About a month and a half ago, I had a dark epiphany. It was one of those quiet Saturday nights you come to appreciate once you’re a little older and a long-time sober. I was downstairs streaming Netflix, my pregnant wife, due with our first child in May, was resting upstairs. I was watching an episode of Morgan Spurlock’s CNN documentary show, Inside Man. Each episode inserts Spurlock into some troubling or controversial space where our policies either can or have gone wrong in a way that have consequences for certain people. The episode I was watching was called, “Privacy” and in it Spurlock examines big data and its implications for surveillance and increasingly invasive targeted advertising.
As part of Spurlock’s quest to determine how much of his personal data has been bought, bartered and exchanged between entities hoping to more effectively access his wallet with targeted advertising, he travels after making a string of fruitless phone calls to the offices of a data brokerage house, only to discover that it’s essentially impossible to find out who is buying and selling your personal data. The implications of such shadowy and unregulated commerce, he claims, are potentially ugly as he notes that data brokerages have gone so far as to compile and broker sensitive lists of rape survivors, people with HIV, and alcoholics.
That was when I jumped up from my chair.
For the past two years, since I’ve spoken more frequently about being in recovery on social media, and as mobile Internet services and social media applications have sought to more aggressively insert advertising into my life, my feeds have become consumed with alcohol advertising. At first, I registered this fact subconsciously, really not thinking much of it as I scrolled through my Twitter feed past booze ads. After a while, it was occurring so frequently on both Twitter and YouTube that I naively assumed that it was an error of some keyword scraping ad targeting bot that was capturing my tweets about alcoholism and recovery and decided in error that I was someone who drinks.
But it wasn’t until I saw Inside Man that I began wondering if this was a deliberate campaign to get alcohol advertising in front of a recovering person with the hopes that I would relapse and become a habitual alcohol consumer again. A recent example is YouTube serving me alcohol advertising at 8am on a Saturday morning as I’m queuing up music for a morning run. Why else would they serve me a booze ad at that time of day, unless they thought I was the kind of guy who might go for a beer as the sun’s coming up (which, 11 years ago, I was)?
Spurlock’s claim that data brokers target alcoholics comes from the reporting of his CNN colleague Melanie Hicken, who has covered the issue of sensitive data exchange extensively. Her report stated that data brokers are trading on the fact that you went to rehab and putting you on a list of alcoholics of interest to alcohol marketers based on congressional testimony by Pam Dixon, the executive director of the World Privacy Forum who informed lawmakers that “Alcohol and drug treatment information about patients is the subject of extra protections under existing law, but no law stops data brokers from profiting by selling the information.” She concluded that, “Individuals should have the right to stop harmful collection and categorization activity.”
A constant barrage of alcohol advertising is not going to make me drink. Recovery has given me too amazing a life for that; I own a house, I’m happily married, I have a daughter due to arrive in the spring that I’m 100% certain I can love and care for. These things did not come easily; I’ve only reached this point after 11 years of hard work at repairing the damage drugs and alcohol did to my life. The thought of joining the hideous beer fueled bro-down that Budweiser for some reason thinks I’ll find appealing at this life stage is utterly repellant, and made more so by the fact that it feels like a cynical campaign to potentially destroy my life in the quest to make me a reliable return customer. And I believe that the alcohol industry wants someone like me back—roughly half of all alcohol consumed gets purchased by risky drinkers.
As Fix readers are well aware, old ideas that alcoholics and drug addicts should remain anonymous for fear of having their lives impacted by the associated stigma are fading. As more people have spoken openly about their struggles with addiction, we’ve found ourselves better situated as a community to combat policies that criminalize drug users, to advocate for greater access to better quality treatment and foster greater understanding in the general public about a previously demonized population. However, if the cost of sharing our stories openly online is being targeted for a campaign of relentless advertising on behalf of the alcohol industry, some who are ambivalent about the prospect may stay silent.
Of course, the alcohol industry dumps so much money into advertising because it is effective at selling products. At 11 years sober and leading a happy life, I may be immune to these ad messages, but what about the highly sensitive newly recovering person who’s afraid that by quitting drinking they’ll be missing out on the party? What about someone struggling to stay sober who is feeling alone and bored? Can someone be enticed to relapse through constant messaging that alcohol is where the camaraderie is— the central message of all the Budweiser ads I’ve received? And if so, what is the cost, in terms of health and public safety, when an ad successfully convinces a sober alcoholic to pick a drink up?
