dust,’ then I need to get into action. Every time I get the energy to move a file (I didn't say open it), there is a billow of particles that bring on a sneezing fit. I reach for the Kleenex box, and that is also covered with the you know what. A desk (like mine) is not made orderly, nice & neat, and productive in one day . . . back to those age-old wise words: dust away the cluttering trivialities of your gloomy mood by taking it one tiny, intsy, (though perceptible!) improvement at a time. I'm On IT!”

Kishline’s final Facebook post was on November 10, 2014 “Talk about a CHALLENGE. I have now "quit" smoking every night. That's right! Full of determination! I can do it! No problem! Then........morning dawns. A little voice says "just one more, that's all, I promise, THEN I'll stop, for SURE...blah-de-blah." I'll keep you posted, even tho I do not want to. THIS IS SCARY STUFF. I mean it. Totally terrifying.”

Kishline had said in the past that she suffered from anxiety and depression; it will never be known if those mental health issues contributed to her drinking and possibly, her death. Many opponents of Moderation Management use Kishline’s vehicular manslaughter charge as an indictment of the program itself, but, of course, at the time of the car crash, by her own public account, Kishline was no longer a member of the program she created, but a member of Alcoholics Anonymous as well as a few other abstinence-based programs.

Kishline’s life and story emphasize the complexities of addiction. Kishline not only employed the MM program but inpatient rehab, AA, Women for Sobriety, Rational Recovery and SMART Recovery to address her drinking issues. 

Ironically, it seems a self-proclaimed alcoholic founded a program that works effectively for the problem drinker. The skill lies in identifying the difference. 

It is perhaps in the challenges of her own struggles with addiction—and in the possibility of forgiveness and compassion in her friendship with Sheryl Maloy—that her most enduring legacy may be found.

Regina Walker is a licensed psychotherapist as well as writer and photographer in NYC. She last wrote about gender and addiction and interviewed Faces of Addiction photographer Chris Arnade.

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Regina Walker is a licensed psychotherapist in NYC. She has written for multiple publications and is an avid photographer. You can find her on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.

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