A Sober Historian Chronicles America’s Drunk History

By Zachary Siegel 07/18/17

The Fix Q&A with Christopher M. Finan, author of Drunks: An American History, on our nation's history of alcoholism, recovery and AA.

American soldiers holding beer steins
An interview about the author's own recovery and how it inspired him to write this book about the history of alcoholism.

The origin story of America is typically told as a fight for freedom. But a new book, Drunks: An American History, by Christopher M. Finan, recounts a struggle that predates our wrestle for independence: a three century long battle to sober up.

Drunks begins in 1799 with the story of Handsome Lake, a member of the Seneca Nation whose drinking reduced him to “yellow skin and dried bones.” Stripped of their land and decimated by poverty, Natives sought solace in yet another empty gift offered by Americans: booze.

In a weakened, depressed state, Handsome Lake had a vision in which the Creator told him that alcohol was for the white man. “No, the Creator did not make it for you.” Inspired by his spiritual awakening, Handsome Lake eventually went on to help his fellow Iroquois sober up in what turned out to be one of the first bona fide recovery movements in North America.

Finan also chronicles the evolution of temperance movements that ultimately led to America’s failed flirtation with prohibition. The history is full of passionate characters, like Carry Nation, the radical prohibitionist known for wielding a hatchet used to break saloon windows. You’ll discover a whole other reason to dig Abraham Lincoln. While stigma punished alcoholics, he had something of a soft spot. “There seems ever to have been a proneness in the brilliant, and the warm-blooded, to fall into this vice,” he says fondly of local drunkards.

A theme of warmth and empathy toward those who’ve walked through the gauntlet of alcoholism is carefully threaded throughout Drunks. Probably because Finan himself comes from a long line of people who drank too much. He, his mom and his dad all came down with alcoholism. But the interview below, which was lightly edited for length and clarity, shows Finan as an optimist. Reading his book, you’ll understand why. While many of us are still drunk and will stay drunk, history shows we’ve come a long way from gold cures and cruel sanatoriums. Drunks is a history of lost causes finding redemption.

Your book is chock-full of fascinating historical nuggets about alcohol’s place in America’s political and social history. Which person or story that you dug up stands out as a favorite? 

The story of Handsome Lake. He’s the Seneca leader of the first recovery movement. Partly because it's such a heartbreaking story, of how hard alcoholism hit the Indians. They were experiencing nightmare after nightmare: military defeat, dispossession, poverty and alcoholism. But his religious awakening, founded on sobriety, is so encouraging. He was very successful in sobering up other members of the Iroquois Confederacy. Of course he didn't sober up everybody but the Indians had no idea that recovery was even possible until Handsome Lake began his crusade. One of my favorite quotes is from an unidentified member of his tribe. Someone asked why did it take you guys so long to get sober. He responded, "Until Handsome lake. our prophet, said the great ruler wants us to get sober, we didn't have the power. But now we know it's possible." In many ways that is every alcoholics' experience. When we’re trending down to the bottom, we wonder: is there anything we can do to stop this? Those people become powers of example to us; that’s what Handsome Lake was to his people. He was proof that not only you can get sober but that your welfare and happiness depended on it.

“Drunks” is an exhaustive history. And addiction and alcoholism are deeply personal, complex topics to explore. What motivated you to research this history?

I studied history in grad school and toward the end of my dissertation, I told my advisor I was in recovery. I had known him quite a long time and I don’t know why I decided to tell him but I did. He was a very warm and gracious guy. He became very excited and told me I ought to write a history of alcoholism. He said it would gain from the fact that you’re sober and provide some of that perspective that another historian might not be able to do.

I really liked the idea, but my dissertation took a very long time. That book took even longer. Then I wrote my second book as a history of free speech. When that was done, and I began to think about this book,I only knew my own experience in recovery. But when I looked at the broader picture I found that this was an untold story. There are certainly many historians of recovery and I depended heavily on their work, particularly William White. But there wasn’t a compact version of this story.

The more I researched the more I realized that I identified with these people. When I researched the Indians and read them describe their first experience with inebriation, I thought wow I felt that. I got that excitement, that thrill. It was like reading something that had been written yesterday instead of three centuries ago. I got very excited about these people.

Storytelling is a big part of AA and recovery today in general. But it also played a powerful role in early temperance movements. Why do you think drunks telling their stories or drunks hearing others' stories is important?

One of the other people I found particularly fascinating was this unemployed hatter named John Hawkins. He goes onto become the leading orator for the Washingtonians. I heard about the group before; but doing research you just caught their enthusiasm. It was the same discovery the Iroquois had made: nobody thought alcoholics could be restored to sobriety. Everyone thought we were a lost cause. So the best we could do was ban the sale of alcohol and all the alcoholics would die off and it’d be a better world.

To some extent, the storytelling aspect is built on a Protestant tradition of witnessing faith in Christ publicly, speaking about how your life had been improved by religious experience. But what was so different about the Washingtonians was that there was no particular religious angle to those stories. They were getting up and talking about their stories as drunks and not Christians. It was a central feature of the Washingtonian movement and a big factor in its popularity. Not only among alcoholics, but among the public. It was a huge social phenomenon. Everyone was talking about these Washingtonians during the 1840s. It swept the nation.

