Fiction Points: Jamie Beth Cohen

jamiebethcohenJamie Beth Cohen is the author of Wasted Pretty (Black Rose Writing 2019), a YA coming-of-age novel that explores growing up as a girl in a pre-#metoo era. Cohen earned a BFA in English from George Mason University and a master’s degree in higher education administration from City University of New York. Her work has appeared in the Baltimore Sun and Washington Post, at Teen Vogue, in the anthology Crossing Limits: African Americans and American Jews, and elsewhere. She lives in Lancaster County, PA.  

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 probably quote my own bio and say, “I write about difficult things, but my friends think I’m funny!” Seems like a punchline to a joke, right? Hopefully they’d laugh, and if they let me expand, I’d explain that because I’m both a fiction writer and a non-fiction writer, I get to write about a wide range of topics I find interesting. My published non-fiction includes essays on parenting, feminism, Judaism, politics, end of life issues, and more. My published fiction generally centers on teens and twenty-somethings going through growing pains. My debut novel, Wasted Pretty, published by Black Rose Writing in April 2019, is the story of a sixteen-year-old girl who is noticed for her appearance for the first time and all the things that are exciting, annoying and, in her case, dangerous about that moment.

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

Alice, the main character in Wasted Pretty, is not a big drinker, but her best friend Meredith is. Meredith experiments with diet pills and recreational drugs as well. But Chris Thompson, the college guy Alice has a crush on is sober. He crashed and burned during his freshman year, largely due to excessive drinking, so he’s working hard to put himself back together. The more time Alice spends with Chris the more her friend’s substance use bothers her.

Also, Alice’s dad is a gambling addict in the throes of his addiction. There are interesting parallels and counterpoints between what Chris went through as a teenage alcoholic and how he’s handling it and what Alice’s dad is going through as an adult who does not have a handle on his addiction.

Additionally, in one scene, Alice wants to make a “bad” choice. She knows it’s wrong, but she’s determined to do it anyway, so she gets drunk, as if to have some plausible deniability after the fact. However, she’s not prepared for the reality that her bad decision has unintended and far-reaching consequences. Continue reading →

Fiction Points: Kristi Coulter

KristiKristi Coulter is the author of Nothing Good Can Come from This (MCD Books x FSG Originals 2018), a memoir in essays centered on her struggle to quit drinking alcohol. Coulter has published in New York Magazine/The CutParis ReviewLongreads, and elsewhere, including a forthcoming Amazon Original, “Yes, And,” on love, monogamy, and secrets. She is a former Ragdale Foundation fellow, National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts grant recipient, and Hugo House guest lecturer. Coulter holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan and resides in Seattle. Nothing Good Can Come from This is her first book.

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?

“Do you guys realize your outfits all sort of match? No, it’s cute! It’s totally working for you.” 

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

Alcohol as a marker of liberation and equality has loomed large in feminist popular history/culture, from the flappers to Sex and the City to the more recent trend of booze-soaked play dates and wines with names like Mommyjuice. Which is all well and good if you aren’t an addict. I am *totally* an addict, and once I dug my way out of my own drunk-woman subculture (hard-driving urban professional), I started to realize the same white wine that had seemed like a feminist pleasure trophy had also kept me complacent about double standards and inequities in my career and daily life. I’d been fooled by marketing and pop culture and my own damn brain into believing I was ‘having it all,’ when really I was self-medicating in part to tolerate a life I hated. I’m not remotely suggesting that every woman who enjoys a drink is a tool of the patriarchy, or un-feminist. But I do think alcohol and drugs–like cigarettes before them–are often marketed as proof of liberation, when in reality there’s nothing *less* threatening to the status quo as a bunch of muddle-headed, hungover women who just want to make it through their daily chores to that next glass of mommy juice.

