The Sociological Approach, Part 2: Judy Garland and Billie Holiday

Note from Sarah Brady Siff: This post was written by Cecilia Burtis of Tiffin, Ohio, who earned an undergraduate degree in sociology from Miami University in 2018. See also Part 1.

In California, the entertainment industry brought drug use to the forefront of public attention, where the constant press coverage of movie stars exposed drug abuse and trafficking in vivid detail. In the 1940s and 1950s, two female stars in particular were known for their well-publicized struggles with drugs, though they occupied very different spaces in public opinion. Judy Garland and Billie Holiday are two contrasting examples of how the drug policies of the 1940s and 1950s selectively punished forms of drug addiction that were considered more dangerous. Although both women fought long battles with drug addiction, the attention given to each, as demonstrated through the media, shows very different receptions of drug dependency.

Garland and Holiday, though traveling career paths that seldom intersected, shared a surprising number of parallels. Garland was born in 1922, Holiday in 1915. Their careers both began when they were young, and they began using drugs at early ages. They were well-known singers, although Garland was an actress as well, and they both struggled with drug and alcohol dependence. They both were checked into treatment several times, both contracted cirrhosis of the liver due to immense alcohol consumption, and both died in their mid-40s of drug-related causes.

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The Sociological Approach, Part 1

In an article recently published in the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, Joseph Spillane has given me some clues on how to proceed in my own work. “Inside the Fantastic Lodge” is Spillane’s consideration of the networks, identity-making and social limitations revealed in Marilyn Bishop’s narration of her days as a young white heroin user in 1950s Chicago. The Fantastic Lodge (1961) is a book-length transcript of interviews with Bishop conducted by sociologist Howard Becker. As Spillane explains, The Fantastic Lodge was a product of the mid-century rise of a sociological approach “that took the individual as the unit of analysis.”

Spillane’s reading of Bishop’s life story construes her as the center of her own universe of social networks. By describing her social world, including the actors in it and outside intrusions upon it, he creates a piece of empirical evidence that is at once specific and universal. Historians, he writes, should continue to do this type of work in spite of a historiographic current that seems to be flowing in a different direction.

Although I have always thought of my research style as inductive—proceeding from my searching and reading rather than from my big idea—I have not really attempted to closely think and write about a single drug user. But now I have a subject whose story seems to require such an approach.

He is Keeny Terán, an adolescent Mexican-American boxer and heroin user from the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. After his meteoric rise on the amateur boxing circuit in the early 1950s (Bishop’s era of heroin use), he became a target of the news media and the police over a drug habit that he described as essential to enduring the pain of boxing, but that had originally sprung from social networks in his neighborhood and possibly at the gym where he trained.  

Teran
Keeny Terán, seated leftmost in this April 1951 Los Angeles Times photograph. What insights could boxing’s social networks hold about his heroin use?

Once targeted, Terán endured a string of public humiliations. They began when he was at the height of his notoriety: recently married, a new father, and seeking to earn a greater share of boxing’s receipts. He was arrested in the locker room after winning a fight, then outed as a supposed narcotics informant (which he denied), prompting death threats against him. Soon afterward he suddenly called off a big match and disappeared, ostensibly to a rehab center. Upon his return, a reporter double-crossed him by revealing his addiction treatment in a splashy story about his “big comeback.” Soon he was again arrested and charged with selling heroin, receiving a five-year prison sentence; about a year into serving it, the media furtively covered his divorce. The moment he hit the streets on parole, the cops marked and hounded him. He did more time, wrote a memoir that might have been lost, and ended up on methadone, which he hated.  

Many pieces of Terán’s story are missing and might never be recovered. In pursuit of facts and events, I have failed so far to ask questions about his relationship networks and his internal life, about struggles related to his family and his neighborhood and to the overlapping social worlds of boxing and heroin. More importantly, I have not yet even described these things.

