A Personal Tribute: Ernie Kurtz, 1935-2015

Editor’s Note: This remembrance comes from William White, author of Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America (1998).

Ernest Kurtz, who made landmark contributions to the study of addiction recovery, died January 19, 2015, of pancreatic cancer. Following publication of Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1979, Kurtz focused his studies on the growing varieties of recovery experience, the healing of shame and guilt, and the role of spirituality in addiction recovery.  Ernie Kurtz Sphinx

Ernest Kurtz was born in Rochester, New York, on September 9, 1935–only two months after the meeting of two desperate alcoholics in Akron, Ohio, marked the birth of Alcoholics Anonymous. Kurtz attended St. Bernard’s Seminary and College and was then ordained as a Catholic Priest in 1961. Following five years of parish work, he began his graduate studies at Harvard University where he completed an M.A. in history and a Ph.D. in the history of American civilization. His Ph.D. dissertation on the history of A.A. marked a turning point in the scholarly study of A.A. and the larger arenas of addiction recovery and recovery mutual aid societies, both legitimizing such studies and setting a benchmark by which future studies would be evaluated.

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Capitalism Plus Dope Equals Genocide

Michael “Cetewayo” Tabor was born in Harlem in 1946. Like many young men of his time and place, Michael developed an Panther 21affection for heroin. A dope addict before the tender age of twenty, Tabor discovered the Black Panthers and turned away from a life of drug use and abuse. At the time of his wrongful arrest, Tabor had risen to Captain in the New York branch of the Panthers. Tabor and 21 others—soon to be known as the “Panther 21”—were arrested and charged with conspiracy to kill several police officers and bomb several government buildings, including four police stations and the Bronx Botanical Gardens.

In a courtroom circus that included a District Attorney reading from Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book and a screening of The Battle of Algiers, eight months came and went. At the end of the longest and most expensive trial in New York State history to date, the jury foreman spoke the words “not guilty” 156 times. Those that stayed, were acquitted. Tabor and his comrade Richard Moore had already fled to Algeria during the trial to join Eldridge Cleaver. In 1972, Tabor moved to Zambia with his wife where he spent the rest of his life as a radio host and writer on politics and culture. Through his dying days in 2010, Tabor refused to again set foot on United States soil.

capitlasm plus dope pamphlet.Before Tabor fled, however, he published a pamphlet entitled: “Capitalism Plus Dope Equals Genocide.” The scathing, often prophetic critique of rising drug use in urban ghettos is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the complicated relationship between nonwhite urbanites, drugs, and policing. In sum, Tabor likens the heroin problem to other examples of the black community’s political oppression. To fight this reality, Tabor called for community development, self-determination, and self-help. Most importantly, Tabor demanded local control over policing. With respect to local control, Tabor lamented a sad reality: “It is a tragedy that in New York the greatest gains made in the realm of Black community control have been made by Black racketeers, numbers-game bankers and dope dealers, by the Black illegal capitalists.”Read More »

In Memoriam: Ernie Kurtz, 1935-2015

All serious historians of alcohol and drugs will be saddened to hear of the passing, last week, of Ernest (“Ernie”) Kurtz, the first and foremost historian of Alcoholics Anonymous. Kurtz’s commanding Not-God: a History of Alcoholics Anonymous was published in 1979 by Hazelden.  Though Ernie often talked about how AA history in the decades since Not-God appeared had outstripped its claims, and in fact called from the pages of Points for a revised and updated history of AA, his book remains the definitive word on the fellowship’s founding and early growth.

Hazelden, 1979
Hazelden, 1979

Kurtz wrote Not-God as his dissertation; he earned a Phd in the American Civilization program at Harvard University (a fact that I don’t hold against him, even though I attended a different and really much better American Studies program down the road). The volume’s power arises from his ability to situate its founders and their fledgling organization within the context of American religious and cultural history.  Like two other compelling historians of AA,  Damien McElrath and Glenn Chesnutt, Kurtz was positioned well to inquire into the program’s spiritual foundations: after earning a BA in philosophy from St. Bernard’s Seminary in Rochester, New York, he entered the priesthood and served as a parish priest from 1961 to 1966.  I’ll leave it to better Catholics than myself to sort out whether it was Ernie’s seminary training or his departure from the church in the late 1970s that gave him such penetrating insight into the ways AA manifested what he came to call “the spirituality of imperfection.”Read More »

The Strange and Complicated History of Patenting the E-Cigarette

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is brought to you by Camille Higham, a patent attorney in Jacksonville, Florida, with extensive experience researching e-cigarettes. 