Conversely, it is conceivable that exerting mental effort wondering about a dystopic future where alcoholics can’t escape booze ads is for nothing. In fact, maybe the ads I’ve been seeing aren’t even targeted to me; it’s a fluke of demographics that I’m seeing them at all. That’s basically what Google says, and to their credit they were willing to look at the ads I’ve been served and have an extended back and forth with The Fix about what happened. Their position boils down to the fact that they have a policy against targeting alcohol advertising to individual users based on interests, so that can’t be what’s happening. It could be the kind of video I was watching—music videos are popular ad buys for beer companies. Any viewer who watches that kind of video might see a beer ad, and since they don’t allow Budweiser to target me based on interest, they’re also not allowed to intentionally exclude me from possibly seeing a beer ad because I’m in recovery. It’s no surprise I didn’t see a beer ad when I tried watching the same video signed out of my Google account—if you’re not signed in Google can’t verify your age, so anybody who’s not signed in would never see a beer ad. Though, I didn’t see a beer ad when I watched the same videos signed into Google as my wife. Well, again, Google has a policy against targeting alcohol ads to users based on interest, so whatever the explanation may be, it isn’t that.
I came away from the conversation with Google less certain about what’s going on with the ads I’ve been seeing on their platform—I’m a 41-year-old dude who mostly watches old heavy metal videos on YouTube, of course they’re going to constantly advertise beer to me, it has nothing to do with posting about recovery online! But the suspicion that I’ve been singled out lingers, nonetheless.
Twitter takes a more laissez faire approach to alcohol advertising, mostly only restricting its deployment in the U.S. to those verified over the age of 21 and, unlike Google, allowing users to be targeted for advertising by interest. In fact, it keeps an entire list of what it considers to be successful alcohol industry ad campaigns that have targeted users by search keywords, promoted trends, and interest in “food and beverage.” Maker’s Mark, one brand that was constantly on my timeline a while back, won a Shorty Award for its efforts. One can imagine how a Twitter user who tweets “Alcohol destroyed my life,” or “Things are so much better since I quit partying,” might get swept up in a targeted ad dragnet using the words “alcohol” and “partying” to indicate interest in drinking and wind up seeing booze ads as a result. It’s not only scraped keywords that could conceivably go awry or be maladapted; in its Twitter campaign Ciroc Vodka “used geo-targeting to deliver relevant messages to revelers attending branded events in popular markets.” Imagine an alcohol ad campaign using geo-targeting to match phone metadata to the times and locations of AA meetings, that initiates a targeted ad campaign when someone stops attending as frequently as they used to.
Pam Dixon from World Privacy Forum assured me that data brokers trading in lists of alcoholics are distinct from Internet companies, so my repeatedly seeing beer ads on YouTube or whiskey enticements on Twitter isn’t the result of some shady back alley transaction with information merchants. That would be great news, except that what data brokers do is far sleazier and potentially more damaging to recovering alcoholics than putting ads on their cellphones.
“The data broker lists can lead to deep life impacts, including potentially what you pay for health insurance to what kind of credit you may be initially offered. We document this overall issue in our report, The Scoring of America.”
The solution to not being targeted by booze ads in recovery, obviously, is to opt of any targeted advertising. Google suggested I could do this—though, they also pointed out that it shouldn’t matter whether I’m opted in or out, since they’re not targeting me for alcohol ads. But irrespective of whether they currently have a policy against targeting alcohol ads and an opt-out clause, will those policies always be there? Is it possible that at some point in the future once I’ve fitted my house up with Google’s smart appliances, Nest, smart television, fire alarm, home security system and self-driving car and so on, that Google changes their policy to require ad targeting to use their products, and loosen restrictions around alcohol advertising? If so, would I have to totally uproot myself from technology (if, at that point, it’s even possible to do so—note how increasingly difficult it is to buy a television without smart features included) in order to avoid existing in a hellscape of constant inescapable alcohol advertising straight out of a Black Mirrorepisode?
Perhaps I’m paranoid; it’s just some ads, big deal! And maybe raising these questions is just indulging in a grim fantasy. Or, maybe there is cause for concern about real danger on the horizon for people in recovery on the Internet, and we should keep a closer eye on what’s flashing on our screens.