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

I had expected to find sobriety boring, but it turned out to be fascinating, and even more unexpectedly, funny. I mean, suddenly I was navigating familiar situations without the one coping tool I’d relied on for a decade. It may not *sound* like comedy gold, but I tend to find absurdist humor in a lot of unlikely places, and I realized it was a classic fish-out-of-water (or wine) setup. I started keeping a blog to capture some of those comic details–and the less-comic ones, too–and the blog led to essays, which led to me accidentally coming out as sober to the *entire globe* when one self-published essay, “Enjoli,” went mega-viral, which led to a book deal for Nothing Good Can Come from This, my memoir-in-essays about drinking and not drinking.

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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?

It took me a while to realize that I even wanted to write a book about my addiction and sobriety. There are so many addiction memoirs out there already, and often even the great ones follow a classic template where ever-escalating thrills and risks lead to a very hard, dramatic crash, which leads to rehab/AA…and then that’s kind of the end. But my own drinking and sobriety didn’t fit that narrative arc. I didn’t lose my job or my family to drinking. I didn’t get arrested. I quit because I was just (“just,” she says!) tired of thinking and worrying about drinking 24/7, tired that my life had narrowed to that one pinhole-sized focus. And when I stopped, it wasn’t through rehab or AA, just therapy and a lot of introspection and writing and the stubbornness to wait out the hard parts so the better days could come. And, as I mentioned above, I found sobriety to be not only comedy gold, but *much* more interesting than my drinking days–but I assumed readers would only want the gory drinking details, since most of the addiction classics focus on those.

Finally I thought “Hey dummeh [imagine I am saying this in the voice of Fred Sanford from Sanford and Son], maybe all these reasons not to write a book are why you *should* write a book.” I realized there was space in the canon or whatever for an irreverent, non-traditional, very specifically *female* addiction story–or sobriety story, really, since that’s what I chose to focus on. And I decided to be playful with the structure, because neither my addiction or sobriety has felt like an A-to-Z classic narrative journey. So I wrote NGCCFT with a prism in mind, or that Wallace Stevens poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”–examining exactly what the hell happened from a bunch of different angles and through different forms. Some essays in the collection are straightforward narrative but there’s also a quiz, a letter to a college friend, some instructions, etc. I could only tell my story prismatically because that’s how I lived it.

As far as having drugs in my writing arsenal, I can only say I might not be writing at all, or certainly not as consistently, without my longtime companion Effexor. It’s not a “fun” drug, but it’s a drug that makes fun a possibility for me.

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 realized halfway through writing NCGGFT that I was actually writing about my drunk and sober attempts to satisfy the eternal human craving for *something*–completeness, God, ecstasy–that for most of us will never be quite filled. I’m infinitely happier in sobriety than I was as a drinker, but I still crave completeness, ecstasy, etc. I still have deep wants. And I don’t feel a need to pathologize those cravings and wants. Often, they’re just the human condition. Since completing NGCCFT, I’ve published essays on sex and marriage and music, and I’m currently working on something about ambition, and the problem-slash-joy of want is at the heart of all of it. I find it both fascinating and feminist–women aren’t really supposed to want things for themselves, only for other people–so I imagine it can take me pretty far as a writer.

BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope that Nothing Good Can Come from This gets made into a major motion picture. What song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?

In a nod to the eternal craving described above, the epigraph to the book comes from the Replacements song “Unsatisfied”: “Look me in the eye and tell me that I’m satisfied.” It’s my way of telling the reader up front that this is not going to be a story of a wayward woman who ends up in a state of 24-7 gratitude and contentment just because she moved past addiction. So I’d have to end the film the same way. Plus, you know how some credits start out slowly, with one major name per screen, and then the roll starts for everyone else? Well, “Unsatisfied” has a long, spare guitar intro and then opens up into a full, driving melody, so it would work *perfectly* for that credit format. Can you tell I’ve given this some thought, down to who should dress me for the premiere? (Balenciaga.)

