The Death of Marilyn Monroe and the Birth of “Drug Abuse”

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by contributing editor Matthew June, a Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University. You can follow him on Twitter @Users_Abusers.

For the past four decades, the concept of “drug abuse” has been the foundation of American drug policy. As many drug researchers know, the National Institute on Drug Abuse ( provides the scholarly basis for national drug programs. Since 1970, government assessments of potential for abuse have determined the legal status of all drugs. Focused on declarations of “war” against drugs, we have often failed to appreciate how this concept of drug abuse is neither timeless nor politically neutral. In fact, the idea was rarely used before the early 1960s and owes its sudden popularity to a confluence of events surrounding President John F. Kennedy in the summer of 1962 – including the suspicious death of Marilyn Monroe from an overdose of barbiturates that same year, on August 5.

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Fiction Points: Leslie Jamison

Author Leslie Jamison
Leslie Jamison

Leslie Jamison earned her MFA at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and, more recently, pursued a PhD in literature at Yale University, where her research focused on addiction narratives. She is the author of a novel, The Gin Closet (2010), and the essay collection The Empathy Exams (2014), as well as two forthcoming works of nonfiction: Archive Lush, which entwines cultural criticism, literary analysis, and journalistic reportage with Jamison’s own narrative, and Ghost Essays, a collection that centers on haunting and obsession, love and loneliness. The Gin Closet was chosen by the San Francisco Chronicle as a Best Book of 2010 and as a finalist for the Los Angeles Times’ Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. The Empathy Exams won the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize; reached #11 on the New York Times bestseller list; and garnered praise from The New Yorker, The New York Times Book ReviewCosmopolitan MagazineNPREntertainment Weekly, The San Francisco ChronicleBook Riot, and many, many other publications. Jamison is a columnist for The New York Times Book Review, and her work has appeared in magazines and journals including Harper’s, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The New York TimesA Public SpaceOxford AmericanThe Believer, and more. She currently resides above a smoke shop in Brooklyn.

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?

What are they drinking? Might depend on what they’re drinking. Is the nun on her sixth shot? Does the penguin have a tell-tale seltzer? I’d probably say my work is interested in the difficulties of intimacy, the struggle to get outside our own lives, and the way we (all of us) are always reckoning with the complicated experience of living in a body.Read More »

The Forgotten Drug War: Christobal Silvas Sierra (Los Angeles, 1929)

“The Real War Will Never Get in the Books”—Walt Whitman, 1875


As 1929’s Fourth of July celebrations wound down in Los Angeles, a teenager named Christobal Silvas Sierra—Christo, to his friends—law dying. No one saw him die in the darkness. But for an unusual sequence of events, we would not know how he had died. Frankly, we would not even remember that he had lived and died at all. But we do know how he died. And we have the power to remember him and many others like him. We should. And then we should attend to making some sense of it all in the larger history of America’s century-long drug war.Read More »

Fiction Points: Brian Alan Ellis

Brian Alan Ellis
Brian Alan Ellis

Brian Alan Ellis is the author of the story collections The Mustache He Always Wanted But Could Never Grow (2013), 33 Fragments of Sick, Sad Living (2013), and Something Good, Something Bad, Something Dirty (2014), as well as King Shit, a 2014 collaboration with illustrator Wayne Thornton. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in journals including Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Electric Literature, Juked, Atticus Review, Monkeybicycle, The Heavy Feather Review, Zygote in My Coffee, and many, many othersHis short story “Jerry’s TV”, which originally appeared in the 2011 flash-fiction anthology The Incredible Shrinking Story, was adapted for the stage and performed by the Buntport Theater Company in Denver, Colorado. Ellis lives in Tallahassee, Florida.

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 be scared if that happened and I’d probably just shriek, “But I’m a writer!” while gradually creeping towards the exit. If they managed to ask what I write about before I made it out I would probably shout, “Escaping!” which is generally the most honest answer I could come up with under regular circumstances. Read More »

Teaching Points: Reflections on “Addiction in American Life”

Editor’s Note: This post comes from contributing editor Kyle Bridge. Enjoy!

One of my best professors once told me that I should sit down and take stock of what went right and wrong after every course I teach, and I figure there’s no better place than Points to reflect on a class about oral histories of addiction that I helped put together this past spring.

Sam Proctor

Each semester the University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program (SPOHP) invites undergraduates to apply for its internship, through which they learn the ins-and-outs of oral history: archive management, transcription, theory and methods, and applied fieldwork, among other topics. The organizing theme changes every go-round, with past subjects ranging from veterans to organized labor.

I started as a SPOHP internship coordinator in January and chose to focus on addiction because my own work revolves around it, but also because I hoped the topic would resonate with students. I thought that drug use had a certain taboo that made it almost inherently alluring, and if students had watched the news with any regularity in the past five years they would be aware of the ongoing opioid crisis and might like some historical perspective. It was an educator’s win-win.

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Fiction Points: Maria Flook

Author Maria Flook
Author Maria Flook

Maria Flook, currently a Senior Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at Emerson College in Boston, is the author of the story collection You Have the Wrong Man (1996); the novels Mothers and Lovers (2014), Lux (2004), Open Water (1995), and Family Night (1993); two books of poetry, Sea Room (1990) and Reckless Wedding, which won the Houghton Mifflin New Poetry Series in 1982; and the nonfiction works My Sister Life: The Story of My Sister’s Disappearance (2011) and Invisible Eden: A Story of Love and Murder on Cape Cod (2003), a New York Times bestseller. Her work has also appeared in, among other places, the New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, The New Criterion, and TriQuarterly. Family Night received a PEN American/Ernest Hemingway Foundation Special Citation and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year upon its publication. In 2007, Flook was recognized with a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Award in Fiction. She is also the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship. She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa. Prior to her appointment at Emerson, Flook taught at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, Warren Wilson College, Rhode Island College, and the Graduate Writing Seminars at Bennington College.

