Flying into the Unknown: On the Limits of Addiction History

Let’s begin with the story of a woman named Anna.

State Reformatory for Women, Bedford Hills, NY

In October 1917 the research staff of the Laboratory of Social Hygiene at the State Reformatory for Women, Bedford Hills, New York, examined a woman who identified herself, at different times and according to different documents, as Anna Dillon, Anna White, Anna Miller, and Anna Murray. Anna was both a heroin user and a prostitute, and the staff of the laboratory examined her closely in order to determine the causes of her deviant behavior. They studied her body in great detail, observing that the lobules of her ears “are attached,” her skin and mucous membranes “anemic,” and her vagina of “medium length and width.” They gave her a large number of psychological tests, eventually determining that she was “of normal mental ability with keen perception and fair reasoning ability.” And finally, they assembled a detailed case history of her life by conducting extensive interviews with her, soliciting documents from other institutions at which she had been incarcerated, and gathering information from her acquaintances. In all this, they sought to investigate and document the causes of her deviant behavior. They searched for an explanation of why she acted as she did in the details of her body, her mind, and the social experiences that made up her life. They collected and analyzed data, working to forge a coherent narrative explaining who she was and why she acted as she did. They did so in part to help her, and in part to advance scientific knowledge about sexual deviancy more generally.

Like our peers at the Laboratory of Social Hygiene, historians of addiction analyze the lives of the people we write about and try to come up with some sort of explanation for why our subjects acted as they did. Like our peers, we do so both out of an interest in the people we study and toward the goal of advancing knowledge more generally; through our work, we hope to find some sort of knowledge with which we can understand the world in which we currently live. Not surprisingly, we have a tendency to look in the same types of places for this information as the people interviewing Anna looked – including, most notably, the socio-economic environment and the physical workings of the body. There are, of course, complex arguments about the relationship between different approaches to explaining addict behavior in the past, and this blog is probably as good a place as any to explore the complexities of these debates – the recent series of posts responding to David Courtwright’s recent essay in Addiction is a great place to start. I do not want to downplay the importance of these debates, but I wonder: are we missing something important about the past when we try to explain it in this sort of way? Do we miss something important about Anna when we interrogate her life through the categories most familiar to us, those of historical and sociological analysis, biological explanation, or some combination? What is it that we hope to accomplish when we move from description to explanation, and what do we gain – or lose – when we do so?Read More »

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