Anheuser Busch did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
Jeff Deeney is a social worker, freelance writer and recovering addict in Philadelphia. He is a contributor to the Atlantic and has written for the Daily Beast, The Nation, and The Marshall Project.
After years of posting about getting sober, I began wondering if the beer ads I was seeing online were part of a deliberate campaign to get me to pick up the bottle again.
It is well known that the field of medicine has been slow to welcome addiction as a treatable condition, contributing to the stigmatization of substance misusers and causing them to seek help outside of the medical community. Thankfully, all of that is now changing with advances in the field of addiction medicine and the development of new treatments specifically targeting addiction. Dr. Howard Wetsman argues that most addiction treatment has been misguided and ineffective but that we are finally able to "throw away the cookie cutter" and "treat addiction like the disease it is."...Richard Juman, PsyD
We use the word “disease” a lot in addiction treatment. We’re proud of our “disease model” and like to talk about how it is such an advance on the stigmatizing old “moral model.” We talk about the techniques that we use to treat the disease of addiction and how people get better in response. There’s only one problem: We don’t really believe that addiction is a disease!
Most of how we think about [addiction], research it, diagnose it, pay for it and treat it is wrong.
I say that because, in spite of the language that we use in describing addiction as a disease, we don’t actually treat it like it is a disease. In working with patients that have chronic illnesses, physicians routinely put patients on medications with the intention of the patient staying on the medication indefinitely. Examples of this would be cholesterol-lowering medicine for heart disease, insulin for diabetes, beta blockers for high blood pressure, etc. Would we ever tell someone who had one of these chronic illnesses that they should take their medication for six weeks, or three months, or even two years, and then stop, unless their condition had been fully treated? I think even the least-educated layperson would understand that’s not a logical strategy. Yet, it is routine practice in addiction treatment to tell a patient to take a medication for a brief period, “until your brain normalizes,” and then stop. That is simply not an evidence-based practice in medicine, and indicates how far we still are from thinking of and treating addiction as a real disease.
For instance, I recently went to see my internist who was late to the appointment. He apologized and I asked what happened: “An old patient of yours,” he replied. “Really,” I asked, “Who?” He told me the name; I remembered her from about eight years ago. She had done well on buprenorphine maintenance until I closed my private practice to work at a treatment center. She had evidently gone to see someone else who thought that buprenorphine wasn’t consistent with being “sober.” In the years since I’d treated her successfully with ongoing buprenorphine, the medication was discontinued, she had gone back to using a few times, gone to inpatient treatment twice at centers that didn’t use buprenorphine, and been to a few psychiatrists who had treated her for other diagnoses. He told me she had never done as well as when she had been on buprenorphine, and that he had put her on it at the old dose a few weeks ago and she was doing fine.
“So what’s the problem?” I asked, “Why did it make you late?” “Because her parents and husband want her off the medication,” he said. He went on to explain that over the last seven years the advice she and her family had been given about buprenorphine was that it was only a short-term medication until “her brain normalized.” The mindset behind this advice is that addiction is really just a long-lasting intoxication that will eventually go away, leaving the person normal again; this is not a true understanding of addiction as a disease.
My internist knows the definition of disease: the loss of some function of some part or organ of the body. It is pretty clear in diabetes what organ doesn’t work. It’s pretty clear in emphysema what part has lost some function—in addiction, not so much. To meet this problem in understanding addiction, scientists have sought and found a tortured biochemical pathway of second messengers and enzymes that change when lab animals are given drugs. We use this pathway to explain what happens to the normal brain on drugs and how the “disease” happens. But it still doesn’t answer why the person took the first and second doses of the drug. For that, we invoke many other personality and psychiatric problems that bring us perilously close to the moral model.
With every other chronic disease we look at data. With addiction, we believe.
As long as we think of addiction as something a “normal person” has done to himself by using a drug, we will only see it as a temporary abnormality brought on by bad behavior. We will continue to expect that person to “return to normal,” “get better and not need medications,” and “be clean (including no medicines) and sober.” We don’t expect that in a person with decreased insulin production. We don’t expect that in a person whose pulmonary alveoli have lost integrity. We don’t expect that in any other chronic disease. That’s because with every other chronic disease we look at data. With addiction, we believe.