Virtuous Drinking and States of Intoxication

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from John O’Brien, a Lecturer in Sociology at the Waterford Institute of Technology in Waterford, Ireland. His research has focused on alcohol policy, political leadership and social memory. In 2018 his book States of Intoxication, a historical sociology of alcohol and its place in state and society, was published. His recent work has focused on urban policy, examining the ‘creative city’ thinking, the growth of cultural quarters, and the expansion of the night-time economy. His current research projects focus on the secularization of addiction treatment services, alcohol-related public order offences in the night-time economy, and commemoration.

Screenshot 2019-04-09 at 8.11.51 AMThe history of psychoactive substances is the history of taxation and the revenue base of states. That governments have always had this preoccupation can be seen in how the Code of Hammurabi, one of the earliest records of any state, has more to say about alcohol than any other subject. The alcohol industry has long been promoted by states as a means of guaranteeing a crucial revenue stream. Nearer to our times alcohol contributed 40% of total revenue over the 19th Century in the UK (Harrison, 1971), with this falling continuously however, as economies become more complex, to 35% in 1900, to 12% in 1940, to 7% in 1967, to 3% in 1987, with the figure standing at 0.5-3% for EU states today (Anderson & Baumberg 2006: 54). While the falling dependence on alcohol has opened the door to public health policies, it remains an old-reliable that few governments are willing to forego, and liberalisation of other psychoactive substances is largely justified through arguments concerning revenue and the costs of foregoing it.

Bernard Mandeville, in the context of the 18th Century gin epidemic (inspired by a revenue hungry British government) wrote: “Bare virtue can’t make nations live, In Splendour; they, that would revive, A Golden Age, must be as free, For acorns, as for Honesty”. In other words, private vices can be public virtues, and an emphasis on virtue can be a recipe for poverty. Vice – a going to the extremes, a failure to act in a proportionate manner, a disregard for tradition – can be beneficial, as it will generate economic vibrancy and fill the coffers. We could perhaps trace the genesis of Anglo-Saxon attitudes to alcohol and psychoactive substances involving the propensity to binges to this sharp utilitarian perspective. It is a dramatic contrast to the virtue ethics that had largely governed use previously, stemming from Platonic thought, which emphasised what was in due measure, embodied in the figure of Socrates who could not become drunk. The true philosopher could not become drunk because they were the embodiment of the measure, of ‘the good’.

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Points Interview: John O’Brien

Editor’s Note: Today we present an interview with John O’Brien, a lecturer in sociology at the Waterford Institute of Technology in Waterford, Ireland, and author of the new book States of Intoxication: The Place of Alcohol in Civilization (Routledge, 2019). Enjoy!

Screenshot 2019-04-09 at 8.11.51 AMDescribe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

The ‘publican’ who runs the ‘local’ is part of an ancient tradition of masters of ceremony who oversee drinking rituals. The public house is open to all, but a space of limits, where a ‘bar’ separates those in charge from the participants and a threshold is crossed to enter in a different space, with different rules from ordinary society based on controlled decontrolling. Pubs, bars, cafés, saloons have long been a source of anxiety as threats to the moral and political order. However, in the age of vertical drinking in superpubs, bar staff on short-term and insecure contracts who are unlikely to feel deep ownership over the space, concentrated ownership in pubcos with shareholders who may not even live in the country, preloading with cheap supermarket bought alcohol, they may begin to be seen as havens of informal social control, in contrast to anonymous, unstructured and individualised drinking. The book is interested in the role of ritual in structuring drinking occasions, and the threats to this. These always have masters of ceremony, rules and expectations, traditions and norms around reciprocity and excess that are obligatory to follow, and to make a generalisation, they hold problems in check. Government policy has an ambivalent effect on such rituals, tending to disturb and destroy them to various degrees, despite state’s supposed goal of minimising problems.

