Fiction Points: Eva Hagberg

betterdarkevaEva Hagberg, author of How to be Loved: A Memoir of Life-Saving Friendship (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2019), holds degrees in architecture from UC Berkeley and Princeton and a PhD in Visual and Narrative Culture from Berkeley, from which she received fellowships and awards for her research and teaching. She has written and published two books on architecture, Dark Nostalgia: Faultlessly Stylish Interiors (Thames & Hudson 2009) and Nature Framed: At Home in the Landscape (The Monacelli Press 2011). Her literary work, architectural criticism, and other writings have appeared in Dwell, Guernica, the New York Times, Tin House, and Wired among other venues.

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?

Buildings and feelings.

Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?

Ideally its use as a future primary source document! Drugs and alcohol appear in the book both as plot points and also as mechanisms for understanding the particular cultural crisis we’re in (have always been in?). While my experience is of course only my own, I can see how a historian might look at how our intense capitalist culture has led to total alienation has led to a desire to connect has led to, for me, the drive to connect through using drugs. There’s a scene in the book in which I describe how cocaine gave me a sense of intimacy (false, of course!) that was all I craved. So a historian might wonder – why did I crave that intimacy? What about growing up in the eighties and nineties in the U.S., in the cultural milieu I grew up in, and living in NYC in the early 00’s, led to my feeling that cocaine and alcohol were the best ways to relate to people? Then again, I was at a party last night and saw the youth doing drugs, and it seemed almost like nothing had changed. Have things changed in the last twenty years? That’s for the historians.

What led you to write about drugs and alcohol in the first place?

I wanted the protagonist of my narrative to have some sort of cathartic arc – if the conceit of the book is that friendship saved my life, and friendship profoundly saved me (and that IS the conceit of the book), then the question is, well, okay, why did my life need to be saved? Why did friendship impact me so deeply? And one of the reasons was that I’d been so desperate to connect but so afraid to connect that I’d turned to powdered friends and liquid friends. I needed to write about the way in which I relied on drugs and alcohol, and then stopped relying on drugs and alcohol and replaced the reliance with friendship – and so it was important to try, to the best of my ability, to describe that replacement.

howtobelovedHow would you describe the way that drugs function in your work, whether in terms of thematic concerns or the choices you make about how to craft a narrative? Do you think there are things that you wouldn’t be able to explore as successfully if drugs weren’t in your writing arsenal?

In the book, cocaine functions as a kind of alternative to the deep and profound friendship I experienced with Allison and Lauren, and a block to my earlier relationship with Leila. It’s the wedge between me and the rest of the world, but of course at the time I thought it was my solution. In terms of crafting a narrative, I wanted to avoid cliches – there are so many amazing alcohol / drug memoirs, and I wanted to bring a precision and a specificity to the way in which I described how drugs and alcohol impacted me – at various points in time / the plot. If I’d had to somehow elide any mention of drugs, I imagine that the narrative wouldn’t have worked as well – the reader would have wondered why I was so alienated from others, and what the locus of that alienation was.

What do you personally find most interesting about how drugs work in your writing, and where do you see that interest leading you in future projects?

People often ask me why I’m a memoirist, and the short answer is that I am just compelled to use my own life experiences as a primary medium. Everything that I intellectually metabolize seems to get metabolized through using my own observations, experiences, stories, etc. So drugs work in my writing in a similar way to how everything else I’ve experienced works – they’re an available archive or series of pieces of evidence that I can use to build an argument. The argument of How to be Loved was that we have an inherently capitalist approach to illness – that with enough work, time, etc, we will get better – and that this capitalist approach towards recovery-as-progress actually leaves out a lot of the real growth / powerful experiences that I and many other extremely sick people experienced in the middle of being sick. So my experiences with drugs were just part of the available archive.

I will always write about myself and I will always have had experiences with drugs, so I imagine I will eventually write about my experiences with drugs again!

BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope that How to be Loved gets made into a major motion picture. If you have your choice, which is it, and what song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?

I would love to see this as a major motion picture! I’ve been listening to Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” a lot lately – and relating to how afraid I was to change anything in my life that wasn’t working for me. So many people told me to Wise Up, of course – but it took what it took. So it might be sort of ironically perfect.

