Starting Points

Points (n.) 1. marks of punctuation. 2. something that has position but not extension, as the intersection of two lines. 3. salient features of a story, epigram, joke, etc.:  he hit the high points. 4. (slang; U.S.) needles for intravenous drug use.

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Fiction Points: Sophia Shalmiyev

Sophia-Shalmiyev_c-Thomas-TealSophia Shalmiyev’s first book, Mother Winter (Simon & Schuster 2019), is a memoir of immigration and motherhood. She holds an MFA from Portland State University and a second master’s degree in creative arts therapy from the School of Visual Arts. Shalmiyev was born in the Soviet Union; emigrated from Leningrad to New York in 1990; and now resides in Portland, Oregon with her two children.

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?

I write about feminism across genres because closets, gag orders, hangers, boys’ clubs, and a fear of jogging in the park at night are still weapons used against us. Also, inconsolable loss.

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

That my mother was seen as a lost cause, especially because she was a woman with a familial history of alcohol abuse, and no one knew how to help her or have empathy for her plight. I have a line in my book where my father’s university professor back in the Soviet Union instructs him to steal me away from her and give up on his wife getting sober because of some made-up diagnosis called Stage II Severe Alcoholism in Woman. She was considered terminal. I am a product of that traumatic theft, but I also lived without the added chaos of addiction in my household. The violence, poverty, and emotional instability from my father was challenging enough.

What led you to write about drugs and alcohol in the first place?

First of all—a drunk girl is the biggest target for violence. The men who willfully and casually misuse their power will find the sloppy girl with falling lids and swoop in (and there is nothing wrong with being that girl, yet we are judged way more harshly for losing control). What if even one woman ever thought in such a predatory way about men? Not that it has to be that bad, because men just interrupting our fun when we are out and following us around and acting creepy because they hope our defenses are down is scary and a real drag, to say the least. The irony of taking a substance to get loose and forget your troubles only to find more of the same trouble in the form of sexual violence or even a coerced or manipulated experience is my nightmare.mother-winter-9781501193088_lg

I spent my twenties trying to get closer to my estranged mother by taking drugs and drinking to black out. I didn’t know how to survive being motherless and wondered if I am doomed to be just like her–so much of what we are told about addiction is that it is genetic–and, yet, I came through mostly all right somehow. It wasn’t my cross to drag on my back, it turned out, though I do tend to have problematic drinking from time to time.

How would you describe the way that drugs function in your work, whether in terms of thematic concerns or the choices you make about how to craft a narrative? Do you think there are things you wouldn’t be able to explore as successfully if drugs weren’t in your writing arsenal?

I do write in a feverish way, but with a lens trained on reconstruction and a posed, theatrically bratty tone around serious issues–no one with money actually cares that much about studying women’s health. Hahahaha. So, let us die, I guess. Our holes of mystery are vast when it comes to estrogen, socialized subordination, and emotional labor women perform and how that folds into substance abuse and recovery. I have this great insight, through never having to reject my mother because I was taken away from her, the shamed and shunned alcoholic, that allows me empathy and nuance. I often say that a useless woman is a dead woman. That’s a mother under the influence. She must heal herself through community and self reflection, which requires the luxury of alone time and the grace of a collective, but we insist that she shut up and be nice and take care of us instead, dammit. A useless man is a man waited on and soothed; his self-destruction is stoic or romantic. We [women] are garbage if we fail at being clean and come clean as good worker bees and maternal influences.

What do you personally find most interesting about how drugs function in your writing, and where do you see that interest leading you in future projects?

My interest in bringing to life discarded and desecrated bodies will keep being a thread in my next book, a novel called I Married the Butcher to Get to the Bone. Addiction is also about trying to mute the ringing bells of fight or flight so that one can feel peace and ease rather than an alarm going off at all times, screaming hold me. I am fragmented. I also see charm and sense of humor and the adventure my mother (and sometimes I) chased when drinking socially. I took drugs almost exclusively due to peer pressure–welcomed peer pressure. I wanted to bond at all costs, and I wanted to fall down a well in a pile of like-minded bodies with heads dangling.

BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope that Mother Winter gets made into a major motion picture. If you have your choice, which is it, and what song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?

X-Ray Spex, “Germ Free Adolescents

Points Interview: David Courtwright

Editor’s note: Points author interviews begin with a set question: Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand. David Courtwright said he preferred conversations with bartenders. He talked to his about The Age of Addiction: How Bad Habits Became Big Business (Belknap Press, 2019). 

Screenshot 2019-07-16 08.40.48Bartender: I hear you have a new book.

