An appropriately harrowing account of booze and its discontents.
Alcohol has been with us always and, with it, day-after regrets. One early regret, writes Finan (From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America, 2007, etc.), director of the American Booksellers for Free Expression, came from a Seneca leader named Handsome Lake, who saw what ravages alcohol was wreaking among his people and preached a gospel of abstinence: “Whiskey is the great engine which the bad Spirit uses to introduce Witchcraft and may other evils amongst Indians.” So effective was the message that Handsome Lake was able to deter a generation of followers. Today, Native people, as well as Americans of all ethnicities, turn to AA for help, and Finan tells a respectful, demythologized version of the story of Bill Wilson and Bob Smith, who founded the organization in an effort to keep each other sober after some scarifying cold-turkey moments led them to realize “that they had been at their lowest point when they discovered a power greater than themselves that made it possible for them to stop drinking.” Some of Finan’s case studies are a little repetitive and tedious, but they all add up to a trajectory of recognition that alcohol is a cause of social and physical harm, with huge repercussions. The author notes that whereas AA members cloaked themselves in anonymity precisely because of the prejudice against hiring drunks, whether wet or dry, alcoholism has lost some of its stigma as it has been recognized as a medical condition. With that, however, peer support has given way to professionalized treatment, crowding out “the sober alcoholics who had once played such a prominent role as counselors.” Finan closes with a gimlet-eyed look at some of AA’s alternatives, including the recent movement to transform alcoholic drinking into social drinking, forgoing the old model of complete abstinence.
A worthy treatment of recovery movements in American history, unsung heroes and all.