Fiction Points: Tracy Auerbach

tracyTracy Auerbach‘s YA debut, The Sin Soldiers (Parliament House 2019), is the first novel in her Fragments series. She is the author of one novel for adults, The Human Cure (48Fourteen 2011), and her short stories have been published in venues such as Micro-horror, the Writing Disorder and (Dis)ability anthologies. Auerbach previously wrote and taught STEM curricula for the New York Department of Education, and her academic work has appeared in Language Magazine.


Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?

I would tell the nuns that I write about human nature. I use fantasy as a vehicle for describing and exploring the inner workings of our psyches. I would warn them that my new book deals with the seven deadly sins, so maybe they should say a little prayer or something before they open it up. I would tell the penguin that humans are ridiculous creatures and that if he wants to be both amused and horrified he should have someone read The Sin Soldiers to him, or at least have someone with opposable thumbs turn the pages.

Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?

The Sin Soldiers is a post-apocalyptic story about a society that has figured out how to control soldiers by capitalizing on their addictions. These are scientists who have studied the role that drugs, alcohol, and other various addictive elements (food, rage, etc.) have played in our society, and they have weaponized it. Colored compounds have different effects on the soldiers in this world, but “blue compound” is the one that makes them literally unable to say no to their basest urges. The soldiers are also genetically engineered to be predisposed to addiction.

sinsoldiersWhat led you to write about drugs and alcohol in the first place?

In my experience, there are two kinds of people in the world: moderates and ‘more, more, more’ people. I fall into the second category. I will finish the entire box of cookies or binge the entire Netflix series. Every. Time. Drugs and alcohol, and other addictive things, aren’t usually good choices for me. And they aren’t good for others who fall into my category. I’m continually fascinated by the way two people can be exposed to the same thing and have such incredibly different reactions. Books that deal with addiction of any kind speak to me, and I always write about what speaks to me.

How would you describe the way that drugs function in your work, whether in terms of thematic concerns or the choices you make about how to craft a narrative? Do you think there are things that you wouldn’t be able to explore as successfully if drugs weren’t in your writing arsenal?

I think that drugs can easily be substituted with anything that plays upon the pleasure center of the brain. But if human vice wasn’t in my writing arsenal, then I’d have a problem. I employ human (or non-human) vice in most of my narratives as a vehicle to drive character motivation.

What do you personally find most interesting about how drugs work in your writing, and where do you see that interest leading you in future projects?

I think that the most interesting thing about drugs in my writing is how they provide an obstacle to the characters’ more altruistic instincts. The intrapersonal conflict they create is definitely something that I’d love to explore more in future projects.

BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope that The Sin Soldiers gets made into a major motion picture. If you have your choice, which is it, and what song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?

Yes, let’s hope! I would definitely love for Radioactive by Imagine Dragons to play while the credits roll. That song is totally appropriate for The Sin Soldiers, and I listened to it often while I was writing.

 

Fiction Points: Carla Sameth

carlasamethCarla Sameth is the author of the memoir-in-essays One Day on the Gold Line (Black Rose Writing 2019). She teaches creative writing at the Los Angeles Writing Project at California State University Los Angeles, with Southern New Hampshire University, and to incarcerated teens through WriteGirl. She has attended and received financial support from the Vermont College of Fine Arts Post-Graduate Writers’ Conference (2017-2019) and the Whidby Writers Workshop MFA Program, was selected for a PEN in the Community Teaching Artist Residency (2016), co-founded the Pasadena Writing Project, and has worked extensively to bring educational and career opportunities to underrepresented communities. Sameth earned an MFA in Creative Writing (Latin America) from Queens University of Charlotte. Her work can be found at Brevity, Mutha Magazine, the Nervous Breakdown and Narratively among other publications.

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?

I’d say that I write about contemporary parenthood and “I see you are a blended family like ours.”

I’d want to know if they found any of it difficult since I thought it was easy at first then not so much. Our family eventually unblended. I’d tell them that I hope their family stays intact.

Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?

I think that writing as a family member of those struggling with drug and alcohol addiction (both my wife and son are in recovery) provides a unique perspective. I write a lot about the process I went through understanding addiction as a disease, and looking at my own shit (including addictive behavior) and how I interacted with my son who struggled with alcohol and drug addiction in his teens.

