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America Has Been Trying to Get Sober for Over 300 Years

The new book 'Drunks' is a colorful history of America's attempts to lay off the sauce, from radical prohibitionists attacking frontier bars to modern rehab programs like AA.

by Rachel Riederer
Jul 6 2017, 9:30pm

A staged photograph from 1933. Photo by Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

For as long as people have been drinking, they've also been trying to quit. A new book, Drunks: An American History, by Christopher M. Finan, chronicles the various sobriety movements that have characterized every phase of American history, as far back as the 17th century.

Drunks, which was published last week by Beacon Press, begins with Native Americans, for whom sobriety was not just a personal health issue but a way to restore pride and independence from the white colonists who first brought liquor to the continent. Finan recounts the story of Handsome Lake, a member of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy), whose visions of a spirit messenger telling him to abstain from alcohol, kicked off a religious sobriety movement in 1799. (Legally speaking, Finan notes that the very first North American prohibition was enacted by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1633.) From there, the book covers centuries of colorful episodes, including radical prohibitionist Carry Nation's attacks against frontier taverns in the early 1900s. She smashed up Kansas bars "first with bricks and stones, then an iron rod, and finally a seven-pound hatchet" taken from the railroad company. These early sobriety movements would eventually pave the way for the self-help and rehabilitation movements of the 1980s, including Betty Ford's highly publicized rehab center. The Betty Ford Clinic was so fascinating to people, a TV station once attempted to sneak into her hospital via a bread truck. "I hadn't rescued anyone from a burning building," said Ford, mystified by all the attention. "I'd simply put my bottles down."

But Finan, who comes from generations of alcoholics working to get sober, knows there's nothing simple about it. This lived-in experience is on display as he chronicles three centuries of advocates and alcoholics fighting to arrive at the modern view of addiction. Drunks shows how hard doctors have had to work to prove that alcoholism is, in fact, a disease and that giving up alcohol was possible for even habitual drinkers. Finan calls sobriety one of the "great liberation movements," and his book is a history of people trying to get free.


Watch on VICE: 'From Rehab to a Body Bag: Dying for Treatment':


VICE: You write about the changing meaning of "temperance." How and why did the meaning of that term change over time?
Christopher M. Finan: In the beginning, there was a widespread recognition that Americans had a drinking problem, by the end of the 18th century. It was the result of the sudden flood of whiskey that became so cheap that abuse was inevitable. So the early temperance groups advocating abstaining from distilled spirits but believed it was OK to drink beer and wine. In fact, Dr. Benjamin Rush [surgeon general of the Continental Army] really believed that lesser spirits could help people get sober by helping to wean them off of whiskey. As the temperance movement grew, people started to say—sensibly—it's not really whiskey that's the problem, alcohol is the problem. So, several decades into the movement, this clash developed between the older school of temperance and the so-called Tea-Totalers, who began to push a pledge getting people to abstain from any alcohol at all. And that became the stance of the temperance movement up until Prohibition.

There is a theme of class that comes up from time to time in the book. Do you see a connection between the issue of drunkenness and the American dream of economic success?
As with every aspect of American history, there certainly is a class element. Some of the older temperance supporters were ministers and men of wealth who really wanted to be able to continue to drink wine. So focusing on whiskey, which is what the poor were drinking, was easy for them. For the Washingtonians, the 19th-century movement among working men to address the problem of drunkenness in their ranks, it definitely was a factor. [It was] an increasingly turbulent economic environment, in which classes were developing—and sobriety was critical to be able to rise in that world.

Photo by David Rozenblyum. Courtesy of Beacon Press

I love the Abraham Lincoln quotation that you include about the "heads and hearts of habitual drunkards." It's a warm description—very different from the way that many others talk about drunks.
It is a constant theme, to push back against the image of them as the town drunks, the degenerates, and to make the point that alcoholism affects all classes of society and it afflicts the best and brightest. It's often a reaction to how terrible the stigma was against alcoholics: the idea that alcoholics deserved to suffer because they were bad people, they were criminals, they were weaklings, they were sinners. The tremendous humanitarianism of Lincoln is well-known, but I hadn't known until I started working on this book that it extended to drunks.

