The Fix Q&A with Christopher M. Finan, author of Drunks: An American History, on our nation’s history of alcoholism, recovery and AA.
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.
Read more of Zachary Siegel’s interview with Christopher M. Finan about Finan’s take on a three-year century long battle for American’s to sober up in the original article A Sober Historian Chronicles America’s Drunk History at The Fix.