What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

I am a historical sociologist, and my interest is not so much in a precise and detailed account of a particular era, but rather to try to get under the surface of events to identify the processes that shape them. The book is looking at the process of state formation and the role that alcohol has played in this. What sets states apart from other types of organisations is that it holds a dual monopoly of violence and taxation, as it establishes itself as the only agency that can legitimately use force and raise revenue. Alcohol and other psychoactive substances have played a very important role in this mechanism, funding the growth of states to a very significant degree, particularly before the mid-20th Century. But this created a contradiction, as states have been dependent on alcohol to fund themselves, thus promoting the alcohol industry, while at the same time fearing drinking establishments and their role in subversion, undermining the moral order, and health of the populace. The result is simultaneous promotion and repression, which produces ambivalence, contradiction and disturbances in how we relate to alcohol. As a contrast, many anthropologists have noted the relatively unproblematic relationship with alcohol that the small-scale societies they have researched have. These non-state societies universally use some psychoactive substance, but because their use is ritually structured rather than governed through policy, problems seem to be much less.

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John O’Brien

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

What I found surprising in the course of researching the book was the extent to which alcohol and psychoactive substances have been critical sources of revenue for states. That the figure could be over 60% of revenue raised in certain periods of certain states is astonishing. Modern states literally were built on alcohol.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

I would love to write something on how spiritual and philosophical movements relate to alcohol. The book is very much focused on the institution of the state and its logic. Doing a proper study of the Abrahamic tradition, Greek philosophy and Asian philosophies and their contrasting perspectives on alcohol would be fascinating. There is such a dramatic contrast in attitudes towards and outcomes from drinking alcohol between the different civilizational areas, and this seems to be clearly based on the contrasting moral foundations that the worldviews based on their differing philosophies give. It is an intimidatingly huge and difficult topic though. But I will do it someday!

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of the book, who should provide the narration?

I’ll go for Cillian Murphy, but in the Birmingham accent he uses in Peaky Blinders. I’m sure he wouldn’t charge too much.

 

Points Bookshelf: “Glass and Gavel” by Nancy Maveety

“Look, I like beer, okay? I like beer.”

If there is no other solace from the painful testimonies we heard from Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh last September (and there is not), at least we have Matt Damon’s portrayal of the justice on Saturday Night Live.

(The Washington Post made this helpful mashup if your memory needs refreshing:)

With Kavanaugh’s declaration of his beverage of choice still fresh in our minds, Nancy Maveety couldn’t have chosen a better time to publish Glass and Gavel: The U.S. Supreme Court and Alcohol (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), which details the two-hundred-year-long relationship between alcohol and our highest court. This swift-moving, thoroughly-researched, and useful (it contains recipes!) analysis of the often-tempestuous relationship between alcohol and constitutional law is a useful addition to the canon, not only because its history is unique–to my knowledge this the first extensive history of the Supreme Court’s alcohol rulings–but its format is unique as well. By combining a summary of the Court’s rulings with insightful drinking biographies of the justices themselves, Maveety has crafted a story that shows how America’s alcohol laws have shifted over time, alongside revealing portraits of how our country’s drinking culture has evolved along with, or in spite of, the legal landscape. 

Screenshot 2019-03-25 14.59.06Each of the fourteen chapters focuses on a single Court era, as defined by its sitting chief justice, and Glass and Gavel moves swiftly from the John Marshall Era (1801-1835) to the John Roberts Era of today (2005-current). We watch as justices debate the question of who should be held responsible if liquor is “taken to excess” (this was during the Fuller era, 1888-1910, and Justice Stephen J. Field argued that it was not the seller’s fault), to more modern questions of regulating out-of-state alcohol sales during the “Rehnquist Era of Neo-Temperance” (1986-2005). Major rulings are outlined, Prohibition dominates the middle part of the book, and, by gaining deeper insight into the justices’ own views on drinking, we watch the history of America’s relationship with alcohol unfold from the lofty position of the judicial bench. Glass and Gavel is the story of alcohol in American life and law, told through the lens of the Court’s chief cocktail.

