Gender and Critical Drug Studies: Capsule summary of “The Intersectional Origins of Women’s Substance Abuse: Lessons from Detroit’s WOMAN Center, 1970-1985”

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Trysh Travis, associate professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Florida and co-founder of Points. In it, she explains the reasons why she chose to write about WOMAN, a Detroit-based treatment center, and the lessons it taught her. Her post is part of a series featured over the next few weeks that provides further explanations on articles that appear in the special co-produced edition of SHAD and CDP, Special Issue: Gender and Critical Drug Studies.

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Trysh Travis

Long-time readers of Points will be familiar by now with my ongoing (if slightly sporadic) quest for a feminist history of substance abuse treatment. I laid out a research agenda on this topic a few years back, and began to nibble around the edges of the history after that, publishing a few interviews as well as a found example of “gray literature”—a pamphlet produced in the mid-‘70s by a Detroit treatment program called WOMAN in the Cass Corridor in Detroit, Michigan. Then a bunch of other work stuff slid onto my desk, and my feminist detective work/scholarship/Points writing went into stealth mode for a bit.

My interest in this topic never flagged, however, thanks in part to the encouragement of fellow Points writers Michelle McClellan, David Herzberg, and Nancy Campbell, to name just a few. I presented some work on the Cass Corridor program at the Baldy Center Conference on Gender and the Drug War in 2016. That audience was receptive, and I decided the time was right: I dove into the history of WOMAN—an acronym for Woman Organized to Mash Alcohol and Narcotics—and last year rolled it up into an article suitable for inclusion in the special issue of Contemporary Drug Problems that came out of the Baldy Center conference.

(Why all this backstory? Because, grad students, junior colleagues, and all y’all young whippersnappers out there, that’s the stop-start pace at which historical research and writing often happens. Learn it. Live it!)

This article was hard to write because much of the time I felt like the argument driving it was nothing more complex than, “How fucking cool is that??” But, at the same time, and for the same reasons, it often felt like I was watching a train wreck. Another way of saying it, I guess, is that I was engaged in retrospective writing about “the ‘60s,” with all the political and emotional baggage that such a thing entails.

Put simply, WOMAN in the Cass Corridor was a group of activist women who saw clearly the ways that social policies—ghettoization, urban renewal, the criminalization of poverty—pushed women into exploitative relationships and drug use. They believed that raising the class, gender, and racial consciousness of heroin-addicted women would enable them to get off drugs, cease their work in the sex trades, and become community activists. When this happened to enough women, the resulting energies would allow a blighted neighborhood to turn itself around, end the dual predations of crime and urban renewal, and become a genuine community.

Like I said: “How fucking cool is that?”  And, in the first flush of National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) money in the early ‘70s, it was also actually fundable.

The train wreck part you can probably infer from the cool part. Some of WOMAN’s founders had personal experience with alcohol and drug abuse, and a few of them were themselves working class or poor.  But in the aggregate, they had no expertise on either the pharmacology or the psychology of narcotics addiction; their knowledge of the issues facing the population they planned to work with was similarly arms-length. Like many feminist organizations at the time, WOMAN misread the racial politics around it and got bogged down in debates over how to operationalize the anti-hierarchical community they believed essential to ending women’s oppression. As Terry Hluchyj’s thoughtful study of the group (upon which my article relies heavily) argued, WOMAN’s founders’ social justice orientation clashed in significant ways with the mindset of many of its frontline workers, who saw their job as the respectful and professional delivery of health care, not social change.

The program was, in many ways, a radical round peg in the adamantly square hole of a Great Society bureaucracy.  As such, it was unsurprisingly deemed a failure by NIDA after its initial three-year grant expired, and faded away after a few more years.

It was painful to research and write about WOMAN because I kept wanting to yell at the founders—“Don’t fire the Program Director because you think she’s ‘elitist’! She’s keeping accurate records that the feds will want later!” and “Sure, methadone is ‘chemical slavery,’ but you need to preserve legitimacy through the next grant cycle and experimenting with polarity therapy just won’t do it!”  The baseline naivete that lay back of WOMAN’s founding was in many ways maddening.

