You Are What You Drink: Wine, Women, and Identity

NOTE: Today’s post is by Points contributing editor Michelle McClellan.

A recent piece in The New York Times about the wine-drinking habits of powerful female characters on television made me recall wine coolers, sweet blends of wine and fruit flavors that were packaged like soda and beer in bottles for individual consumption.  Some readers may be too young to remember them—they were most popular in the 1980s and early 1990s. Looking back now, I realize that for those of us of a certain age, they could serve as a gateway drug, and not just because of their sweet, almost Kool-Aid-like flavors.  For young women who were too naïve and uncertain to know what wine or beer or cocktail to ask for, yet well beyond the era when we would expect or want a man to order for us, wine coolers were an easy and at that time at least, socially acceptable alternative—which is no doubt what the manufacturers intended.  By all accounts, women’s drinking has gotten more serious since then, and in more ways than one.

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Seriously: wine coolers (Seagram’s Golden Wine Cooler advertisement)

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Operation Understanding: Disclosure and Stigma in 1976

Editors Note: This post is from Contributing Editor Michelle McClellan.

In May 1976, more than fifty people—celebrities and professionals from various fields—announced at a carefully staged press conference that they had recovered from alcoholism. The event had been organized by the National Council on Alcoholism (today the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence) as part of its annual conference. In 1944, Margaret “Marty” Mann had disclosed her own drinking problem and founded the NCA to persuade Americans to regard alcoholism as a public health matter. On that May day more than thirty years later, actors, politicians, journalists, sports figures, physicians, lawyers, pilots, clergymen, even an astronaut and an “Indian chief” (Sylvester Tinker of the Osage Nation) participated in “Operation Understanding.”   Arrayed in alphabetical order on risers in a hotel ballroom in Washington, D.C., each person stood, announced his or her name, and then added, “I am an alcoholic.” Consistent with the mission of the NCA, the event planners hoped to reduce the stigma associated with alcoholism, demonstrate that alcoholics come from all backgrounds, and encourage those who struggled with their drinking to seek help.

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(Click on the image for enlarged version)

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Recent News Roundup: The Sobriety Coach Edition

Twelve-step sponsorship is so twentieth century—or so The New York Times would have us believe. In an article published last month in the newspaper’s Fashion and Style section, author Marisa Fox made the case that “recovery coaches,” “once consigned to Hollywood entourages to keep celebrities on the straight and narrow,” are currently trending among upper-class women “from the Upper East Side to the beachfront homes of Boca Raton.”

Last weekend, NPR’s All Things Considered followed the trend, offering a more inclusive description of recovery coaches’ clientele (the stock image that accompanied the report was still a view from the beach).

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Diane Diederich/iStockphoto featured on NPR.com

The historical angle adopted by both news outlets was obvious. The old-fashioned practice of sponsorship—defined by Alcoholics Anonymous as the process by which a person “who has made some progress in the recovery program shares that experience on a continuous, individual basis with another alcoholic who is attempting to attain or maintain sobriety”— presents shortcomings in today’s treatment marketplace. The women featured in the Times have the ability to buy their way out of the social awkwardness and fear of exposure that twelve-step meeting attendance invites. The NPR piece notes that people in early recovery don’t always gravitate toward the most adept supporters— coaches, who are trained to provide practical as well as spiritual guidance, can help solve this long-standing problem.

Clipping from Hazelden's MORE program pamphlet. The program offers coaching for clients in early recovery.

Clipping from Hazelden’s MORE program pamphlet. The program offers coaching for clients in early recovery.

As historian and clinician Bill White explained, coaches are not sponsors (they don’t do voluntary twelve-step work on “paid time”) and they’re not quite counselors (they don’t diagnose or probe underlying psychological issues). They occupy a new niche in the service economy that employs more than 75 percent of today’s American workers. They are “the new Pilates instructors,” one coach told the Times. They are compensated to be both “cheerleaders” and “beacons of hope,” another told NPR.

Like NPR reporter Martha Bebinger, I think coaches can produce tremendous benefits, both for people in recovery and for the treatment system as a whole. But the proper role of recovery coaches in today’s health service sector also deserves a systemic critique—and not the trolling, “New York Times Style Suction” sort.

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Fiction Points: Joshua Mohr

mohrJoshua Mohr lives and writes in San Francisco, where he teaches fiction at The Writing Salon and the University of San Francisco, from which he also received his MFA. He is the author of four novels – Some Things that Meant the World to Me (2009), Termite Parade (2010), Damascus (2011), and Fight Song (2013) – and is already at work on a fifth. O, The Oprah Magazine named Mohr’s debut among its Ten Terrific Reads of 2009, and The New York Times Book Review listed Termite Parade as an Editor’s Choice in 2010. His reviews and writing have been featured in publications including The New York Times and The San Francisco Bay Chronicle.

