As Points prepares to ring in the new year, what better way than by discussing the history of drunk driving? The nineteenth Points Interview is the last for 2011–here’s to a similarly engaging set of interviews for 2012–and features Barron Lerner, author of the recently published One For the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900 (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011). Barron Lerner is currently the Angelica Berrie-Gold Foundation associate professor of Medicine and Public Health at the Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons and the Mailman School of Public Health. We’re delighted to get his thoughts on his latest work.
Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.
My book is a history of drunk driving in the United States and the efforts to control it. It begins in the early twentieth century, when the introduction of automobiles led to the first crashes and deaths. Appropriately, people were appalled and the first laws were
passed. But with the “failure” of Prohibition after 1933, attention shifted from the perils of alcohol to the disease of alcoholism. In this climate, drunk driving laws were weak and poorly enforced. Astoundingly, the legal limit for a DWI conviction in this country was
0.15% for decades, roughly the equivalent of 6-9 drinks on an empty stomach. All of the benefit of the doubt went to the drunk drivers, not their victims. Finally, in the 1960s, the U.S. government got involved in drunk driving control, followed by the citizen-activists
of RID (Remove Intoxicated Drivers) and MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) in the 1980s. For the first time, drunk driving was truly stigmatized, rather than being seen as an acceptable rite of passage for young men. The last portions of the book examine both the
successes of the anti-drunk driving movement and the continued barriers to eliminating intoxicated driving in this country. These barriers include the lobbying efforts of the alcohol industry, a libertarian backlash and competition from other public health campaigns including, ironically, distracted driving.
Counted among my pantheon of personal heroes while growing up in California’s East Bay area were Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong. I was a strange kid. I still sometimes mimic Cheech’s purposefully exaggerated Chicano accent, American English with a Spanish rhythm and Aztec intonation, also known as Calo or Mexican American “Spanglish.” It’s a sound distinct to the borderlands experience; the echo of Aztlan: the Chicana/o mythical homeland; a sanctuary; a pipe dream. When I speak like Cheech to my close friend and academic colleague, who I affectionately call Chong, we deploy a linguistic code decipherable sometimes only by us, and perhaps a few other confidantes. Referring to four twenty, I often say “los santos,” or just santos, which translates loosely as “the saints.” We conspire in our devotion to them. Like the Rastafarians, the practice becomes a sacred ritual. For us, praying to the saints, our muertos, is an attempt to connect to the divine; a gestural offering in hopes of elevating our spirits to Elysium; the mythical land of the triumphantly dead, or physically displaced, the heavenly space where the souls of heroes dwell. Aztlan by another name. This, I believe, is how my Chicano hero, Cheech Marin, understands his devotion to los santos.
It’s appropriate that Cheech, a Mexican American, would open the artistic space for the popularization and promotion of marijuana into the soul of American popular culture. Read More »
Editor’s Note: Okay: you’ve read Joe Spillane’s thoughts on Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, but maybe even his Points-inspired re-viewing of the film can’t get you excited about ol’ George Bailey and all that guardian angel stuff. For all those who simply can’t stand any more cinematic Christmas cheer (Acker, Ambler, McClellan, Roizen, Spillane)– or who need their holidays leavened with some drugs and alcohol (Herrera, Long, Travis)– the Points staff offers the following suggestions.
Caroline Acker: In The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946), the errant ways of Carmen Sternwood (the younger sister of the Lauren Bacall character) drive the plot. In one scene, she is apparently high on opium, which she’s been given in exchange for posing for pornographic pictures– which are retailed around town by a known “fairy,” Arthur Geiger. To cement the image of Geiger as decadent and depraved, the photo shoot takes place in his house, which is decorated with Chinese objects; the dopey Carmen is dressed in Chinese-style garb. The creepy Orientalist narcotics netherworld is juxtaposed throughout the film to the wholesome and alcohol-drenched realm where Bogey and Bacall do their thing.
Chuck Ambler: I’m not an expert on African cinema, but the recent arrest and eventual exoneration (after a “poop watch”) of Nigerian film actor and comedian, Baba Suwe got me thinking about whether drug use and drug trafficking are common plot lines in the hundreds of video films produced each year by Nigeria’s film industry—Nollywood. I haven’t come up with any yet, but one could turn to Chris Obi Rapu’s classic 1992 hit, Living in Bondage (the film that pretty much created Nollywood) as a metaphor for addiction. Like many Nollywood films, this one features lots of drinking in up-scale homes and commercial bars and cocktail lounges, but the plot turns in this movie (as in many Nigerian films) on a young man ensnared by witchcraft– and ultimately saved by Christian faith. Many Nollywood films are available on line.
