The Points Interview: David Herzberg

Editors’ Note: We’re delighted to bring Points readers another installment (number sixteen) in the “Points Interview” series.  Today, we’re getting happy with David Herzberg, author of Happy Pills in America: From Miltown to Prozac (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).  David Herzberg has been a Contributing Editor here at Points, and is also an Associate Professor in the Department of History at SUNY-Buffalo (where he also hosted the recent conference of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society).

Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.

Happy Pills is a cultural history of Miltown, Valium, and Prozac—three of the best known, Cover of Happy Pills in Americamost widely used, and controversial medicines in the postwar era.  It tells their medical and commercial stories, but also asks why they became so faddish and contentious, and how their fame (and infamy) influenced medical and popular ideas about consciousness and identity.
The book begins in the 1950s, when Miltown became the first “blockbuster” tranquilizer and an early icon of biological psychiatry.  The drug’s celebrity was the product of several developments:  intensified popular marketing of prescription drugs; increased medical and public attention to anxiety as an illness, led in part by Freudian psychiatry; and a burgeoning consumer culture primed to deliver technological wonders in the name of comfort and convenience for the middle classes.
But Miltown’s popularity didn’t sit well with everyone; in fact the prospect of eradicating anxiety made some people quite nervous.  The tranquilizer and its successors quickly became embroiled in postwar gender battles and the explosive politics of the “war against drugs,” and Happy Pills traces these stories to their combined conclusion in a feminist campaign against Valium addiction in the 1970s.  This was a most unusual anti-drug campaign, targeting sexism in drug companies and the medical system rather than stoking fear of addicts.  It capped off a decade of challenges to the pharmaceutical industry, and was part of a broader effort by reformers to rethink the boundaries between “drugs” and “medicines.”

Happy Pills ends with a look at the emergence of Prozac and other antidepressants in the late 1980s and 1990s, and the accompanying revival of popular belief in wonder drugs.  Why was this resurgence so successful when the drugs themselves turned out to be far from revolutionary?  Prozac’s boosters, I argue, took new findings in brain science and used them to create a story that was as much political as it was scientific:  miraculous new consumer goods now made it possible to pick and choose personalities—identities—in a utopian free market of accessorizable selfhood.  However exaggerated such promises may have been, they proved a powerful cultural vehicle for pushback against feminist-era drug critics, and a fitting vision of identity and personal change for an increasingly conservative era.

Continue reading →

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Points on Blogs: Sterling on Justice and Drugs

The contemporary drug law reform movement holds varying levels of interest for historians of drugs and alcohol.  Drugs historians with an interest in modern drug policy are more likely to find would-be reformers relevant as both subjects and audience; for other historians, contemporary reform may simply be of interest as a personal, political cause.  This entry in the “Points on Blogs” series takes a look at drug war criticism on the web, of which there’s no shortage!  For U.S.-based drug law reform (more on the weird dearth of transnational activism below), readers could certainly begin with the Drug Policy Alliance.  Founder and director Ethan Nadelmann (author of some very historically-informed works of scholarship) has overseen the development of a DPA site that is content-rich and user friendly.  The DPA hosts an online resource library (the Lindesmith Library, named for early drug war critic and sociologist Alfred Lindesmith) with more than 15,000 documents and videos.  As for bloggers, drug war reformers would do well to consider Pete Guither’s blog Drug WarRant, or StoptheDrugWar.org (especially the Speakeasy blog).  For today, however, I’ll focus on another blog: Sterling on Justice and Drugs.

Remember Prohibition

History's lessons made simple!