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 write about the human condition, and I am especially interested in fringe populations, and the challenges they face. Estranged persons, who have disconnections, from family, from acceptable factions of society. I like to follow them as they face their problems and try to find answers or at least find refuge from whatever devils are chasing them.Read More »

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

As an historian of the Crack Era, I am more often than not engaging the work of sociologists, anthropologists and criminologists that have treated the drug trade and the hyper-policed urban communities I study. While young graduate students and early career PhD’s are poised to properly historicize the period in years to come, those looking to teach the period right now need to be both creative and interdisciplinary. In the main, my own work and teaching often draws a great deal from ethnographies of the drug trade. This got me thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of said work, and a bit frustrated at the paucity of interdisciplinary and collaborative work on the subject. In many respects, the work of ethnographers and historians are inherently complimentary. Students and scholars benefit from cross-pollination in this vein as it provides a more nuanced, holistic, and humanized treatment of a long-standing, highly complicated, vexing social problem.

The first drug ethnography ever handed to me was In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio by Philippe Bourgois. in search of respectThe work re-affirmed my commitment to my field of study and convinced me of what I already suspected. Most poor young men and women involved in the drug trade—directly or indirectly—are rational economic actors that very much aspire to basic tenets of the “American Dream.” Many of the boys, girls, men and women populating the pages of In Search of Respect idealize and work towards establishing a traditional nuclear family, steady jobs, and security. Moreover, those in reckless pursuit of fast money and subsequently engaged in conspicuous consumption can hardly be castigated as outliers of the 1980s.

Ethnography provides qualitative insights that are often hard to replicate in strictly historical work beyond the exception of oral histories. Productive discussions followed in my own class on the Crack Era after a student asked why police repeatedly assumed Bourgois was an out-of-towner looking to cop. His apparent white skin and learned affect provided a window into the shortcuts police take when perusing districts disproportionately effected by the drug trade. Moreover, the disparate treatment of Bourgois and other subjects by police highlighted the ways in which race, class, and place all effect policing tactics and the likelihood of arrest and prosecution.Read More »

Fiction Points: Stephen Elliott

ED. NOTE: Long-time Points readers may remember our Fiction Points series from its first appearance way back in 2013. Fiction Points consists of interviews with contemporary authors whose writing often features drugs and/or alcohol. Having discovered new authors in the last two years, Fiction Points curator Amy Long wanted to bring back the series. Read more about the aims and historical significance of our Fiction Points series in Long and Managing Editor Emeritus Eoin Cannon’s introductory post to the first Fiction Points.

We begin the series with Stephen Elliott. Stay tuned for interviews with David DelleceseBrian Alan Ellis, Juliet Escoria, Maria Flook, Leslie Jamison, and Kevin Maloney. New Fiction Points posts will appear every Tuesday for the next six weeks.

Author Stephen Elliott

Stephen Elliott, founder of the online literary magazine The Rumpus and currently Senior Editor for Epic Magazine, is the author of seven books: the novels Happy Baby (2004)What it Means to Love You (2002), A Life Without Consequences (2001), and Jones Inn (1998); the erotic short-story collection My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up (2006); and the nonfiction works Looking Forward to It: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying About It and Love the American Electoral Process (2004), based on his time on the 2004 campaign trail, and The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder (2009). He edited the collections Sex for America: Politically Inspired Erotica (2003) and, with Greg Larson, Stumbling and Raging: More Politically Inspired Fiction (2005). A film adaptation of The Adderall Diaries premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2015. Elliott has directed two movies himself: About Cherry (2012) and an adaptation of Happy Baby, expected to release this year. His work has appeared in publications such as Esquire, The New York TimesThe BelieverGQ, Best American Erotica, Best American Sex Writing, and the Best American Non-Required Reading anthologies for 2005 and 2007Elliott holds a Master’s degree in film production from Northwestern University and was a 2001 Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, during which time he also served as Stanford’s Marsh McCall Lecturer in Creative Writing. He lives in Brooklyn.

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?

This question doesn’t make any sense. Why would I tell them I’m a writer? Why would they approach me at a bar? I tell them I don’t talk to penguins. I haven’t spoken with penguins in a long time and I intend to keep it that way. I say I write about “stuff”. Or, more likely, I try to find out what they do, who taught them to talk. Are they real penguins or just butlers who look like penguins. I’m the least interesting person there; I would try to keep the conversation about them and their history and concerns.Read More »

Come One, Come All: ADHS and Addiction’s “Big Tents”

ADHS: The Greatest Show on Earth

This past weekend, the Alcohol and Drug History Society met for its biennial conference at Bowling Green State University. While preparing for my presentation, “(Insert Addiction Here): Twelve-Step Recovery and the Advent of the Addictive Personality,” I spent a lot of time thinking about the growth of the recovery movement since Alcoholics Anonymous. I noticed that by the 1970s several similarly “Anonymous” groups had been established throughout the country, but what really struck me was the number of process or behavioral addictions covered under their auspices. I dubbed the contemporary state of lay and expert addiction theory a “big tent,” since it invited virtually all comers from heroin addicts to compulsive gamblers and overeaters. I thought the shorthand would work for convenience and its clear imagery.

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Conference Wrap-Up: Borders, Boundaries & Contexts

Editor’s Note: Today three of our contributing editors – Michelle McClellan, Adam Rathge and Sarah Siff – present their thoughts on the recent international conference of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society, which was held from June 18 to 21 at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. This year’s theme was “Borders, Boundaries and Contexts: Defining Spaces in the History of Alcohol & Drugs.” Enjoy!

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