Courtwright: Just came out in May. I’ll have the draft IPA.

What’s the book about?

How addictions multiplied throughout human history. Even before civilization people discovered pleasurable drugs and pastimes like alcohol and gambling. They went on finding new ones. They traded, refined, manufactured, and digitized them to the point that we live in an age of addiction. Think about it. When you heard the word “addiction” forty years ago, what came to mind? 

Drugs. Heroin. Junkies. Juicers, only back then we called them alcoholics. 

Google the word now and you’ll find addiction to sugar, video poker, computer games, social media, internet porn, shopping, tanning, you name it.

Could be hype.

Some of it is. And some of it is science. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, promotes food-addiction studies.  

What’s food got to do with drugs?  

Our brains—well, some brains—react to food packed with sugar, salt, and fat like it was booze. People can lose control over eating the way they lose control over drinking. They join groups like Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous

They’re like AA? 

Right down to the lingo. And it goes beyond eating.  When I told friends I was writing a history of addictions, they all said, “You’ve got to include kids glued to their phones.” So I did. Behavioral addictions have become social facts.

What’s history got to do with social facts?

Historians explain their origins and how they changed over time. In The Age of Addiction, it’s a long time.

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Points Bookshelf: “The Age of Addiction” by David Courtwright

Editor’s Note: It’s David Courtwright week on Points! Today we feature a review by contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University, of Courtwright’s most recent book, The Age of Addiction (Harvard University Press, 2019). We’ll follow Hudson’s review with an interview with Courtwright on Thursday. Enjoy!

Screenshot 2019-07-16 08.40.48In Age of Addiction, the acclaimed historian David Courtwright dips his toes into familiar waters, analyzing the history of the brain reward mechanism through its component parts: pleasure, vice, and addiction. The book expands on earlier attempts, such as John Burnham’s Bad Habits, which investigated America’s evolving attitudes on everything from alcohol and drugs to gambling, swearing, and sex. Building off and updating Burnham, Courtwright injects fresh blood into the discussion, mapping the newest additions to our pleasure palettes. Courtwright catalogs sugary sweets formulated by Nestlé and Kraft, delineates digital subcultures such as the frenzied World of Warcraft, and documents young men’s sexual fetishes—with Pornhub substituting as both sex education and a how-to manual—while still leaving room for gambling, an ever-changing issue as states embrace sports betting following last year’s Murphy v. NCAA decision. Courtwright draws our attentions to the vast “pleasure meccas” erected of late, updating parts of his previous book Dark Paradise (Harvard University Press, 1982) as opioids have returned to the headlines too.   

Let me invite the skeptical reader to ask the obvious question: hasn’t this always been the case? Courtwright would agree, but with a caveat. To conclude “more of the same” ignores three critical distinctions. First, the rate “hedonic change” has accelerated, Courtwright likening it to the rapid pace of technological change, following its own “Moore’s Law of brain reward” (164). (Moore’s law, first delineated in 1965, predicted that the speed and capability of computers would double every two years due to advancements in the number of components per integrated circuit; in the past half-century, this has proven to be untrue: computer speed now doubles much more rapidly.)

Second, pleasure and vice are more diverse and ubiquitous, appealing to specific subsets of the population. Third, and most significantly, pleasure and vices are meticulously engineered by companies with billion-dollar marketing and advertising budgets. In effect, this means that Big Pharma, Silicon Valley and the food industry have grown much more efficient at weaponizing our weaknesses against us, and reaping the profitable rewards. This asymmetry means companies are able cater and concoct an ever-widening array of products and pleasures, while conveniently sidestepping externalities and effects on global health. Whereas earlier eras met vice with reluctance, if not with outright resistance, today the tendency is on an opposite trajectory: vice is both normalized and accepted. 

 

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David Courtwright

The Age of Addiction hones in on the brain reward system’s “big bang” moment, tracing it back to the agricultural revolution. What characterized pleasure, vice and addiction then was limited. People dabbled with local food-drugs but had little else at their disposal. Pleasure was in its infancy. Gambling, for instance, consisted of improvised devices: “sticks, shells, fruit pits,” and the occasional animal bone. Questions of accessibility or affordability were not yet part of the vocabulary. From the agricultural revolution on, the story follows a familiar trajectory: the invention of new technology, innovative forms of transportation, and specialized knowledge that built up networks for global trade, transforming rickety ship with a few luxury goods into colossal container ships packed with the inexpensive goodies we all enjoy today. 