The process of “describing to know” (as I’m calling it) seems to spring rather naturally from a sociological perspective. I noticed this fact last year when Ceci Burtis, a senior sociology major who conducted some research under my hapless guidance, submitted to me a write-up describing similarities and differences between two celebrity drug users. Her skilled process of simply describing aspects of the lives of these two women—Billie Holiday and Judy Garland—was simple and effective. For example, she gave me this comparison chart as a note:

Judy GarlandBillie Holiday
1922-19691915-1959
singer/actressjazz singer
whiteblack
pills: amphetamines & barbituatesheroin and marijuana
alcohol and cigarettesalcohol and barbituates
middle class familypoverty
never arrestedarrested at least three times
cirrhosis of the liver, depression, hepatitiscirrhosis of the liver, heart and liver problems
died age 47died age 44
self-administered overdosegeneral organ failure due to chronic drug use
actress at 12 years oldprostitute at 13 years old
rehab/“rest cure” four times, numerous hospitalizationsrehab three times

Marilyn, Keeny, Judy, Billie. One aspect shared by three of these lives is something Spillane describes as the “most salient” of the outside forces that can disrupt social networks and impose costs unevenly on members of those networks: the criminal justice system. Garland perhaps escaped entanglement with the law, but another disruptive force in all these cases (except personally for Marilyn, though it touched her indirectly) was the attention of the news media.

In pursuit of better history, I hope that I can begin to practice a sociological approach to writing about drug users. I also hope you will enjoy reading Ceci’s write-up about Holiday and Garland in the post that follows this one.

Gender and Critical Drug Studies: Reproducing Female Vulnerability in Gendered Drug Discourse

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Helen Keane, associate professor and head of the School of Sociology at Australian National University in Canberra. In it, she explores more about her article on perceptions of female vulnerability, especially in terms of drug use, which appeared in a special co-produced edition of SHAD and CDP, Special Issue: Gender and Critical Drug Studies. Enjoy!

Screenshot 2018-09-13 08.20.02

Helen Keane

Female vulnerability is a persistent theme of medical, public health, and popular discourses on drug use. Women have been understood as biologically, socially, and morally vulnerable to the harms of substance use, and the blurred boundaries of these categories have acted to exacerbate the naturalization of women as at risk from drugs. Men have higher rates of drug use than women, but they are rarely interpreted as suffering from an inherent vulnerability to harm. Instead their use is associated with risk-taking.

Discourses of vulnerability and norms of gendered responsibility for familial and social wellbeing combine to produce women’s drug use as more deviant and disordered than men’s use. In the figure of the pregnant or maternal drug user, the vulnerability of women is converted into a threatening capacity to produce harm. Female biology is contrasted with an unmarked male norm and viewed as more unstable and more prone to damage (in a set of tropes focused on reproduction and reminiscent of Victorian medicine). The vision of unruly drug-using women and the social disorder they produce is one of the “governing mentalities” of drug policy, to use Nancy Campbell’s term [1].

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Harold A. Mulford, Jr. — In Memoriam

Editor’s Note:  Points welcomes Paul Roman’s warmhearted reflections and commentary on fellow sociologist Harold Mulford’s life and work.  Mulford was a pioneer in the application of sociological thought and methods to alcoholism and alcohol as public problems.  As Paul’s commentary amply suggests, Hal was also a passionate and respected scholar.   

This memorial for Harold A. Mulford, Jr. will neither begin nor end with the standard statement about how much we have lost with Hal’s passing on June 28, 2012 just short of “four score and ten” at age 89.  Tapping a perhaps less common tradition, let us celebrate some of the unique gifts that alcohol social science gained by his travels with us.

Hal Mulford’s life has both storybook qualities but as a scholar, features that are absolutely unique.  Born on an Iowa farm and growing into a strapping handsome man, Hal was a hero in the Good War, with a medal-producing record of laying down the enemy with major artillery during D-Day and then fighting on through the Pacific Theater to nearly the end of the War.  After marriage and the beginning of his family, and a GI Bill bachelor’s degree from Morningside College in 1947, his eventual education at the University of Iowa led him to a doctorate in sociology in 1955.  Here he was substantially influenced by Manfred Kuhn, founder of what is known as “The Iowa School of Symbolic Interaction” wherein the somewhat elusive tenets of this perspective are put to hard-nosed empirical test.  Hal’s work continually reflected this perspective; my attempted summary of the core of his life’s work would center on his efforts to construct the symbolic and interactional world of the deviant drinker and alcoholic through scale construction. Continue reading →