Points Bookshelf: “US of AA” by Joe Miller

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Jeremy Milloy, the W. P. Bell Postdoctoral Fellow at Mount Allison University. In it, he adds to our Points Bookshelf series, where we examine and review recent books about alcohol and drug history. More than a traditional review, however, Milloy also interviews Miller. Enjoy! 

Screenshot 2019-10-22 at 6.26.31 AMAlcoholics Anonymous is one of the most successful social movements in history. It has exercised more influence over treatment of substance use disorder than probably any other non-state organization in history. AA programming is the foundation of upscale private rehabs and prison programs alike. Today almost two million people are believed to be AA members, with many more in the myriad of other 12-step fellowships created in its image. But for the great majority of people who go to AA, it doesn’t work. 

Why then, did AA become the first, and often, the last treatment option? Why does it remain so today? These are some of the questions journalist and English professor Joe Miller tackles in his timely and trenchant new history US Of AA: How The Twelve Steps Hijacked The Science of Alcoholism. In it, Miller deftly combines a personal narrative about his struggles with alcohol and journey through AA to stable program of moderation with the larger history of AA itself. 

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Narcotics and Western Civilization: A Student-Based Reflection

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Stefano Tijerina, a lecturer in management and the Chris Kobrack Research Fellow in Canandian Business History at the University’s of Maine’s Business School. He adds to our Teaching Points series, on bringing drug history into the classroom. 

Screenshot 2019-10-14 at 10.07.33 PMIn an effort to bring to the classroom the debates over global intoxicants, I was given the opportunity to teach an Honors College tutorial at the University of Maine titled “Narcotics in the Construction of Western Civilization.”  My objective was to deconstruct stereotypes and build awareness about the long history and culture of drugs in the West, juxtaposing it to the experiences of other cultures that also built intimate relationships with intoxicants of all kinds.  The course became a way to connect my past with the present.

Screenshot 2019-10-14 at 10.08.52 PMI grew up in Colombia during the 1970s and 1980s, experiencing the escalation of the American-led War on Drugs.  I had been searched at airports continuously as a child when visiting my family in Texas, and later disenfranchised by the narco-centered stereotypes during my college years in New England.  My first exposure to marijuana had taken place in Brownsville, Texas, not so distant from the story told by Domingo Martinez in The Boy Kings of Texas.  Since then I always asked myself, why was I exposed to narcotics in the U.S. and not in Colombia, where everybody said drugs were the common denominator?   Growing up I was always curious about the nature of the construction of Colombia’s narco-stereotype, knowing first-hand that the cultural desire for all kinds of intoxicants was in the U.S., and the West for that matter, and not in Colombia.  As a preceptor in the Honors College, I wanted students to have the unique opportunity to ask similar questions and reflect on their own experiences growing up in the largest global market for intoxicants, where the cultural taboo and the demand-side of intoxicants slept side by side in the same bed. 

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CFP: Cannabis Geographies at the Association of American Geographers Annual Conference

Editor’s Note: Special bonus post this week! Please see below for a call for papers for a very exciting conference that’s being held in April 2020. Contact information below.

Association of American Geographers Annual Conference

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Denver, CO

April 6-10, 2020

Panel: Cannabis Geographies

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CFP: Beyond the Medicines/Drugs Dichotomy: Historical Perspectives on Good and Evil in Pharmacy

Editor’s Note: You know you’ve always wanted to visit South Africa. Here’s your chance! Check out this CFP for an exciting conference at the University of Johannesburg this December.

Beyond the Medicines/Drugs Dichotomy: Historical Perspectives on Good and Evil in Pharmacy 

University of Johannesburg
5-7 December 2019

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The dichotomy between pharmacologically-active substances considered legitimate (and therefore worthy of regulation as medicines, and also provided as public goods) and those considered problematic (and therefore deserving of moral and legal opprobrium, prohibition and sanction) has informed global regulatory regimes for decades.  (Andy Gray, 2017)

Drug policies and ways of thinking and talking about substances and treatment approaches are changing fast, both at national and international levels. These changes reflect a growing acknowledgement of core contradictions within the legislative regimes Gray described above, crafted respectively for ‘drugs’ and ‘medicines’ from the nineteenth-century onwards. Subversions of this dichotomy have lately become more apparent in the public eye – for example, in widespread addiction to opioid painkillers; in the repurposing of pharmaceuticals for pleasure, sedation or sociability; in the scientific legitimation of previously restricted drug alkaloids for medical application. Increasing criticism of ‘war-on-drugs’ style governance, the liberalisation of cannabis laws, and the advocacy of harm reduction approaches to drug treatment are among the indications of shifting views even within governments themselves.