Brian Herrera: Less Than Zero (Marek Kanievska, 1987). A college freshman comes home to Los Angeles for Christmas break and discovers that he can’t fix the coke-broken lives of his friends. Go (Doug Liman, 1999). A drug deal gone wrong makes for a mad mad mad Christmas Eve in this comedy-thriller. Rent (Chris Columbus, 2005). Christmas Eve marks both the start and finish for the five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes of the year in which everything changes for a group of NYC friends (including star-crossed and drug-addicted lovers Mimi and Roger).
Amy Long: It should be noted that Brian Herrera beat me to the punch and named not one but two (!!) of the movies I’d thought of listing here– Go and Less than Zero— so in his honor I want to recommend How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Chuck Jones, 1966). No hard feelings, though; I just had to pull a little harder to come up with the titles that follow. Read More »
Sixty-five years ago, today, Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life premiered at New York City’s Globe Theater. The film’s release had been pushed back from January, in order to try and grab a portion of the holiday box office and secure eligibility for that year’s Academy Awards. Although the film’s later popularity doesn’t match its initial reception, it was hardly a critical or financial bust–on the contrary, Capra’s first postwar film generated modestly positive reviews and similaraudience response. On the occasion of this Christmas classic’s anniversary, we thought it only fair to consider it from an alcohol and drugs history perspective.
When viewed through a Points lens, alcohol and drinking appear everywhere in It’s A Wonderful Life:Read More »
Not that anyone’s counting, but we’ve just now passed 200 posts for the Points blog.
As I noted back in July on the occasion of our 100th post, we’re no match for the production levels of older and more established academic blogs–but we’ll take the excuse to settle back for a bit of self-reflection. Let’s think a bit about these first 200 posts, and perhaps offer up some New Year’s resolutions to go with them.
If we wander about the tag cloud for a bit, as we did on the occasion of the 100th post, we see that the most popular tags look like this:
Addiction (50 posts)
Alcohol (50 posts)
Policy (47 posts)
History (45 posts)
Drugs (38 posts)
Popular Culture (35 posts)
Transnational (31 posts)
Research (29 posts)
Drug War (26 posts)
Law (25 posts)
I guess the list isn’t all that surprising–why wouldn’t the blog of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society feature “Alcohol” “Drugs” and “History” in the top five? Moreover, the “Addiction” and “Policy” tags at the top of the list reflect another basic fact of this blog–that public policy (see also “law” at #10) and the addiction concept (see also “research” at #8) dominate the posts. And now, two resolutions: Read More »
I’m a big fan of contradictions. Where they occur – in social movements, in ideology, in programs of action – they tend to highlight the underlying compositional character of human enterprises. Thus contradictions also provide occasions where the contributing strands of such enterprises may be more easily separated out for examination. (Comedians, of course, love contradictions too – because they highlight our foolishness as a species.) Below, I examine an intriguing contradiction lodged in one of the deep assumptions of the modern alcoholism movement.
The alcoholism movement sought to popularize the notion that alcoholism was a disease or illness phenomenon. In that sense – and understood at face value — the movement also sought to medicalize alcoholism. Yet, Alcoholics Anonymous, whose emergence was arguably the deep underlying force in the development of the alcoholism movement, offered an essentially lay and spiritually oriented approach to alcoholism. Moreover, whereas a fully medicalized view of alcoholism might promote the appropriateness of alcoholism treatment as offered, say, by psychiatrists, other M.D.s, psychologists of various stripes, and hospitals and clinics, A.A. arguably emerged in response to the past failures of these medical efforts respecting alcoholism’s treatment; A.A. offered an alternative to alcoholism’s past medical handling. Hence, (a) if A.A. was the institution that, deep down, drove the modern alcoholism movement and (b) if the movement’s ideological centerpiece, the disease concept of alcoholism, sought to medicalize alcoholism, then, and therefore, (c) A.A. was fostering (albeit indirectly) an idea that ran counter to its own program and philosophy. Go figure!Read More »
Editor’s Note: You liked the suggestions for novels and memoirs, sure, but let’s admit it: everyone has a dad who only wants to read non-fiction. Here’s your chance to avoid buying him yet another hack trade book about Abraham Lincoln or the financial crisis. Get something you might actually enjoy talking about. The Points staff recommends the following (and hopes you’ll add your own recommendations in the “Comments”):
Chuck Ambler:For those with large budgets and someone on your Christmas list who is strongly motivated to learn, I suggest Dmitri van den Bersselaar’s The King of Drinks: Schnapps Gin from Modernity to Tradition(Leiden, Brill, 2007). As I learned at a gin tasting last summer in Berlin, Dmitri was born in the shadow of one of the Netherland’s most important distilleries, so he was destined from birth to tell this great tale of gin—from its emergence as a commodity in Germany and Holland, to its transformation into the most important commodity in the West African trade, to its eventual maturity as “the king of drinks.”