We believe in lots of things that help explain to us why we can call addiction a disease even when we don’t treat it that way. One of them is Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS). This syndrome (as a dog lover I think the name is very cute) explains to us why people who have recently withdrawn from a drug such as an opioid might be feeling poorly months later. It explains to us that drug use is long lasting without invoking a permanent physiological change. I’m not suggesting that there aren’t long-lasting changes from an environmental assault such as chronic drug use, but only that there is another, more primary, explanation of the phenomenon.
We need PAWS to explain the phenomenon because we don’t believe addiction is really a primary disease. Here’s a case I had that explains why: I treated a 54-year-old woman (details changed and obscured to protect her identity) who had no indication of a DSM Substance Use Disorder or other mental illness until she was 45, when she took a prescribed opioid for pain after a physical trauma. She loved it; “best feeling ever.” She noticed that she could get things done, wasn’t scared of other people anymore, and was far kinder to her husband and children with an opioid onboard. It’s always wonderful at the beginning. But notice her reaction to this “narcotic” drug: It wasn’t narcotic—it was stimulating. Narcotic means “to produce sleep,” but opioids woke this woman up, as they do to about 10% of the population that don’t normally release enough dopamine. These people therefore get an increased dopamine signal from something that releases dopamine, like an opioid. Still, so far she’s a fairly normal-sounding opioid dependent patient.
Her next decade wasn’t pretty: dose escalation, increased alcohol use, addition of amphetamines, a lot of scheming to get opioids, crossing lines she thought she’d never cross, the usual. So she came for treatment, refused IOP or inpatient treatment, and we discussed buprenorphine, among other options. She stopped her pills, entered moderate withdrawal and I titrated her up to 16mg a day of buprenorphine. Withdrawal went away and she felt much better. So far, so good. So far, this is a picture most people who treat addiction and call it a disease can identify with.
And here’s where things change direction: a couple of weeks later she told me that she was much better, but there was still something missing. She didn’t have much “get up and go;” she felt blunted; she found she was more irritable with her family. She’d wanted me to give her an amphetamine for ADD because they had helped her so much when she couldn’t get opioids before. At this point, most people are having one of two reactions, which I will simplify into a false dichotomy for illustration. The first reaction is from the school that believes that addicts just want to get high; this group would argue that her wanting amphetamine on top of buprenorphine is an example of a deeper character flaw, a need for extended inpatient treatment, and an example of why buprenorphine isn’t really addiction treatment. The other reaction is that her continued symptoms are real, an example of PAWS, and that this is an indication for getting her off buprenorphine and onto naltrexone to combat her opioid receptor accommodation and end her PAWS. The second school would call the first school a “bad” name, like the moral model, and call itself the disease model. Remember, this is a false dichotomy. Don’t take it personally!
So what did I do? Genetic testing. I found that she had a polymorphism of Methylenetetrahydrofolate Reductase (MTHFR), an enzyme that turns folic acid from our diet into L-methylfolate, the only form that our brains can use. One use for L-methylfolate is as a co-enzyme in two stages of the production of dopamine. This polymorphism decreased the function of MTHFR so that she didn’t produce as much dopamine as normal. The other thing I found out is that she had a polymorphism of Monoamine Oxidase B (MAOB), an enzyme that breaks down dopamine. Her polymorphism increased MAOB function so that she broke down dopamine too fast, before it could be packaged in a vesicle for release. This meant that her dopamine-releasing vesicles were never packed with as many dopamine molecules as they should have been.
So, I started her on a prescription form of L-methylfolate to supplement what she was missing. When she wasn’t well a few days later, I started her on a selegiline, a selective MAOB inhibitor. What other clinicians would have described as PAWS went away. The point is that her PAWS went away as I increased dopamine tone, not as her opioid receptors lost accommodation. It wasn’t PAWS, what she had was partially treated addiction. Buprenorphine was only part of the treatment because opioids were only part of the problem. I’ve had several patients like her that could never have come off of buprenorphine without the addition of other medications that were genetically indicated to raise dopamine release. She did get off of buprenorphine, but has stayed on L-methylfolate and selegiline.
I also talked to her about 12-step recovery from the very beginning of treatment. I do that for two reasons. The first is that I’m a doctor and I’ll use whatever works, and 12-step recovery works in many people. The second is that I’m a doctor who was trying to raise her dopamine tone to relieve her primary symptoms of addiction, and 12-step recovery is the best way I know of increasing dopamine receptors by stopping isolation and “feeling less than.”
