Confessions of an Historian of Secrecy, Science, and the Self

Editor’s note: We continue our celebration of the 40th anniversary of the publication of David F. Musto’s book with a contribution from cultural historian and American Studies scholar Timothy A. Hickman, whose first book, The Secret Leprosy of Modern Days, reconstructs (and deconstructs) the entrepreneurial therapeutics of the late 19th century historical world inhabited by Dr. Leslie Keeley, proponent of the famous “Gold Cure” for inebriety. Hickman recounts grappling with Musto’s capacious framework in the context of a post-Foucauldian intellectual moment.

Most historians of drugs and alcohol get used to the question, “So how did you get interested in THAT topic,” usually punctuated by a cocked eyebrow and an arch chuckle. My interest arose during the popular recovery movement of the late 1980s, when I read “As Sick as Our Secrets,” a Summer 1990 LA Weekly article by writer Helen Knode, who detailed her family’s troubles with substance dependence over the years. I was particularly taken by her claim that, if one were to multiply the number of “addicts” by the number of “co-dependents” asserted by recovery writers, the product would exceed the entire US population!

The fonts were just a symptom.
Bad fonts were a symptom.

What fundamental beliefs might underwrite the diagnosis of the entire American population as “dysfunctional”? Whose interests were met in defining a whole population as a target for therapy? What institutions benefited? What did this state of affairs suggest about American society, and why did millions of people ‘Just Say Yes’ to the recovery movement’s call?  Still more pressingly, what kind of a “disease” required confession as the first step to cure?

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