And yet at the same time, as the national emergency that is the opioid crisis grew unabated while I worked, and the Department of Health and Human Services started to loosen the regulations around prescribing Buprenorphine, and the AMA began to talk about safe injection public bathrooms, and the City of Cambridge pondered installing emergency Narcan stations in Harvard Square, and not one milliliter of ink was spilled on addressing the socio-political context in which opioids-then-heroin-then-fentanyl starts to sound like a good idea—as all that happened and/or didn’t happen, the premises behind WOMAN’s founding started to sound more and more compelling.

Maybe despite, or maybe because of their naiveté, WOMAN’s founders took seriously the material conditions in which women use drugs—the economic, racialized, and gender-structured surroundings that allow drugs to flow to them, make sense to them, and become necessary parts of their lives. They didn’t know exactly how to leverage an awareness of those conditions into a path to recovery, but they grasped that doing so was essential.  Forty years’ worth of “evidence-based” and largely fruitless substance abuse treatment later, I hope policy makers and the treatment community will read the story of WOMAN in the Cass Corridor and take up where its founders left off.

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Stretching the Boundaries of “History”

Editor’s note: Today sees the final installment of the Points tribute to AA historian Glenn C.  Commentator Jackie B. graduated in 2002 with a degree in Theater and Performance Studies from U.C. Berkeley.  Sober since 2006, she is the founder and Artistic Director of Recovery Works Theater (RWT) in San Francisco. Her work has been seen by tens of thousands of recovering alcoholics and addicts throughout the United States in a range of venues from convention centers and black box theaters to county jails. Rooted in rigorous research and a reverence for history, Jackie’s plays seek to create a living connection between the audience’s personal experience and the experiences of the early members and groups of Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve Step fellowships. Her most recent work, I Am Responsible, premiered in February 2017 in San Francisco.

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In 2008, I began writing original plays about A.A. history, specifically created for performers and audiences in Twelve Step recovery. My interest in A.A. history was sparked when I was two years sober by a San Francisco old-timer during a Traditions study who shared a story about Joe McQ. of the Joe and Charlie Big Book study series. That’s how I learned that “Big Book” Joe, as he was called back home in Arkansas, was the first black man to get sober in A.A. in Little Rock. That was the night I learned about the lengths that many members had to go through to receive the same opportunity I had been so generously given, without question or demand, at my first A.A. meeting.

I was introduced to Glenn’s work while researching my first A.A. history play, In Our Own Words: Pioneers of Alcoholics Anonymous. Written in the documentary style of The Laramie Project, a tradition also known as verbatim theater, the dialogue was taken word for word from primary material, including A.A. speaker tapes, group histories, Grapevine stories and the book, Alcoholics Anonymous. The second half of the play was devoted to Third Tradition stories, stories like that of Joe McQ., and other marginalized people who paved a way inside the fellowship, creating a safe space for future members who identify as women, LGBTQ, young people and people of color.

I very much wanted to include the story of an early African-American woman in the program. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a single story from the 1940’s. Not in the Big Book or the Grapevine digital archives. Almost ready to admit defeat, I came across a mention of early black A.A. members in a 2005 book called The Factory Owner and the Convict: Vol. 1 of the Lives and Teachings of the A.A. Old-Timers by Glenn C. The text was originally written for local intergroups, to show how A.A. started in the cities and towns along the St. Joseph River, as it wound its way through Indiana and Michigan to the Great Lakes. Requests for copies came in from all around the country, and the author, a Professor of History and Religious Studies at Indiana University in South Bend, self-published it and made an excerpt available on www.hindsfoot.org. I eagerly ordered the book, and when it arrived I found a remarkable interview between Glenn and a black woman named Jimmy M., who got sober in A.A. in 1948. From that interview I was able to construct a monologue for Jimmy, creating one of the most powerful and revelatory scenes of In Our Own Words:

