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: 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.”

Points Interview: David Courtwright

Editor’s note: Points author interviews begin with a set question: Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand. David Courtwright said he preferred conversations with bartenders. He talked to his about The Age of Addiction: How Bad Habits Became Big Business (Belknap Press, 2019). 

Screenshot 2019-07-16 08.40.48Bartender: I hear you have a new book.

Courtwright: Just came out in May. I’ll have the draft IPA.

What’s the book about?

How addictions multiplied throughout human history. Even before civilization people discovered pleasurable drugs and pastimes like alcohol and gambling. They went on finding new ones. They traded, refined, manufactured, and digitized them to the point that we live in an age of addiction. Think about it. When you heard the word “addiction” forty years ago, what came to mind? 

Drugs. Heroin. Junkies. Juicers, only back then we called them alcoholics. 

Google the word now and you’ll find addiction to sugar, video poker, computer games, social media, internet porn, shopping, tanning, you name it.

Could be hype.

Some of it is. And some of it is science. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, promotes food-addiction studies.  

What’s food got to do with drugs?  

Our brains—well, some brains—react to food packed with sugar, salt, and fat like it was booze. People can lose control over eating the way they lose control over drinking. They join groups like Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous

They’re like AA? 

Right down to the lingo. And it goes beyond eating.  When I told friends I was writing a history of addictions, they all said, “You’ve got to include kids glued to their phones.” So I did. Behavioral addictions have become social facts.

What’s history got to do with social facts?

Historians explain their origins and how they changed over time. In The Age of Addiction, it’s a long time.

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Points Bookshelf: “The Age of Addiction” by David Courtwright

Editor’s Note: It’s David Courtwright week on Points! Today we feature a review by contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University, of Courtwright’s most recent book, The Age of Addiction (Harvard University Press, 2019). We’ll follow Hudson’s review with an interview with Courtwright on Thursday. Enjoy!

Screenshot 2019-07-16 08.40.48In Age of Addiction, the acclaimed historian David Courtwright dips his toes into familiar waters, analyzing the history of the brain reward mechanism through its component parts: pleasure, vice, and addiction. The book expands on earlier attempts, such as John Burnham’s Bad Habits, which investigated America’s evolving attitudes on everything from alcohol and drugs to gambling, swearing, and sex. Building off and updating Burnham, Courtwright injects fresh blood into the discussion, mapping the newest additions to our pleasure palettes. Courtwright catalogs sugary sweets formulated by Nestlé and Kraft, delineates digital subcultures such as the frenzied World of Warcraft, and documents young men’s sexual fetishes—with Pornhub substituting as both sex education and a how-to manual—while still leaving room for gambling, an ever-changing issue as states embrace sports betting following last year’s Murphy v. NCAA decision. Courtwright draws our attentions to the vast “pleasure meccas” erected of late, updating parts of his previous book Dark Paradise (Harvard University Press, 1982) as opioids have returned to the headlines too.   

Let me invite the skeptical reader to ask the obvious question: hasn’t this always been the case? Courtwright would agree, but with a caveat. To conclude “more of the same” ignores three critical distinctions. First, the rate “hedonic change” has accelerated, Courtwright likening it to the rapid pace of technological change, following its own “Moore’s Law of brain reward” (164). (Moore’s law, first delineated in 1965, predicted that the speed and capability of computers would double every two years due to advancements in the number of components per integrated circuit; in the past half-century, this has proven to be untrue: computer speed now doubles much more rapidly.)

Second, pleasure and vice are more diverse and ubiquitous, appealing to specific subsets of the population. Third, and most significantly, pleasure and vices are meticulously engineered by companies with billion-dollar marketing and advertising budgets. In effect, this means that Big Pharma, Silicon Valley and the food industry have grown much more efficient at weaponizing our weaknesses against us, and reaping the profitable rewards. This asymmetry means companies are able cater and concoct an ever-widening array of products and pleasures, while conveniently sidestepping externalities and effects on global health. Whereas earlier eras met vice with reluctance, if not with outright resistance, today the tendency is on an opposite trajectory: vice is both normalized and accepted. 

 

Screenshot 2019-07-16 08.42.19

David Courtwright

The Age of Addiction hones in on the brain reward system’s “big bang” moment, tracing it back to the agricultural revolution. What characterized pleasure, vice and addiction then was limited. People dabbled with local food-drugs but had little else at their disposal. Pleasure was in its infancy. Gambling, for instance, consisted of improvised devices: “sticks, shells, fruit pits,” and the occasional animal bone. Questions of accessibility or affordability were not yet part of the vocabulary. From the agricultural revolution on, the story follows a familiar trajectory: the invention of new technology, innovative forms of transportation, and specialized knowledge that built up networks for global trade, transforming rickety ship with a few luxury goods into colossal container ships packed with the inexpensive goodies we all enjoy today. 

The second half of the book deals with changes over the last hundred years or so. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries pleasure, vice and addiction seeped into urban areas, leaving few places or people untouched by their influence. In response, anti-vice reformers rallied and challenged vice’s legitimacy and sought to ban or suppress commodities like narcotics and alcohol and activities like prostitution and gambling. Reformers, as Courtwright sees it, have been unfairly maligned and should be given a second hearing, or at least some credit for enacting regulatory measures that curbed use and resulted in improvements to public health. He argues that we should not separate some reform measures and label them “progressive” (among them, sewage and water infrastructure and vaccination efforts) from their other attempts to eliminate vice. In practice the desires that propelled one propelled the other activities as well, all with the aim of improving public health and safety. Yet the gains made by anti-vice reformers were partial. They failed, as Courtwright documents, for multiple reasons: from internal divisions, corporate resistance and government ambivalence on the one hand, and from their desire to raise revenue on the other. 