Joe Gabriel: Marcus Boon, The Road to Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs(Harvard, 2005). A fascinating look at how literature has been influenced by the use of various types of drugs. Meticulously researched, a pleasure to read, and filled with unexpected and fascinating insights.
Amy Long: Righteous Dopefiend (University of California Press, 2009): Anthropologist Philippe Bourgois and doctoral student Jeffrey Schonberg spent more than ten years hanging out with addicts on the streets of San Francisco researching this thoroughly informed and eminently readable ethnography of the city’s injection drug users. Schonberg also took the arresting black and white photographs that appear throughout. Oversized and beautifully designed, Righteous Dopefiend doubles as a coffee table book if your friend or relative is brave (and righteous) enough to set an anthropological study of heroin and crack addicts out in the living room for guests to examine.
Michelle McClellan: Joshua Zeitz, Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern (Three Rivers Press, 2006). This account of women’s changing roles in the 1920s is filled with engaging anecdotes and great illustrations, thoroughly immersing readers in the cultural landscape of the era. Zeitz covers a lot of ground, including popular culture, celebrity, fashion, and as one would expect, drinking customs. Several women figure prominently, including Zelda Fitzgerald and New Yorker columnist Lois Long, helping to weave together thematic elements across the book and personalize the issues Zeitz addresses. I’m not quite convinced that anyone has fully untangled the cause-and-effect of women’s drinking in the 1920s and “modernity,” but maybe it can’t be done since historical change is, after all, messy. In any case, I found this a very enjoyable and lively read, and it gave me a lot to think about regarding gender and drinking behaviors in this critical period. It is also a good demonstration of how drink and drug history can illuminate American history more broadly.
Joe Spillane: Tom Gjelten, Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: Biography of a Cause (Viking, 2008). For friends or family who aren’t needing or wanting to spend time in the alcoholism/addiction universe, Gjelten’s book might be just the thing. Gjelten deftly narrates the intertwined histories of the Bacardi Rum Company, the Bacardi family, and modern Cuba. Readers interested to see how one family can seize and maintain their place in the rum business should consider the book for its fascinating insights into the political and promotional history of Bacardi. Or, if you’d like an interesting non-academic take on Cuban history, this works as well.
Trysh Travis: If you know someone who’s a fan of The Wire and/or enjoyed Philippe Bourgois’s In Search of Respect, but is always complaining, “where are the women?” then Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s, Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx (Scribner, 2003) is the perfect gift. LeBlanc followed her subjects– two Latina women and their “random family” members– for ten years, and she charts their movements from the stoop to the street, through the criminal justice system and public housing and beyond in excruciating but always readable detail. Drugs are a key part of this story; crime and addiction somewhat less so. Don’t get me wrong: there’s plenty of using and dealing, not to mention jail time. But like the best ethnographers, LeBlanc reveals the degree to which those categories, with all their moral baggage, are constructed in and meaningful to specific communities. In the world of Random Family, drug use and sales are part of getting along day-to-day. Try just saying “no” to that.
