The Democracy of Addicts, if not of Addiction

Recently I read a brief article by George E. Vaillant called “The Natural History of Narcotic Drug Addiction” in the 1970 volume of Seminars in Psychiatry. It was based on follow-up studies of patients admitted to the federal narcotic hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, between 1936 and 1952. I was curious about how or whether it anticipated Vaillant’s conclusions in his influential 1983 book, The Natural History of Alcoholism, which was based on longitudinal data about Harvard students, working-class men, and detox patients starting just before World War II. Before getting far, though, I was struck by the second paragraph:

A Nation of In-Patients

There seem to be many different kinds of narcotics addicts and in each decade patterns of addiction change. At first glance this makes delineation of the natural history impossible. There are adolescent and middle-aged addicts; there are “criminal” and “medical” addicts; there are heroin and Demerol addicts; there are white Anglo-Saxon Protestant addicts from small towns and black immigrant addicts from urban ghettos; there are male addicts and female addicts; there are high school dropout addicts with inadequate personalities and an allergy to employment and physician addicts who self-prescribe and remain employed throughout their addiction. However, one of the conclusions of this review will be that both the addiction pattern and underlying personalities of these disparate groups are more similar than dissimilar.

Vaillant’s reference to an “underlying personality” among opiate addicts jumps out, because it is a phenomenon he concludes is absent among alcoholics in his later book. But leaving that observation aside, what captured my attention was the rhetorical shape of the long third sentence. It reminded me of a passage written a generation earlier, by Richard R. Peabody in his 1931 book The Common Sense of Drinking:

It takes all types

When we investigate any particular group, we find the most strikingly contrasted persons succumbing to excessive drinking. The rich and the poor, the highly intellectual and the ignorant, the frail and the robust, the shy and the apparently bold, the worried and the seemingly carefree, all furnish their quota of inebriates. We find that this unhappy group includes people of accomplishment as well as those who achieve nothing, the religious and the unbeliever, those with an interest in life and those without one, those who love and are loved, and those who are alone in the world.

Both of these prominent figures in the history of addiction studies drew a series of opposites to illustrate the breadth of social locations that users and boozers hail from. These soup-to-nuts sketches of the social order have been a consistent feature of addiction and recovery discourse over the years. For me, they are signs of the way that the addiction concept has remained bound at a deep level with efforts to define and reform social relations. They are moments when the effort to describe addiction invokes not just a society but a demos, the populace of a democracy.

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Literary Circles of Recovery

Writers’ social groupings feature prominently in literary history, whether in intentional, tightly knit circles, or in more amorphous, but still influential, “scenes.” In some of the more famous sites, the social element has depended on heavy drinking or drug use, not only as a binding ritual, but also as a medium of the intellectual endeavor: opium and absinthe among certain Romantics; heavy drinking by expatriate modernists in Paris; speed and weed among the Beats on both coasts. The point is not about “writing under the influence,” but that these drugs’ rituals and effects symbolized important aspects of those intellectual and artistic systems. Further, writers’ relationships with each other on such scenes influenced their literary outputs, as illustrated by the presence of fictionalized versions of one another in their work. They produced texts that are hard to understand without some knowledge of these relationships and their milieus. Several such scenes have been mined exhaustively by scholars, artists, and fans alike, even living on as reading-and-drinking themed tourist destinations.

Some drunk writers never die.

But many writers, too, have been changed, as writers, by their recoveries from alcoholism and/or drug addiction. And many also must have done so in conversation with one another. Recovery is a process that tends to take over a person’s life for a time, and change it irrevocably. And especially in its twelve-step varieties, it binds people together in social rituals, through which they develop, somewhat collaboratively, new theories about self, society, and world. In other words, recovery as a social and cultural practice would seem to be the kind of “scene” from which could flow new forms of literary production. Have there been literary recovery circles, and if so, how might we define them? And what might they have to teach us about literature and about addiction?

Mary Karr after three memoirs.

