Fish Stories: The Drug Wars’ Unreliable Narrator

Given the Saturday Evening Post’s homogenous readership in 1926, we can forgive novice journalist Harry J. Anslinger for embroidering this lead into his article, “Tiger of the Sea”: “A moving picture with a South Sea scene is hardly complete unless the native hero, with a long dagger held between his teeth, balances his weight on the edge of a canoe to prepare for a dive to kill the shark that is between him and the precious pearl which he risks his life for to offer to the daughter of the white missionary whose beauty has captivated him.”

The reference to film is unsurprising, given Anslinger’s later fascination with Hollywood and his obsession with celebrity drug use. Students of American drug prohibition might also recognize this sort of dangerous interracial romance as an ever-present theme in Anslinger’s writing. But I want to discuss something more basic about Anslinger and his work: truthfulness.

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The cover of the issue in which “Tiger of the Sea” appeared

The article goes on to describe how sharks have gained a mistaken reputation as killers of humans while actually, the vicious barracuda – a quick-moving fish with razors for teeth – is the real “tiger of the sea.” The shark, writes Anslinger, is actually “the scavenger of the sea … usually found hovering near slaughter-house drains. He invariably follows fishing craft homeward bound to gather the fish refuse cast overboard. … He is wary of live bait.” Barracudas are the real perpetrators, he writes, of many supposed attacks by “the innocent shark.”

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Teaching Points: Teaching the “So What?” in “Marijuana in American History”

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes to you courtesy of Seth Blumenthal, a Lecturer at Boston University. Contact the author at sblument@bu.edu.

In 1994, the president of the Modern Language Association, Patricia Meyers Spacks, outlined the need to consider “So what?” in higher education. “We get a bad press these days … many believe that we too often devote our efforts to enterprises mattering only to ourselves,” Spacks warned.  “Our research and writing, these critics appear convinced, possess even less value than our teaching. ‘So what?’ echoes loudly around us.”[1] Spacks then suggested a solution:  “We must answer ‘So what?’ as a real rather than a rhetorical question.”  This battle cry to co-opt the critics’ “So what?” applies to disciplines across the humanities that have suffered from a shift toward more focused and vocational training in college. Specifically, while making historical narratives compelling and relevant has always motivated historians’ research and teaching, this cause has become even more urgent with on-going decreases in student enrollment in history courses.

As a lecturer in Boston University’s College of Arts and Sciences writing program, I have attempted to answer this call by teaching the first history course dedicated to cannabis in the United States, “Marijuana in American History.” This course attracts students from a wide array of fields in fulfillment of BU’s required two-semester writing and research sequence. For many students, especially those from disciplines outside of the humanities, taking a course that revolves around writing papers represents a trip to a foreign land. Thus, students’ dismissal of history writing as an arcane and niche enterprise reflects a wider protest that asks “So what?” in its most derisive context, analogous to its evil twin, “Who cares?” In 2007, 2.24 percent of college graduates majored in history, but only 2.02 percent in 2011.[2]  In response, historians have initiated an emphasis on a new pedagogical approach to authentic historical problems or controversies that more accurately reflect the profession’s self-directed historical inquiry to establish an argument’s significance—the “so what?”

In my own teaching, making history relevant is a two pronged strategy. First, the subject, marijuana, is a popular topic that many students (mostly male) are curious about for a variety of reasons (some better than others). This course follows three eras of marijuana politics. First we cover the major controversies surrounding the Anslingerian prohibition years in the 1930s; next, we examine the war on drugs that began in the 1960s; and finally, we research the legalization era that began in the 1990s.  The topic obviously provides a rich cultural history with a dizzying array of sources that engage students but also consider marijuana’s symbolic and political significance. For example, while reliable entertainment, comparing Reefer Madness, Easy Rider, Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke and Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High provides a fascinating window into Americans’ shifting sentiments about pot and the stoner from the 1930s to the 1980s. While the first two papers ask students to argue about the historical trends in marijuana culture, science and politics, the final assignment embraces the topic’s current controversy and asks students to develop an argument about the reason for the recent growing support for legalization. This assignment gives students free reign to choose their topics, as they write about issues such as marijuana culture and research in social media, women’s roles in the effort, the motivation for racial justice and of course the medicinal movement.

Second, this class shows history as controversy with contemporary implications rather than a list of dates and names. Students analyze political texts such as congressional testimony and Richard Nixon’s tapes to explore the complicated messages and cultural assumptions that informed our policies on drugs. Practicing these historical skills, students quickly learn that as soon as they can formulate a thesis, the “so what?” should also be included.  Why does it matter if we scapegoat the first director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry J. Anslinger, for passing the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937? What lessons should we learn from following the rise and fall of the gateway theory? What does millennials’ overwhelming support for legalization say about this generation? All of these questions push students to make the connections between their scholarly argument and its current implications. Beyond the academic pursuit of marijuana history’s larger significance, my students can feel the topic’s controversy outside the classroom.

