Review of A Drunkard’s Defense

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Michael Brownrigg. Michael recently received his PhD in US history from Northwestern University, where he studied the relationship between emotion, white masculinity, and capitalism to explain the emergence of an antinarcotic consensus in America at the turn of the twentieth century. 

In A Drunkard’s Defense: Alcohol, Murder, and Medical Jurisprudence in Nineteenth-Century America (University of Massachusetts Press, 2021), Michele Rotunda has written a significant contribution about the history of alcohol consumption that will appeal to students of numerous fields, most notably scholars engaged in legal, medical, and cultural studies. Drawing from an impressive array of primary sources, Rotunda’s taut narrative, tracing the complex evolution of juridical precedents beginning in the colonial era that established the culpability of defendants accused of often gruesome crimes while intoxicated, is revelatory.

Rotunda’s extensive use of court documents, in particular, illuminates in exquisite detail the highly contested nature of judicial concepts like intention and responsibility, and how they considerably influenced verdicts in cases of alcohol-induced criminality. Did murder commissioned under the influence of alcohol constitute a deliberate, voluntary, and premeditated crime? If not, was the accused nevertheless at fault for willfully partaking in a vice that could disorder the mind and facilitate the perpetration of murder—an idea resting on deeply entrenched beliefs in American society about the immorality of drunken indulgence that knowingly caused mental derangement? Or, as physicians who were increasingly concerned with the physiology and psychology of intoxication proclaimed, was the impetus for murderous behavior exhibited by defendants vastly more complicated, requiring nuanced diagnoses that only practitioners’ scientific expertise and empiricism could provide?

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Review: “Commodifying Cannabis: A Cultural History of a Complex Plant in the Atlantic World”

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY. 

Borougerdi book Commodifying Cannabis
Cover of Commodifying Cannabis

I’ve been reading about pot since before my formal history training. I’ve always been fascinated by the inclusion of the standard story about the “long history” of cannabis that seemed to appear in the introduction to just about every book or article on the subject. As a teenager/young adult first experimenting with cannabis after a childhood of “Just Say No” sobriety, I was somehow comforted to know that I could tap into the wonders of a cannabis high in the same way that many ancient societies had in India, China, or the Middle East.

I have since learned a lot more about the plant, and it is clear that my assumptions had been based on problematic conceptions of “other” cultures. The growing historical literature about intoxicants has further challenged my formerly overly simplistic understandings about how societies manage drug use and about how drug policies and public opinion interact to shape beliefs about drugs. I’ve been struck, though, that the connection between ancient uses of cannabis and our more recent social and cultural contexts have often been missing from these analyses. Such a long-term historical perspective could help us better understand the dynamic flows of drug knowledge across time and place.

Bradley J. Borougerdi’s 2018 book Commodifying Cannabis seeks to make these types of connections. Borougerdi focuses on the Anglo-American Atlantic World and describes the plant as a “triple-purpose” cultural commodity. He builds on previous work by scholars like Isaac Campos who has previously investigated how re-interpretations of Spanish and indigenous knowledge influenced the circulation of information about cannabis in Mexico. Borougerdi, here, examines how orientalist assumptions shaped knowledge about the plant as it moved through the Anglo-American world. He argues that the different meanings of cannabis—attached to its different modes of use—dictated the trajectory of cannabis commodification in the early modern period, the prohibition of cannabis in the nineteenth century, and the recent re-commodification of cannabis.

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Review: “Drug Use For Grown-Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear”

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University.

Cover of Drug Use For Grown Ups

Dr. Carl Hart’s timely Drugs for Grown-ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear attempts to ignite a shift in our collective consciousness—much like the psychoactive substances he chronicles. Credentialed academics and other elites tend to deny using drugs, or, if they want to pass as authentic for political reasons, they might admit to a few youthful indiscretions (e.g., then-candidate Barack Obama’s “inhaling was the point” comment in 2007).

Defying this taboo, Hart, Chair of the Department of Psychology at Columbia University, owns up to his affection for an expansive medicine chest. He reveals dabbling in amphetamines, discloses his use of the unfairly-maligned drug heroin, and discusses sampling 1990s club drug—and soon-to-be FDA approved medication—MDMA, along with other more obscure compounds like 2C-B, which was popularized by virtuoso, chemist, and psychonaut Alexander Shulgin.