There was a certain amount of interest by people who weren’t alcoholics. They were open to anybody and most Washingtonians were not drunks but the leaders were. So these stories of degradation had a certain appeal. But the real appeal was the discovery that recovery was possible. My favorite spokesman for that in the book is Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln has no use for the old temperance ministers with their indifference to alcoholics. He recognizes that this is this a great human reclamation project. And he gives it his blessing.

A lot of our readers are in recovery from alcoholism. They probably know the story behind Alcoholics Anonymous: when Bill met Bob. But can you give us the historical context of their meeting?

This was one of the most hopeless periods for alcoholics in American history. What we saw in the 19th century was a growing effort to help alcoholics. Even after the Washingtonians faded, they inspired others to begin to open institutions to help people get and stay sober -- they believed in the possibility of recovery.

All that gets wiped by Prohibition. All those institutions close because there’s this naive belief that once there is no alcohol there will not be any alcoholics. Some alcoholics even believed that; even Dr. Bob believed that and thought prohibition was a solution to his problems. Everyone who felt that way was cruelly disappointed.

Within a couple years there was as much booze as ever. By the 1930s, there was little to no help available for alcoholics. So when Bill and Bob meet they are really starting at ground zero. For the first time, until 1935 to 1941, they’re really struggling. They’re broke. They’re getting people sober and it keeps them going but AA isn’t growing very rapidly.

But once AA gets public attention then begins an explosive growth in Cleveland and eventually to rest of country. It becomes the main pathway to recovery. In addition to being of direct service to the people in the rooms, it supports a more humanitarian approach. Once again, American people see alcoholics can get sober and stay that way. It encourages more efforts to help them and causes more understanding in the private sector about alcoholic employees, which eventually results in direct government support for recovery institutions.

The significance of AA, historically, is impossible to overstate. It makes possible so much of what we benefit from today. Of course, recovery is much bigger than AA; but it really did make subsequent efforts possible.

As a journalist I’ve covered the addiction treatment industry, which today is rife with hucksters, gurus and snake oil salesmen. I thought of all that when I came across Dr. Leslie Keeley peddling his “Gold Cure”? He seems complicated, because it sounds like he was really trying to help people but peddling a bogus tonic.

I agree with you it’s very hard to know what he was thinking in the beginning. He was inspired as a medical man. Like others before him [such as] Dr. Benjamin Rush, he believed a cure was possible. Keeley comes up with the Gold Cure, but certainly in the beginning there's a certain amount of hucksterism.

His unwillingness to ever reveal what the Gold Cure is certainly confirms our suspicion.

But what mattered to Keeley was not the Gold Cure. What mattered was his faith in recovery, and the fact that he inspired others to believe in it and come to his clinics. There were over 100 clinics in the country during the peak of Keeleyism. What got people sober was not the Gold Cure, but being with other alcoholics and discovering that you weren't alone and the failures you experienced have been experienced by many other people.

So you’re saying it wasn't the gold chloride that helped people.

It wasn’t gold chloride, it was other alcoholics. The secret is what we’ve seen in the Washingtonians and even among the Seneca. It was believing that sobriety was possible and having the support of others.

Alcohol kills more people than heroin but it doesn’t get much media play these days. Are we focusing too much on opioids and forgetting that there isn’t just an opioid epidemic but an epidemic of addiction?

Drug addiction and alcoholism used to be treated very differently. This brings in some class and racial elements. They were treated as different things. There was a time when people in AA were very worried about the program being diverted for people who were dually addicted. The fear was once again that the focus on recovery would get lost. As science tells [us] more about addiction, it really has made it plain that many of the basic processes in biological addiction are common across substances. I think that increasingly, the advocacy done on behalf of alcoholics and addicts is done on that basic premise. 

Faces and Voices of Recovery, which emerges as the primary vehicle for advocacy in the early 21st century, their central thesis is that addiction is addiction. Both alcoholics and drug users gain from that conception because it just demonstrates how broad the problem is, how serious it is and also how many of the solutions we've devised over the years for dealing with alcoholism can also be useful for people with other kinds of drug addictions. I don't think it steals any thunder from alcoholics to recognize that people with opioid addictions are in a terrible crisis. It just confirms that, for everyone, addiction is a deadly and serious matter. And that people need help and benefit from help.

In terms of advocacy, do you think stigma is on the decline?

There’s a broader understanding now, more than at any time in our history, that addiction is an illness and has to be treated. I was watching the news last night about some stupid sheriff in Butler County Ohio. He won’t authorize his deputies to carry naloxone. I think that guy is only interesting because of all the other cops you see being interviewed saying it’s better to have something than nothing—we need solutions. I think stigma has declined significantly. One reason is a lot of of people in media reporting those stories may not be in recovery themselves, but they know people who are. There are so many people in recovery now it’s changing the minds of mainstream.

I think social media today plays a huge role in reducing stigma. People aren’t anonymous anymore, they’re very loud and out there.

I’ve been been sober a long time but I knew nothing about Faces and Voices of Recovery until I started doing research for that last chapter. I found it tremendously exciting. Their own polling shows people in recovery are increasingly willing to talk about their own histories. That’s a huge significant historical development. It’s not just a matter of politics. When people realize that recovery is as broad as a huge movement as it is, it will only encourage more people to get help and continue to break down stigma.


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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.