I’m not talking about private print culture, or therapeutic writing groups, though one can easily imagine published work emerging from such origins. I mean relationships among vocational writers that are informed strongly by their recoveries, relationships which shape their subsequent writings. This is not a phenomenon that I have researched closely, nor that I have any strong theories about. Here I want merely to trace one such set of textual “recovery relationships” and discuss briefly what significance they might hold. One fairly jumps off the pages of Mary Karr’s 2009 recovery memoir, Lit.

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The Alcoholic Weepie that Ended D.W. Griffith’s Career

D.W. Griffith’s last film as a director was The Struggle, the story of an alcoholic’s decline and eventual reform. After a series of commercial and critical flops in the 1920s, the pioneering filmmaker — best known for the hideously-racist-but-formally-groundbreaking Birth of a Nation in 1915 — had seemingly begun to restore his reputation with his first full talkie, the reverential Abraham Lincoln in 1930. The biopic was critically admired but commercially mediocre, so his next effort needed to hit, if he was to secure continued access to outside funding and the respect of the newly dominant Hollywood studios.

The Struggle put an end to those hopes. It told of Jimmie Wilson, a bright young steel mill foreman whom Prohibition, Griffith suggested, had made a regular binge drinker of hard liquor. Jimmie marries the adoring Florrie on the promise that he’ll never touch another drop, but small setbacks and anxieties soon send him back to the bar, including a memorable challenge to his manhood for ordering a sarsparilla. (“What do you think this is,” the barman mocks, “a pansy bed?”) Jimmie’s binges get longer and harder, and then he drinks to dull the shame of the resulting career failure and family misery. His wife and daughter stand by him resolutely, until he blows his life insurance on a bootlegging scam and disappears into the streets. His daughter Mary eventually finds him, holed up in an abandoned building and suffering the d.t.s. Delusional, he tries to kill her, but Florrie arrives just in time to save them both. She nurses him back to health, and he works his way back to prosperity, in the final scene signing over ownership of his successful new foundry plan to Florrie, “my new boss.”

Despite framing it as a hot-button Prohibition thinker, and despite hiring au courant husband-wife writing team of John Emerson and Anita Loos, Griffith horrified critics with this hackneyed subject matter and his melodramatic treatment of it. “The beating was savage and relentless,” Richard Shickel wrote in his Griffith biography, from which some other details below are drawn. The reviews “may well be the worst that any director of his standing and post achievement has ever had.” The focus of this critical ire was its old-fashioned rendering of the drunkard’s tale as a “pitiably stupid homily,” an “antique” better suited to the 1870s than the 1930s. Worse still, audiences ignored it.

Griffith was humiliated. After holing up in his hotel room for a six-week drinking session — more on that supposed irony below — he began the long process of winding down his deeply indebted production company. No one else hired him again, except as a name brought in for the credits.

But the film remains intensely interesting, as a viewing experience and as an episode in the cultural history of alcoholism.

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Do We Care whether Don Draper is an Alcoholic? On the Prevalence of Addiction Subtexts in Television Drama

In Season Four of the heralded AMC drama Mad Men, Don Draper appeared to be building toward an alcoholic crisis. The child of alcoholics, and himself a dedicated daily drinker even by the standards of the three-martini-lunch set, Don already had endured car accidents, destructive one-night-stands, and many a shaky, sweaty, even bandaged morning after. Then, midway through last season, as he struggled to re-establish his sense of self in the aftermath of his divorce, his drinking escalated. He lost an entire weekend to a blackout, leaving a bar after his greatest professional triumph with an appropriately classy sexual trophy, but waking up two days later with a waitress who somehow knew his real name — signs of the sudden collapse of the identity he had worked so hard to build. Soon afterwards, during an overnight drinking session in the office, he was confronted by a pitifully sloshed Duck, a former colleague now in personal free-fall, who seemed to offer an image of Don’s potential fate.

Does this look like a guy who can handle his liquor?

