Editors Note: This post is from Contributing Editor Michelle McClellan.
In May 1976, more than fifty people—celebrities and professionals from various fields—announced at a carefully staged press conference that they had recovered from alcoholism. The event had been organized by the National Council on Alcoholism (today the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence) as part of its annual conference. In 1944, Margaret “Marty” Mann had disclosed her own drinking problem and founded the NCA to persuade Americans to regard alcoholism as a public health matter. On that May day more than thirty years later, actors, politicians, journalists, sports figures, physicians, lawyers, pilots, clergymen, even an astronaut and an “Indian chief” (Sylvester Tinker of the Osage Nation) participated in “Operation Understanding.” Arrayed in alphabetical order on risers in a hotel ballroom in Washington, D.C., each person stood, announced his or her name, and then added, “I am an alcoholic.” Consistent with the mission of the NCA, the event planners hoped to reduce the stigma associated with alcoholism, demonstrate that alcoholics come from all backgrounds, and encourage those who struggled with their drinking to seek help.
Editor’s Note: This post is from contributing editor Michelle McClellan.
In my last post I reflected on the complicated backstory of feminism, intoxication, and vulnerability, specifically in relation to campus culture today and efforts to prevent sexual assault. I speculated whether there could be such a thing as “damp feminism,” a way to allow, even encourage, women’s pleasure while still accommodating gender-specific risks. I’m not sure exactly what this would look like but I want to keep thinking about it and welcome readers’ thoughts. Here, I muse on what seem to me to be several important factors: the complicated developments of the 1970s, including the women’s health movement; feminist resistance to essentialist thinking; and the role of advocates.
“How should he handle his alcoholic wife,” asks the lurid cover of the 1960 novel Alcoholic Wife by G.G. Revelle. “Beat her? Cater to her inflamed desires? Overlook her drunken intimacies with other men? Desert her for his seductive mistress?” With a retail price of 35 cents, the volume helpfully included a list of other Beacon Book titles that readers might enjoy, such as Footloose Fraulein and Trailer Tramp. Yet Alcoholic Wife was not just entertainment, but an examination of a growing social crisis, as the back cover promised: “This novel courageously tackles the problem of the drinking wife—today more common than ever before!”
1. Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.
A few years ago I started noticing a big shift in the way women talked about their drinking. Sometime in the early aughts it began to appear as a cultural trope — women “needing” wine. I looked into why that was, and if it could be substantiated by facts. I found some numbers that were pretty convincing. I have always been intrigued by our country’s weird relationship with alcohol. My grandfather was a Canadian bootlegger and always said he had been in the “thirst” business. He was an amazing storyteller and his tales of driving whiskey across the border in the dark of night really stayed with me. I wondered how we had gone from prohibiting booze to Real Housewife Wine, and tried to tell that story.
2. What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?
Hey, most of what I know I learned from you guys. But the marketing of wine to women in the 1950s and 60s is something I had to piece together, and that was amazing. The pamphlets urging vendors to “Market to the Housewife! Explain Why She Needs Red Wine!” and the wine industry surveys are particularly charming — a piece of the puzzle. Also, the idea that women began making wine, and pleasing their own taste buds, was also interesting. (Women were behind the making of Chardonnay, which was easy for women to like — it had a smooth mouthfeel and was sweet.) Likewise, marketers helped to demystify it. I grew up at a time when only men would get the wine list, and the cork. It was intimidating. No more.
3. Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?
Oh, I loved the history, but that’s my thing. I spent hours with Axel Borg, the wine librarian at UC Davis (how fabulous is that? He’s a fantastic librarian in general but he knows everything about the history of California winemaking), and learned so much about the rocky road of wine acceptance in the US. I also had a blast looking at colonial booze recipes. Who wouldn’t want to come across Martha Washington’s recipe for “Capon Ale”? Every time I got frustrated with my lack of progress, I’d look at that recipe and laugh.
4. Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?
I’m not saying this to boost Ward and Roizen’s project, but I’d love to see a biography of E.M. Jellinek. He was a fascinating guy. What drove him? What were his motivations? Did he leave private journals? Plus, there are so many funny titles you could make use of “Bunky.”
5. BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?
Helen Mirren or Kathleen Turner. They haven’t asked yet.
Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.