Finding humor has been vital to my relationship with my son and my own survival. It’s not always possible to find funny in the midst of tragic. But I often did see the humor and irony in dealing with addiction, and that is part of my story. My memoir includes a mock chapter of “What to Expect When Your Expecting: The Teenage Years, When Molly is Not a Schoolgirl.” I once did a stand up set at a comedy club on dealing with addiction which included making fun of my own crazy, desperate behavior, as a mom. On the way to my son’s first rehab, he came up with a whole rehab playlist including “Cocaine, Mary Jane and Dispensary Girl.” When he was put on 5150 holds because of being a danger to himself due to drug overdose, he used to joke about rating the adolescent psych hospitals on Yelp.

I write about wanting to create safe sanctuary for our family. I thought my son having a lesbian mom, being African American and Jewish, being part of a blended family or even with a single mom would just make life richer for him but the reality was much harder. My memoir is about how I navigated life’s challenges including race, identity, police violence, and my teenage son’s struggle with addiction.

What led you to write about drugs and alcohol in the first place?

My son began to use drugs and alcohol in his teens and became sober at 18. I went through several years in and out of ERs and Adolescent Psych Wards with him, hearing from medical professionals that he might die as a result of his using. Or become incarcerated. Or homeless. None of these were alternatives I could wrap my head around but they were in front of my face. Also my son is biracial, African American and Jewish and so is particularly vulnerable to police violence. I wrote about my experience but my son also encouraged me to write my book (which included some of his story, from my perspective). We felt that other families going through similar struggles would benefit from reading about our experience and feel less alone, even if the story doesn’t end tied up neatly in a bow.

How would you describe the way that drugs function in your work, whether in terms of thematic concerns or the choices you make about how to craft a narrative? Do you think there are things that you wouldn’t be able to explore as successfully if drugs weren’t in your writing arsenal?

onedayonthegoldlineI read other addiction memoirs, by addicts, alcoholics and by their family members. I didn’t necessarily see my story, including the multi-racial, blended and single parent, queer mom parts. As the parent of a black son, my experience also included not wanting to take the recommended step at some point of calling the police since my son already stood a substantially higher risk of incarceration being African American.

Writing about drug addiction lent a certain urgency and reality to my story. I worried about things like lead when my son was young and we moved into an old house, but I didn’t think about the possibility that he might grow up and become addicted to drugs or alcohol. I don’t know if that was naïve or what. I might have suspected my son could be an addict since I almost had to take him to a 12-step program, “Nursing Anonymous” when he was young. There seemed to be no end in sight to his desire to nurse. I didn’t want to have a four-year-old boy saying, “wanna nurse, wanna nurse” or coming home as a teenager asking, “Hey mom, can I borrow the car and what about a quick suck of the tit.”

Seriously, I had multiple miscarriages before he was born and plenty else to write about but something about the drugs and alcohol added a new dimension to my writing and reading. I don’t think that I would reach the same audience I’m hoping to reach or be able to tell the same story without this experience. Also the transformative aspects of recovery for my son and I contributed to the narrative. I’m currently writing fiction where addiction to drugs and alcohol also figures into the family dynamic. I also write about addiction in my poetry (I write multi-genre).

What do you personally find most interesting about how drugs work in your writing, and where do you see that interest leading you in future projects?

I don’t think I’m completely done with writing about drugs and drug use. As a mother, you never get over the fear of your child’s relapse. I also think that I could use a little self-examination about my tendency to turn to alcohol or a pill to deal with anxiety and “take the edge off.” I have written about fantasizing about trying heroin because I’ve been told that it is like Demerol, which I have had during medical procedures. For someone so prone to anxiety, the relief Demerol offered was amazing, the sense that “everything will be ok.” If I didn’t think it might kill me and/or impact my son’s recovery and really complicate my life, I would want to try heroin. I’ve been asked to write more about thoughts on treatment, specifically 12-Step programs. I had a lot of issues with the whole emphasis on Christianity and God (though it is said to not be religious but spiritual). Also, as a mom, you don’t want to see your son hit bottom. I do go to Al-Anon (I’m outing myself). I agree with one author – it might have been William Cope Moyers (son of Bill Moyers) who wrote Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption and talked about the down side of anonymity. Because when I started talking about drugs and alcohol, more people came out and spoke about their own struggles. Resources and support might not be easily found if we remain silent. Parents of addicts often also feel a sense of shame—as in what might we have done to have caused this?

BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope that One Day on the Gold Line gets made into a major motion picture. If you have your choice, which is it, and what song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?

