Escape from Custody: A Classic Book and a New Collection

Alcohol and drugs historians have long lamented the archival limitations of studying past substance users. Substance users typically enter the historical record through retrospective oral histories, the archives of hospitals or prisons, or popular books and media. All these sources have shortcomings: oral histories are riddled with the errors of human memory, institutional archives are usually limited to clinical and criminal records, and popular culture is distorted by sensationalism or artistry. As Bob Beach, Miriam Kingsberg, and Joe Gabriel have argued on Points’ pages, finding the “user’s perspective” is historically difficult.

I’d like to introduce researchers to another point of access to the past: Robert Straus’s Escape from Custody: A Study of Alcoholism as Reflected in the Life Record of a Homeless Man (Harper & Row, 1974), a classic text that offers a uniquely detailed portrait of one man’s chronic alcohol use in mid-twentieth century America.

Straus (b. 1923) is a pioneer in both medical sociology and alcoholism research. He earned his PhD in sociology at Yale, where he was affiliated with the storied Center for Alcohol Studies. In 1956, he came to Lexington to help establish the University of Kentucky’s medical center. In 1959, Straus founded the nation’s first standalone department of Behavioral Science (where—full disclosure—I now teach).

Robert Straus (left) with Howard Bost at the University of Kentucky in 1959 (Kentucky Digital Libaray)
Robert Straus (left) with Howard Bost at the University of Kentucky in 1959 (Kentucky Digital Libaray)

Straus started graduate school with an interest in the history and sociology of health care; in 1945, a research position with sociologist Selden Bacon introduced him to the dynamic inter-discipline of mid-century alcohol studies. Because the alcohol-dependent individuals enrolled in the Yale Center’s research projects tended to be middle-class and in treatment, Bacon asked Straus to investigate alcohol use among homeless men. Straus interviewed 203 men at the Salvation Army over the course of a year; one research subject, Frank Moore, became a friend. They began a correspondence that lasted approximately 32 years, from the time of their first meeting in 1945 until Moore’s death in 1972. In 1974, Straus published Escape from Custody, a life story that includes Moore’s oral history and his letters to Straus.

"Book Provides 'Inside' View of Alcoholism" Daily News, Bowling Green Kentucky, October 4, 1974 (via Google News)
“Book Provides ‘Inside’ View of Alcoholism” Daily News, Bowling Green Kentucky, October 4, 1974 (via Google News)

Straus interpreted Moore’s story as a cycle of “institutional dependency,” in which Moore’s alcohol use led to repeated institutionalization—in jails, public hospitals, and rehabilitation centers—and the difficulty of repeatedly re-entering society invariably drove him to drink. Moore’s letters offer a patient’s (or inmate’s) perspective on the institutions that captivated chronic alcoholics and addicts before the treatment revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The picture is a dismal one, but Moore’s prose is not to be missed:

“What have I to show for the great sum which has been expended upon me? I have a doctorate of apocryphal value—Doctor of Jailology. My thesis has been the qualitative & quantitative theory of alcohol absorption. I have drank in vain combat against the inevitable hour of reckoning, reached & passed the saturation point & finally arrived at that dismal outpost of intoxication (the town lockup). I have lain on those wooden planks & seen the green twilights where buffoons dance, where the dead are not dead, & one can walk on water. And then there is the next day before court & justice which puts vague & tricky wonder in one’s head. While the wheels of equity declaim sonorous refrains of the town ordinances & criminal statutes, I have listened to the sound of construction being carried on in my head, & knew something big was being built. And then at last I matriculate to various jails & learn all there is to know about them. To what purpose? Oh, that this too solid flesh would melt!”

As Moore’s health failed, wrote Straus, he made “numerous efforts to salvage some sense of worth from his essentially wasted life.” He recognized that the hundreds of letters he wrote to Straus might have academic value. He arranged to donate his body to science. He believed that the scientific cure for alcoholism would be found in the twenty-first century.

A single life story may not be statistically significant, but “one of the great values of the human life record,” Straus concluded, “is that, like the human cadaver, it can be subjected to a detailed examination of its structure, symptoms, and pathology. However, whereas the cadaver can be dissected only once and is then usually discarded, the life record can be examined again and again by countless different people and from many different perspectives.”

Straus has donated his personal archive of Moore’s letters to the University of Kentucky, and the Department of Behavioral Science is in the process of digitizing and cataloging them. If you’re an alcohol and drugs historian interested in working with this new collection, contact me.