Sorry, barkeep, but this book is about people who ceased to need your services and then made a realllly big deal about it. It’s about how and why people have told stories of recovery from alcoholism publicly since the late 19th century.
I focus especially on the legacies of the “drunkard’s conversion” testimonies given in urban evangelical missions and circulated widely in print from the 1880s to the 1910s. Despite their roots in old-time religion, these stories’ urban class dynamics made them compelling to those who saw the knot of poverty, ethnic difference, and vice as a modern social crisis. In personal voices and realistic slum settings, the drunkards’ conversion stories defied the irreversible fates associated with these categories. The practical understanding of salvation they offered also made such tales susceptible to a wide range of interpretations. So instead of seeing conversion stories as individualistically oriented distractions from structural injustices — as skeptical readers today might — many reformers, artists, and intellectuals in this period retold them as stories that modeled a wider social healing by the lights of a variety of social theories, from radical to reactionary. In the context of this contested discourse around the meaning of the drinker’s redemption, literary writers through the modern period told stories of alcoholism with high stakes. The drinker’s descent was a character-based crisis, but one that plumbed modern society’s perceived maladjustment and, possibly, harbored clues to its regeneration.
This programmatic approach to redemption shaped the storytelling conventions available to the budding recovery movement in the 1930s and beyond. A.A.’s pioneers subsumed the contested aspects of the form into a recognizably Depression-era revision of the self, one that understood the limitations of individualism in social as well as in spiritual terms. In mutual-aid circles, these stories could remain highly pragmatic, devoted to A.A.’s “primary purpose.” But public recovery stories since the rise of A.A. have taken the social ethic of mutual aid beyond twelve-step culture and out into the wider society. These stories often depict recovery as the solution to a social problem or even as the model of an ideal society. As such, they have tracked the progress of liberalism since the New Deal era and, I argue, helped to shape its redemptive ethos in the realm of culture.
So while we may not openly contest the meaning of the modern recovery story, preferring to accept that it simply describes how a sick person got well, the story form is so constructed as to embody foundational claims about the self and its relation to others. If we as a society don’t agree on those claims, neither will we agree on the meaning of recovery — arguably a dissensus increasingly in evidence since the 1960s.
What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?
Most interesting might be the things they are most likely to question. First, I started my pre-history of recovery narrative in the postbellum rescue missions, rather than in the Washingtonian Movement of the 1840s. I placed a lot of weight on the secular implications of prevailing interpretations of mission testimonies, despite the fact that they had been preceded by an already secular movement a generation earlier. I did so because I found that the rescue mission stories were influential in mediating institutions — church homiletics, progressive reform, academic psychology, realist literature — which in turn informed the redemptive ideals and the storytelling styles more broadly associated with recovery in the 20th century. In other words, the rescue missions provided a master narrative of modern addiction storytelling. Continue reading →
Editor’s note: This is an exciting development for researchers in addiction history and a welcome contribution from Weiner and White.
After more than a decade of persistent searching and meticulous collecting, a team led by historian William L. White and Hazelden Library Manager Barbara Weiner has acquired and digitized all 141 issues of the QuarterlyJournal of Inebriety, which, from 1876 to 1914, documented the earliest stages of addiction medicine in the United States.
The QuarterlyJournal of Inebriety (QJI) was published by the American Association for the Study and Cure of Inebriety (AACI), a group of managers and doctors that formed in 1870 to normalize and improve practices at the residential treatment institutions that had been springing up since midcentury. Its sole editor for 38 years was T.D. Crothers, superintendent at the Walnut Hill Asylum in Hartford, Connecticut and a leading advocate of the medical treatment of inebriety until his death in 1918. The QJI‘s central principle was the disease concept of alcohol and opiate inebriety and although it announced the AACI’s position on various issues, its commitment was to medical knowledge over moral or legal polemic. It was received with some hostility by critics of the disease concept, as well as by temperance advocates and religious reformers refused publication by Crothers for their unscientific approaches. It folded, upon the collapse of the field it represented, when public and political attention to the issue shifted decisively from individual vulnerabilities to dangerous–soon to be illegal–substances (Weiner and White, 2007, see below).