But after learning the next morning of the death of an old and dear friend, Don was chastened and, without ever speaking a word about it, cut down on his drinking and began swimming laps at the Y. Since then, as he has taken control of other unstable areas of his life, he has returned to constant, but largely controlled, drinking.

This anxious course correction and subsequent drift back to the edges of self-mastery are familiar elements of a slow-surging alcoholism. On the other hand, they might just be the ebbs and flows in the life of a heavy drinker in a heavy drinking culture. In any case, Don’s looming crisis was averted, or deferred, but not really “addressed,” in the manner we have come to expect of such character arcs.

Does it miss the point to think of Don as a potential alcoholic, because his drinking is of a piece with the show’s period and class detail? It does matter that perceptions of problem drinking were different in Mad Men’s time and place. But I think it misses a more fundamental aspect of the show to think of Don as an exceptional hero, untouchable by the ordinary laws of habit formation or even character development. I would say that the references to A.A., the occasional disaster or total collapse that drinking facilitates in other characters, and Don’s dangerous losses of control all suggest that problem definitions of drinking — not nostalgia for a mythical pre-therapeutic America — are ever-present in this fictional world. Mad Men’s writers have shown no interest in making the show “about” alcoholism, but if Don is to fall, it seems likely that alcohol will be a central medium of his demise. This kind of lingering, indecisive addiction plot has become pervasive in the era of the “quality” television drama. Below the fold I discuss some reasons why, and what they might tell us about addiction discourse more generally.

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Metaddiction Narratives, or Aids to Appreciating the Formulaic

Bill Clegg-- Still Recovering

Cursed as I am to notice and investigate every passing reference to addiction that enters my visual frame, I inevitably found my way to The Daily Beast-Newsweek’s current excerpt from a new memoir of crack addiction by New York literary agent Bill Clegg, called Ninety Days: a Memoir of Recovery. Here’s a sample:

Suddenly a few thousand dollars seems within reach, and I can feel that old burn, that hibernating want, come awake. I imagine the relief that first hit will deliver and I’m suddenly up off the couch and pacing. No no no, I chant. No f–king way. That craving, once it begins, is almost impossible to reverse. What my addict mind imagines, my addict body chases. It’s like Bruce Banner as he’s turning into the Incredible Hulk. Once his muscles begin to strain against his clothes and his skin goes green, he has no choice but to let the monster spring from him and unleash its inevitable damage.

Having read a lot of addiction memoirs for professional reasons, I tend to check mental boxes when I read this kind of thing. Breathy, pacy present tense immediacy — the literary quality that some critics will say sets it apart from those other, boring recovery memoirs — check. Twelve-step disease model, addict-identity rhetoric, check. Victorian monster-metamorphosis cut with contempo-retro pop culture reference — nice touch, and check. The point is not that Clegg’s writing is hackneyed (though it presents some worrying symptoms), but that addiction stories, like instances of most other genres, are assembled from a set of recognizable conventions.

When you’re reading nonfiction, you’re not supposed to recognize these as conventions, but, if anything, as qualities that inhere in the experience being described. If an addict in the grips of compulsion describes feeling overtaken by a beast that is in him but not of him, that’s because that is what compulsion feels like (possibly for unfake-ably neurochemical reasons), not because that’s the sign that has evolved to describe compulsion in writing. If as a professional reader I recoil from descriptions of nonfiction as direct reality, on the other hand, I recognize that my habits of classification have taken me too far in the other direction. I tend to perceive these patterns now as more writerly than real. Of course, they can be both. Like the anhedonic tweaker whose dopamine receptors have gone out of business for good, I may have permanently lost the ability to enjoy an addiction memoir innocently.

The Bondage of Self

A more productive way of putting this is that I now read all addiction stories, to some degree, as meta-narratives, or as commentaries on the narrative form itself. Metanarrative is a term — to borrow, for authority’s sake, the inimitable language of European narratology — describing “forms of self-reflexive narration in which aspects of narration are addressed in the narratorial discourse, i.e. narrative utterances about narrative.”

