Boxing, Crack, Class, and Crisis in *The Fighter*

Guest blogger Eoin Cannon reported on Mickey Ward and Dick Ecklund before David O. Russell dramatized their lives last year in The Fighter.  What a difference a major motion picture makes.

Despite coming a few months late to the party, I offer here some thoughts about  The Fighter, because the film combines three of the specific interests that brought me into academia: addiction, sports, and cities.  I acquired those interests in part through contact with the actual source materials of the film: Mickey Ward, crack cocaine recovery, and the city of Lowell.

Before going to graduate school I was a reporter for a weekly newspaper in a Boston neighborhood, from which I also branched out into freelance writing on the very small world of New England boxing.

Mickey Ward & Dick Eklund, heading into Ward’s final fight. Caesar’s Palace, Atlantic City, June 7, 2003. (Photo courtesy Eoin Cannon)

I followed the second half of Ward’s career, and wrote a piece upon his retirement about the journey traveled by him and his brother Dick Eklund, the characters in The Fighter played by Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale. This work informed my first academic publication, on the strategic construction of white ethnicity in the sports entertainment industry. Similarly, my scholarly interest in the cultural history of addiction began in observations about the recovery subcultures in hard-luck neighborhoods of Boston and nearby cities, including Lowell.

So I was eager to see The Fighter for a number of reasons, both the kind scholars have when a film covers their subject matter, and the kind that people have when part of their world becomes the set for a Hollywood movie. I was particularly interested in how the film would weave these different narrative threads together and what overarching frame it might invoke.

What jumped out at me in this regard was its use of the 1995 documentary High on Crack Street to shape the story of Eklund’s crack addiction and recovery.

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The Libertarian Theme in Anti-AA Rhetoric

Hopping on the Ron Paul bandwagon as it pulls out for Campaign 2012, guest blogger Eoin Cannon speculates on why Libertarians don’t show more love for Alcoholics Anonymous.

Dr. Bob and Bill W.: Authors of Big Book, Haters of Big Government

In the book manuscript I’m currently revising, I look at the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous in relation to its political moment in the mid-to-late 1930s, building a case that AA belongs, in quite specific ways, to the culture of New Deal liberalism–despite the FDR-derangement-syndrome of its co-founders. In developing this idea, I have become attuned not only to ideological analyses of AA and its founding, but also to what one might call the political flavors of the popular critiques of the recovery movement. I find myself oddly fascinated with superficial contempt for AA and twelve-step culture, in part because it is so common, but moreso because it seems to spring from that hard-to-pin-down nexus of identity and sensibility that underlies more formal beliefs. That is, people who express this contempt tend to do so in the same terms that inform their political orientations. Sometimes this connection is explicit, but just as often it comes in signs of cultural identity and social attitude.

Leftish and rightish anti-AA attitudes are fairly predictable.

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Teaching Drugs and Alcohol II: Gene Heyman’s Socratic Method

Following up on last week’s exploration of how an undergraduate class grapples with the complex interdisciplinary construct of “addiction narrative,” guest blogger Eoin Cannon talks about how his students defended the “truthiness” of the disease concept against the choice-based model advanced by psychologist Gene Heyman.

In my last post I discussed one of the challenges of teaching about alcohol, drugs, and addiction in the humanities: dealing with the often intense– and rapidly changing– experiences, beliefs, and discursive habits that undergraduates bring to the classroom. I talked about using my course’s topic of “addiction narrative” as a comparative category, one that would allow students to gain critical distance from the language they already used for talking about addiction, as well as from the discourses I was introducing them to.

Where did They Get that Pop Therapy Discourse?

But this strategy worked better for some texts than others; I found especially that when we read contemporary memoirs, students would reach more automatically for the language and values of popular therapeutic culture.  Here I’ll describe how one addiction scholar’s visit to my classroom helped push back against this tendency in a way that shed light on how disease-model claims slide back and forth between scientific and therapeutic registers.

Gene Heyman’s 2009 book Addiction: A Disorder of Choice was one of the scientific texts we scrutinized in class, looking both at the ways it incorporates narratives of individual lives and at how it invites us to read such narratives in the future. Heyman’s argues that addiction is not constituted by a passage from voluntary into involuntary behavior (i.e., into brain disease), but can be understood entirely as a problem of faulty choice-making. Though the meat of his argument is found in a quantitative model of voluntary behavior, early in the book Heyman quotes from several drug users’ narratives to illustrate the role of choice at each stage of addiction.

The book came to my attention in a series of press and radio interviews Heyman did, which surprised me for the easygoing way the interviewers were willing to set aside the disease model to consider his arguments. I had been operating under the assumption that the disease concept had reached a kind of sacred cow status, in both popular culture and in the increasingly neurology-influenced psychological sciences. Knowing that Heyman worked near my own institution, I invited him to visit my class, and he graciously agreed.