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 has actually already happened to me, and it’s one of the reasons I got sober. The bottom is never far away when a penguin tugs on your jeans and says, “Hey, mister, are you holding?” Thank god there were no nuns around.

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

As a recovering addict/alcoholic, all my books turn over some concentric preoccupations.  Namely, I’m really curious about self destruction. Why do some of us love to hurt ourselves? I’ve been sober four years and I’m fascinated with what led me to treat myself in all those miserable ways. Authors have the capacity to sculpt psychology, really plumb someone’s psyche, and for me, it’s been a cathartic process, forcing myself to analyze toxic rationalizations. Continue reading →

Medicine or Vacation? Selling addiction treatment, circa last century

If, like me, you’ve spent the past several years studying the history of addiction treatment, then you might know why I can’t look at beachy treatment ads—they tend to resemble the image below— without thinking about the work of William L. White, the prolific addiction professional and historian.

Addiction Ends in Malibu

Addiction Ends in Malibu?

White’s book, Slaying the Dragon, is a canonical text on the history of addiction treatment in the United States. While Slaying was written to give addiction professionals a sense of their own history, the book is also an essential starting point for any scholar who first approaches the subject. Early on, White describes the “rise and fall of inebriate homes and asylums.” At the turn of the twentieth century, White writes, “a national network of addiction treatment programs was born, was professionalized, and then disappeared—all within the span of a few decades.” In his analysis of the dissolution of the early addiction treatment industry, White finds parallels with the precarious position of treatment providers today: a motley of institutional models for addiction treatment, conflicting professional interpretations regarding the nature of addiction, and unreliable political support.

One parallel is evident in contemporary treatment ads. While a combination of forces led to the decline of treatment centers a little less than a century ago, one of the most salient factors, it seems to me, was the economics of Gilded Age addiction treatment. Despite significant changes in theories of addiction, drug policy, and treatment trends over the course of the last century, the pitch for ritzy, private treatment centers has remained remarkably faithful to its early rhetoric.

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Homecomings

Editor’s note: This post was written by Kate Silbert and Matthew Woodbury, Ph.D. candidates in the Department of History at the University of Michigan. They were part of a graduate student team who researched and wrote the nomination for Dr. Bob’s Home to become a National Historic Landmark, a process outlined in previous posts. Here, they describe the recent ceremony to celebrate the designation.–Michelle McClellan

Mother’s Day is an important day for Alcoholics Anonymous. It was on this day back in 1935 that Robert H. “Dr. Bob” Smith and Bill Wilson first met. On this most recent Mother’s Day, seventy-eight years after the encounter that sparked a worldwide movement for sobriety, AA supporters gathered at 855 Ardmore Avenue in Akron, Ohio, to celebrate another milestone: the designation of Dr. Bob’s Home as a National Historic Landmark (NHL). As the authors of the NHL nomination, we were also celebrating. The recognition of Dr. Bob’s Home as an NHL marked the successful conclusion of an eighteen-month collaboration between Professor Michelle McClellan’s graduate seminar in public history and the stewards of Dr. Bob’s home, now a museum. NPS plaques

Since our first trip to Akron in the fall of 2011, the project had come full circle. That initial whirlwind visit set the pace for an intense period of consultation, research, and writing back in Ann Arbor. Last May, our group journeyed to Washington, D.C. to present the completed nomination to the National Park Service’s (NPS) Landmarks Committee. Five months later, in October of 2012, the Secretary of the Interior formally designated both Dr. Bob’s Home and Stepping Stones, the long-time residence of Bill and Lois Wilson in Bedford, New York, as NHLs. Continue reading →

The Authority of What Experience?

In most cases, people gain expertise through direct experience. This is not true when it comes to addiction, where legitimate expertise is derived from a lack of direct experience. There are many reasons for this, including cultural investment in educational prestige, faith in systems of authority, resentment of those who take their pleasure in what Derrida calls “an experience without truth,” and a distrust of addicts, who are “by class the most lying, scheming, dishonest group of patients.”

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That quote about lying drug addicts is from this new report, “Addiction Medicine: Closing the Gap between Science and Practice,” which was released by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

So when it comes to talking about addiction with any sort of legitimate authority, we generally turn to those with letters after their name rather than those with addiction in their background. The field of expertise has changed over time, from moral to legal to medical but, with very few exceptions, addicts have not been included in the cohort of experts.

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