Unidad, Servicio y Recuperación: Twelve-Step Recovery in Civil War Guatemala, Part I

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Dr. Heather Vrana. Vrana (Ph.D. Indiana University, 2013) is Associate Professor of Modern Latin America in the Department of History at the University of Florida. Vrana’s research interests include disability, social movements, human rights, photography, and youth and student movements in Central America. She is author of the monograph This City Belongs to You: A History of Student Activism in Guatemala (University of California Press, 2017) and the anthology Anti-colonial Texts from Central American Student Movements 1929-1983 (Edinburgh University Press, 2017). She is co-editor with Julie Gibbings of Out of the Shadow: Revisiting the Revolution from Post-Peace Guatemala (University of Texas Press, 2020). Her articles have appeared in the Journal of Genocide Research, the Radical History Review, and elsewhere. Vrana has conducted archival and oral history research in Central America since 2007, focusing first on Guatemala, then on Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Today’s post is the first of a two-part series on AA in Latin America; the second part will run on Thursday. 

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and its sister fellowship Narcotics Anonymous (NA) arrived in Central America during the region’s nearly four-decade crucible of civil war. Incredibly, at a time when gathering in private was suspicious, if not explicitly forbidden (by countless states of emergency, curfews, and skirmishes), anonymous alcoholics and addicts met in homes and rented rooms most nights of the week. In their move to Central America, very little changed in the texts and practices of the fellowships. The literature and spoken rituals (like the Serenity Prayer, or Oración de la Serenidad) of group meetings were direct translations from the English-language texts. But the mid-1990s saw the emergence of a new and distinct twelve-step program, Neurotics Anonymous (N/A). 

The civil wars have largely been the purview of social movement history. At the same time, social movement history and alcohol and drug history are essentially separate subfields. But together they suggest why twelve-step recovery was so popular in Central America and, in turn, how some Central Americans responded to the trauma, political violence, and religious tensions of the wars and their aftermath. Histories of alcohol and drugs have turned decisively toward transnational and global approaches, a turn the upcoming bi-annual conference of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society aptly reflects. This research proposes that the same approaches might be usefully brought to bear on transnational and global exchanges of recovery.

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Dr. Heather Vrana

In this and a follow-up blog post, I summarize the history of three central twelve-step recovery groups in Guatemala: Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and Neurotics Anonymous. Like Stanley Brandes, whose wonderful Staying Sober in Mexico City offers a rare ethnography of AA outside of the U.S., I am curious about the reasons for AA’s impressive expansion in Latin America. But where Brandes emphasizes AA’s adaptability, I find orthodoxy. Through that orthodoxy, twelve-step programs provided an apparently apolitical outlet for affects, thoughts, and outlooks that were outcomes of political turmoil before and during the civil war (1960-1996). I also suggest that meeting spaces and fellowship practices provided a space for community that was largely unfettered by surveillance and political repression at a time when that was hard to come by. 

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Recovery at the Grassroots: Addicts, Alcoholics, and Communal Living in Postwar Los Angeles

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Jordan Mylet, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of California, San Diego. This is Part 2 in a series on The Addict and Addiction Treatment Before the War on Drugs. 

In the early 1950s, just a few years after a group of patients at the federal narcotics prison-hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, started meeting under the guidance of a local Alcoholics Anonymous emissary, groups like Sun Valley’s Narcotics Anonymous sprung up all over the greater Los Angeles area. They went by all sorts of names: Habit Forming Drugs, Hypes and Alcoholics, Addicts Anonymous, or even the hyper-specific San Fernando Valley Alcoholics Anonymous and Addicts Anonymous. But they were bound by a shared genealogy, one in which the lessons of institutional treatment’s failure to effect a “cure” were merged with the communitarian tradition of alcoholic mutual aid networks in the mid-20th century. During the postwar years, while policymakers, law enforcement officials, and medical professionals debated whether the best way to treat addicts was compulsory hospitalization or providing them with drugs at state clinics, a movement of grassroots recovery groups—which would go on to revolutionize the system of addiction treatment in the United States—spread across Los Angeles.  Continue reading

Challenging the Foundation Myths

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Matthew J. Raphael, a retired professor of English. Raphael is author of Bill W. and Mr. Wilson (University of Massachusetts Press, 2000), as well as other books and essays on the place of alcohol in American literature and culture.

Screenshot 2020-03-03 at 4.18.12 PM“Over the years,” observes William H. Schaberg in Writing the Big Book, the image of Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith laying the foundation of Alcoholics Anonymous “has become deeply encrusted with so many layers of adulation and myth that it is hard to recapture the reality of the moment.” The objective of Schaberg’s book, the most important study of A.A. since Ernest Kurtz’s monumental Not-God, is to challenge the hoary stories of A.A.’s early days, from Wilson’s attaining sobriety in 1935 to the publication of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1939.

Ten years in the making, based on exhaustive research in the A.A. archives and other collections, Writing the Big Book runs nearly 800 pages: thicker and heavier than the original Big Book. The book is truly definitive – a word thrown mindlessly around – insofar as it will never likely be redone and thus will remain unsurpassed.

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Magic Cures and their Discontents: The Belladonna Treatment in the Early Twentieth-Century

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Jordan Mylet. Mylet is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of California, San Diego. 

When Bill Wilson had the “spiritual awakening” at the upscale Charles B. Towns Hospital in New York City that would inspire the founding and program of Alcoholics Anonymous, he probably didn’t know the strange, at times sinister, history of the treatment that made his transcendent experience possible.

What he received was the Towns Hospital’s version of the belladonna treatment, which had emerged as a cutting-edge addiction treatment in 1900 and became the dominant method in public and private hospitals by the 1920s. Per its name, the treatment was derived from alkaloids of the belladonna and henbane plants in the nightshade family, which had been used for millennia as poison, cosmetic enhancement, and hallucinogen. They were known to be potent, psychoactive, and potentially fatal. As the belladonna treatment (or “hyoscine cure”) spread in American medical practice, physicians and medical researchers engaged in an unwieldy process of trial and error to control the volatile qualities of the drug mixture. In practice, this meant that poor addicts and alcoholics during the first decades of the twentieth century encountered a far more dangerous version of the belladonna treatment. The course of the hyoscine cure reveals the long history of the United States’ two-tiered addiction treatment (and healthcare) system, and the at times wildly experimental character of medicine and pharmacology in the early twentieth century, the same era in which the nation’s narcotics control laws were developed.

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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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