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Teaching Drugs and Alcohol through the Filter of Student Life

In his second week as a Points Guest Blogger, Eoin Cannon reflects on the difficulties of talking intelligently about addiction with a roomful of undergraduates who may still be hungover from the night before.

Last fall, I taught a course called “Stories of Addiction” for my university’s Freshman Seminar program. It was the first opportunity I’d found to teach my scholarly interest in a sustained way. As in approaching any new course, I gave some thought during my preparation to what beliefs, assumptions, and values students would bring to the topic. In departmental courses, I think, you can count on your discipline’s critical tools, and your students’ developing comfort with them, to create analytical distance. Not a space, hopefully, in which personal experience is unwelcome, but one colored by the implicit understanding that our main purpose here is not to do therapy or reproduce conventional wisdom.

But three factors made the issue of distance particularly salient in my seminar. First, it was for freshman only, during their fall semester. They had no experience with college-level critical thinking. Second, the seminar context, combined with my own approach to the topic, put the course outside of any single disciplinary framework and its implied critical distance.

Your Experience Here

It wasn’t “addiction in literature,” it wasn’t “the history of addiction,” it was just “addiction stories,” and the shapes they take, the work they do, in various contexts. I was using the category of narrative to develop an interdisciplinary framework that would not be obvious to students. Third, and most important, alcohol/drugs is a topic freighted with official and unofficial discourses that play key roles in the social identities of college students.

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Clinical Sentiments, Part 2: Shane MacGowan

This post is the second installment of guest blogger Eoin Cannon’s musings on popular songs that rely on “established therapeutic expectations not only about recovery but also about the link between heavy drinking and creativity in the narrators’ own public personae.”

Yesterday I talked about the ways that Warren Zevon’s “Detox Mansion” combines light words with dark music, but now I want to look at the way Shane MacGowan and The Popes reverse the juxtaposition.

The Reputation of Shane MacGowan

“St. John of Gods” provides a remarkable degree of complexity with a few simple components. McGowan’s lyric is in the British and Irish folk-revival tradition of sentimental odes to tragic street figures. Here, because of MacGowan’s voice and reputation, the distance between the speaker and the figure is less certain. The verses trace three bare scenes in the life of a far-gone drunk, whose only words are the song’s refrain:

See the man
The crushed up man
With the crushed up Carrolls packet in his hand
Doesn’t seem to see or care
Or even understand
And all he says is:
“F yez all, F yez all
F yez all, F yez all.”

This chorus ultimately gives way to “St. John of Gods” as an alternative mantra.  St. John of God is a psychiatric clinic in a southern suburb of Dublin, run since 1882 by the religious order of that name. Though it offers a range of services, it is best known for alcoholism treatment.

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Clinical Sentiments: Warren Zevon’s “Detox Mansion” and Shane MacGowan’s “St. John of Gods”

Points will be enriched over the course of the next few weeks by the presence of guest blogger Eoin Cannon. Presently a lecturer in History & Literature at Harvard, Cannon received a PhD in American Literature from Boston University in 2010, and is the author of the forthcoming The Politics of Redemption: Addiction and Conversion in Modern American Culture (U. Mass Press, 2012).

Warren Zevon, Sentimental Hygeine, 1987

Because my main research interest has been in addiction and literature, I wanted my first contribution to Points to give a sense of how I think about this topic, but without just adapting some piece of earlier work. So I came up with the idea of tracing out some thoughts I’d had recently about these two songs–Zevon’s “Detox Mansion” and MacGowan’s “St. John of Gods”– realizing that I’d been thinking about them, even though I don’t write about music, because of

Shane McGowan and the Popes, The Crock of Gold, 1997

their resonance with my work.  Both pieces deal with treatment clinics as structuring elements in the lives of alcoholics in the 20th century. I think all of us who study the history of addiction are aware that its conceptual trajectory is anchored by various institutions— for me the ones that have mattered most are the less formally organized grassroots recovery movements and religious revivals.  But these are unlikely subject matter for popular music on therapeutic themes, which usually focuses on unmediated interior experiences.

Second, both of these songs make their meanings in conversation with established therapeutic expectations not only about recovery but also about the link between heavy drinking and creativity in the narrators’ own public personae.  (I’ve steered clear of the obvious biographical contexts in this analysis, just because it’s not my primary concern here, and it tends to overwhelm other meanings.)  One of the ways they do this is simply by invoking the rehab clinic: from the outset they’re approaching recovery as an external regime to which individuals are submitted or submit themselves.  The songs don’t reject the therapeutic template, but they call attention to the unresolved questions this frame entails— questions about agency, authenticity, and the social functions of the approved narrative— in a set of juxtapositions.

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