In spite of my urgings, this woman did not attend meetings, get a sponsor, or, most importantly, work the steps. I did 12-step facilitation therapy (TSF) instead, but that’s a pale substitute for daily practice. I am the Chief Medical Officer of a treatment company whose goal it is to get as many people into recovery as we can. I view addiction as a chronic and progressive disease and am a big believer in recovery communities that allow for lifelong participation beyond treatment because the support and fellowship that such groups provide is an important element of long-term recovery.
I think the world changed when, a few years ago, the American Society of Addiction Medicine published its definition of addiction. Instead of a categorization of behaviors, it’s a definition worthy of an actual illness, based in biology and developed from essential principles.
There are several points of ASAM’s definition that represented a paradigm shift, and these are encompassed in the first three sentences, which I’ll include here:
“Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.”
The first thing to notice is that the illness is primary. That means it doesn’t have to have a cause. It can be there first. Next, notice the order. Illness first, then symptoms and signs, that are in turn reflected by the substance use. The exact opposite of the paradigm in which substance use causes the signs and symptoms that define the disease. Next, notice the last words, “other behaviors.” Addiction is not limited to drugs, and once you accept that, you have to have a way of explaining it other than “the drugs did it.”
So, what are the implications of understanding that addiction is a disease? It means that most of how we think about it, research it, diagnose it, pay for it and treat it is wrong. It means that we now have a good explanation of why, after decades of thinking about addiction as something caused by drugs, and billions of dollars spent trying to treat addiction along these lines, the problem is no better. But, now we have a way forward.
We are now able to look at the genetics and do early recognition before a person ever picks up their first drug. We can look at the epigenetic factors, other than drugs (poverty, social injustice, physical isolation, etc.), that affect normal brains and aim our prevention efforts where they’ll actually work. We can have real medical treatment, both short term and long term, combined with the non-medical treatments that have been shown to impact the disease biology and say who will benefit from each. We can throw away the cookie cutter, and we can take a lot of people we thought were hopeless and get them real, comprehensive treatment, rather than say that the best they can expect is harm reduction.
We can finally treat addiction like the disease it is in nature.
Howard C. Wetsman, MD, is the Chief Medical Officer of the Townsend Addiction Treatment Centers in Louisiana and the author of Questions and Answers on Addiction.
A physician explains how "precision medicine" can lead to comprehensive recovery.
Mabel Normand loved gin when gin was illegal, that’s true. She especially loved a cocktail of gin and vermouth, even if she had to get her booze from a bootlegger. The more pressured her life, the more it comforted her and the more her servants watered down the gin bottles.
Just say I like to pinch babies and twist their legs. And get drunk.
She carried a monogrammed Cartier’s flask to slip gin into her coffee.
She smoked her Turkish cigarettes through a pearl diamond studded holder.
She was lustrous and brash and often taunted the press, especially on gin-soaked days, lifting her skirt or offering offbeat quotes in jest, “Say anything you like, but don't say I love to work. That sounds like Mary Pickford, the prissy bitch. Just say I like to pinch babies and twist their legs. And get drunk.”
And perhaps such impetuous behavior by a woman in the early twentieth century sparked the ire of the men covering her career and the scandals that marked her path. Fair? Who can say?
But, one thing is certain, silent film comedienne Mabel Normand’s bawdy tale is one that has been colored by damning reportage of drug dens, dope fiends, murder, lavish parties, illicit affairs, shootings, sanitariums, furtive love and power.
Drug-crazed film queen is murder suspect. – New Orleans States, Feb. 7, 1922
…the film queen was again at a “dope party” morose and embittered, according to police… - Chicago American, Feb.7, 1922
…the film beauty may be the assassin, half-crazed with the drug she had taken…”- New Orleans States, Feb. 7, 1922
Still, to call it anything more than legend would be an egregious error. For hers was a life stained by accusation, innuendo and unsubstantiated claims. It’s a tale of he said, she said. And for nearly 100 years, her pioneering spirit and entrepreneurial talents have been diminished by tales of her alleged cocaine addiction and sordid behaviors.
