Diverse reflections on substance abuse and society in 23 sharply fashioned testimonies.
“What once was viewed as a shocking moral deficiency is now increasingly seen as a tragic vulnerability,” comments editor Shannonhouse (Out of Her Mind, 2000), who supports this assertion by selecting texts from both the addict’s point of view and that of society. Excerpts from Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) was one of the first accounts of Western drug use, and Sigmund Freud’s earnest inquiry, The Cocaine Papers, remind us that 19th-century society was fairly tolerant of controlled substance use. By contrast, in his 1891 essay on “The Ethics of Wine-Drinking and Tobacco-Smoking,” Leo Tolstoy argues persuasively (if verbosely) that “the universal habit of consuming hashish, opium, wine, and tobacco . . . is, beyond all doubt, highly pernicious [and] fraught with terrible evils.” Early-20th-century entries, including “How Children are Made Drunkards” and “The Enemy” (a 1909 tale of a woman’s morphine addiction), take an even more moralistic tone. Their lugubrious air is lightened by O. Henry’s barbed “Let Me Feel Your Pulse,” which transforms the cynical narrator’s alcoholism into hallucinatory prose, and by the mordant insider’s perspective offered in “A Bartender Tells What Man Did to Booze and Booze to Man.” Familiar pieces by literary figures include Dorothy Parker’s “Big Blonde,” John Cheever’s “The Sorrows of Gin,” and excerpts from Naked Lunch, by William Burroughs, and The Doors of Perception, by Aldous Huxley. Not all the addictive behavior explored is chemical: in a selection from Double Down, Stephen and Frederick Barthelme ruefully chronicle runaway gambling, while a jagged excerpt of Sue Silverman’s memoir Love Sick dissects the sexual addict’s compulsion to sleep with strangers. In the final piece, “Confessions of a Middle-Aged Ecstasy Eater,” a lonely father reconnects with his delinquent son via the drug and rails against current punitive restrictions on adult pursuit of sensation and enlightenment.
A nice variety of perspectives on the pleasures and perils of excess.