Fiction Points: Eleanor Henderson

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Eleanor Henderson

Eleanor Henderson is an assistant professor at Ithaca College and holds an MFA from the University of Virginia. Her short story “The Farms” was selected for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2009 and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Henderson’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared in journals including Ninth Letter, Salon, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Her debut novel Ten Thousand Saints, which revolves around a teen’s conversion to a straight-edge lifestyle following the drug-related death of a friend, was published to wide acclaim in 2011. The book was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times’ 2011 Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and made the longlist for the 2013 IMPAC Dublin Literary AwardTen Thousand Saints was also named a New York Times Notable Book of 2011; reviewed on the cover of the New York Times Book Review; and included on lists such as Amazon’s Top 10 Debut Fiction Titles of 2011, the New York Times’ Top 10 Books of 2011, and the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Top 100 Books of 2011. Henderson previously served as a contributing editor to the magazine Poets & Writers and chair of the fiction board for The Virginia Quarterly Review.

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you to describe Ten Thousands Saints, how do you answer?

This is exactly how it feels to describe one’s novel! I tend to say it’s about a sixteen-year-old boy coming of age in the straight edge scene in New York City in 1988.

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

The straight edge scene. One of the main reasons I wanted to write about straight edge is because I’d never encountered it in fiction before. It’s such a fascinating subculture—this group of young people who are eschewing drugs and alcohol and yet embracing a punk ethos. It’s Just Say No with an edge. Many of my main characters, who are teenagers, go even further and give up sex and meat, too. In many ways it’s a rebellion against traditional forms of rebellion.

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The Points Interview — Peter Ferentzy and Nigel E. Turner

Editor’s Note:  Authors Peter Ferentzy and Nigel E. Turner describe their new book, The History of Problem Gambling: Temperance, Substance Abuse, Medicine, and Metaphors (Springer, 2012) in today’s Points interview. 

1.  Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

Ferentzy-Turner-coverNT & PF:  Our book examines how the idea of gambling as a disease came into existence and how that concept changed over time. We point out two current disease models – the public health and the chronic disease model – and explore their roots. We also explore the metaphoric utilities of these models, examining what these metaphors both can reveal and can hide about the concept. The idea that metaphors reveal and hide information is important. It is not always recognized that how one categorizes a phenomenon affects how it is understood. This is true for all categorization but perhaps more so for mental health phenomena. Viewing gambling problems as a chronic disease harbors the implication that the disorder is difficult to overcome, that it is not the person’s fault, and that it obligates lifelong abstinence for those who are vulnerable as the only viable approach to the disorder. If on the other hand we view gambling as a public health problem the focus shifts to the game and the administration of gambling, rather than the gambler. Now, issues relating to the game’s availability, its design, and the role of public health policy in addressing the problem rise in salience. The public health perspective shifts attention to prevention and self-control, rather than abstinence per se. Our book discusses how both models also hide facts about the disorder. It’s important to be aware of the metaphors one is using and not mistake metaphors for literal truths. Otherwise they can become a mental trap preventing one from understanding the reality of the phenomenon. We examine how metaphors associated with problem gambling have changed over time.

2.  What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

NT: The book brings together a number of ideas from disciplines that have not interacted very much in the past.

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The Points Interview — Todd Meyers

Editor’s note: Points welcomes Todd Meyers, a medical anthropologist at Wayne State University, to discuss his new book, The Clinic and Elsewhere: Addiction, Adolescents, and the Afterlife of Therapy (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2013).

meyers front cover1.  Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

The book tells the story of a small group of teenagers (some quite young) who abuse opiates (heroin, prescription painkillers) as well as other drugs, and what drug dependency treatment was like for them. I met most of them during their time at a residential drug treatment center in Baltimore – a treatment center that, oddly enough, was once a monastery. I was fool enough to attempt following them around for long periods of time to gain an appreciation of how addiction and treatment ­took shape in their lives – how these two “modes” (drug dependency and its treatment) blur in unexpected ways. And that’s really one of the key arguments of the book – that clinical activities and thought reach into this thing we call “the social” and vice versa, thus the title of the book, The Clinic and Elsewhere. All of the kids I followed were treated with a relatively new pharmaceutical therapy (buprenorphine) for withdrawal and replacement therapy, and I followed that treatment process through their time in residential care and back into their homes or other institutional environments. The book is simultaneously about the new pharmaceutical therapy itself – tracing its development and approval as a new treatment modality. The book is a bit theoretical (what are the experiential dimensions of therapeutics? of patienthood? of success and failure of medical intervention? of concern? etc.) and a bit straight storytelling (that is to say, it’s ethnographic, through I’m becoming less and less satisfied with the salience of ethnography as both the technology and product of fieldwork). I attempted, at times clumsily, to make sense of treatment and addiction alongside these kids and their families as they themselves struggled with its meaning.

