Dr. Neill Neill
The subject of alcoholic blackouts is a controversial one. The argument that a person was in an alcoholic blackout and didn’t know what he was doing at the time has been used in court successfully to help people avoid the legal consequence of their actions. Lawyers have used the argument of the alcoholic blackout to help a man avoid the legal consequences of beating his wife to death or of killing someone while driving drunk.
For someone to be convicted of a crime he has to know the difference between right and wrong at the time of the crime. When he goes to court and has no recollection of the incident, his lawyer argues that he was not conscious of what he was doing when he committed the crime.
A convenient lie!
There is no doubt that alcohol affects memory. When alcohol abuse continues for a few years and/or regularly leads to severe intoxication, the alcoholic gets to the point where he cannot recall some or all of the events of the previous evening of drinking. Blackouts are one of the symptoms of alcoholism.
The time about which he cannot remember anything — the memory blackout — is called “the alcoholic blackout.” It is a gap in memory, and the more chronic the alcoholism the larger and more complete are these gaps in memory.
I have been close to men who suffer alcoholic blackouts because of their alcoholism. Most of the blackouts are benign, that is, nothing unusual happens while they are drinking. But they just don’t remember anything from the time they started drinking until they wake up at home in the morning.
They don’t remember their very rational decision to go to another bar when it looked like there was going to be a fight in the bar they were in. They don’t remember getting far too drunk to drive home and calling a taxi. But they were quite conscious of what they were doing at the time.
Less benign was a friend (now deceased) who was very strong and generally dangerous, having spent more of his life in jail than not. He would get into a fight while intoxicated and attempt to beat his adversary to death. At the time, he said he knew what he was doing and he wanted to kill his victim. He knew it was wrong, but he just didn’t care. The only thing stopping him was his buddies physically pulling him away and restraining him. The next morning he would remember nothing of what happened.
I knew another violent alcoholic who made arrangements with the local police to let him come to the jail and sleep it off if he was becoming too murderous. Even when extremely intoxicated, he would make a conscious decision not to kill, but to go to the jail instead. When he would wake up in the jail, he would have no idea of whether he had been arrested for a crime or had gone to the jail voluntarily.
In my experience the alcoholic blackout is about blocked memory alone, not about whether people know the difference between right and wrong when intoxicated. They do know the difference, but don’t care.
Is the alcoholic blackout just a convenient excuse for bad behaviour? You be the judge.