The organizers of this event argue that precise historical understandings of how this dichotomy has worked in practice, in multiple and very different contexts, are necessary in order to map possible alternatives and futures. To clearly identify who established and maintained classificatory boundaries, what interests lay behind their actions, how they have been challenged, and why it is only now that faith in them seems to be waning are important tasks for historians of health, medicines and modernities, and those working in related fields and disciplines.

This event at the University of Johannesburg aims to draw together those addressing the questions below in their research. We invite submissions from postgraduates, together with emerging and established scholars, and are keen to include studies from around the world, as well as those that look at international or transnational contexts.

Guiding questions:

  • What knowledge was generated to justify distinctions between medicines/drugs? By whom? How were decisions made about what evidence could be considered authoritative?
  • Which groups and/or disciplines were involved in establishing or challenging the emergence of this dichotomy and what determined their success or failure?
  • How have histories of various substances been created and deployed in justifying or disputing this dichotomy?
  • What values have driven pharmaceutical technologies and their regulation? How have ideas about ‘good’ and ‘evil’ framed scientific and political discussions?
  • How long has a shift towards a neuro-chemical society been happening and with what effects? Has it necessarily been a dehumanising process?
  • Have chronologies of commodification, lawmaking and enforcement followed similar routes in different countries or contexts?
  • How do historians recover neuro-chemical biographies, and what do these reveal about individual or collective experiences of the medicines/drugs dichotomy in practice?

The event is funded by the Wellcome Trust and is jointly organised by the Department of History at the University of Johannesburg and The Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare (CSHHH) Glasgow through the ‘Changing Minds: Psychoactive Substances in African and Asian History’ project.

The event will take place from 5 to 7 December 2019 at the University of Johannesburg.

Call for Papers
Please submit a title, an abstract of no more than 200 words which addresses some of the above questions, along with a narrative biography of 200 words, to Caroline Marley (caroline.marley@strath.ac.uk) and Thembisa Waetjen (twaetjen@uj.ac.za) by 20 September 2019.

Applicants will be informed of the committee’s decision by 4 October 2019.

Funding
This event is made possible by the generous support of the Wellcome Trust. Some funding for travel and accommodation is available, and will be prioritised for graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and early career researchers, particularly where they are located at institutions in the Global South.

Fiction Points: Amy Long

 

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Amy Long is the author of Codependence: Essays (Cleveland State University Poetry Center 2019) and a founding member of the Points editorial board. She has worked for drug policy reform and free speech advocacy groups in California, D.C., and New York; as a bookseller at Bookpeople in Austin, TX; and as an English instructor at Virginia Tech and Northwest Florida State College. Her essays have appeared in Best American Experimental Writing 2015Ninth Letter, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and elsewhere, including as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2018. Codependence is her first book.

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask what you write about, how do you answer?

“Myself. I find myself inherently interest–sorry, I’m maybe having a Topamax flashback. You’re sure that penguin’s really here?” And then I’d probably ask the bartender for a cup of water, down a Klonopin, and run like mad out of there.

Points is primarily a blog for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?

The juxtaposition of medicinal and recreational opioid use would probably most interest drug historians, as would the descriptions of “doctor shopping” in 2003 versus 2012 and 2015. All the events in Codependence take place prior to implementation of the 2016 CDC guideline, and it’s harder now to find doctors who are willing to write opioids in doses high enough to actually control serious pain. My ex-boyfriend David, a major figure in the book, was a master doctor shopper back when it was still easy to get opioids from a doctor for any relatively believable pain complaint, and I doubt even he could get them now. I don’t give him credit for much, but watching him trick doctors into writing him pain pills taught me how to act in pain management offices and is likely a major reason I’m still able to treat my intractable headaches with opioids in today’s restrictive climate. It’s not that I’m lying; I wish I were! But he taught me how to present myself and that presentation matters.

I also hope literary historians like reading a drug memoir that doesn’t end in recovery or tie up in a neat bow. Feminist historians interested in relationships similar to the one I was in as an older teenager and college student might find something interesting about the emotionally abusive, codependent dynamic David and I share.

Scholars interested in gender disparities in medicine will hopefully appreciate reading about my experience as a pain patient with a “women’s problem.” I experiment with non-opioid headache medications, too, and depict my use of illicit drugs such as marijuana and LSD, which should interest historians who study medicine and pharmacology. I was also an early Suboxone adopter  (at one point in the book, I get off opioids entirely and stay off for a year, but I go back to them after I get dependent on Advil–Advil!), and I write a good bit about how quitting alcohol (it’s a migraine trigger) affects my social life, so there’s something for everyone!