About a year ago, I wrote about e-cigarettes in a blog that is woefully neglected now. At that time, I thought e-cigarettes may fall between a novelty and a passing fad. Now I am still skeptical that e-cigarettes will ever supplant traditional cigarettes, primarily because of how deeply tobacco is entrenched in our history, for better or worse. E-cigarettes are undeniably increasing in popularity, and if they do edge out tobacco-based cigarettes, ironically, it is the Big Tobacco companies, with their deep pockets and market influence, who may be best equipped to make that happen.

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Parallel to the Grain? Finding Recreational Users in the Archives

For cultural historians looking into the history of drugs, one of the more frustrating obstacles to our work comes from trying to find “the people,” those who used the drugs we are studying. In studies of more recent times, scholars are able to locate individuals, interviewing them about their experiences. But for someone who studies the history of cannabis in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the archives are understandably lacking in user voices. In working through this problem, I’ve begun to problematize our conception of drug user. I’d like to share my thoughts and to perhaps get a discussion going in the comments section below.

A drug user, according to Wikipedia.
A drug user, according to Wikipedia.

Who uses drugs? A simple Google search of “drug users” yields a sponsored link for Unity Recovery Center, a rehab chain based in Florida. The next four results link to an assortment of informational websites on drug abuse and addiction. Finally, after the image results that, not surprisingly, feature “the faces of meth,” our search takes us to the Wikipedia article “Drug User” which defines the user as “a person who uses drugs either legally or illegally. A drug user may or may not also be a drug abuser, and may or may not have one or more drug addictions.”

Implicit in this definition is the assumption that drug users are only those folks that smoke, sniff, ingest, shoot, or otherwise consume a substance into their bodies. This is confirmed by the image that accompanies the article.Read More »

A Report from the 2015 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Society

Editor’s Note: Today contributing editor Bob Beach reports on several drug-related panels at this year’s annual meeting of the AHA, which took place in New York on January 2-5, 2015.

This year, the American Historical Society’s annual meeting was held in Times Square in New York City. Among the 1,500 presenters, a refreshing batch of young drug and alcohol historians (and some veterans) presented their research on addiction, addiction treatment, and the long drug war.

Calling all drug and alcohol historians
Calling all drug and alcohol historians

The historical significance of this time and place was not lost on your correspondent in his first foray into the world of the AHA annual meeting. Eric Schneider reminded us on the first day of the conference that the 100 year anniversary of the Harrison Act was coming into force. The law launched the national drug war in the United States and was, in many ways, on the minds of all of “our” presenters at the conference.Read More »

Breast or Bottle: La Leche League and Alcoholics Anonymous as Lay Health Movements

Editor’s Note: This post is from Contributing Editor Michelle McClellan.

I’ll begin with two anecdotes, the first of which is probably familiar to most Points readers. In 1935, a stockbroker named Bill Wilson found himself in Akron, Ohio for a business deal. When it fell through and Wilson felt the urge to drink again after a period of sobriety, he reached out through area ministers and was put in touch with a woman who arranged a conversation between him and Dr. Robert Smith, a local physician who also struggled with his drinking. Their conversation is now recognized as the genesis moment of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

bill wilson

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In Memoriam: Joseph R. Gusfield (1923-2015)

gusfield
Joseph R. Gusfield (6 Sept 1923 – 5 Jan 2015)

Joseph R. Gusfield, a historical sociologist and leader in transforming the study of alcohol use in the United States, passed away on January 5, 2015, at the age of 91.

His seminal works include Symbolic Crusade: Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement (1963) and The Culture of Public Problems: Drinking-Driving and the Symbolic Order (1981).

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It’s a “New Year, New You”

I spent the holiday break at various parents’ houses, moving back and forth between my husband’s parents’ home in New Jersey and where my father and stepmother live in Pennsylvania. During my sojourn in suburbia, I also had the chance to read a lot of magazines – isn’t it great when all of the cooking and cleaning is done by others? – which included several years’ worth of Runner’s Worlds that live in my parents-in-law’s basement.

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