That’s probably what I’d say.  But in full disclosure, the last time I had a conversation with a bartender it began with hearing how he makes his own bitters from plants in his hydroponic garden and ended with him describing his thesis project (something about lactose fermentation and legal aspects of local food production), so I don’t think the book would be much of a stretch.  In fact, that’s part of my effort – to present work in conceptual terms that is not completely foreign to a broad readership (though not to water things down by any means, keeping with the bartender analogy) – and at the same time I have tried to write against the anticipated trope of marginality. That last part is probably the hardest to convey convincingly. The book is not a series of reworked scenes from The Wire but instead attempts to demonstrate the slow, at times banal, at other times brutal ways in which both addiction and treatment take hold within the domain of individual experience (contrasting a perspective where treatment neutralizes addiction uniformly, or that the experience of treatment is largely unvaried).    

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The Points Interview — Gabrielle Glaser

Editor’s Note:  Author Gabrielle Glaser offers some quick comments about her new book, Her Best-Kept Secret: Why Women Drink — And How They Can Regain Control (Simon & Schuster, 2013). 1.  Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand. A few years ago I started noticing a big shift in the way women talked about their …

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The Points Interview — William Garriott and Eugene Raikhel

Editor’s Note:  Eugene Raikhel and William Garriott, editors of a just-out collection of ethnographic essays titled Addiction Trajectories (Duke University Press, 2013), share their views in response to the Points’ interview’s probes. 

addiction-trajectories-cover1.  Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

William Garriott (WG) and Eugene Raikhel (ER):  In Addiction Trajectories we wanted to introduce readers to current anthropological work on addiction, and to propose a conceptual theme which we think unifies much of this new research.  So the book does both of these things.  First, it presents several ethnographic case studies of addiction in contemporary settings ranging from Puerto Rico to Russia, to southern France, to West Virginia, to Las Vegas.  Second, it proposes the concept of addiction trajectories as a framework for understanding these particular cases.  We highlight three particular addiction trajectories: epistemic or knowledge trajectories, therapeutic trajectories, and experiential and experimental trajectories.  These terms capture three key elements of addiction:  the ongoing debate over what, exactly, addiction is; the myriad treatments available for addiction; and the experience of addiction. The term “trajectories” is meant to draw attention both to the different kinds of movement we see taking place in each of these dimensions (change over time, but also movement across social and geographic space) as well as the open-endedness of this movement.

Eugene Raikhel
Eugene Raikhel

2.  What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book? 

WG:  I hope they will appreciate the authors’ efforts to show, through ethnography, how history is lived.  Each chapter in its own way shows how the past is embodied in the present.  This may be, in the case of Angela Garcia’s chapter, how a history of land dispossession in New Mexico is implicated in contemporary experiences of heroin addiction, or, in Eugene’s chapter, how the legacy of Soviet-era addiction therapeutics continues to shape treatment of addiction today.

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The Points Interview — Eoin Cannon

Note: Points’ managing editor, Eoin Cannon, favors us, today, with an interview on his just-out, new book, The Saloon and the Mission: Addiction, Conversion, and the Politics of Redemption in American Culture  (University of Massachusetts Press, 2013). BTW, Big Congratulations, Eoin!

Cannon-coverDescribe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

Sorry, barkeep, but this book is about people who ceased to need your services and then made a realllly big deal about it.  It’s about how and why people have told stories of recovery from alcoholism publicly since the late 19th century.

I focus especially on the legacies of the “drunkard’s conversion” testimonies given in urban evangelical missions and circulated widely in print from the 1880s to the 1910s. Despite their roots in old-time religion, these stories’ urban class dynamics made them compelling to those who saw the knot of poverty, ethnic difference, and vice as a modern social crisis. In personal voices and realistic slum settings, the drunkards’ conversion stories defied the irreversible fates associated with these categories. The practical understanding of salvation they offered also made such tales susceptible to a wide range of interpretations. So instead of seeing conversion stories as individualistically oriented distractions from structural injustices — as skeptical readers today might — many reformers, artists, and intellectuals in this period retold them as stories that modeled a wider social healing by the lights of a variety of social theories, from radical to reactionary. In the context of this contested discourse around the meaning of the drinker’s redemption, literary writers through the modern period told stories of alcoholism with high stakes. The drinker’s descent was a character-based crisis, but one that plumbed modern society’s perceived maladjustment and, possibly, harbored clues to its regeneration.