Soon, the class picked up wider publicity and critics predictably asked why something like this should pass as “college material.” One response to an article USA Today ran on “Marijuana in American History” expressed the abhorrence that many parents shared. “As a parent of a prospective student: STRIKE 1” read one typical reaction.  “This is not something we are looking for in a future college.” As a new hire, I began to question my decision to offer the course. After checking with BU’s public relations office, however, I quickly realized that the positives greatly outweighed the negatives and they reassured me of the university’s support.  In addition, students in my class found the controversy over their course flattering. One even expressed that she felt she was actually a part of history, while another engineering student reflected in his course portfolio, “At this time I think I have far greater perspective on the marijuana issue, but really what I think I got out of this course was a greater appreciation for how the whole ‘liberal arts college’[humanities?] thing can teach you how to think about issues.”  In his paper, he argued that courses like “Marijuana in American History” are necessary, asking: “if marijuana has been legitimized in business, medicine and in politics-why not in academics?”—essentially developing a “so what?” that answered many critics who wondered “who cares”? (Or as one person protested: “And this course will prepare the student to do something?”). Despite the current hostility to the humanities, or perhaps because of it, the history of marijuana is a new and exciting field that can expand undergraduates’ notions of history’s role in changing perceptions of drugs and alcohol in society.

[1] Patricia Meyers Spacks, “Presidential Address 1994: Reality-Our Subject and Discipline,” PMLA, 110 (May, 1995), 350-357.

[2]Robert Townshend, “Data Shows a Decline in History Majors,” Perspectives, 51 (April, 2013); Mills Kelly, “A Looming Disaster for History,” April 12, 2013, edwired ; http://edwired.org/2013/04/12/a-looming-disaster-for-history/.

 

Fiction Points: Sarah Gerard

SarahbyDavidSarah Gerard is the author of a novel, Binary Star (2015); two chapbooks, BFF (2015)  and Things I Told My Mother (2013); and a forthcoming collection of essays, Sunshine State, centered on her childhood in Florida, the home state she shares with PointsShe also writes a monthly column on artists’ notebooks, “Paper Trail” for Hazlitt. Gerard’s chapbooks garnered praise from tastemakers such as Hobart and The Rumpus, and Binary Star received glowing reviews from, among other publications, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, NPR, Vanity Fair, and The Los Angeles Times, which chose the book as a finalist for its Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction.  Buzzfeed, Flavorwire, Largehearted Boy, NPR, and Vanity Fair put Gerard’s debut novel on their 2015 year-end lists. Her short stories, essays, and criticism have appeared in venues including BOMB Magazine, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Times, New York Magazine’s “The Cut,” The Paris Review Daily, and Vice, as well as in anthologies for Joyland and The Saturday Evening Post. She teaches writing in New York City and has been a visiting writer at the University of Maine, The New School, Pratt, and other institutions.

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 intersection of arctic birds and religion. Can I interview you?

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

Well, the protagonist of Binary Star is anorexic and addicted to diet pills. Her boyfriend is an alcoholic and takes his psychiatric medication not exactly as prescribed. So, they may find that interesting. I write about drugs and alcohol in a rather different way in my essay collection, which I’m finishing now. I kind of toy with the boundaries of what is a drug: alcohol is a drug, ecstasy is a drug, but is religion also a drug? Is capitalism? Is success? Also, I don’t like to categorically vilify drugs and alcohol. Sometimes recreational drugs are a lot of fun, and sometimes they’re used as medication when another isn’t available. Read More »

Online Video Resources for Alcohol, Drug, and Addiction History

Talks from Addictions Old and New (October 22-23, 2017) and the National History Center Congressional Briefing on the History of Drug Policy and Addiction (May 9, 2016) are available online. The videos include PowerPoint slides, enlarged and edited for clarity, and follow-up questions.

Addictions Old and New, which Kyle Bridge first reported in an October 27, 2015 Points story, brought together scholars from different disciplines to discuss traditional and emerging patterns of addictive behavior. The videos feature neuroscientist Chuck O’Brien, historian David Courtwright, historian Virginia Berridge, historian David Herzberg, addiction medicine specialist Andrew Kolodny, cultural anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll, social worker and sex-addiction expert Robert Weiss, behavioral pharmacologist and tobacco expert Robert Balster, policy analyst Mark Kleiman, and historian David Leary.