Editor’s Note: Today marks the first in a new series, “Points Forward,” where your intrepid editors interview recent PhDs in the field of alcohol and drugs history and policy. Our goal in this is to showcase some of the newest and boldest work in the field, obviously, but we also want to take advantage of the blog’s capacity as a social networking site. As anyone who’s been following Points for the last eleven months knows by now, our purview ranges across the disciplinary and methodological, generic and generational boundaries that, too often these days, give shape to (read: prop up) the contemporary university. By bringing together researchers from different areas–and different points in their careers– to read and comment on one another’s work, we hope the blog will create a social as well as an intellectual space. We’re grateful to Kerwin Kaye, recent graduate of New York University’s Department of Social and Cultural Analysis, Program in American Studies (Advisor: Lisa Duggan), for being willing to be the first recent PhD to “point forward” for the rest of us.
1) Nothing’s more popular right now than taking potshots at over-specialized, overstuffed, jargon-y academics. Prove the haters wrong by describing your dissertation in terms that the average man in the street could understand.
I was interested in the way in which the idea of addiction gets operationalized by various people and programs, and wanted to see if there was a discrepancy in the ways that various people in the criminal justice and treatment communities, as well as drug users themselves, defined and understood their drug consumption. So I hung out at a drug courtin New York City and at one of the treatment centers where the court refers participants.
At the court, I sat in on staff meetings and court sessions, interviewed judges, administrators, prosecuting and defense attorneys, case managers who worked for the court, and participants in the program. I also visited other courts to get a sense of comparison. At the treatment center, I similarly sat in on all aspects of the treatment process, further interviewing staff and administrators, as well as nearly 70 clients (and again, I visited other treatment programs to gain a sense of comparison). My central questions were: How was the “drug” problem defined? How did the court and the treatment program know that people were getting better? And what did treatment look like as a result?Read More »
Editor’s Note: Last week historian Matthew Crawford argued against the overdetermined notions of “discovery” and “invention,” and called instead for a palimpsestic understanding of the plant-derived drugs that appeared courtesy of transatlantic encounters. Today, he takes his thinking further, looking for the earliest–and persistent– traces of the presence of cinchona bark in the pharmacopoeias of the Amazon.
Before 1820, when the alkaloid was isolated, quinine effectively did not exist. Instead, people had a drug known in Spanish as quina or “the Peruvian bark” in English. Quina was a term for the pulverized bark of the cinchona tree, native to the Andean forests of South America, that would be dissolved in water or wine and administered to patients suffering from intermittent fevers. It was from this bark that Pelletier and Caventou isolated quinine and other alkaloids. Quina was a product of the early modern Atlantic World. Europeans, probably Jesuit missionaries, first encountered the bark in the 1630s and 1640s and it became quite popular by the end of the seventeenth century.
One point of contention in the early history of qiuna is whether the indigenous people of the Americas knew about and used the bark before the arrival of Europeans. In our current context of the destruction of indigenous cultures, debates over intellectual property rights with regard to pharmaceuticals derived from ethnobotanical knowledge, and the long shadow cast by colonialism, the question of indigenous use of quina is highly politicized. Read More »
Editor’s Note: As we head into the holidays, the Points staff finds the spirit of the season is indeed upon us. In other words, we’re all scrambling to wind up our semesters, get our classes ready for January, replace the bulbs in the twinkle lights, make a gingerbread replica of the Unabomber’s cabin, and–oh yeah– finish Christmas shopping. Figuring that our loyal readers are in the same boat, we’ve compiled a few suggestions with recommendations for the drug and alcohol historians (or fans) on your lists. Feel free to add your own greatest hits in the “comments” section.
Caroline Acker: I’ve taught Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man (Knopf, 1934) many times in my drug history courses. I think every single scene except one actively depicts an aspect of drinking or its effects; it is easy to discern a portrait of a late-stage (but functional!) alcoholic in Nick Charles. As for drugs, Cain’s Book by Alexander Trocchi (Grove Press, 1960; rprt. 1993) and Saul’s Book by Paul T. Rogers (Pushcart Press, 1983) offer gritty, compelling portraits of street addiction in New York. The better known Trainspotting (Irvine Welsh; Secker & Warburg, 1993) is wonderful experimental fiction. Clarence L. Cooper, Jr.’s 1967 novel The Farm, (Crown, 1967; rprt. Old School Books/W.W. Norton, 1998) set in the Lexington Narcotic Hospital, contains some of the angriest but controlled prose I’ve ever read. Also highly experimental, it anticipates rap. Search it out and buy it for someone very dear to you—but read it before you give it!