My little troupe of actors in recovery began to perform In Our Own Words outside of San Francisco. We traveled all over California. We performed in church sanctuaries, middle school auditoriums and jail pods. Over and over again, audience members would come up to me afterwards and thank me for sharing Joe and Jimmy’s stories, telling me that for the first time, they felt a part of A.A. history too.  That was all made possible by Glenn’s dedicated and meticulous work.  Finally, in 2010, we were given the opportunity to perform at a major international conference in San Antonio. I invited Glenn, reaching him through the AA History Lovers Yahoo Group. I didn’t know if he would make it, whether he would even get through the doors. The conference plays were so popular that year, the hotel had to shut down its elevators to keep more conventioneers from trying to get into the packed hall, far exceeding its maximum capacity. And still the conventioneers came, sneaking in through fire doors, climbing ten sets of stairs, and even stealing our set furniture from onstage to snag a seat.

After the performance, Glenn introduced himself. I wish I could remember more of that first face-to-face conversation. But I remember he hugged me and he hugged and took pictures with the lovely actress who played Jimmy. We exchanged numbers and emails and less than a week later, Glenn wrote to me, and that was the start of a seven-year friendship and mentorship that has shaped me as a thinker, writer and person in recovery.

When Glenn and his delightful wife Sue decided to winter in Fremont, California, my sponsee and I became regular guests at his new home. Anyone who has had the pleasure of spending one-on-one time with Glenn can attest to the mischievous delight he takes in the exchange of ideas and stories, everything from tidbits of oral history and classical literature, recovery wisdom and philosophical quandaries. Nestled deep in a cozy armchair, Glenn proved himself both an emphatic listener and a consummate teacher, insisting from the moment we first met in San Antonio that I am a historian.

In the foreword to my second play, a history of the Twelve Traditions called Our Experience Has Taught Us, Glenn described me as a historian of “the new generation.” For many years during our correspondence, I would counter that I was just a storyteller. Even as I began to do more rigorous primary research in archives around the country, I held back from calling myself a historian. I was a “history buff,” an A.A. history nerd. It wasn’t until I shared a stage with Glenn at the 2016 A.A. History Symposium at the Sedona Mago Retreat that I embraced the mantle of historian.  Glenn C., who is arguably the most prolific writer of recovery history, generously shared his 45-minute presentation slot with a young female artist and scholar, as we shared the experiences of early gay, lesbians and people of color in A.A., including the stories of Jimmy M. and Joe McQ. It was a moment I will never forget; my journey with Glenn had come full circle. I will cherish every moment I have spent with Glenn, every email, every phone call, and every story. I could not be more proud to call him a mentor, a friend, and a fellow traveler on the broad highway.

Rich Dubiel Meets Glenn C.

Rich Dubiel

Editor’s Note: Today we present the second installation in our roundtable series celebrating the work of AA Historian Glenn C. Richard Dubiel, formerly Professor of Communications at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, was an early beneficiary of Glenn’s work with Hindsfoot Press, which published his insightful “Sober Sleuths: Lawrence Block and James Lee Burke” in 1999. Here he describes the journey– undertaken with Glenn’s help– towards his important history The Road to Fellowship: The Role of the Emmanuel Movement and the Jacoby Club in the Development of Alcoholics Anonymous (iUniverse, 2004).

To talk about my relationship with Glenn C. requires some exposition that will appear a bit egocentric. But, truth be told, it was my book, or rather a tattered manuscript back then, that brought me to the Hindsfoot Foundation and, of course, Glenn.

The book, , wasn’t really my idea either. At one time, like when I was nine or ten, I wanted to be a pal with Roy Rogers, maybe Gene Autry. I was torn. But I wound up being an associate professor of communication, pursuing the books and files of the Pittman Archives in Center City, Minnesota. That of course is Hazelden. I was honored as the first academic researcher to use the archives (July-August 1995) courtesy of a development grant from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

I was in search of a topic for a monograph, or at least a couple of academic articles. I knew about alcoholism and Hazelden. I’ll leave it at that. Moments of grace do happen.