Sterling is Eric Sterling, who clearly knows a thing or two about justice and drugs.  For historians of recent U.S. drug policy, he’s an historical actor in his own right–as Counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee for ten years, he helped the Subcommittee on Crime develop the now-notorious Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988.  Almost immediately thereafter, Sterling became active in reform circles.  He serves as President of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation (and Sterling on Justice and Drugs is, effectively, the blog of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation). Continue reading →

Cross-Posting: Nicholas Montemarano’s “Alcoholics Anonymous (1939), i.e. The Big Book”

Editor’s Note:  Points today presents a cross-posting from Frequencies, an online “genealogy of spirituality” curated by Kathryn Lofton and John Lardas Modern as part of the Social Science Research Council’s (SSRC) Working Group on Spirituality, Political Engagement, and Public Life.  A collaboration with the SSRC’s blog The Immanent Frame and the online magazine Killing the Buddha, Frequencies works from the assumption that “spirituality takes hold beneath the skin and permeates below the radar of statistical surveys.  It resists classification even as it classifies its evaluators and its believers as subjects of its sway.”  With this in mind, the curators sought free-form meditations on spirituality–written and visual– from a diverse public.  Unsurprisingly, addiction and recovery are common themes on Frequencies, as in this  essay on the AA “Big Book,” written by Nicholas Montemarano  and accompanied by images from David Michalek’s Fourteen Stations.

“I’ll do anything! Anything at all! If there be a God, let Him show Himself!”
“Pass It On”: The Story of Bill Wilson and How the A.A. Message Reached the World

Station Two: Christ Accepts the Cross

Actually, Bill, there is one thing you can do. It’ll be good for both of us—a win-win proposition. Okay, maybe a bit better for me, but what’s good for me is good for everyone.

Bill, I need you to write a book, a big book, an important one, a kind of Bible for the hopeless. Don’t worry; I’ll tell you what to write.

As for the alcohol, just leave that up to me. You see, something more than human power is needed. Write that down and make sure to put it in the book. Intelligence isn’t enough. Self-knowledge isn’t enough. Will power isn’t enough. The misery of hitting rock bottom isn’t enough. The love of friends and family—important, but not nearly enough. Nothing human, nothing of this world, will ever be enough. Alcoholism is a terminal disease, and the only thing that can cure a terminal disease is a miracle. I am that miracle. I am the mighty purpose of the universe. Allow me, a Higher Power, to do for you what you can’t do for yourself. Continue reading →

Myths of Mexico: The U.S. Media’s Simplistic Depiction of the “Drug War”

Editor’s Note: Guest blogging at Points today is Michelle García, journalist, film maker, and the co-founder and director of the Border Mobile Journalism Collective, a citizen journalism video project on the U.S.-Mexico border created in collaboration with the National Black Programming Consortium.  She recently completed “Against Mexico— The Making of  Heroes and Enemies,” a documentary film for PBS (view the trailer here), and is at work on a book about masculinity and the U.S. Mexico border.  Her post today originally appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Biography of a "Bandit": Elliott Young's 2004 Study of Garza

IN 1891, MY GREAT-GREAT-UNCLE, CATARINO GARZA, ATTEMPTED TO OVERTHROW the Mexican dictator, Porfirio Díaz, by launching an armed revolution from my family’s south Texas ranch. One year into his campaign, Garza agreed to an interview with The New York Times to explain the reasons behind his insurrection. “The impression prevails that I and my followers are simply an organized band of border ruffians,” Garza told the reporter. “As nothing can be further from the truth, I rely on you to do me justice.”

Journalists of that era who covered the new and largely unknown southern territory drew heavily on U.S. military reports, which viewed Mexico through the prism of expansionism. The United States, eager to protect trade with Mexico and secure its new frontier, came to Diaz’s defense and deployed the Army, the Texas Rangers, and other law enforcement outfits to join Mexican federates in hunting Garza down. And on the front page of the Times, in keeping with the label assigned to Garza by the U.S. and Mexican governments, Garza was branded a “bandit.”

In Garza’s day, American press coverage of Mexico paid scant attention to the fledgling nation’s internal political dynamics or the views of its population at large. More than a century later, this remains too often true, as the story of Mexico in the U.S. press is mostly a one-dimensional account of the horrible “drug war.” I am no apologist for drug cartels, and I don’t place the revolutionaries of old on equal footing with drug kingpins. Rather, I detect enduring assumptions that govern our coverage of Mexico — what’s perceived as good for the U.S. is portrayed as good for Mexico. To wit, if the U.S. interest is clamping down on the supply of drugs reaching American streets and nightclubs, then calling out the military is a wise policy decision for Mexico. Such a simplistic calculus ignores the fact that narco-trafficking is a firmly entrenched and complex organism that exists for a range of economic, social, and political reasons. Continue reading →

What is “AA History”?

