In a recent post, I described a trip to Dr. Bob’s Home in Akron, Ohio, with a group of graduate students in history from the University of Michigan. The students have spent much of this fall semester writing the nomination for Dr. Bob’s Home to be designated a National Historic Landmark, a process I described in my previous post. Here, I offer some further thoughts on how the visit has contributed to my thinking about how we conceptualize the relationship between past and present. In teaching and research, I have been grappling with what I call, for lack of a better term, “addiction history exceptionalism”—that is, how is addiction history like and unlike other kinds of history, and how can it enrich our understanding of historical investigation more broadly?
In thinking about these issues, I found Ernie Kurtz’s post earlier this fall on types of AA history, and the comments that followed it, very helpful. The existence of various
historical approaches, from academic to antiquarian and in between, surely is not unique to the addiction field or to the history of AA. (As a devoted fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder and the “Little House” books, I can attest to that.) But there does seem to be an intensity in the realm of AA history that is not evident in many other areas, due at least in part, I believe, to the existence of a large constituency for whom AA history has tremendous personal and collective significance in the present. To the extent that this particular intensity arises from personal association with the AA fellowship, it cannot be replicated precisely in other realms of historical inquiry. But to the extent that it comes from a more general awareness and acknowledgment of the emotional dimensions of historical investigation, I think other fields have a lot to learn from how AA history is practiced.
Although we often shy away from such things in academic writing, research, and teaching (at least in how we present our own relationship with our material), emotion and a sense of intimacy can be fundamental to historical inquiry. In comments on Ernie Kurtz’s post, Ron Roizen noted that there is something “irreducibly familial” in how AA history is often pursued, echoed by Joe Gabriel’s observation that the same can be said about medical history as practiced by physicians. I agree that the family metaphor can be illuminating.
As I mentioned last time, thinking about the actual Smith family in their domestic space while walking through the house ourselves also enriched our understanding of early AA. Hearing the origin story of AA repeated with remarkable consistency by everyone we met, I found myself thinking about the role of the individual in history. Years of training have predisposed me against any kind of “great man” theory of historical causation, and yet there was something about being in that intimate setting that made me think afresh about how particular people—especially Dr. Bob and Anne Smith, as well as Bill Wilson—made something happen through their own actions, literally making history. I am sure that being in that house brought those figures down to life size for me and, perhaps ironically, made me better able to appreciate their accomplishments.
The house itself embodied both past and present—simultaneously museum, shrine, and home for current spiritual practice. I found myself very moved, especially in the dining room where, we were told, alcoholics wrote out their stories on yellow legal pads, to have them typed by Sue Smith Windows, daughter of Dr. Bob and Anne Smith. This very table, this very typewriter—such is the power of the relic that we all stood there in silence. This was one of those moments where I felt myself both historian and antiquarian, torn between wanting to analyze the interpretation offered in the room and preferring to simply appreciate the emotional intensity attached to these objects in this place. Later, I could not help myself from wondering why the dining room in particular had affected me that way. I think it was because of a fusion of place, artifact, and text, the result of knowing that at least some of those stories found their way into the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. The text can be known independently of the site, yet familiarity with the text, in turn, imparts more meaning to the site.
In the house, I was captivated with this merging of past and present, finding it both intellectually fascinating and emotionally rewarding. As we moved to other sites in Akron, however, we realized that that blending can be unsettling, even disturbing. I am grateful to the students in my class for their insights in our follow-up discussions of this experience. One of our stops was the Mayflower Hotel, from where Bill Wilson made the call that led ultimately to his conversation with Dr. Bob.
Today, the Mayflower Hotel is used for transitional housing, and some of the residents we encountered as we made our way to the lobby seemed vulnerable and struggling. There, we literally had to cross the present to get to the past, and we could not control the extent to which the present inserted itself into what might otherwise be a romanticized version of the past.
Here is something else we can learn from AA history. Narrative is appealing, especially narrative with a happy ending: Bill met Dr. Bob, they both got sober, they created AA which has changed the lives of millions of people. That is all true. But seeing the current residents of the Mayflower Hotel reminded me that when Dr. Bob and Bill were going through this, it was undoubtedly messy, painful, even terrifying—and they did not know how it was going to turn out. Similarly, recovery narratives seem to mark a clear before and after, but the dividing line is not necessarily that sharp, particularly when one is living it. Perhaps no one said it better than William Faulkner: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”