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Points Interview: Nancy Maveety

Today’s Points Interview features Nancy Maveety, Professor of Political Science at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, and author of the new book Glass and Gavel: The U.S. Supreme Court and Alcohol (Rowman and Littlefield, 2019). At Tulane, she teaches courses in constitutional law, judicial decision-making, and her latest special topics class “Booze, Drugs and the Courts.”

Screenshot 2019-03-25 14.59.06Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

A cocktail-by-cocktail history of the Supreme Court and its decisions on alcohol and the Constitution. Eras of American drinking, in terms of practices and favorite potions, are superimposed on their corresponding time periods of the tenure of each chief justice in the Supreme Court’s history—with those chief justice eras looked at in terms of alcohol and the law.  

What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

How both the social and personal behaviors and the decision making of the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court reacted to as well as contributed to a (or to each) particular American “regime” of beverage alcohol’s restriction or enjoyment. Sometimes, restriction and enjoyment were simultaneous behaviors, and constitutional law was the vehicle for their uneasy coexistence in American life.

Alcohol and drug historians who are not U.S. courts or legal specialists might be surprised at how much rich material there is, with respect to “the Supreme Court bar.”

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Nancy Maveety

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

The fact that the culture of beverage alcohol intersected so neatly with the justices’ own drinking behaviors and preferences, as well as so often with the major issues in constitutional law, across the history of the Supreme Court.

For instance, it was just too perfect that at the same time that vodka really emerges in the American spirits pantheon, by the early 1960s or thereabouts, Chief Justice Earl Warren was ordering the vodka gimlet as his cocktail of choice (at the many lunches and banquets where his predilection is remembered and recorded).

Likewise, Supreme Court cases that raised questions about states’ regulations as to who could drink (legally), or who could work as a bartender, for instance, were among some of the major twentieth century decisions on gender discrimination and equal protection of the law under the Bill of Rights. The regulation of alcohol is a pretty frequent factual element of a lot of U.S. constitutional law—on major constitutional issues, to do with congressional commerce power, federalism, 1st Amendment freedom of speech, 4th Amendment privacy issues…the list goes on. Contemporary social attitudes toward alcohol don’t line up perfectly with Court rulings, of course, but many alcohol-related controversies are definitely products of their times.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

I’d love to see more archival work on alcohol in American political and legal life—more investigation into the nexus between political organization and social transformation in the U.S. and bars, drinking, and liquor as both a commodity and a vice.

Personally, I hope to be able spend more time immersing myself in the archival record of cocktail origins and fashions, and their connection to famous political moments or periods in American social history. Similarly, I want to do more detective work on the cocktails of choice of each of the justices of the Supreme Court!

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of the book, who should provide the narration?

Ken Burns—as long as he also agrees to serialize the book for PBS!

Authority in Storytelling: Comedy Central’s “Drunk History,” Intoxication, and the Historian’s Craft

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach, a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY. Today he examines Comedy Central’s popular program Drunk History, and explores the role non-authoritative, even inebriated, history can play in getting students to question accuracy, opinion, and historical perspective. 

The first episode of Drunk History aired on the web as a Funny or Die feature on August 6, 2007. The show’s narrator Mark Gagliardi, fresh off a bottle of scotch, told the story of the infamous duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton to friend and show creator Derek Waters. A good deal of the episode takes place in Gagliardi’s apartment as he weaves his tale, but the funny comes from an amateurish documentary acted out by a cast of the creators’ close friends. After some initial background told by a clearly inebriated Gagliardi establishing Burr’s reputation as a shrewd opportunist, he launches haphazardly into the “scene” where Burr confronts Hamilton, boiling down the complexity of a nineteenth century “Affair of Honor” into a matter-of-fact declaration from Burr, lip-synching Gagliardi’s drunken mumble, “Hey you’re giving me shit, we gotta duel.”

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First episode cast image Left to Right: Michael Cera, Jake Johnson, Derek Waters, and Ashley Johnson

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