Hart’s self-doctoring is reminiscent of nineteenth-century medical ethics, embodied by such titans of the time as William Halstead and Sigmund Freud. His self-prescribing bridges the gap between his knowledge and his experience, which helps him better understand subjects visiting his Columbia University lab. Drugs also filtered into his other extracurricular activities, figuring into adventures with his wife and enhancing their relationship and strengthening their marriage.

Who Are Drug Users?

Hart considers himself the rule not the exception in terms of drug use. Drug users are not zombies, he emphasizes; they are not the flesh-eating monsters sometimes depicted on highway billboards accompanied by inane anti-drug slogans. Drug users are not unwashed psychos or crime aficionados who inexplicably love doing evil. No, most drug users are typical, normal, average Americans, gainfully employed and living undetected—maybe you or your neighbor. And that’s okay.

Generally speaking, Hart’s ideas are easy to understand, and he gives primacy to the crucial observation that most people’s experiences with drugs are positive. Drugs offer insight, increase euphoria, and provide pleasure. Drugs act as social lubricants, making social interactions easier to bear or more enjoyable; and drugs break down barriers, allowing some individuals to be more vulnerable than they otherwise would be. People use drugs to soften the edge after a stressful day working a job they hate, and, conversely, drugs can help those who love their jobs be more productive and work long evening hours.

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Points Bookshelf: Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University. He adds to our Points Bookshelf series, where we examine and review recent books about alcohol and drug history.

Screenshot 2020-06-24 13.15.12

In Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs, Peter Andreas, a professor of international studies at Brown University, probes the “symbiotic relationship between drugs and war,” or “how drugs made war and war made drugs.” Over the last two years, this area of interest has garnered tremendous attention. Two blockbusters that come to mind are Shooting Up: A History of Drugs and War, a general history of drugs and war throughout the ages, and Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich, which, as the title suggests, hones in on Nazi Germany’s love-hate relationship with psychoactive substances, particularly methamphetamine. Shooting Up has some close parallels with Killer High, as the two dip their toes in the same stream so to speak, but Killer High is different in its approach, emphasis and aim. Andreas concentrates on six drugs—alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, opium, amphetamine, and cocaine—detailing his interpretative lens through five types of relationships, including the complementary and often contradictory link binding war with drugs throughout history. 

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New Book Series: “Intoxicating Histories” from McGill-Queen’s University Press

New book series coming from McGill-Queen’s University Press: “Intoxicating Histories,” with series editors by Virginia Berridge, Erika Dyck, and Noelle Plack. Whether on the street, off the shelf, or over the pharmacy counter, interactions with drugs and alcohol are shaped by contested ideas about addiction, healing, pleasure, and vice and their social dimensions. Books in …

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Fiction Points: Elizabeth Kadetsky

Elizabeth Kadetsky’s short stories have been chosen for a Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and two Best American Short Stories notable citations, and her personal essays have appeared in The New York Times, Guernica, Santa Monica Review, Antioch Review, Post Road, Agni, and elsewhere. She has written for the Village VoiceThe Nation, and more. She has traveled to Malta as a creative writing fellow at the St. James Cavalier Centre for Creativity, to France as a fellow in the arts at Camargo Foundation, and to India as a two-time Fulbright fellow. She is the author of the memoir FIRST THERE IS A MOUNTAIN (Dzanc Books rEprint series, 2019; and Little Brown, 2004), the novella ON THE ISLAND AT THE CENTER OF THE CENTER OF THE WORLD (Nouvella, 2015), and the short story collection THE POISON THAT PURIFIES YOU (C&R Press, 2014). She discusses her newest book, THE MEMORY EATERS, below. It will be released on March 31, 2020, from the University of Massachusetts Press. She is an associate professor of fiction and nonfiction at Penn State University and a nonfiction editor at New England Review.

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?