By this definition, you can’t just “read” a narrative as self-reflexive; you have to identify some way in which it is signaling reflexivity. But what counts as reflexivity is not precisely definable.

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This is Your Brain on Art House

When I’ve asked my students over the last couple of years what drug films they’ve seen, I’ve been surprised to hear Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000) cited far more than any other film. I already had a sense of Requiem’s expanding audience since its limited theatrical release in 2000. It quickly joined its source material, Hubert Selby Jr.’s 1978 novel of the same name, as a cult favorite. (Selby co-wrote the screenplay and appears briefly in the film.) Users at film websites rave about it. Youtubers play around with its visuals and its score. List makers call it an all-time great drug film. There’s even a puppet version which, forgive me, will serve here as a synopsis.

But what surprised me was its popularity among adolescents. Among my students, even those who had not seen it knew classmates in high school who had watched it together and who had urged them to check it out. It seems that Requiem’s burgeoning status as a cult favorite encompasses not only a reputation among adult film enthusiasts, but also word-of-mouth circulation among audiences who may or may not have permission to watch its “unrated” content.

By contrast, Steven Soderbergh’s drug film Traffic came out in wide release the same year, to massive critical and commercial success, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone under the age of twenty-five today who has seen it outside of class. Not for nothing this similarity, though: in both Requiem for a Dream and Traffic, knockout punches on the perils of addiction come in graphic scenes of upper-middle-class white girls being held in sexual captivity by black beasts. The question that inevitably arises about drug films is their relationship to the historical exploitation genre, in which an ostensibly anti-drug message serves as cover for lurid entertainment. Many viewers describe it exactly in those two registers: as an intoxicating sensory experience and a powerful Just Say No polemic. I think it would be unfair, based on this reception dynamic, to reduce the intensely wrought Requiem to the status of, say, a Reefer Madness. But the film’s drug content does, in a perhaps more interesting way, come from that era. 

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Amy Winehouse: She Fell to Pieces

Points renowned pop culture guest blogger, Eoin Cannon, returns today with thoughts on the recent death of soul singer Amy Winehouse.

Amy Winehouse, r.i.p.

Singer Amy Winehouse’s death on Saturday was one of those occasions which brings not so much drugs, but the relationships between addiction, fame, and art to the forefront of public conversation. The presumption that Winehouse died from an overdose is supported only by anecdotal reports at this point. But whatever the cause of her death, her binge drinking, drug use, and stints in rehab were well documented. What really places her at the center of the addict-artist discussion, though, is how explicitly her lyrics included the subject matter of escapist intoxication, destructive behavior, and regret. She subjugated these elements to the perennial songwriting theme of heartbreak, but within that framework she wielded drug and alcohol imagery in unprecedented ways.

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Gospel Sobriety: Before and After

In his last (for now, anyway) offering as a Points guest blogger, Eoin Cannon offers some thoughts on the aesthetics of redemption.

Noontime Prayer on Fulton Street, 1857

In my book-in-progress on the origins of modern recovery narrative, I look closely at the stories that came out of the post-Civil War “gospel rescue missions,” especially in New York City. These weren’t the first evangelical missions to the urban poor, of course. Specifically, they were outgrowths of similar activity during the Second Great Awakening, such as the New York City revival of 1857-58. Nor did they represent the first movement of reformed drunkards with tales to tell, emerging a couple of decades after the heyday of the Washingtonian Society. But, founded by the converts themselves in collaboration with their religious sponsors, the postbellum rescue missions combined revival, temperance, and moral reform in an unprecedented and very influential way. They moved evangelical religion in a therapeutic direction, and they acted as rebuttals to fatalistic social theory. Their growth drew social reformers to the slums to witness first-hand evidence that the far-gone drunkard and the vicious immigrant really could be changed. By the 1890s, the ex-drunkards and their patrons had produced a lively literature of conversion narratives.

The published narratives were occasionally accompanied by a fascinating before-and-after imagery.

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