The second half of the book deals with changes over the last hundred years or so. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries pleasure, vice and addiction seeped into urban areas, leaving few places or people untouched by their influence. In response, anti-vice reformers rallied and challenged vice’s legitimacy and sought to ban or suppress commodities like narcotics and alcohol and activities like prostitution and gambling. Reformers, as Courtwright sees it, have been unfairly maligned and should be given a second hearing, or at least some credit for enacting regulatory measures that curbed use and resulted in improvements to public health. He argues that we should not separate some reform measures and label them “progressive” (among them, sewage and water infrastructure and vaccination efforts) from their other attempts to eliminate vice. In practice the desires that propelled one propelled the other activities as well, all with the aim of improving public health and safety. Yet the gains made by anti-vice reformers were partial. They failed, as Courtwright documents, for multiple reasons: from internal divisions, corporate resistance and government ambivalence on the one hand, and from their desire to raise revenue on the other. 

Neoliberalism was in its ascendancy by the late twentieth century. It brought with it a new figure, the “vice entrepreneur” who pushed and profited from packaged delights. Courtwright coins the term “limbic capitalism,” described as “a technologically advanced but socially regressive business system in which global industries, often with the help of complicit governments and criminal organizations, encourage excessive consumption and addiction.” Limbic capitalism refined the art of exploiting brain reward and weaponizing it against consumers, perhaps best captured by the Pringles slogan: “Once you pop, the fun don’t stop.” This corporate slogan distills the limbic capitalisms formula: hook customers, encourage them to indulge, rinse and repeat—or, in short, reap the rewards and ignore responsibility for subsequent externalities. Limbic capitalism continues as a force to be reckoned with. It has aided overeating, led to distracted driving, compulsive porn consumption, and other ills. And all of it was intentionally constructed to be this way, causing some of the biggest public health problems globally, according to Courtwright. 

“Limbic capitalism” differs from capitalism through its route of administration: brain reward and its repetition. But is limbic capitalism more predatory or detrimental to public health than the routine behavior of say, Big Pharma or the climate catastrophe wrought by the fossil fuel industry? And does that matter? These are some questions that lingered. One feature that works in limbic capitalism’s favor it is that it is easy to understand, meaning there is less asymmetry of information—risk, for instance—when buying cigarettes or alcohol than in other transactions, like purchasing health insurance, signing financial contracts, or whatever it is we are agreeing to when we hit the “agree” button after every iPhone update. The book’s last line recommends that “we should be against excess,” which, in general, is sensible. But as a concrete matter, policy implications and what limiting excesses means in practice—preference for punitive or health-oriented approaches—also matters but gets less attention. Courtwright offers solutions: government regulation, restrictions on advertising, targeted taxation, and education campaigns. All of these could be good, depending on a lot of other things. 

Like any book, Age of Addiction has shortcomings, many of which might be exposed by the authors and thinkers he cites. Critics of the brain disease model will be disappointed there is not a full airing of arguments made against it, such as Marc Lewis’s The Biology of Desire. Stanton Peele, mentioned twice, will likely continue to have his reservations about this book over exposure and accessibility. This same could be said for Bruce Alexander, whose book The Globalization of Addiction disagrees with Courtwright when Courtwright argues that exposure is a driving force for addiction — Alexander’s other writings suggest that exposure is a secondary or tertiary concern.

Courtwright also perhaps missed an opportunity in his exploration of vice, a very elastic category, limiting it only to individuals and excluding corporate persons. Vice is defined as “bad for the individual, bad for other people, bad for the social order, or some combination of the three” (emphasis mine). Vice looked at through the lens of greed would have been an edifying avenue for him to pursue: patients rationing insulin, some dying; the “public health” consequence of things like the EpiPen, a drug that sells for several hundred of dollars while its active ingredients cost pennies. This could have played to Courtwright’s advantage, given that he uses the idea of “nudges.” Everyone can get behind Courtwright’s goal, which ultimately is about improving public health, but if public health continues to be mostly privatized, preventing people from accessing essential services—mental health services, medication, and the rest—many of the issues discussed will unfortunately remain unresolved. 

 

Fiction Points: Karen Hugg

huggKaren Hugg writes literary mysteries and thrillers inspired by plants. Her first novel, The Forgetting Flower (Magnolia Press, April 2019) is the first in her Botanique Noir trilogy and centers on a fictional amnesia drug sold out of a plant shop in Paris. Hugg formerly worked as an editor and now specializes in ornamental horticultural and is a master pruner. She earned her MFA from Goddard College and has had work published in the anthology Rooted: The Best New Arboreal Nonfiction and elsewhere. She lives in Seattle. 