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Cultural anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll was among the featured speakers at Addictions Old and New. She spoke on Addiction by Design: From Slot Machines to Candy Crush.

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Moderator Alan Kraut (left) kicked off the National History Center Congressional Briefing on the History of Drug Policy and Addiction, which featured an overview of U.S. drug-policy history by David Courtwright and an analysis of the origins of the opioid epidemic by Keith Wailoo (right). Historian Dane Kennedy summarized and commented on the presentations.

 

Fiction Points: Eileen Cronin

CRONINEileen Cronin is a writer and clinical psychologist. Her book Mermaid: A Memoir of Resilience (2014) centers on her search for the truth about her body and the role that the drug thalidomide played in its shape, her childhood in a large Catholic family, her mother’s mental illness, her marriage, and her own struggles with alcohol. In addition to nonfiction, Cronin writes poetry and fiction. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Bellevue Literary Review, Los Angeles Times, Third Coast,  and Best American Essays, among other venues. She also writes for The Huffington Post. Mermaid appeared on O, The Oprah Magazine‘s Best Memoirs of 2014 list and Pop Sugar‘s “Must Reads of 2014.” In 2008, Cronin won the Washington Writing Prize for Short Fiction. Her nonfiction has earned her a Pushcart Prize nomination, and her two novels were finalists for the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Award for Novels-in-Progress. Cronin serves as an assistant editor for Narrative Magazine and lives in Los Angeles. 

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 can’t help but to notice the resemblance between these folks at the bar. But I don’t ask about that, nor do I tell them that I have written about a nun who looked like a penguin when she ran. Instead I tell them what I have in common with them. I write about Catholics, sort of like Alice McDermott but with a bit more of an edge.Read More »

Fiction Points: Chloe Caldwell

Chloe Caldwell in Kingston, NY for Grazia 5/31/14Chloe Caldwell is the author of the novella WOMEN (2014) and the essay collection Legs Get Led Astray (2012). Her work has appeared in VICE, Salon, The Rumpus, The Sun, Men’s Health, several anthologies (including Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York)and elsewhere. Lena Dunham named WOMEN among her 10 Favorite Books in the New York Times, and Caldwell’s work has earned her praise from Bitch Magazine, Buzzfeed Books, The Master’s Review, and Publisher’s Weekly, among others. Coffee House Press/Emily Books will publish her next essay collection, I’ll Tell You in Person, in October 2016.

 

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 is my worst nightmare. I change what I write about depending on who I’m talking to and what I think they can ingest. I meet them where they are. So female! When I’m talking to a parent’s friend or something, I say, travel essays. I really dislike talking about my work with strangers. It takes away the magic of the work. I suck at talking about my work. I’d rather have it speak for itself. So I’d probably get guarded and weird and tell them I wrote a novella. Then I’d text my friends saying OMFG there’s a penguin and a nun in this bar.

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

I’m stumped!

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

Because I was using drugs and alcohol and writing about my life. So….was inevitable.

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?

The essay I wrote “Heroin and Acne” for Salon is a good example of this. I like exploring gray areas and middle grounds of themes. Our culture always wants people to be black or white: you’re either a drug addict or you’re not. You’re either a lesbian or your straight. I’ve struggled with identity issues throughout my twenties (like everyone) because often I fell in between, and there weren’t many narratives for me to read that were coming from that place, so I wanted to write them.

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?

WOMENI like how drugs and alcohol inform the narrator’s choices in WOMEN. One event in the book is the narrator moves to a new town to get away from the drugs she’s doing, but she finds Finn and begins an addictive relationship with her. I’m interested in any addictive behaviors. in my own life, in books and films, in my friends’ lives, and I don’t mean with drugs and alcohol specifically—with the internet, chocolate, fruit, exercise, coffee.

I’m not sure where it will lead me in future projects. I don’t do drugs anymore, but I still reflect on them a ton and am always fascinated with them as much as I am with recovery and health. It’s important to me to un-cliche the way addiction and recovery stories are told. The ways people stay physically and mentally healthy are just as if not more fascinating than addiction stories.

BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope that your novella Women 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?

Better Off” by Haim or “My Baby Don’t Understand Me” by Natalie Prass or “Daydreaming” by Dark Dark Dark.