I was surprised to read how early some doctors were viewing alcohol abuse as a medical issue.
They didn't call it alcoholism at the time, but alcohol has always been kicking the hell out of us. Doctors could hardly miss it. But it wasn't until the 18th century that some began to speculate that it was the consequence of a physical illness that could be studied. Benjamin Rush was the first American to focus on the problem and to see it as something that could be cured. He knew people who had gotten sober, and he had helped people get sober. He had a servant, who may have been a slave, who had an alcohol problem, and he gave him Ipecac to make him throw up, and that became a fairly standard treatment for helping to wean people off.

How did sobriety evolve from there?
Doctors had always been interested, but it was really until the 1870s that there were enough who came together for the American Associate for the Care of Inebriates. They began to establish institutions for alcoholics, and realized that as difficult as it was, people could be helped. And then that went on to Dr. Keeley, who established more than 100 clinics, and helped thousands.

Could you talk more about Keeley? This doctor is treating alcoholism as a disease—great—but also selling "gold injections" as a cure.
It takes a lot of thinking to figure out if he was a bad guy or a good guy. At the beginning, there was a certain amount of hucksterism. But the fact is that, whether he knew what he was doing or not, he did help thousands, because he created these places where alcoholics could go. They had been alone in their suffering, and they began to draw strength from each other, and gain confidence in the idea that they could recover. Up until that point, it wasn't even clear to people that recovery was possible.

"They didn't call it alcoholism at the time, but alcohol has always been kicking the hell out of us."

I love this idea that Keeley maybe was being a bit of huckster, but stumbled into the real cure.
I think he was well-intentioned. But as with all elements of American life, there was always an element of commerce. The patients in his clinics were enormously grateful to him. There's a scene with an image that I love. Keeley is under attack from the medical establishment and he's coming back from a trip, and there lined up at the railroad station are long lines of his patients who doff their caps to him as he passes—it's very heartwarming.

You get into the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous. Can you tell us a bit about what was going on in America at the time?
It's impossible to exaggerate what a disaster Prohibition was for alcoholics, even those who hoped that Prohibition would help them. There had been a little over a century of increasingly hopeful developments, and then Prohibition comes along and a lot of private institutions and some key government-run institutions closed. And when Prohibition fails, and the liquor starts to flow again, alcoholics are really lost. It is out of that really devastated landscape that Alcoholics Anonymous emerges. There were a lot of factors—like America's talent for forming voluntary groups, which is something that de Tocqueville talked about. But the spark is just this chance meeting between Bill Wilson and Bob Smith, in Akron, [Ohio], in 1935—two talented people, likeminded people, who find each other in desperation. Wilson is only a few months sober, and he's afraid he's going to get drunk, and Smith is recovering from a hangover from a couple of days before. These two guys sit down and click. By the early 1950s, there are more than 100,000 members. It is a fabulous tale—and its lasting significance cannot be overstated. This is one of America's great liberation movements.

I'm curious about what you think about the current culture around drinking and sobriety.
I think that a lot of the progress we've made is permanent. As long as people are staying sober and can remember what it was like for them, whether in AA or some other sobriety group, this is one of the defining experiences of their lives and they aren't about to let anybody deny or diminish the truth of what they've experienced. [But] alcoholism is still a tremendous problem, and the amount of treatment is completely inadequate. In government, there's always going to be the temptation to do what it did before with Prohibition, to cut back on spending, to say it's really not such a big problem. We hear that in the debate over repealing Obamacare. Tom Price, the head of Health and Human Services, was trying to defend the fact that the Republican plan would cut back on addiction services, and he said, "Hey, these treatments aren't working. We need to try something else." As if cutting the budget is the way to try something new.

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Drunks: An American History by Christopher M. Finan is available in bookstores and online from Beacon Press.

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Drunks: An American History
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