Neoliberalism was in its ascendancy by the late twentieth century. It brought with it a new figure, the “vice entrepreneur” who pushed and profited from packaged delights. Courtwright coins the term “limbic capitalism,” described as “a technologically advanced but socially regressive business system in which global industries, often with the help of complicit governments and criminal organizations, encourage excessive consumption and addiction.” Limbic capitalism refined the art of exploiting brain reward and weaponizing it against consumers, perhaps best captured by the Pringles slogan: “Once you pop, the fun don’t stop.” This corporate slogan distills the limbic capitalisms formula: hook customers, encourage them to indulge, rinse and repeat—or, in short, reap the rewards and ignore responsibility for subsequent externalities. Limbic capitalism continues as a force to be reckoned with. It has aided overeating, led to distracted driving, compulsive porn consumption, and other ills. And all of it was intentionally constructed to be this way, causing some of the biggest public health problems globally, according to Courtwright. 

“Limbic capitalism” differs from capitalism through its route of administration: brain reward and its repetition. But is limbic capitalism more predatory or detrimental to public health than the routine behavior of say, Big Pharma or the climate catastrophe wrought by the fossil fuel industry? And does that matter? These are some questions that lingered. One feature that works in limbic capitalism’s favor it is that it is easy to understand, meaning there is less asymmetry of information—risk, for instance—when buying cigarettes or alcohol than in other transactions, like purchasing health insurance, signing financial contracts, or whatever it is we are agreeing to when we hit the “agree” button after every iPhone update. The book’s last line recommends that “we should be against excess,” which, in general, is sensible. But as a concrete matter, policy implications and what limiting excesses means in practice—preference for punitive or health-oriented approaches—also matters but gets less attention. Courtwright offers solutions: government regulation, restrictions on advertising, targeted taxation, and education campaigns. All of these could be good, depending on a lot of other things. 

Like any book, Age of Addiction has shortcomings, many of which might be exposed by the authors and thinkers he cites. Critics of the brain disease model will be disappointed there is not a full airing of arguments made against it, such as Marc Lewis’s The Biology of Desire. Stanton Peele, mentioned twice, will likely continue to have his reservations about this book over exposure and accessibility. This same could be said for Bruce Alexander, whose book The Globalization of Addiction disagrees with Courtwright when Courtwright argues that exposure is a driving force for addiction — Alexander’s other writings suggest that exposure is a secondary or tertiary concern.

Courtwright also perhaps missed an opportunity in his exploration of vice, a very elastic category, limiting it only to individuals and excluding corporate persons. Vice is defined as “bad for the individual, bad for other people, bad for the social order, or some combination of the three” (emphasis mine). Vice looked at through the lens of greed would have been an edifying avenue for him to pursue: patients rationing insulin, some dying; the “public health” consequence of things like the EpiPen, a drug that sells for several hundred of dollars while its active ingredients cost pennies. This could have played to Courtwright’s advantage, given that he uses the idea of “nudges.” Everyone can get behind Courtwright’s goal, which ultimately is about improving public health, but if public health continues to be mostly privatized, preventing people from accessing essential services—mental health services, medication, and the rest—many of the issues discussed will unfortunately remain unresolved. 

 

Points Bookshelf: “Never Enough” by Judith Grisel

Editor’s Note: Welcome to the first installment of the Points Bookshelf, in which we review books about drugs, alcohol, history–and maybe even a combination of all three. We open with a review of Judith Grisel’s new book “Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction,” which was released last month. 

If you’re interested in reviewing a book for Points, get in touch! You can reach editor Emily Dufton at emily.dufton (a) gmail.com

Screenshot 2019-03-07 at 9.02.18 AMSometimes it’s nice to consult an expert.

I first heard Judith Grisel on Fresh Air. Her interview with Terry Gross was fascinating. She has a PhD in behavioral neuroscience and psychology from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and she spent a good part of her early life addicted to numerous substances, including alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and more. Now drug-free for over thirty years, she is a professor of psychology at Bucknell University, in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

Her approach to the difficult subject of addiction is thus colored by all of her experiences. Because of her years as someone who had an unhealthy romance with numerous intoxicants (the title comes from a statement a friend made to her in a seedy hotel room in Miami as they snorted up as much cocaine as they physically could; there would “never be enough cocaine” for Grisel, her friend said, and when she realized the truth in this statement, it was a turning point in her life and career), she’s aware of the havoc addiction can wreak in individuals’, families’ and communities’ lives. As a neuroscientist and psychologist who has spent decades studying how the brain reacts to, and adapts to, intoxicant use, she’s also adept at explaining the biological and neurological underpinnings of this issue.

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Bad History, Bad Policy: Maybe Historians Should Be Ostracized from Society

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a history PhD student at Southern Illinois University. Enjoy!

Screenshot 2018-10-07 at 8.19.07 PM

Historians aren’t the first people national publications go for hot-takes. That may be a good thing. But I’ve always been in the camp that says historians should be more active outside of academia. So, I’ve been encouraged by publications like The New York Times and Washington Post reaching out to historians, asking them to analyze the opioid epidemic in its historical context. On the other hand, it’s been frustrating to see those opportunities squandered. An example that caught my eye was Clinton Lawson’s op-ed for the Times, published in May. It’s well-written and pleasant enough to read, but his interpretation of effective policies, then and now, resembles a DEA spokesperson more than a member of the public. Overall, his argument is aesthetic, encouraging us to avoid bad things, like racism or overhyping stories in the news, while at the same time offering the conventional wisdom: penalties and prison.

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