Mostly, though, I’m writing about opioids and other drugs, pain, addiction, dependence, recovery, and mental health in ways that I’ve never seen represented in literature, so the essays work as a sort of case studies in what it’s been like to rely on opioids during the past 15-plus years.

 

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What led you to write about drugs and alcohol in the first place?

I started Codependence in my MFA program. I always knew that I wanted to put these two kinds of drug-related experiences in conversation with each other, but I thought I’d write it as a novel until I took a creative nonfiction workshop with Matthew Vollmer in my second semester. That class totally changed the way I think about writing and even just being a person. I narrated my drug history in a medicine cabinet as my final project (if you’re ever at Virginia Tech, ask Matthew if you can see it; he’s its executor!) and used that as an outline for my thesis, which turned into this book. But drugs have been a big part of my life since I was 18, so I was always going to address it in some way. To me, Codependence is the book I had to write in order to ever write anything else. But my writing will probably always involve drugs in some way. I mean, I take three drugs right when I wake up; they’re hard to ignore!

How would you describe the way that drugs function in your work, whether in terms of thematic concerns or the choices you make about how to craft a narrative? Do you think there are things that you wouldn’t be able to explore as successfully if drugs weren’t in your writing arsenal?

Nearly every decision I made had something to do with drugs. I needed a way to wrap a coming-of-age story into one about a druggy relationship and a medical memoir without using chronology to connect the dots. There’s no way I could have left drugs out of the book. But I spent a lot of time thinking about how I’d use them. Codependence is an essay collection, but it’s also a non-linear memoir or memoir in essays; the essays touch on different parts of or events from my life, but they create a distinct arc when you read all of them together, so I had to decide when it was right to introduce certain elements. For example, the first essay centers on me telling my mom that I’m back on opioids, and the second kind of sums up my relationship with David, but neither refers to the events depicted in the other, and readers have to figure out as they go how those two strands connect. I didn’t want to spell it out, and there’s a degree to which I don’t know what it means that I used to take drugs for fun, and now I take them to treat chronic pain either, so building a sort of puzzle-like, incantatory narrative structure made up of essays that might not always seem related puts the reader in a position similar to mine, which is the other thing I most wanted to do: trap the audience in my body, my head, my pain so that the book mirrors both chronic pain and addiction and hopefully builds in some empathy (I know, I’m really great at selling this: “Let me trap you in my pain!”).

About half the essays use received forms (I’ve seen them called hermit-crab essays, but I call them “formally inventive”) such as a map or a series of glossary entries. One of my favorites is a set of six prescription-informatic-like essays that tell the story of my and David’s relationship. After I wrote it, a friend said, “You’ve found your form! You could write the whole book like that,” but I thought writing about drugs in a drug-label format would be too on the nose. I included the glossary in part because I wanted to catalog all the migraine and headache medications I’ve tried, but I also thought readers might need actual definitions of some things, especially since I can’t assume that all my readers have had the prodigious drug experiences I’ve had! So, decisions about how to write about drugs played an important role in shaping the narrative, its structure, and the meanings it can make.

What do you personally find most interesting about how drugs work in your writing, and where do you see that interest leading you in future projects?

Mostly, I like that I blur the boundaries around medicinal and recreational drug use or abuse, and I’m interested in stories that don’t really resolve at the book’s end. In my next project, I’d like drugs to take something of a back seat to other themes, but I know what I want to write next, and I can’t do it without writing about drugs again! And I like writing about drugs. Maybe what most interests me is looking at how to live in a drug-dependent body without letting drugs structure every interaction, every thought, every relationship, even though there is a way in which they have to for me.

BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope [oh, we hope!] Codependence gets made into a major motion picture. What song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?

“Dance, Dance” by Castanets

Raymond Raposa, whose band is Castanets, and I are going on tour together this fall (we launch the book at Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn on Sept. 14!), but I started thinking of that song as my “credits song” for a long time, way before I knew Ray and I were doing the tour (I have been thinking about this answer for literal years!). It just really captures the feelings and themes of the last essay and of the book as a whole. It’s evocative and paints this kind of bleak but beautiful picture in a way that’s similar to what the  book does.

Points Bookshelf: “Imperial Twilight” by Stephen R. Platt

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Miriam Kingsberg Kadia, an associate professor of history at the University of Colorado, Boulder. 