Chuck Ambler: Chris Abani’s brilliant novel, Graceland(Picador, 2005) jumps back and forth between rural eastern Nigeria in the 1970s and Lagos in the early 1980s. It follows a young man, Elvis, sunk in poverty when his dissolute father drags him to the slums and chaos of Africa’s mega-city. There he pursues a meager career as an Elvis impersonator and finds himself a bit player in the emergence of Lagos as a processing and transshipment center in the global heroin trade.
Brian Herrera: Benjamin Alire-Saenz’s Last Night I Sang to the Monster (Cinco Puntos Press, 2009). This young adult novel set in a rehab and detailing the unlikely friendship between a young addict and elder mentor is both poetic and powerful.
David Herzberg: Not all drug books are books about drugs. Some make little effort to convey genuine drug experiences or to make a point about drugs themselves, but still draw on drugs’ cultural power for other narrative or political purposes. We know about the most famous manifestation of this: anti-drug literature and films that sensationalize the horrors of addiction to demonize particular social groups. But drug warriors are hardly the only writers to “use” drugs for cultural creativity. Here are a few novels, somewhat randomly selected, in which drugs figure prominently–even crucially–in the narrative, but not necessarily realistically, in expected ways, or for predictable purposes.
China Miéville, Perdido Street Station (Macmillan, 2002). The “manufacturer” of a drug turns out to be much, much more dangerous than the drug itself in this steampunk/fantasy novel.
Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections (Picador, 2002). What if Aslan (yes, the magical lion from the C.S. Lewis series) was available from a major drug company in pill form? What would it be a symbol for? Only one way to find out!
Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays (Farrar, Strauss, 1970) and Jacqueline Susann, Valley of the Dolls (Bernard Geis, 1966). Before Prozac, before Valium, there were barbiturates! And the women who took them. Check out an earlier decade’s take on America’s pill-popping culture: Didion’s is beautifully written and depressing, Susann’s a guilty soap-opera pleasure.
Frank Herbert, Dune (Chilton, 1965). A very different take on the 1960s dream of drugs changing the world by transforming consciousness. If you read it as sci fi back in the day, read it again as a book about drugs.
Philip K. Dick,A Scanner Darkly (Ballantine, 1977). About as uncomfortably realistic as whacked-out speculative science fiction gets. You’ll never guess who the real bad guys are in what may be the strangest anti-drug novel ever written.
Amy Long: Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son paints the era’s preeminent portrait of the heroin addict as a young man in this empathetic but totally unflinching collection of interrelated short stories that trace their protagonist’s path toward an uneasy recovery. Prone to self-deprecating humor and poetic musings, the unnamed narrator of Jesus’ Son never fails to make me laugh out loud and fall in love, but Johnson’s pull-no-punches storytelling and dead-on depictions of depravity, desire, and desperation refuse sentimentality to ensure that the story is as believable as it is engaging. Give this to your hapless brother-in-law, your sister who can’t resist a charming cad, and any English majors in your family (seriously – the sentences are beautiful).
Michelle McClellan: Jack London, John Barleycorn. The prose is a delight no matter how many times I read it. It cannot be easily categorized– autobiography? memoir? fiction? It works so well in part because present-day readers may feel compelled to resolve the question of “is he or isn’t he an alcoholic?”– and can then ask themselves why it matters so much to diagnose him one way or the other. Now almost a century old, it reads as both a document of its time and a contemporary depiction of a drinking life.
Trysh Travis: Ann Marlowe,How to Stop Time: Heroin from A-Z (Basic, 1999). Ann Marlowe’s memoir is the addiction story that never gets told: a Harvard grad with an MBA from Columbia, from the late 1980s through the mid-’90s, she was a successful financial analyst and a recreational heroin user. When she began to feel that her drug use was negatively affecting her life, she stopped using it without any drama whatsoever. The book does an excellent job of narrating the pleasures of the drug and of the music scene with which it was intertwined in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the late 1980s, and, more subtly, of interrogating what is now the culture’s standard narrative of drug use and abuse. Full disclosure: for part of this time I lived in the same neighborhoods Marlowe did, went to the same clubs, and watched the same behaviors take over the lives of friends and acquaintances. If I’d gotten an MBA instead of a PhD, would I be a trade author now?
Coming this Thursday: Points recommends non-fiction gift books…