I actually did a whole play list since music figures big in my life with my son. It’s on Spotify and it’s hard to decide which song would be the best fit, there are so many. May I name several?

A medley including:

“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” – Nina Simone

“La Vida es un Carnaval” – Celia Cruz

“You Want it Darker” – Leonard Cohen

“Ohh Child” – The Five Stairsteps

“All I Really Need” – Raffi

“We Got to Get Out of This Place” – The Animals

“This Little Light of Mine” – Soweto Gospel Choir

“Here Comes the Sun” – Beatles

“Piel Canela” – Eydie Gorme y los Panchos

“Can’t Feel My Face” – The Weeknd

“Dear Mama” – Tupac

Dispensary Girl – Wax

To Zion – Ms. Lauryn Hill and Carlos Santana

P.S. My first choice might have been “Hero” by Family of the Year but that’s been used in Boyhood. I also had “Beautiful Boy” by John Lennon at the top of the list but given the recent movie (and book by this title by David Sheff) I left it off.

Fiction Points: Sarah Stone

stoneSarah Stone is the author of the novels The True Sources of the Nile (Doubleday 2002) and Hungry Ghost Theater (WTAW Press 2018). She co-edited with Ron Nyren, her spouse and writing partner, two instructional fiction-writing texts. Stone holds an MFA from the University of Michigan and teaches creative writing in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers and Stanford Continuing Studies. She has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee writers’ conferences. Her writing has appeared in the Believer, the Millions, Ploughshares, the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere.

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?

I love that these nuns and this penguin are out on the town. I want to hear all about them and how they got here. Once they tell me their story, if they insist on hearing about my work, I might tell them I write about family, about artists and activists, about people who want to save the world but get in their own and each others’ ways, about the construction of identity, about mental illness and addictions of various kinds. My newest novel, Hungry Ghost Theater, has four generations of a half-Jewish family wrestling with these questions. The book has multiple pieces that move around in time and place, from San Francisco to Seoul, from theater spaces to psychiatric hospitals, from Zanzibar to the Santa Cruz Mountains, and into and through a series of Sumerian and Tibetan hells. It’s the first book of a trilogy – I’m currently working back and forth between the other two books. I would love to talk to the nuns and the penguin about the ineffable and actual, animals and humans, and how they conceive of reality.

Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?

The mixture of self-awareness and self-deception in addicts and alcoholics and in everyone around them. A lot of the psychological mechanisms of alcohol and drug addiction show up in my fiction among characters who know their own vulnerabilities but are also full of denial. They’re honest with each other and also deceptive and self-deceiving. They’re idealists, artists, activists, scientists – they wrestle with their addictions but aren’t defined by their addictions. There’s much more to them than their weaknesses. I’m especially interested in the predicaments of those who are self aware but vulnerable to the emergence of self-destructive selves, pleasure-or-oblivion-seeking selves. And therefore vulnerable to relapse, despite all their knowledge. 

What led you to write about drugs and alcohol in the first place?

Family history, as with so many other writers. Addiction, both drug and alcohol, moves down through the generations in predictable and sometimes unpredictable patterns. The mechanisms of addiction and codependence feel so common, but every person, and every family, has their own story, their own particular ways of living this out. One of my characters, a mother, is so tired of being the enabler. In her next life, she thinks, she’s going to be the perpetrator.

hungryghosttheater

How would you describe the way that drugs function in your work, whether in terms of thematic concerns or the choices you make about how to craft a narrative? Do you think there are things that you wouldn’t be able to explore as successfully if drugs weren’t in your writing arsenal?

Although the language in my work tends to be clear and straightforward, the structures are often fragmented: a collage of different versions of the truth. Drugs and alcohol are only one manifestation of addictive living. Probably I wouldn’t see the world in this way if I came from a different family background. 

What do you personally find most interesting about how drugs work in your writing, and where do you see that interest leading you in future projects?

Hungry Ghost Theater moves among different kinds of addictive experience – the longing for drugs and resistance to those longings, the deceptive self-talk, the family member reassuring herself that she’s not looking at someone in the middle of a relapse. And it looks at the connection between altered experience and mental illness, from the way drug use can be self-medication for mental conditions to the long-term cognitive effects of substances. I especially like having a big range of perspectives. And there’s some question about the boundaries of reality and imagination. The book doesn’t completely vote on what’s real, what’s theater, what’s hallucination.