The first just such moment occurred when I met Bill Pittman in the archives. We chatted informally. He asked me if I would be interested in working in an area that could surely lead to a book. A book? You betcha. I was soon back in my department in a meeting with my colleagues, hoping that my sabbatical could take place during the summer of 1997. In the meantime I began my research on the influences on the early AA thinkers. Bill sent me a couple of boxes of books to get me started. Guided by Ernie Kurtz’s Not-God, I read in and around the history of AA, discovering new names.

During the summer of 1996 I made a trip to Boston, funded by the Hazelden Foundation. Most of work was done in the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Episcopal Church Archives, Diocese of Boston. The experience, especially in the Mass Historical Society, was one of hushed silence, wearing white linen gloves when handling papers, and organizing material that was being photocopied. I mailed a complete manuscript to Bill Pittman on August 15, 1997. Now a different type of task unfolded, one that would require the encouragement, friendship, expertise and professional know-how of Glenn.

The manuscript sat until spring 1998 when Bill Pittman informed me that new material on Rowland Hazard III at the Rhode Island Historical Society would make a valuable and relevant addition to the book. I spent a week that summer gathering and organizing material, and in the fall mailed the new chapter on Rowland Hazard to Hazelden.

No word regarding the fate of the manuscript. A sense doom closes in. I expressed my concern to a few prominent AA scholars. None less than Ernest Kurtz advised me to develop some options. Hazelden’s support was instrumental in the eventual creation of the actual book; I am grateful to them and certainly to Bill Pittman. (Hazelden currently has my research notes and photocopied archival material in their archives. I am likewise grateful for this.) To this day I am not sure what happened their; perhaps a change in management philosophy?

This was a dark period. My manuscript was read by a university press, and received a positive evaluation but one that concluded with “sorry.” It was understandable given the then (and now) publishing environment. My book was certainly specialized and wasn’t going to generate the revenue that university presses needed. I figured I could simply post the manuscript in cyberspace and that would be that, perhaps as a link on my university webpage. I more or less lost interest.

During this period I began work on an AA-related paper: “Sober Sleuths…”, comparing the crime fiction detective heroes of Lawrence Block and James Lee Burke. Things looked bleak except that Bill White and Ernie Kurtz were in my corner and wanted to see my book published. They paved the way for me to seek a solution to the problem: The Hindsfoot Foundation, and, of course, Glenn C.

I got in touch with Glenn and during 2003 letters, papers, computer discs and the like flew back and forth. Glenn received my material and I thought it was all but done. Not so. There was all the permission business, an index, and the need for some
punching up here and there. Plus, I admit to being a person who needs a push now and then. Glenn’s sincere interest and drive kept me going. But, truthfully, it was he who did most of the driving and reading and rewriting, additions and deletions, that needed to be done.

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The Long & Winding “Road”

Even the earliest emails from Glenn, say March 2003, were filled with an interest in my work, not only this book, and my thoughts on AA. Over the distance, via the internet, I had made a colleague and true friend. Though we had never met, not spoken to each other, we developed a true scholarly camaraderie, dare I say a kinship. The production of The Road to Fellowship moved quickly. I was guided through all the legal and technical consideration by Glenn, who sensed my own fatigue and was a forgiving mentor. The publication date was 2004.

After that, I was reading in other areas of Christian theology and would occasionally have a question. One example was my puzzlement with various interpretations of atonement. A more prosaic person might have thrown a few references at me, perhaps a comment or two, and have sent me on my way. But not Glenn. I still have pages of his downloaded emails, explaining not only atonement but any other idea or thought that I was having. He knew of my dissertation on Paul Tillich and the graduate work I had done at Drew University as part of my Ph.D. program at Purdue. Perhaps those two factors linked us and provided the basis for our scholarly friendship. And it has continued. That continuation exists in that his The Higher Power of the Twelve-Step Program… and God and Spirituality: Philosophical Essays sit on my nightstand. My scholarly and spiritual journey continues as a gift of my Higher Power, but it has been in no small way guided by this truly magnanimous man. I am grateful to have had the help and friendship of Glenn.

