Chess and . . . Drugs? Addiction and Recovery in The Queen’s Gambit

Editor’s Note: Did you miss us? We experienced some technical difficulties last week. Hopefully, we’re back up and running smoothly now. 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. 

The fictional drug Xanzolam in The Queen’s Gambit. Image from Netflix.

Author’s Note: So as not to spoil The Queen’s Gambit for those who have not yet seen it, I will primarily focus on critical discourses of its depiction of drug and alcohol addiction in this post.

In the midst of the Covid-19 global pandemic, in October 2020 Netflix released The Queen’s Gambit, a limited series adapted from the 1983 novel written by Walter Tevis examining the improbable rise of Beth Harmon, a fictional chess prodigy in the 1960s, as she strove to become a world champion in what, at the time, was exclusively a man’s game.

The show quickly became an unlikely success and cultural phenomenon, drawing over sixty million viewers less than a month after its debut. Critics and fans pointed to several factors to explain its unexpected popularity. They praised lead actress Anya Taylor-Joy’s compelling and dynamic portrayal of Harmon, as well as the program’s innovative cinematography that somehow made the world of chess dramatic and exciting. Many were smitten by its fidelity to a 1960s aesthetics, drawing comparisons to another period piece, the hit show Mad Men.

Others suggested that timing played a crucial role. Themes of loss, grief, alienation, and trauma figure heavily in the narrative, dramatizing what millions of people across the globe could identity with as they experienced the psychological and emotional distress caused by the pandemic. “It’s a show that seems tailor-made for our joy-starved minds in a somber modern world,” wrote cultural critic Kelly Lawler in a glowing review that deemed The Queen’s Gambit “the best piece of content in 2020.” And then there was the renewed mass interest in chess. Much like exercise equipment, chess sets quickly became unavailable in the pandemic economy as sales surged to staggering levels, increasing by as much as 1000 percent for some vendors.

The show also portrays copious amounts drug and alcohol consumption—another thematic element that perhaps helped to attract a large audience given spikes in substance abuse during the pandemic. A Google search of “The Queen’s Gambit” and pharmaceuticals yields dozens of articles explaining what, exactly, the drugs consumed in the show actually were. Most likely Librium or a similar benzodiazepine, Newsweek concluded.

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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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Just Say No Redux: The Elks Drug Awareness Program

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. 

Elroy the Elk, the official mascot of the Elks Drug Awareness Program (DAP), with an antidrug message from the program’s What Heroes Do comic book.

While in Washington DC for a Community Coalition Conference in 1999, Kent Gade, Director of the Elks National Drug Awareness Program, happened upon a speech given by John Lunt, a former Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Demand Reduction Coordinator. As he listened to Lunt address a room of DEA agents, Gade was drawn to the agency’s strategies for reducing substance abuse in American communities. After meeting with Lunt, Gade pursued a formal alliance with the DEA that would provide official “credibility” for the Elks National Drug Awareness Program and “strengthen the program’s affiliations with other groups”—organizations with far superior resources for combating drug addiction such as PRIDE Youth Programs and the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Allying with the DEA and affiliated groups, Gade believed, would vastly increase his organization’s informational and material resources and aid in producing more engaging and creative antidrug content. As he put it, “The DEA provides us with excellent materials and dynamic speakers. Our partnership is a tremendous asset to our efforts. The agency bends over backward for us. They are absolutely invaluable to our program.”

The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks was founded in New York City in 1868. Early members sought an exclusive social club where white men could fraternize and indulge in leisurely activities unencumbered by city laws that regulated the hours of drinking and smoking establishments.

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Hidden Addicts: The Elderly and the Opioid Epidemic

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. 

“The face of the nation’s opioid epidemic increasingly is gray and wrinkled,” wrote The Washington Post in 2018, “but that face often is overlooked in a crisis that frequently focuses on the young.” Since the early 2000s, medical experts have grown alarmed by the precipitous rise in opioid-related hospitalizations and deaths among the elderly and deeply concerned that the burgeoning crisis among the geriatric population was going unnoticed.