Screenshot 2020-03-18 at 2.00.56 PMThat is so fittingly surreal. I’d want them to know that they are definitely a part of my target audience for my memoir about addiction, homelessness, Alzheimer’s, and those heady days in New York City in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The penguin, with its affinity for cold climates, will also be drawn to my portrayal of my French Canadian family and the frigid landscape endured by my ancestors in Quebec. Also, the penguin—as a bird that can’t fly—will be drawn to the disability angle of my book, which treats not only Alzheimer’s, addiction, and mental health problems across my family, but a hidden disability.  My mother’s sister was institutionalized for epilepsy and mental development issues and died at age eleven in the institution, though the family didn’t talk about this to outsiders. My book explores the way that the stigma surrounding her disability reverberates for future generations of my family. 

And the nuns! With due respect (what are they doing in a bar anyway?) my mother’s disaffection from her Catholic upbringing and her conversion to first Judaism and then to a kind of pan-religious mysticism might disturb them, but, as rebels who patronize bars, they may find her story alluring. My mother had many staunchly Catholic aunts. The nuns may have avuncular, protective feelings toward my mother if they dig in to the book. 

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Fiction Points: Emily Arnason Casey

Emily Arnason Casey is the author of the essay collection Made Holy (2019). Her writing has appeared in literary journals such as The Normal School, Hotel Amerika, The Rumpus, Mid-American Review, American Literary Review, and elsewhere. Her essay “Laughing Water” received an notables listing in The Best American Essays series. She is the curator of “The Essay Exhibits: Art + Words,” eight works of art by eight Vermont artists in conversation with her essay “Beneath a Sky of Gunmetal Gray.” The exhibit is on display at a new Vermont library every month this year. Casey teaches at the Community College of Vermont and works independently with writers; she lives in rural Vermont with her family.

Screenshot 2020-02-04 at 8.03.44 AMTwo 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?

Holiness and death. Everyone has something sacred and something to which they devote themselves, whether it be spiritual or just an iPhone, or self-improvement which I think is just a part of capitalism. But mainly I write about death, indirectly. That we die and our lives are small and insignificant and trivial but we feel them to be immensely important and singular, and so they are and we are. I can’t get over this conundrum and so I write about it because in writing all the weird feelings and thoughts can become significant or they gain voices and lives of their own and I take comfort in this. I take comfort in beauty. 

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

In my nonfiction writing I grapple with the disease model of alcoholism. What causes this disease and is it really a disease in the traditional western idea of maladies? I can’t drink or drug because I form a compulsion and I can do nothing else but think about it, which makes life miserable. I write about my experiences as a child in an alcoholic family; though my parents are not alcoholic or addicted, one is the child of an alcoholic and the sibling to two alcoholics. Some of my siblings married alcoholic/addicts, my husband is from a child of an alcoholic family, my best friends are children of alcoholics, it’s such a social-emotional disease of behavior. I find this fascinating and frustrating. Made Holy, my essay collection, chronicles a woman’s journey into sober living and the ways she finds to deal with life—her obsessions and compulsions, her intensity. 

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Points Bookshelf: “Dignity,” by Chris Arnade

Editor’s Note:  Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University. As part of our Points Bookshelf series, he reviews Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America (Sentinel, 2019). 

Screenshot 2019-11-14 at 8.36.59 AMChris Arnade was an unlikely candidate to write Dignity, an intimate portrait of the ignored communities dotting America’s landscape. His professional adulthood has leapfrogged from elite institution to elite institution: first, getting a Ph.D. in physics from John Hopkins University, then planting himself in Wall Street, at the nexus of wealth and power, working as an early “quant” (a trader)—popularized on-screen in films like The Big Short—for the next several decades.

Tired of staring at screens, reducing complexity down to data points, he expanded his routine walks around safe New York neighborhoods into those considered dangerous, beginning with Hunts Point in the Bronx. Arnade assumed he would find, as numerous colleagues suggested, violence, crime, and prostitution. What he did not expect was to be welcomed. A curiosity at first, Arnade, a white guy carrying a camera, lessened concerns when asked what he was doing there by saying that he was hanging out and taking photos. People wanted him to snap their picture, while others wanted a chance to tell their life stories. Surprised, he discovered self-sustaining tight-knit communities which produced vibrant street art, as well as places filled with fascinating people, like the man he met who worked with pigeons. 

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