“The issue of Mabel Normand’s drug addiction is somewhat contentious, since it is not confirmed by any hard evidence. Since we only know the rumor and hearsay, there’s certainly room for doubt,” says Bruce Long, author of William Desmond Taylor, A Dossier, a detailed firsthand accounting of police reports, testimony, news clippings, and inquisition transcripts about the murder of film director, William Desmond Taylor. Mabel Normand was once a suspect in Taylor’s murder. “I think she usually had a sparkling personality, was mischievous, feisty, profane, and had a heart of gold. But, she had an unpleasant side, which perhaps only emerged after she had too much to drink.”
Audacious accounts of Normand’s raging cocaine addiction continue to live on today in books, films, articles and the recently released track, Mabel Normand, by multi-Grammy Award winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Stevie Nicks on her newest solo album, 24 Karat Gold: Songs from the Vault. Said Nicks in a Sept. 26 Billboard interview, “Give Mabel Normand a special listen. Mabel was an amazing actress and comedian from the '20s, and she was a terrible cocaine addict.”
In several interviews this past fall, Nicks credits her knowledge of Normand to a 1985 documentary she watched when she was at a low point with her own addiction to cocaine. “I really felt a connection with her. That's when I wrote the song.”
Was Mabel Normand merely a damsel in distress as many of her own films depicted? The beautifully saucy dark-haired flailing maiden chained to the railroad tracks awaiting rescue from the dashing Mack Sennett? Was she heroine or villain? In real life, did a disapproving media chain her to an unsubstantiated and unscrupulous fabrication? It depends on the version of the tale one chooses to believe.
According to Columbia University’s Women Film Pioneers Project, Mabel was one of the earliest silent actors to direct her own films. And she can be found in at least 167 silent film shorts and 23 full-length features. And while rarely discussed, Mabel was instrumental in Charlie Chaplin’s screen success. Mabel threw cinema's first custard pie in the face. She wrote, directed, acted, coached others and even owned her own film studio, Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, launched in 1916. And she has been credited with paving the way for women comediennes like Lucille Ball.
To really understand this tale, is perhaps to first understand the era.
It was a time of social and cultural upheaval. Women were fighting for a place in society and the right to vote. Life was faster, flamboyant and, at times, cavalier about drugs and alcohol. Coca leaf and its synthetic companion, cocaine, was legal until 1914. Right at the turn of the century cocaine was still viewed as miraculous—finding its way into tonics, elixirs, snuff tins and drinks. “Coca was a big fad and used by brain workers,” says Paul Gootenberg, a professor of history who specializes in the history of the Andean drug trade, at Stonybrook University, Staten Island.
It was the seduction of the coca leaf that lured Sigmund Freud and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to its euphoria. In a 1916 silent film, The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, Douglas Fairbanks, playing Coke Ennyday, parodies Sherlock Holmes and consumes copious amounts of cocaine.
Popular in Paris and New York, and perhaps, Hollywood at the time, was a tonic wine, Vin Mariani, actually a blend of red Bordeaux and cocaine. But he wonders if there was even enough cocaine available in the U.S. in the 1920s to support Mabel Normand’s alleged addiction. “There’s a controversy about cocaine availability at the time,” he says. “She might have been able to get it in a nasal spray.” says Gootenberg.
It is the perpetuation of Normand’s tale in stories, that Mabel’s nephew Stephen Normand, labels rumor. And he blames Stevie Nicks’ researchers for not doing a thorough job investigating Mabel’s life. “When a song has lyrics about a person who actually lived, accusing her of being a cocaine addict without proof, it is rather pathetic,” says Normand who lives in London.
After repeated attempts to contact Nicks, through her publicist about the discrepancy; calls and emails were left unreturned.
Nephew Normand backs his claims with tomes of personal correspondence and access to Aunt Mabel’s friends, her sister Gladys, and Mabel’s diaries. But for some, especially Stevie Nicks’ fans, Normand’s side of the story has no merit, and he’s been harshly criticized on several websites as a “family member in denial, a publicity hound.”
Such aspersions do not deter his reserve, he is adamant. “It is a web of hearsay, rumor and lies. Read any of these books, listen to the so-called historians, archivists who continue to rehash and rehash...,” says Normand. “They continue to use the same old rubbish...I simply ask the question, ‘Show me the facts: Where is it that documents Mabel Normand was a dope fiend?’ The answer is, they can't.”