This programmatic approach to redemption shaped the storytelling conventions available to the budding recovery movement in the 1930s and beyond. A.A.’s pioneers subsumed the contested aspects of the form into a recognizably Depression-era revision of the self, one that understood the limitations of individualism in social as well as in spiritual terms. In mutual-aid circles, these stories could remain highly pragmatic, devoted to A.A.’s “primary purpose.” But public recovery stories since the rise of A.A. have taken the social ethic of mutual aid beyond twelve-step culture and out into the wider society. These stories often depict recovery as the solution to a social problem or even as the model of an ideal society. As such, they have tracked the progress of liberalism since the New Deal era and, I argue, helped to shape its redemptive ethos in the realm of culture. Cannon

So while we may not openly contest the meaning of the modern recovery story, preferring to accept that it simply describes how a sick person got well, the story form is so constructed as to embody foundational claims about the self and its relation to others. If we as a society don’t agree on those claims, neither will we agree on the meaning of recovery — arguably a dissensus increasingly in evidence since the 1960s.

What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

Most interesting might be the things they are most likely to question. First, I started my pre-history of recovery narrative in the postbellum rescue missions, rather than in the Washingtonian Movement of the 1840s. I placed a lot of weight on the secular implications of prevailing interpretations of mission testimonies, despite the fact that they had been preceded by an already secular movement a generation earlier. I did so because I found that the rescue mission stories were influential in mediating institutions — church homiletics, progressive reform, academic psychology, realist literature — which in turn informed the redemptive ideals and the storytelling styles more broadly associated with recovery in the 20th century. In other words, the rescue missions provided a master narrative of modern addiction storytelling. 

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The Points Interview — Kathleen J. Frydl

Editor’s Note: Kathleen Frydl’s new book, The Drug Wars in America, 1940-1973, is just out from Cambridge University Press. Points welcomes her timely and enlightening interview.

Frydl-book-cover 1.  Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

I tell the story of how and why the US government became “addicted” to the modern drug war, choosing prohibition and punishment over treatment and regulation. I argue that the logic behind the particular shape and targets of the drug war (including that which was not targeted) had less to do with crime or addiction, and more to do with the management of state power.

2.  What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

To be honest, probably not that much. At several points, I rely on that scholarship, but I can’t say that I actually contribute to it. For readers of this blog, it might be interesting — maybe even troubling, but hopefully stimulating — to hear the story of the drug war narrated through a different voice.  I hope it is viewed as a complement to the literature.

That said, there are some parts of the book that may be of interest. In chapter 5, I argue that methadone clinics lost support for a variety of reasons. Proponents of punishment, recovery movements, and various groups on the left imposed standard medical — as opposed to public health — criteria on maintenance: built around “a crisis followed by a cure” paradigm. This is somewhat different from the goals of harm reduction. Under this more demanding paradigm, the fact that every recovery victory could be celebrated  compensated believers for so much failure. In the public health lens, on the other hand, successful maintenance meant only less to be dismayed about. The outcomes were not so heroic and the narrative not so redemptive. Whether it was the Black Panthers or traditional recovery movements, certain advocates criticized maintenance precisely because it staved off the “crisis” which they felt was needed in order to proceed to the “cure,” whether that cure was sobriety or revolution in the inner city.

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The Points Interview — John Markert

Editor’s Note:  Hooked in Film: Substance Abuse on the Big Screen (Scarecrow Press, 2013), by John Markert, is due out in June.  Below, author Markert kindly offers his responses to the Points interview’s palatte of probing questions.

Markert-cover1.  Describe your book in terms your bartender would understand.

Few people have every used heroin or cocaine, yet just about everyone knows that you “shoot” heroin and roll a dollar bill to snort “a line” of powdered cocaine.  These images linger in the mind’s eye because we’ve seen people do this in the movies, even if the images are inaccurate — shooting heroin is rare today, though it continues to be the dominate route of administration depicted in contemporary film.

Movies in contemporary society are a primary way of imparting information about our social world.  We may rely more heavily on film to tell us about drugs than about other social topics since few people have first-hand knowledge about illegal drugs.  Movies, then, become a primacy source of information about who uses what kind of drug, the effect of the drug on the individual, how problematic the drug might (or might not) be in society, and what should be done about the problem, if, in fact, film frames it as a problem.

Heroin, for example, is clearly depicted in film as a deadly drug.  In film, you stick a needle in your arm and you’re as good as dead.  Film ignores the fact that many regular heroin users “chip” at their use and moderate their use depending on heroin’s availability. Film also ignores the fact that while 1.5 percent have played with heroin at some point in their lives, only 0.2 percent can be considered “regular” (past year) users, which means that many people who have experimented with heroin do not become addicts.  The deadly consequences of heroin use depicted in film, though not quite accurate, may not necessarily be a bad thing because it could discourage the casual experimenter from even considering trying heroin.

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