 

BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope that Hungry Ghost Theater gets made into a major motion picture. If you have your choice, which is it, and what song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?

The chapter I could most see as a movie is the one in which an affective neuroscientist and her lawyer/war historian husband go to Seoul to try to rescue their daughter from her newest meth relapse. It’s about the triangle between them, about what this episode (and all those that have come before) have done to their relationship, and about the difference between the lives we imagine for ourselves and those we actually live. Credits song: Björk’s “Human Behavior.”

SHAD Interview: “Legalización o Represión”: How a Debate in Colombia Steered the Fate of the “War on Drugs” with Lina Britto

Editor’s Note: Today marks our last interview with the authors of the newest edition of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, which focuses on the intersection of drugs and US foreign relations. Today we’re talking to Dr. Lina Britto, an assistant professor of History at Northwestern University where she teaches on the history of the drug trade and the war on drugs in the Americas, among other subjects. You can read Britto’s article in its entirety for a bit longer here.

Screenshot 2019-04-15 at 12.53.06 PMTell readers a little bit about yourself

I’m Colombian, and recently became U.S. citizen as well. I began my career as a journalist, and I still write journalism when I manage to carve time between teaching and other responsibilities. I did a Masters in Anthropology, which made me to fall in love with History, so I decided to became a historian. My PhD in Latin American and Caribbean History is from New York University, and before coming to Northwestern University, where I work as an assistant professor in the Department of History, I was a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, Harvard University.

What got you interested in drugs (and their history)?

The reality of my country, which is still one of the main producers of cocaine in the world, and my own lived experience as a member of a generation who grew up in Pablo Escobar’s Medellín in the 1980s and early 1990s. But because I’ve always liked to swim against the tide, my interest was never really to understand the history of cocaine, which I found so pervading and asphyxiating. My curiosity was directed toward my father’s homeland, the Guajira, the northernmost section of Colombia’s map in the Caribbean coast, where the country’s first drug boom took place in the 1970s around marijuana, not cocaine. Trying to connect with that other side of my family and with my own roots, I began to explore that story almost 15 years ago. Now it’s a book.

Screenshot 2019-05-02 at 8.37.34 AM

Dr. Lina Britto

Explain your journal article in a way that your bartender wouldn’t find boring

Before marijuana became mainstream and half of the states in this country legalized it completely, a group of young economists in Colombia, the country that supplied most of the weed that the hippies smoked in the United States at the time, proposed legalization. The idea was presented during a publicized conference in Bogotá that U.S. diplomats and scientists attended. The goal was to provide policymakers with an alternative solution other than the bloody war that Washington and Bogotá waged together against producers and traffickers in Colombia. But the time was not ripe yet. In 1979, such a bold idea only served to infuriate those who believed in the “war on drugs.” So, before consumers and their advocates got crushed here in the 1980s, during the Reagan administration, the forces that called for a less punitive solution to the drug problem got silenced in Colombia. Their political defeat during this month-long debate marked the end of the idea of marijuana legalization in both countries. Only in the last decade, this idea resurfaced again, this time under a completely different set of circumstances and results.

 Is this part of a larger project?  What else are you working on?

Yes, this is a small section in one of the chapters of my forthcoming book, entitled Marijuana Boom: The Rise and Fall of Colombia’s First Drug Paradise, which will be published by the University of California Press in 2020. Additionally, I’m in the phase of conceptualization and exploration of my second book project, which will examine the history of my hometown, Medellín, during its transition from an industrial pole of development to a cocaine dystopia, but from a counterintuitive perspective. Again, swimming against the current.

Based on your research and experience, what do you see as the frontier or future of the field?

I see colleagues doing all kinds of things, some of them quite creative. As a Latin Americanists, what I would love to see more of are twentieth-century regional and national histories of countries that are apparently peripheric for the transnational drug trade business in the Americas, however central in ways that we don’t understand yet, such as Ecuador, Argentina, and Chile.

What scholar, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?

First, I’d go out for brunch with Elena Poniatowska, one of the greatest Latin American thinkers of our times, a journalist, a novelist, a trailblazer, a true artist in the widest sense of the term. And then I’d have dinner with E.P. Thompson to pick his brain about my second book project. That’d be a good Sunday.