They pointed to several factors to explain the phenomenon but primarily blamed polypharmacy—the practice of prescribing patients multiple, often dozens of, medications—for the dramatic increase in addiction rates. “An increasing number of elderly patients nationwide are on multiple medications to treat chronic diseases,” one specialist claimed, “raising their chances of dangerous drug interactions and serious side effects. Often the drugs are prescribed by different specialists who don’t communicate with each other.” Older Americans are essentially being pharmaceuticalized, medicated to death, or, at the very least, subjected to extreme distress.

Narrative Medicine

Overprescribing, as the Washington Post article noted, often results from a fractured medical community that impedes the type of collaboration and communication between practitioners necessary for providing integrated regimens tailored for specific patients. Instead of individualized care, elderly patients often receive standardized treatments, that emphasize the use of pharmaceuticals to alleviate chronic pain.

To better serve their patients, physicians need to listen more intently and more empathetically to fully understand the causes of their distress. In other words, they need to practice what Dr. Rita Charon, Professor of Medicine at Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center, has called “narrative medicine.

By asking pointed questions about both mental and physical health, practitioners can prompt patients to explain their suffering and to situate their pain in narratives and stories that help foster more thoughtful patient-doctor relationships and, consequently, provide intimate and targeted care. Charon writes that:

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Mothers on the Frontlines: The Addict’s Mom

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. 

“Nobody is more determined or more affected by the disease of addiction than a mother,” ardently declared Leisha Underwood, the Executive Director of The Addict’s Mom (TAM) at a “Fed Up” event in Washington, DC, in September 2016. Seeking to raise awareness about drug addiction and the urgent need for legislative reforms, Underwood continued: “Nobody will ever fight harder to save a child. The societal stigma and misunderstanding experienced by mothers simply trying to save their children can be crippling.” 

Underwood’s impassioned speech captured the emotionally fierce reformist spirit and steadfast determination of the more than 150,000 members of the grassroots movement that is TAM. The group practices a unique version of passionate politics in which aggrieved mothers (hence “fed up”) voice their discontent sorrowfully and tearfully. As one paper noted, “The Addict’s Mom may be walking into stiff headwinds, but there’s strength in numbers. And as groups like MADD [Mothers Against Drunk Driving] have taught us, there’s nothing more powerful than a mom on a mission.”

Members of The Addict’s Mom participate in a “Lights of Hope” event in 2016
(Source).

Barbara Theodosiou, the founder of TAM, is illustrative of the groundswell of emotional politics practiced by the burgeoning army of mothers tenaciously and mercilessly opposed to current forms of drug control. Theodosiou took to Facebook to form the online group TAM in 2008 upon learning that two of her children were addicted to drugs. After suffering from severe bouts of depression that psychologically, and, to an extent, physically paralyzed her, Theodosiou channeled her emotional pain toward productive ends.

She created a community where mothers could, as she explained, “share without shame.” The stigma of drug addiction deeply troubled Theodosiou, and she believed that shame impeded progress toward a more enlightened and compassionate approach to treating addicts. “Society views addicts as dirty and ugly,” she asserted in analyzing the social stigmatization of addiction within an idiom of disgust. Such feelings of shame led to isolation and despair, and she sensed that thousands of mothers in her situation also experienced emotional repression detrimental to their personal well-being.

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“All that was missing were the hugs”: Virtual Recovery in the Era of the Pandemic

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. 

“Important Update regarding meetings,” read an announcement on the website of the Eastern Massachusetts Central Service Committee of Alcoholics Anonymous in early March. “Due to the Covid-19 health risk note that most meetings have been suspended by the host facility until further notice.” Similar posts appeared on the sites of AA chapters across the nation as the novel Corona virus grew increasingly widespread, prompting state and local governments to enact precautionary measures such as closures of businesses, schools, churches—wherever people could gather—to  slow its transmission. As officials encouraged citizens to stay at home and practice social distancing, alcohol and drug addicts found themselves in a particularly precarious state: isolated and struggling to cope alone with the mounting stress of living with the frightening specter of a global pandemic.  