 

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?

Ha! I actually went to Catholic school for many years so I’ve interacted with plenty of nuns in my life (not so much penguins). At any rate, I’d say I write literary mysteries and thrillers inspired by plants. I’ve been a writer since I was a child and became a professional gardener as an adult. Several years ago, plants started slipping into my stories. I realized the best way to spread my passion for plants was to write about them in exciting ways that embodied the fascination I felt for them. That led to start speculating about plants that didn’t exist but could. And that was the seed (no pun intended) for The Forgetting Flower.

But I don’t just write about plants. I write about human beings too. The people who care for the plants, the dilemmas they face, their flaws and conflicts. People are interesting because they’re complex and I try to bring that to the page too.

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

That The Forgetting Flower is, in part, about the addiction and trade of a flower. It’s somewhat similar to marijuana or heroin made from poppies in that it has a natural origin. But the story really isn’t about the plant but rather what’s done with it. For instance, the plant in the book, Violet Smoke, produces flowers that give whoever inhales its scent amnesia. People forget the last thing they were thinking of. This, as addiction experts would know, could be very handy. People might want to forget certain traumatic or inconvenient events in their life. And my characters do just that in this novel within the dark framework that sometimes accompanies drug addiction: the monetary costs, the desperation to obtain it, the deterioration of a livelihood, the black market on which it’s sold. Continue reading →

Conference Report – ADHS Shanghai, 12-15 June 2019

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. David A. Guba, Jr., of Bard Early College in Baltimore. He presents his conference report from the biennial ADHS conference, held last month in Shanghai. It was the meeting’s first gathering in Asia.

From the 13th through the 15th of June, nearly 100 scholars from 14 countries gathered at Shanghai University in China for the biennial conference of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society, beefily titled “Changing Minds: Societies, States, the Sciences and Psychoactive Substances in History.” Jointly sponsored by the Sir Henry Welcome Trust, the David F. Musto Center for Drug Policy Studies at Shanghai University, and the Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare at the University of Strathclyde, the conference marked the first meeting of the ADHS in Asia and an important next step in the organization’s ongoing efforts to globalize drugs and alcohol history. I trust I speak for all in attendance in extending sincerest gratitude to the organizers and sponsors, the staff of the New Lehu Hotel and Conference Center, and the many graduate student volunteers for putting on a great four days of stimulating conversations, fascinating presentations, and productive networking. 

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Fiction Points: Kristi Coulter

KristiKristi Coulter is the author of Nothing Good Can Come from This (MCD Books x FSG Originals 2018), a memoir in essays centered on her struggle to quit drinking alcohol. Coulter has published in New York Magazine/The CutParis ReviewLongreads, and elsewhere, including a forthcoming Amazon Original, “Yes, And,” on love, monogamy, and secrets. She is a former Ragdale Foundation fellow, National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts grant recipient, and Hugo House guest lecturer. Coulter holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan and resides in Seattle. Nothing Good Can Come from This is her first book.

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?

“Do you guys realize your outfits all sort of match? No, it’s cute! It’s totally working for you.” 

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

Alcohol as a marker of liberation and equality has loomed large in feminist popular history/culture, from the flappers to Sex and the City to the more recent trend of booze-soaked play dates and wines with names like Mommyjuice. Which is all well and good if you aren’t an addict. I am *totally* an addict, and once I dug my way out of my own drunk-woman subculture (hard-driving urban professional), I started to realize the same white wine that had seemed like a feminist pleasure trophy had also kept me complacent about double standards and inequities in my career and daily life. I’d been fooled by marketing and pop culture and my own damn brain into believing I was ‘having it all,’ when really I was self-medicating in part to tolerate a life I hated. I’m not remotely suggesting that every woman who enjoys a drink is a tool of the patriarchy, or un-feminist. But I do think alcohol and drugs–like cigarettes before them–are often marketed as proof of liberation, when in reality there’s nothing *less* threatening to the status quo as a bunch of muddle-headed, hungover women who just want to make it through their daily chores to that next glass of mommy juice.

What led you to write about drugs and alcohol in the first place?