SHAD Interview: “The Philippines, the United States, and the Origins of Global Narcotics Prohibition” with Anne Foster

Editor’s Note: This is our last week of interviews with the authors of the newest edition of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, which focuses on the intersection of drugs and US foreign relations. Today we’re talking to Dr. Anne Foster, an associate professor of history at Indiana State University and co-editor of the journal Diplomatic HistoryYou can read Foster’s article in its entirety (until May 1!) here.

Screenshot 2019-04-15 at 12.53.06 PMTell readers a little bit about yourself

I teach a variety of courses in History at Indiana State University, where I have worked since 2003.  I also co-edit the journal Diplomatic History.  I’m interested in the varieties of ways that the United States has exerted power, with a particular focus on imperialism and Southeast Asia in the late 19th to mid-20th century.

What got you interested in drugs (and their history)?

I was in the archives in The Hague, researching for my dissertation, which had nothing to do with drugs, and in a box I pulled, saw a number of folders headed “opium.”  I had to read those! One document, from the 1910s, featured a Dutch official complaining that the US prohibition of opium in the Philippines was leading to increased smuggling of opium in the region, including into the Netherlands Indies, where opium was perfectly legal.  The Dutch official was irritated because this smuggling was undercutting Dutch profits from taxing opium. I thought that was interesting, and a different take on the effects of efforts to control or prohibit drugs. I have ever since been interested in the period of transition about opium in colonial Southeast Asia, from the 1880s, when opium was legal nearly everywhere and highly profitable to the colonial governments, to 1940, when opium was prohibited in some places and to some peoples, and highly regulated throughout colonial Southeast Asia.

Screenshot 2019-04-30 at 8.27.06 AM

Dr. Anne Foster

Explain your journal article in a way that your bartender wouldn’t find boring.

Did you know that if you lived a bit more than 100 years ago, that opium was perfectly legal and widely consumed in most places?  Probably you did know that. Yes, lots of patent medicines in the United States contained opium, and yes, Coca-cola did contain cocaine.  I’m really interested in how opium went from being so widely accepted and consumed to prohibited within only a few short years. I mostly study how that happened in the colonial Southeast, where the U.S. colony of the Philippines was. Opium was consumed in Southeast Asia for both recreational and medicinal purposes in the late 19th and early 20th century, and provided from 15% to as much as 50% of government revenues for colonies there.  The United States worked to prohibit opium in the Philippines pretty soon after acquiring the colony, even before opium was prohibited in the United States itself. And then the United States tried to get the other colonial governments to prohibit opium too, which they mostly didn’t want to.  But for the U.S. officials, legal opium in the areas near the Philippines meant that people could easily smuggle opium into the Philippines. I argue that this means the U.S. “war on drugs” approach starts all the way back in the early 20th century.

Is this part of a larger project?  What else are you working on?

I am working on a book about the transition from legal, profitable opium in 1880s colonial Southeast Asia to highly regulated, often restricted or prohibited opium in that region in 1940, on the eve of World War II.  I am looking not only at the transimperial politics of opium regulation, but also at smuggling and the transimperial efforts to stop smuggling.

The book also explores the context for discussion of opium of changes in medical knowledge and practices, which is significant.  Finally, racial, ethnic and gendered components shaped the politics of opium consumption and regulation. The book is a little unwieldy at the moment, but I am hoping to finish the manuscript in the next year.

Based on your research and experience, what do you see as the frontier or future of the field?

I am excited to see how drug history is exploring the ways that drugs are linked to so many various aspects of life, from how drugs are related to broader histories of consumption, to how drugs and health and developments in medicine are interrelated, to the environmental implications of source control efforts against illicit drugs.  These histories don’t neglect the powerful political effects of the war on drugs, but demonstrate how drugs are integrated into our lives in ways we don’t (yet) fully understand.

What scholar, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?

This is a harder question than I thought it would be.  I am most tempted by the ability to resurrect scholar friends who have recently died, and have one last dinner.  But in what I take to be the spirit of the question, I will name someone I don’t know whose work I have always admired.  My choice is idiosyncratic: Jean Gelman Taylor, who wrote one of my favorite books: The Social World of Batavia: Europeans and Eurasians in Colonial Indonesia.

