“How should he handle his alcoholic wife,” asks the lurid cover of the 1960 novel Alcoholic Wife by G.G. Revelle. “Beat her? Cater to her inflamed desires? Overlook her drunken intimacies with other men? Desert her for his seductive mistress?” With a retail price of 35 cents, the volume helpfully included a list of other Beacon Book titles that readers might enjoy, such as Footloose Fraulein and Trailer Tramp. Yet Alcoholic Wife was not just entertainment, but an examination of a growing social crisis, as the back cover promised: “This novel courageously tackles the problem of the drinking wife—today more common than ever before!”
Lately I have been investigating what I call a genealogy of disclosure, asking how the tightly controlled personal narrative of Marty Mann, which she offered in service of a public health mission as she launched the organization that is now the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, morphed into our own cultural moment, wherein “Intervention” is a reality television show and the successive admissions of young celebrities to rehabilitation for addiction is considered newsworthy. Of course, a generation ago, First Lady Betty Ford served an important role bringing public awareness to women’s addictions, including alcoholism. Yet even though she stands as perhaps the most famous female alcoholic of the twentieth century, Ford was not the first or even the only one to step forward. Professional women, including physicians, who were alcoholic had worked to shape policy and treatment, while alcoholic actresses testified before Congress beginning in 1969 to support the bill that established the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. This activism has been dubbed the “women’s alcoholism movement” and it led to the official identification of women as a “special population” of alcoholics in the context of new federal funding for research and treatment. 
An especially fascinating figure who played an important role during this period was Susan B. Anthony II.
With interests in heritage tourism and addiction history, I am always looking for intersections between the two. I found one unexpectedly last summer in Alaska, visiting several brothel museums that celebrated the madams’ business acumen and bootlegging success. I learned recently that Kentucky has a Bourbon Trail with the tagline “Where the Spirit Leads You,” while the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States has its own American Whiskey Trail, starring George Washington’s own distillery at Mount Vernon. Needless to say, these sites demonstrate the power of history to make political and economic arguments in the present. A fuller discussion of them will have to await my next road trip.
Meanwhile, not all museums or cultural attractions want to highlight the role of alcohol, especially when they are cultivating a wholesome image befitting their connection with classics of children’s literature. As an example, heritage tourism is booming at the sites associated with the “Little House” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, where visitors confront a complex mix of history, original and replica buildings, and landscapes, all viewed through the lens of well-loved texts.
Last fall I described the process through which a team of graduate students from the University of Michigan researched and wrote the nomination for Dr. Bob’s Home, the residence of Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Dr. Bob Smith and his wife Anne, to be a National Historic Landmark (NHL). This week we completed the next step in the process, the formal presentation of the nomination to the Landmarks Committee of the National Park Service. Like our trip from Ann Arbor to Akron to see Dr. Bob’s Home for ourselves, which I recounted in previous posts, this step required a literal journey, as we drove from Michigan to Washington, D.C. for the presentation. It has been a journey in other ways as well, as we have learned even more about collaboration, about fellowship, and about the many ways that history matters.
After months of research and writing a lengthy and detailed document, the students were charged with compressing their argument about the significance of Dr. Bob’s Home into a ten-minute presentation, following the protocol of the Landmarks Committee meeting. Dr. Bob’s Home was one of approximately a dozen properties presented there over two days. The meeting itself was a fascinating mix of procedural formality and impassioned statements about the power of historic places. We were joined in Washington by a representative of the Founders’ Foundation, the non-profit organization that has restored and now maintains Dr. Bob’s Home as a museum—the same person who had served as our host when we visited Akron and who has partnered with us through this process. Sharing this experience with him and his family deepened our appreciation of the importance of fellowship and the power of history. Continue reading →
They Call Them Camisoles is a tantalizing document– Wilma Wilson’s first-person account of her 1939 commitment for alcoholism to the Camarillo State Hospital in California. Published in 1940, the book had recently been out of print. I learned of it myself a few years ago, and discovered only yesterday that it has been republished in a volume compiled by Kirsten Anderberg, which includes material on Wilson’s death and many photographs of Camarillo State Hospital as it looks today. The title refers to restraints that some patients had to wear, and much of the narrative recounts Wilson’s observations of the mentally ill patients around her. Not surprisingly, the book has been understood—both at the time of its publication and now—primarily as an expose of the conditions and practices inside mental institutions. There is no question that it is an important source of evidence in that regard. But I am also interested in exploring what it can tell us about gender and alcoholism during the 1930s and 1940s.
Given the stigma and secrecy that often surrounds women’s drinking, I am fascinated by instances when women choose to divulge their excessive drinking. I’m tracing what I call a genealogy of disclosure, from Marty Mann, who revealed her alcoholism during the 1940s when she founded what is now the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence; through Betty Ford in the 1970s; to today’s climate of reality television and celebrity tell-all memoirs. In some of these cases, the women were already famous for other reasons, making the acknowledgment of a drinking problem all the more shocking. In others, the disclosure itself creates a kind of renown. Continue reading →
As part of a semester-long series of events related to addiction here at the University of Michigan, a group of students researched and designed an exhibit called “Bad Habits: Drinks, Drags, and Drugs in Washtenaw County History” for a local museum.
Co-sponsored by the College of Literature, Science and the Arts and by the University of Michigan Substance Abuse Research Center (UMSARC), the Research Theme Semester, as it is known, has included seminars, visiting speakers, a film series, and more. Those of us involved in the museum exhibit hoped that it would bring the semester’s events into the community and also encourage student involvement with the county historical society, which runs the museum. Like many local historical societies, this one includes a number of older people on the executive board, and I assumed, mistakenly as it turned out, that they might not endorse this idea for an exhibit. In fact, they have been enthusiastic supporters, providing many research leads for the students to explore and, in some cases at least, sharing their own memories of drinking escapades. Since much of the semester has focused on addiction, with a very serious tone as a result, I found their good humor a welcome change of pace. Continue reading →
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.”