“As the nation’s first scientific addiction journal, [QJI] remains an important resource for us today, in terms of setting contemporary issues in historical context,” said White, emeritus senior research consultant for Illinois-based treatment provider Chestnut Health Systems. “I’m proud that we’ve been able to make it readily and comprehensively available to the public.” White began collecting issues while doing the research for his monumental history of addiction treatment, Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America (1998). Weiner and her team at Hazelden took up the project in 2000. Continue reading →
Note: Readers are encouraged to send potential leads, sources, or thoughts relating to E.M. Jellinek’s life to Judit Ward, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Ron Roizen, at email@example.com. With thanks in advance, from both of us.
“IF YOU saw an Anti-Saloon Leaguer shake the hand of a saloonkeeper,” wrote Amy Porter in the October 30, 1943 issue of Collier’s magazine, “and the two of them walk and talk together as thick as thieves, your first question might well be: Where am I? The answer would have to be: At the School of Alcohol Studies at Yale. Nowhere else, probably, has such an event taken place.”
Placed adjacent these opening sentences was the happy picture shown above, featuring E.M. Jellinek, with a coyly grateful smile, flanked by two clearly delighted Yale Summer School students, one from the temperance tradition and the other from Seagram’s. Porter’s article was titled “Wet and Dry School” – thus telegraphing from the get-go that the new institution took no position on the great alcohol controversy and cultural schism that, by 1943, had preoccupied the nation for more than a hundred years.
Such magazines as Collier’s, Look, and Life provided the photo journalism of their day. Several photos of the Yale school’s activities, faculty, and students accompanied Porter’s text — these credited to Collier’s photographer Hans Knopf-Pix. Four are reproduced in this post.
Porter’s focus on the possibility of a happy coming together — call it a national reunion — of Americans around the alcohol issue illuminated an important and yet little discussed latent function of “the new scientific approach” to alcohol that Jellinek and his Yale school colleagues proffered. Continue reading →
Lately I have been investigating what I call a genealogy of disclosure, asking how the tightly controlled personal narrative of Marty Mann, which she offered in service of a public health mission as she launched the organization that is now the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, morphed into our own cultural moment, wherein “Intervention” is a reality television show and the successive admissions of young celebrities to rehabilitation for addiction is considered newsworthy. Of course, a generation ago, First Lady Betty Ford served an important role bringing public awareness to women’s addictions, including alcoholism. Yet even though she stands as perhaps the most famous female alcoholic of the twentieth century, Ford was not the first or even the only one to step forward. Professional women, including physicians, who were alcoholic had worked to shape policy and treatment, while alcoholic actresses testified before Congress beginning in 1969 to support the bill that established the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. This activism has been dubbed the “women’s alcoholism movement” and it led to the official identification of women as a “special population” of alcoholics in the context of new federal funding for research and treatment. 
The March into the 1977 National Women’s Conference (l to r): Billy Jean King, Susan B. Anthony II, Bella Abzug, Sylvia Ortiz, Peggy Kokernot, Michele Cearcy, Betty Friedan (courtesy Jewish Women’s Archive).
An especially fascinating figure who played an important role during this period was Susan B. Anthony II.
Editor’s Note: Our thanks to David Courtwright for offering this take on addiction, sobriety, and flying, sparked by the release of the film Flight:
Some movie scenes, like Jack Nicholson smashing through the bathroom door in The Shining, enter popular lore from the moment they appear on the screen. Flight has two such scenes: the crash landing of a packed Boeing 727 and, no less harrowing, its alcoholic pilot contemplating a mini-bar. If you don’t like to fly, don’t see this movie.
Flight rips the scab off an old wound: fear of the intoxicated pilot. Back in aviation’s frontier days, drunken fliers mostly menaced themselves and their stunt men. One young wing-walker, Charles Lindbergh, noted the drinking habits of prospective pilots before he agreed to perform with them. When Lindbergh’s own epochal 1927 transatlantic flight, undertaken with water and ham sandwiches, opened new commercial possibilities for aviation, pilots’ sobriety assumed greater importance. Fear of flying was one of two critical problems, the other being cost, that held back the industry. Some airlines advertised that they hired only abstemious pilots, a claim for which the historical record offers scant support.
Nothing like a jammed elevator to harsh your mellow. Denzel Washington plays Captain Whip Whitman, flying high and staying stoned.