SHAD Interview: “Harry Anslinger Saves The World: National Security Imperatives and the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act” with William McAllister

Editor’s Note: This week we’ll continue our series of interviews with the authors of the newest edition of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, which focuses on the intersection of drugs and US foreign relations. Today we’re talking to William McAllister, the Chief of the Special Projects Division, Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State and also Adjunct Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He is the author of Drug Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century: An International History (Routledge, 2000), as well as many articles and chapters in edited volumes about the historical development of the international drug control regime and U.S. drug policy. You can read McAllister’s article in its entirety (until May 1!) here.

Screenshot 2019-04-15 at 12.53.06 PMTell readers a little bit about yourself

How I applied my research to real life: When my children reached double digits, I followed a consistent line whenever the topic of drug use came up. I told them the statistics indicated they would probably consume some controlled substance in an illicit manner at some point. Therefore, my goal was not to prevent entirely, but rather to delay onset of first use as long as possible. My reading of the literature indicated that was the best way to decrease the chances of significant problems over a lifetime.  For example, I was a single parent throughout those years, so they had to attend aftercare at the end of the school day. I explained that I wouldn’t allow them to go home unsupervised because that was “prime time” for kids to get into trouble. They didn’t much like it, but they appreciated the honesty. Although one never knows, at ages 23 and 26 they both seem to be doing OK, so I think it worked well enough.

What got you interested in drugs (and their history)?

In the mid-1980s I taught a juvenile crime and delinquency prevention program to 5th-6th graders in Tulsa-area schools. The students asked a lot of questions that more or less boiled down to rulemaking and gatekeepers, such as, “How did they decide that alcohol and tobacco were legal while marijuana and heroin aren’t.” I didn’t think the canned answers we supplied were sufficient, and I couldn’t find any books at the library that answered my growing list of questions, especially about who “they” might be. So, I decided to get a history Ph.D. and make this the subject of my dissertation research. I focused on the how the international treaty structure evolved over the 20th century on the premise that the global regime informed and governed national policies and local practices. Although that’s not the whole story, I’d argue it’s an essential one to account for in doing drug history/policy research.

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William McAllister

Explain your journal article in a way that your bartender wouldn’t find boring.

You may think the government prohibited marijuana way back in the 1930s because they were prejudiced against minorities and didn’t see any value in the plant, but you’re wrong! Washington actually wanted a lot of cannabis to be grown because they were going to need fiber for the coming global war, but that was a national security secret they couldn’t tell anybody.  At the same time, they didn’t want to facilitate trafficking in dangerous items. So, if my next drink is on the house, I’ll tell you how they pulled it off…

Is this part of a larger project?  What else are you working on?

This is something I discovered late in the process of producing my “Drug Diplomacy” book, published in 2000. I included reference to it in one paragraph, but there was not room to tell the whole story in depth. In subsequent years I got as far as I could with additional research and included that material in this article, but I’m still not done searching archives, so I created this site where I can explain the lacunae in the current historiography in great detail and add more material to support my argument as I discover it. It’ll take a while to build out, so be patient.

I’m next working on finding out more about Elizabeth Washburn Wright, a member of the U.S. delegation to the 1925 Geneva conference that produced the first international drug control treaty featuring substantive provisions. She was the first woman granted plenipotentiary powers by the U.S. government, but we know very little about her. Her family papers reside in Northwestern Maine, so I’m putting that trip off until winter is well past. I’m also investigating the extent to which it is possible to verify Harry Anslinger’s claims about his early career accomplishments before his appointment as FBN Commissioner in 1930; I’ve become skeptical regarding the story he tells about himself. For example, the first nine documents in Anslinger’s State Department personnel file are missing. This void includes the entire period during which he claimed intelligence and espionage exploits as a Consular officer in the Netherlands. I’ve never seen that magnitude of documentary omission in the many other files of this type I have researched at NARA. Kinda makes you wonder…

Based on your research and experience, what do you see as the frontier or future of the field?

It is my policy as a professional historian never to make predictions that could be proven wrong in my own lifetime. Assuming I live to age 100, everybody reading this will be retired by then anyway so it doesn’t really matter what I think. Just ask new questions with a dedicated eye to how you can make your findings relevant to multiple audiences (i.e., don’t just talk to fellow eggheads who read Points).

What scholar, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?

I’d love to observe Socrates and Oscar Wilde go at it. Problem is, if we are to be historically accurate, it wouldn’t be much of a conversation unless Wilde possessed some fluency in Ancient Greek (or perhaps Socrates could acquire modern English from some of Elysium’s recently-arrived residents).