As a young man, Stephen Normand connected with his Aunt Gladys, Mabel’s sister. And their first meeting at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal on the Manhattan side, started a two-year conversation about the family and Mabel, in particular. Initially, they met at the famous Chock Full ‘o Nuts cafe on lower Broadway for hotdogs, coffee and doughnuts, followed by a walk around Battery Park as they chatted. “We often sat on a bench to chat for a few hours,” Stephen said. “Later on, she brought gin martinis in a flask with little onions, we shared the drink in little metal cups.”
During their talks she told him all about growing up on Staten Island. “As she was the youngest, Mabel would lookout for her as her mother instructed her to do,” he said. “They often went over to Sailor's Snug harbor where their father Claude worked as a stage carpenter and scenery painter. Big brother, Claude, helping father and the girls pretending to be singing and acting on the stage.”
According to writers, Simon Joyce and Jennifer Putzi of the Women Film Pioneers Project: Even after her death, scholars have been more interested in the gossip surrounding Normand’s life and romances (including an announced marriage to Sennett in 1915 that never materialized) than her work. Scholars would do well to refocus attention on Normand’s distinctive contribution to early cinema and slapstick comedy, as well as the nature of her directorial work for Keystone.
Sister Gladys told Stephen, Mabel had a habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Such was so with her implication in the murder of film director and close friend, William Desmond Taylor, and a second shooting a few years later, by her chauffeur, with her gun. Mabel was exonerated of both shootings.
The earliest news accounts of Mabel Normand’s drug-crazed life—although never mentioned by name—are traced to two young journalists, Wallace Smith, a correspondent for the Chicago American and Eddie Dougherty for the Chicago Tribune. Both assigned to cover the William Desmond Taylor killing, the reporters often sensationalized their stories, a common practice of the burgeoning yellow press at the time. In fact, so colorful and inflammatory were their stories about those involved, the Sheriff of Los Angeles County, Eugene W. Biscailuz, offered the duo bodyguards.
From Wallace Smith, Chicago American, Feb. 1922: …Half-crazed with the drug she had taken, the woman ran in a rage to her car and drove to her home. In the morning, according to the dope peddlers—remember that was part of their trade—she repented and telephoned Taylor.
"The reports and gossip of orgies and high life among the moving picture stars are exaggerated a hundred-fold, or are simply false stories based on unauthentic rumor," said Edward "Hoot" Gibson, a world champion cowboy, screen star and daredevil to a Portland, Ore. crowd at the Liberty Theater on Feb. 12, 1922. "The tales of elaborate dope parties in the studios and homes of the stars are not true, so far as I know…”
So, was Mabel Normand’s abysmal addiction to cocaine merely a fabrication of overzealous reporters?
“There are so many different rumors about her, but I give minimal credibility to the tales that Wallace Smith told about her,” says Bruce Long. “She certainly spent over a month at the Glen Springs Sanitarium. But there’s no hard proof she was there for drug rehab, or which drug(s) she used, if any. Even if she went into Glen Springs for rehab, there is less support for thinking she used drugs after that date.”
Mabel suffered from tuberculosis, her first bout at age 10. Family members say her various sanitarium stays were tied to her TB, of which she finally succumbed on Feb. 23, 1930, when she was 37.
While sexy tales of her addiction prevail, stories of her generous spirit have not garnered the same momentum. In one story, a man who worked at the film studio said his Irish mother would love to meet her. Mabel invited her to dinner at a swanky restaurant. Not knowing it was frowned upon, the woman stuffed her napkin under her chin, to save her any embarrassment, Mabel put hers under her chin. When the woman ate with her fingers, Mabel did, too.
“Mabel was generous to a fault, giving presents and money to total strangers,” says Stephen Normand. “She was very thoughtful towards her family, particularly her parents, whom she bought a well located home on Staten Island and sent an allowance monthly to ease their life.”
In criminal trials, jurors sit in judgment and must be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt of a defendant’s guilt. In the case of Mabel Normand, what would a jury decide? Does she sit in the shadow of doubt?
She was lustrous and brash, especially on gin-soaked days, lifting her skirt or offering offbeat quotes in jest. And for nearly 100 years her pioneering spirit has been diminished by tales of her alleged cocaine addiction and sordid behaviors.
By Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli
Are Big Alcohol's Ad Men Targeting Recovering Alcoholics?