Editor’s Note: Following up on last week’s post about the Alcoholics Anonymous National Archives Workshop, Points this week welcomes the comments of Guest Blogger Ernie Kurtz, the author of Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous (1979) and the pre-eminent historian of AA– a title that, as he notes below, he is eager to shed. 

The Apex of Antiquity: Coffee Pot from Bill W. & Dr. Bob's First Meeting (Brown University Libraries)

“What is AA history?”  It is (at least) two things:  (1) the story of the AA fellowship and its program from its founding in 1935 to the present, as researched, examined, and studied according to the canons of historical investigation;  and (2) the equally ongoing research into and investigation of AA antiquities – details apparently only marginally related to the continuing story but of interest to hobbyists and antiquarians.   To its credit, the “AA History Lovers” listserv (founded by Nancy Olson in 2000 and maintained by Glenn Chesnut of the Hindsfoot Foundation) generously serves both.

Both kinds of AA history are valuable to understanding the fellowship – perhaps moreso than is the case with many other phenomena that have similarly enthusiastic followers.  Continue reading →

Michelle Bachman, Gardasil, and the Politics of Experience

Editor’s note: Contributing Editor Joe Gabriel’s fantastic “ripped-from-the-headlines” post appeared earlier this week, only to be buried by even more timely content on “The Stoned Ages.”  We’ve put it at the top of the page again so it can enjoy the adulation it deserves.

Ask Your Governor about Gardasil

I’ve been following the recent controversy over Gardasil with quite a bit of interest. As you probably know by now, the Gardasil vaccine was developed by the pharmaceutical firm Merck & Company to prevent human papillomavirus (HPV), one of the most commonly spread sexually trasmitted diseases in the United States. In 2007, after it had been on the market for about a year, Rick Perry issued an executive order requiring that all sixth-grade girls in Texas receive the vaccine. (He can do that – he’s the governor of the state.) Everyone flipped out, for various reasons, and the Texas legislature passed a law revoking the order.

The whole episode was filled with drama and theatrics, but the hoopla seemed to have died down until Perry entered the presidential race. Michelle Bachman, bless her twisted heart, latched onto the issue and accused Perry of pushing the vaccine at the behest of Merck–which, as it turns out, doesn’t seem that implausible, given that his former chief of staff was once a lobbyist for the company. It looks like there may have been a lot of money involved in the decision after all, though of course it is difficult to know about such things from the outside. Continue reading →

Freaky Friday: *Go Ask Alice* Forty Years Later

Editor’s Note: Former Contributing Editor, now Esteemed Guest Blogger Brian Herrera reminds us all what to do when logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead.  His meditation is cross-posted from his Performations blog.

Anonymous was a Woman (Named Beatrice Sparks)

Forty years ago, Go Ask Alice was published.  In the intervening years, it has remained in print and on library shelves, garnering new readers while also sustaining the notoriety that has followed it since its initial publication. Indeed, in each of the past two decades, Go Ask Alice has ranked among the top twenty-five “most challenged” books as noted by the American Library Association. For better and for worse, then, Go Ask Alice continues to be read, continues to be challenged, and continues to shape the cultural narrative about adolescent experience of drugs, addiction and recovery.

Go Ask Alice is a teenaged girl’s diary that purports to detail the actual “Anonymous” author’s naive experimentation with drugs, as well as her subsequent addiction and the fleeting promise of recovery. As an ostensibly authentic teen diary, rendered “more or less exempt from the regular kind of literary criticism since it was supposedly the diary of a deceased young girl” (Nilsen, 109), the prose is dotted with idiosyncratic “teen” syntax (marked by a predisposition toward emphatic capitalizations). As she narrates her story, the narrator indulges what one commentator describes as “every available sort of self-destruction short of joining the Manson family” (Moss). Continue reading →