Screenshot 2019-09-05 at 8.18.45 AMWithin the field of Chinese history, the Opium War, fought in the southern port city of Canton (Guangzhou) and its environs from 1839-1842, is among the most exhaustively researched of topics. Scholars have long argued for the significance of this nineteenth-century clash between the British and Chinese empires, representing it as the beginning of the latter’s infamous “century of humiliation” at the hands of the great powers. Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of the China’s Last Golden Age (Knopf, 2018) does not dispute this view of the conflict as a watershed marking British ascendancy and Chinese decline. However, Stephen Platt’s highly readable and original book does overturn various longstanding assumptions about the events leading up to the war. In particular, he shows how small moments of frustration and miscommunication changed the course of history. 

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Fiction Points: Eva Hagberg

betterdarkevaEva Hagberg, author of How to be Loved: A Memoir of Life-Saving Friendship (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2019), holds degrees in architecture from UC Berkeley and Princeton and a PhD in Visual and Narrative Culture from Berkeley, from which she received fellowships and awards for her research and teaching. She has written and published two books on architecture, Dark Nostalgia: Faultlessly Stylish Interiors (Thames & Hudson 2009) and Nature Framed: At Home in the Landscape (The Monacelli Press 2011). Her literary work, architectural criticism, and other writings have appeared in Dwell, Guernica, the New York Times, Tin House, and Wired among other venues.

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?

Buildings and feelings.

Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?

Ideally its use as a future primary source document! Drugs and alcohol appear in the book both as plot points and also as mechanisms for understanding the particular cultural crisis we’re in (have always been in?). While my experience is of course only my own, I can see how a historian might look at how our intense capitalist culture has led to total alienation has led to a desire to connect has led to, for me, the drive to connect through using drugs. There’s a scene in the book in which I describe how cocaine gave me a sense of intimacy (false, of course!) that was all I craved. So a historian might wonder – why did I crave that intimacy? What about growing up in the eighties and nineties in the U.S., in the cultural milieu I grew up in, and living in NYC in the early 00’s, led to my feeling that cocaine and alcohol were the best ways to relate to people? Then again, I was at a party last night and saw the youth doing drugs, and it seemed almost like nothing had changed. Have things changed in the last twenty years? That’s for the historians.

What led you to write about drugs and alcohol in the first place?

I wanted the protagonist of my narrative to have some sort of cathartic arc – if the conceit of the book is that friendship saved my life, and friendship profoundly saved me (and that IS the conceit of the book), then the question is, well, okay, why did my life need to be saved? Why did friendship impact me so deeply? And one of the reasons was that I’d been so desperate to connect but so afraid to connect that I’d turned to powdered friends and liquid friends. I needed to write about the way in which I relied on drugs and alcohol, and then stopped relying on drugs and alcohol and replaced the reliance with friendship – and so it was important to try, to the best of my ability, to describe that replacement.

howtobelovedHow would you describe the way that drugs function in your work, whether in terms of thematic concerns or the choices you make about how to craft a narrative? Do you think there are things that you wouldn’t be able to explore as successfully if drugs weren’t in your writing arsenal?

In the book, cocaine functions as a kind of alternative to the deep and profound friendship I experienced with Allison and Lauren, and a block to my earlier relationship with Leila. It’s the wedge between me and the rest of the world, but of course at the time I thought it was my solution. In terms of crafting a narrative, I wanted to avoid cliches – there are so many amazing alcohol / drug memoirs, and I wanted to bring a precision and a specificity to the way in which I described how drugs and alcohol impacted me – at various points in time / the plot. If I’d had to somehow elide any mention of drugs, I imagine that the narrative wouldn’t have worked as well – the reader would have wondered why I was so alienated from others, and what the locus of that alienation was.

What do you personally find most interesting about how drugs work in your writing, and where do you see that interest leading you in future projects?

People often ask me why I’m a memoirist, and the short answer is that I am just compelled to use my own life experiences as a primary medium. Everything that I intellectually metabolize seems to get metabolized through using my own observations, experiences, stories, etc. So drugs work in my writing in a similar way to how everything else I’ve experienced works – they’re an available archive or series of pieces of evidence that I can use to build an argument. The argument of How to be Loved was that we have an inherently capitalist approach to illness – that with enough work, time, etc, we will get better – and that this capitalist approach towards recovery-as-progress actually leaves out a lot of the real growth / powerful experiences that I and many other extremely sick people experienced in the middle of being sick. So my experiences with drugs were just part of the available archive.

I will always write about myself and I will always have had experiences with drugs, so I imagine I will eventually write about my experiences with drugs again!

BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope that How to be Loved gets made into a major motion picture. If you have your choice, which is it, and what song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?

I would love to see this as a major motion picture! I’ve been listening to Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” a lot lately – and relating to how afraid I was to change anything in my life that wasn’t working for me. So many people told me to Wise Up, of course – but it took what it took. So it might be sort of ironically perfect.