I had expected to find sobriety boring, but it turned out to be fascinating, and even more unexpectedly, funny. I mean, suddenly I was navigating familiar situations without the one coping tool I’d relied on for a decade. It may not *sound* like comedy gold, but I tend to find absurdist humor in a lot of unlikely places, and I realized it was a classic fish-out-of-water (or wine) setup. I started keeping a blog to capture some of those comic details–and the less-comic ones, too–and the blog led to essays, which led to me accidentally coming out as sober to the *entire globe* when one self-published essay, “Enjoli,” went mega-viral, which led to a book deal for Nothing Good Can Come from This, my memoir-in-essays about drinking and not drinking.

ngccft
How would you describe the way that drugs function in your work, whether in terms of thematic concerns or the choices you make about how to craft a narrative? Do you think there are things that you wouldn’t be able to explore as successfully if drugs weren’t in your writing arsenal?

It took me a while to realize that I even wanted to write a book about my addiction and sobriety. There are so many addiction memoirs out there already, and often even the great ones follow a classic template where ever-escalating thrills and risks lead to a very hard, dramatic crash, which leads to rehab/AA…and then that’s kind of the end. But my own drinking and sobriety didn’t fit that narrative arc. I didn’t lose my job or my family to drinking. I didn’t get arrested. I quit because I was just (“just,” she says!) tired of thinking and worrying about drinking 24/7, tired that my life had narrowed to that one pinhole-sized focus. And when I stopped, it wasn’t through rehab or AA, just therapy and a lot of introspection and writing and the stubbornness to wait out the hard parts so the better days could come. And, as I mentioned above, I found sobriety to be not only comedy gold, but *much* more interesting than my drinking days–but I assumed readers would only want the gory drinking details, since most of the addiction classics focus on those.

Finally I thought “Hey dummeh [imagine I am saying this in the voice of Fred Sanford from Sanford and Son], maybe all these reasons not to write a book are why you *should* write a book.” I realized there was space in the canon or whatever for an irreverent, non-traditional, very specifically *female* addiction story–or sobriety story, really, since that’s what I chose to focus on. And I decided to be playful with the structure, because neither my addiction or sobriety has felt like an A-to-Z classic narrative journey. So I wrote NGCCFT with a prism in mind, or that Wallace Stevens poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”–examining exactly what the hell happened from a bunch of different angles and through different forms. Some essays in the collection are straightforward narrative but there’s also a quiz, a letter to a college friend, some instructions, etc. I could only tell my story prismatically because that’s how I lived it.

As far as having drugs in my writing arsenal, I can only say I might not be writing at all, or certainly not as consistently, without my longtime companion Effexor. It’s not a “fun” drug, but it’s a drug that makes fun a possibility for me.

What do you personally find most interesting about how drugs work in your writing, and where do you see that interest leading you in future projects?

I realized halfway through writing NCGGFT that I was actually writing about my drunk and sober attempts to satisfy the eternal human craving for *something*–completeness, God, ecstasy–that for most of us will never be quite filled. I’m infinitely happier in sobriety than I was as a drinker, but I still crave completeness, ecstasy, etc. I still have deep wants. And I don’t feel a need to pathologize those cravings and wants. Often, they’re just the human condition. Since completing NGCCFT, I’ve published essays on sex and marriage and music, and I’m currently working on something about ambition, and the problem-slash-joy of want is at the heart of all of it. I find it both fascinating and feminist–women aren’t really supposed to want things for themselves, only for other people–so I imagine it can take me pretty far as a writer.

BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope that Nothing Good Can Come from This gets made into a major motion picture. What song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?

In a nod to the eternal craving described above, the epigraph to the book comes from the Replacements song “Unsatisfied”: “Look me in the eye and tell me that I’m satisfied.” It’s my way of telling the reader up front that this is not going to be a story of a wayward woman who ends up in a state of 24-7 gratitude and contentment just because she moved past addiction. So I’d have to end the film the same way. Plus, you know how some credits start out slowly, with one major name per screen, and then the roll starts for everyone else? Well, “Unsatisfied” has a long, spare guitar intro and then opens up into a full, driving melody, so it would work *perfectly* for that credit format. Can you tell I’ve given this some thought, down to who should dress me for the premiere? (Balenciaga.)

Points Update: Book Review Editor Wanted, and New Article Available from Lucas Richert and Erika Dyck

Happy 4th of July from your friends at Points! We hope you’re celebrating safely with friends and family if you’re in the United States.

Screenshot 2019-07-04 at 6.05.42 AM

Two quick notes before we get back to grilling and sparklers:

First, the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs is looking for a book review editor.

As the editors seek to diversify the journal, book review editors from non-Anglo-North American perspectives are wanted for SHAD. The book review editor will help manage the flow of books and reviews, including identifying titles for review, populating a list of books, securing appropriate reviewers, and overseeing the timely completion of reviews.

Inquiries should be received by September 6, 2019. You can see the full request here.

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