“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!”
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. 
An especially fascinating figure who played an important role during this period was Susan B. Anthony II.
With interests in heritage tourism and addiction history, I am always looking for intersections between the two. I found one unexpectedly last summer in Alaska, visiting several brothel museums that celebrated the madams’ business acumen and bootlegging success. I learned recently that Kentucky has a Bourbon Trail with the tagline “Where the Spirit Leads You,” while the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States has its own American Whiskey Trail, starring George Washington’s own distillery at Mount Vernon. Needless to say, these sites demonstrate the power of history to make political and economic arguments in the present. A fuller discussion of them will have to await my next road trip.
Meanwhile, not all museums or cultural attractions want to highlight the role of alcohol, especially when they are cultivating a wholesome image befitting their connection with classics of children’s literature. As an example, heritage tourism is booming at the sites associated with the “Little House” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, where visitors confront a complex mix of history, original and replica buildings, and landscapes, all viewed through the lens of well-loved texts.
Last fall I described the process through which a team of graduate students from the University of Michigan researched and wrote the nomination for Dr. Bob’s Home, the residence of Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Dr. Bob Smith and his wife Anne, to be a National Historic Landmark (NHL). This week we completed the next step in the process, the formal presentation of the nomination to the Landmarks Committee of the National Park Service. Like our trip from Ann Arbor to Akron to see Dr. Bob’s Home for ourselves, which I recounted in previous posts, this step required a literal journey, as we drove from Michigan to Washington, D.C. for the presentation. It has been a journey in other ways as well, as we have learned even more about collaboration, about fellowship, and about the many ways that history matters.
After months of research and writing a lengthy and detailed document, the students were charged with compressing their argument about the significance of Dr. Bob’s Home into a ten-minute presentation, following the protocol of the Landmarks Committee meeting. Dr. Bob’s Home was one of approximately a dozen properties presented there over two days. The meeting itself was a fascinating mix of procedural formality and impassioned statements about the power of historic places. We were joined in Washington by a representative of the Founders’ Foundation, the non-profit organization that has restored and now maintains Dr. Bob’s Home as a museum—the same person who had served as our host when we visited Akron and who has partnered with us through this process. Sharing this experience with him and his family deepened our appreciation of the importance of fellowship and the power of history.
They Call Them Camisoles is a tantalizing document– Wilma Wilson’s first-person account of her 1939 commitment for alcoholism to the Camarillo State Hospital in California. Published in 1940, the book had recently been out of print. I learned of it myself a few years ago, and discovered only yesterday that it has been republished in a volume compiled by Kirsten Anderberg, which includes material on Wilson’s death and many photographs of Camarillo State Hospital as it looks today. The title refers to restraints that some patients had to wear, and much of the narrative recounts Wilson’s observations of the mentally ill patients around her. Not surprisingly, the book has been understood—both at the time of its publication and now—primarily as an expose of the conditions and practices inside mental institutions. There is no question that it is an important source of evidence in that regard. But I am also interested in exploring what it can tell us about gender and alcoholism during the 1930s and 1940s.
Given the stigma and secrecy that often surrounds women’s drinking, I am fascinated by instances when women choose to divulge their excessive drinking. I’m tracing what I call a genealogy of disclosure, from Marty Mann, who revealed her alcoholism during the 1940s when she founded what is now the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence; through Betty Ford in the 1970s; to today’s climate of reality television and celebrity tell-all memoirs. In some of these cases, the women were already famous for other reasons, making the acknowledgment of a drinking problem all the more shocking. In others, the disclosure itself creates a kind of renown.
As part of a semester-long series of events related to addiction here at the University of Michigan, a group of students researched and designed an exhibit called “Bad Habits: Drinks, Drags, and Drugs in Washtenaw County History” for a local museum.
Co-sponsored by the College of Literature, Science and the Arts and by the University of Michigan Substance Abuse Research Center (UMSARC), the Research Theme Semester, as it is known, has included seminars, visiting speakers, a film series, and more. Those of us involved in the museum exhibit hoped that it would bring the semester’s events into the community and also encourage student involvement with the county historical society, which runs the museum. Like many local historical societies, this one includes a number of older people on the executive board, and I assumed, mistakenly as it turned out, that they might not endorse this idea for an exhibit. In fact, they have been enthusiastic supporters, providing many research leads for the students to explore and, in some cases at least, sharing their own memories of drinking escapades. Since much of the semester has focused on addiction, with a very serious tone as a result, I found their good humor a welcome change of pace.
In a recent post, I described a trip to Dr. Bob’s Home in Akron, Ohio, with a group of graduate students in history from the University of Michigan. The students have spent much of this fall semester writing the nomination for Dr. Bob’s Home to be designated a National Historic Landmark, a process I described …
“Welcome home,” said the man who greeted us as we stood on the sidewalk in front of the Craftsman-style house. After a long and rainy drive that had begun early that morning, I was grateful to hear those kind words. Along with a group of graduate students from the University of Michigan, I had driven to Akron from Ann Arbor to visit the home of Robert and Anne Smith. As many readers undoubtedly know, Dr. Bob, as he is affectionately called, co-founded the Alcoholics Anonymous fellowship with Bill Wilson. We had come to see the house as part of a public history class I am teaching this semester, focusing on a proposal that Dr. Bob’s Home be designated a National Historic Landmark (NHL). For me, this course has been a terrific opportunity to bring together two long-time interests, addiction history and the role of historic places in shaping public memory. It has also been a wonderfully collaborative enterprise, and some of the reflections I offer below come out of conversations with students.
Students in the class have been learning a great deal about drinking practices, alcoholism, and the treatment of alcoholics in American history. They have also had to become familiar with federal historic preservation programs—a steep learning curve all around.