Inspiration Comes in Many Forms

Interview: “Woman in AA” with Trysh Travis on Rebellion Dogs Radio

Editor’s note: Today we feature a recent interview with Dr. Trysh Travis, professor in the University of Florida’s Gender, Sexualities, and Women’s Studies department and Points co-founder/managing editor emeritus, on Rebellion Dogs Radio, a podcast offering “less dogma and more bite” than traditional perspectives on recovery. Below is the interview description from Rebellion Dogs and a link to the interview on Soundcloud, but be sure to check out the original post (and the entire thought-provoking site). 


trish-travis“More than just a professional historian, as a Women’s Studies professor, I’m a professional feminist.  That means that my orientation to history is informed by an awareness of the unequal distribution of power between men and women, and a desire to reveal, critique and correct that inequality. Feminism works for me as what Ernie [Kurtz, Not God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous] called a filter—it colors the questions that I ask and the answers that I formulate.” Trysh Travis: 2017 AA History Lover’s Symposium, Sedona Mago Recovery Series.

The history of woman in AA (and throughout the larger recovery community) is the focus of  Rebellion Dogs Radio #34. Rebellion Dog’s 21st century look at 12-Step Life welcomes, from the University of Florida Center for Gender, Sexualities, and Women’s Studies Research, Trysh Travis. Having just come back from Sedona Mago Retreat (Arizona), I can tell you that the place is still buzzing from Trysh Travis’ shared research and insights on women and the 12-Step community.  Continue reading →

Now Hiring: UF’s Center for Gender, Sexualities, and Women’s Studies Research

A message from Points Managing Editor Emeritus, Trysh Travis:

Longtime Points readers will know (and newcomers should find out about) my longstanding interest in feminist work on drug and alcohol issues. Now, at long last, I have the chance to hire someone to keep me company on that thankless research journey! The Center for Gender, Sexualities, and Women’s Studies Research at the University of Florida is hiring an entry-level assistant professor, and the field is WIDE OPEN! Now is the chance to build an absolute beach head of feminist substance abuse research in sunny (if slightly hurricane-ravaged) Florida. Points readers, come join me! And if you can’t join me yourself, please spread the word to those who might.  The incredibly non-specific job ad (application deadline 10 Nov.) is below; the full (yet still quite vague) position description with all the bells and whistles can be found in the UF Job Portal.

Tenure-track Assistant Professor in Gender, Sexualities, and Women’s Studies: The University of Florida College of Liberal Arts and Sciences invites applications for a tenure-track Assistant Professor position in the Center for Gender, Sexualities, and Women’s Studies Research (tenure home). We seek applicants with superior promise who combine rigorous scholarship with excellence in teaching and service. Applicants should be trained in and have a research program and teaching experience that centers feminist, women’s, gender, and/or sexualities studies. We are particularly interested in candidates whose research, teaching, and service takes a feminist intersectional approach to addressing disparities and/or (in)equities related to gender(s), gender identity and expression, sexualities, or women. The candidate is expected to contribute enthusiastically to the interdisciplinary research, teaching, and service mission of the unit by maintaining a productive program of scholarship, pursuing external funding, supervising undergraduate and graduate students, teaching both core required courses and needed electives in the women’s studies undergraduate and graduate curricula, and engaging actively in outreach, experiential learning, and the life and success of the Center and the College.

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.” Continue reading →

Contextualizing the First Annual “We Agnostics and Free Thinkers” AA Convention, Nov 6-8, 2014

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by the venerable Trysh Travis, former Points managing editor.

A friend with a drinking problem has been going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings lately, and finding them not very helpful. “I can’t stand all the God talk,” she explained. She was raised in an Islamic country where God is routinely invoked—sometimes consciously, other times mechanistically—as a punitive, fearsome presence whose main purpose in the world seemed to be to limit the freedoms of women like herself. God was the last person she felt like turning to for help.

Before you go getting up on your Fox News soapbox and calling in more drone strikes in the name of an oppressed Third World Woman, let me just note that I’ve had American friends—Baptists, Catholics, and Jews—who had the same gripe with 12-Step culture. Twelve-Step recovery’s official posture may be that it is “spiritual, not religious,” but the niceties of that distinction may be lost on people for whom “God” is hot-button issue.

Continue reading →