Fiction Points: Scott McClanahan

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Scott McClanahan (credit: HTMLGiant)

Scott McClanahan is the author of the novel Hill William (2013), the nonfiction work Crapalachia: A Biography of Place (2013), and the short story collections Stories (2008), Stories II (2009), Stories V! (2011), and The Collected Works of Scott McClanahan Vol. 1 (2012), which includes the out-of-print Stories and Stories II. He cofounded the production company and press Holler Presents with Chris Oxley, who plays beside McClanahan in the band Holler Boys. McClanahan also makes films, available online via Holler Presents. Crapalachia received positive reviews from the New York TimesThe Paris Review, Paste, and The Washington Post, among others; The Huffington Post gave Stories V! a heartfelt rave, and The Fader has called McClanahan “one of [its] favorite writers.”  He appeared on Dzanc Books’ “20 Writers to Watch: An Alternate List” list in 2010 and won Philadelphia’s third Literary Death Match in 2012. He lives in West Virginia with his wife, the writer Juliet Escoria, who has also been featured on Points.

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?

First, I’d never introduce myself as a writer, but I’d probably ask them about being a nun or a penguin. That seems a hell of a lot more interesting. I think if you found a penguin talking you should probably ask the talking penguin about how it learned to talk rather than babbling about your stupid writing. “Well, it’s called flash fiction Mr. Penguin because it’s really short and flashy.” Nah.Read More »

Fiction Points: Elissa Washuta

elissawashutapicElissa Washuta is the author of Starvation Mode: A Memoir of Food, Consumption, and Control (2015) and My Body is a Book of Rules (2014), the latter of which was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. Washuta has received fellowships and awards from Artist Trust, 4Culture, Potlatch Fund, and Hugo House. Her essays have appeared in Buzzfeed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Literary HubSalon, Third Coast, and elsewhere. Washuta is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and teaches nonfiction in the Institute for American Indian Arts’ MFA program, where she is also the faculty advisor for Mud City Journal. Additionally, she serves as the undergraduate advisor for the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington, from which she earned her MFA. She lives outside Seattle.

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?

Differently than I would answer almost anyone else, probably, because my first book, My Body Is a Book of Rules, is about sex, (psych) drugs, violence, alcohol, Indigenous identity, and the nuns who tried to teach me how to live. I might whisper to the penguin that I still have all the issues of Cosmopolitan from December 2007 to May 2011 that I used to create a quote-comparison of the magazine’s sex tips and text from The Catechism of the Catholic Church.

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

Prescribing Information,” one of the chapters in My Body Is a Book of Rules, takes the form of a list of the prescription drugs for bipolar disorder I used and, occasionally, abused between 2006 and 2009. The voice is inspired by that of the information pharmacies dispense alongside prescription drugs. Throughout the book, I write about the effects—helpful and harmful—of those drugs, including Seroquel, Abilify, Xanax, Ativan, and lithium.Read More »

Fiction Points: Elizabeth Ellen

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Elizabeth Ellen reads from Fast Machine

Elizabeth Ellen is a writer and editor who resides in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She is the author of the story collections Before You She was a Pit Bull (2006) and Fast Machine (2012), an assemblage of her best work from the last decade. A chapbook of her flash fiction, entitled Sixteen Miles Outside of Phoenix, appears in Rose Metal Press’ A Peculiar Feeling of Restlessness: Four Chapbooks of Short Short Fiction by Four Women (2008), and Ellen released a poetry collection, Bridget Fonda, in 2015. Her short story “Teen Culture” won a Pushcart Prize in 2012, and her work has been published online or in print by American Short FictionBOMBHTMLGiant, The GuardianLazy Fascist ReviewMcSweeney’s, MuuMuu House, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn among other venues. Ellen also co-edits the journal Hobart and oversees its book division, Short Flight/Long Drive Books.

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 tell them the same thing I tell everyone who asks that question: myself. Because I’m a narcissist and solipsistic. And the two nuns and the penguin don’t interest me half as much as I interest myself. LOL. Though I can’t imagine telling anyone in a bar I’m a writer. Read More »

Fiction Points: Sean H. Doyle

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Sean H. Doyle

Sean H. Doyle is the author of This Must Be The Place (2015), a memoir in fragments. The book received praise from the Chicago TribuneVol. 1 Brooklyn, Gawker, and Poets & Writers. His work has appeared in MonkeybicyclePANKVol. 1 Brooklyn, WhiskeyPaper, and other venues, including on his own website, which offers a wonderfully overwhelming and oft-updated look into his brain. Doyle also makes music as shenxian. 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?

Did the nuns ask me to confess some character flaw? I don’t normally tell people—or penguins—that I write. In my experience, folks who offer that up right away are usually welders or CEOs in disguise. I’d probably answer by telling them that I write about my inability to unsee the world and the things that happen around me or to me or inside of me.

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

Maybe the audience would find my work interesting because my work doesn’t apologize at all? Drugs and alcohol are a part of every life, even those lives seemingly free of imbibing. My life has not been perfect, will never be perfect, and my experiences with drugs and alcohol have been important to my understanding of my past/current/future self and how I fit into and out of the world around me.Read More »