Because of precautionary measures to stem the spread of COVID-19, the sites where traditional recovery meetings were held faced mass closures, disrupting networks and leaving addicts without a vital source of support.

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The kids are going to be alright. Maybe: The (very) complicated portrayal of drug addiction in “Euphoria”

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 the opening scene of the first episode of HBO’s controversial series Euphoria (2019), Rue (Zendaya), the show’s omniscient, unreliable narrator, recalls the last time she felt safe. “I was once happy, content, sloshing around in my own primordial pool,” she laconically claims. “Then one day, for reasons beyond my control, I was repeatedly crushed over and over by the cruel cervix of my mother . . . I put up a good fight, but I lost for the first time—but not the last.” Reluctantly thrust into an anxious post-9/11 world, Rue laments being crushed yet again by more circumstances even further beyond her control, coming of age in the shadow of a financial recession and the omnipresent threat of school shootings. As a toddler she was diagnosed with numerous mental disorders, her inner turmoil seemingly reflecting the instability of the era: ADHD, OCD, social anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder. A cornucopia of drugs was prescribed to address a problem that baffled experts, priming her for drug abuse well before she clandestinely discovered the tranquility provided by her dying father’s pain medications. Due to this bewildering amount of pharmaceuticals, Rue mournfully confesses to not remembering much of anything about her early adolescence other than “that the world moved fast and my brain moved slow.”

The only way to deal with the unwanted burden of navigating her tumultuous world, she informs viewers in a monotone voiceover, is to numb oneself to its reality, to render oneself incapable of caring so as not to hurt by creating a state of unfeeling. And opiates provided just the kind of emotional refuge she needed to escape from what she considered a broken society for which no one had prepared her. “I just showed up one day without a map or a compass, or to be honest, anyone capable of giving one iota of good fucking advice. And I know it all may seem sad, but guess what? I didn’t build this system. Nor did I fuck it up.” In Rue’s mind, recreational drug use was a perfectly acceptable response to having to cope with the sick reality imposed upon her, Oxycodone offering a means to, at the very least, get by, to survive another day, to “outrun,” as she put it, “your anxiety.” It is a kind of agency, albeit a sad and ultimately destructive kind, for reclaiming control in a social order that afforded her none. “I found a way to live,” she asserts. “Will it kill me? I dunno.”

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SoundCloud Rap and the Opioid Epidemic: In Defense of a Genre

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from guest writer 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. 

On 3 October 2018 Michael Jones, a relatively obscure rapper within the SoundCloud rap movement known as New Jerzey Devil, was arrested after a joint investigation involving the New York Police Department and the Drug Enforcement Agency. Authorities alleged that Jones was responsible for the drug overdose death of Diana Haikova, a 29-year old resident of New York, after providing her with heroin and fentanyl. According to DEA Special Agent in Charge James J. Hunt, “This investigation led us into the underbelly of emo rap and its glorification of opioid use.” 

Of course, the argument that hip hop has glorified the use of illicit substances is hardly new. The genre’s depictions of alcohol and narcotics have long attracted the attention of scholars interested in correlations between media exposure and drug practices. The results of a couple of the more contemporary studies are indicative of the general trend in academic investigations that have almost universally found hip hop particularly deleterious. “Positive portrayals of drug use have increased over time, and drug references increased overall,” Denise Herd, a professor of behavioral sciences, noted when summarizing a 2008 study conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, that analyzed popular rap songs between 1979 and 1997, a conclusion that led ABCNEWS to simply declare that “rap music is glamorizing drug use.” Similarly, a 2018 study published in The Journal of Studies on Alcohol determined that “listening to rap music was significantly and positively associated with alcohol use, problematic alcohol use, illicit drug use, and aggressive behaviors.” Although this is just a sampling of the numerous studies that have appeared over the past three decades examining the individual and societal effects resulting from exposure to hip hop, their conclusions reflect an entrenched consensus that the genre possesses an extraordinary capacity to encourage antisocial and destructive behaviors, particularly alcohol and drug addiction. 

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