Interview with Christopher Finan

Christopher Finan Interview by Andrew Martin

Andrew: I’m very pleased to have on the phone with me today Christopher M. Finan. Chris is the director of American Booksellers for Free Expression who’s involved in the fight against censorship. For 35 years, he’s also the chair of the Media Coalition and he’s authored three fantastic books. Alfred E. Smith The Happy Warrior, From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America, and his most recent book and the one we’ll be focusing on today, Drunks: An American History. Thank you so much for joining us here at Recovery Illustrated Magazine, Chris.

Christopher F.: It’s my pleasure, Andrew. Thank you.

Andrew: What drives you to be an historian and an author?

Christopher F.: Well, I come from a family that loves a good story and my father and my mother were both great readers. My dad was a lover of history and I think I inherited that from him.

Andrew: Now, your motivation behind writing Drunks An American History, where does that come from?

Christopher F.: Well, that comes from my family too. I am the last of a long line of alcoholics. Alcoholism has really plagued my family for generations. My father was in recovery and his father, grandfather. All four of his siblings were alcoholics and it goes back even beyond that to my great grandfather. That’s about as far back as I’ve traced it or wanted to trace it up until now. I grew up thinking drinking was normal activity and heavy drinking was associated with all the major events of life and holidays and all the fun times that we had. Obviously as I got older and my father’s problem really developed, it began to heavily affect my family. When I went to graduate school in history, I didn’t immediately focus on alcoholism.

I actually, the two books that you mentioned … Well the one book you mentioned, the Al Smith biography was my dissertation in college. I wrote the free speech history later. It was in college, in graduate school somewhere years into my dissertation I mentioned to my advisor, professor Walter [Metzger 00:02:58] that I was in recovery. This was not something that I mentioned early in my sobriety. I didn’t want to be thought of as an alcoholic by my academic peers. By that point in my recovery, I felt safe talking about it and I was very gratified that he received the news with his normal graciousness and enthusiasm. He said to me then which is now over 20 years ago that I should write a history of alcoholism. It sounded like a great idea, but I was really deep into this very long process of producing the first book and I could hardly think of it.

It was only really been in the last seven or eight years that I’ve turned to this subject and thought that maybe indeed the fact that I am in recovery would offer some additional benefits to my normal historical interest. I think it has been helpful. I think it’s guided me in how I’ve told the story and it’s kept me very tightly focused on stories. This is really a book of stories about recovery over three centuries. They are fascinating stories.

Andrew: The stories are fantastic. I recommend highly to all of our readers out there to get their hands on this book. I have to ask you because you’re a well accomplished author and your writing style is tremendous. What is that process that you go through in researching something like this? This is a huge project in my mind. First you have to research it. How do you even start that process?

Christopher F.: Well, the first thing you do is you start looking for other people who have written about the subject. I was very, very fortunate because there is the fantastic and comprehensive history Slaying the Dragon by William L. White which tells many of these stories that I have expanded. Reading Slaying the Dragon, the whole story is laid out there and my part was really just to find a way to compress Bill’s book into a more compact form. That’s what I was trying for all along. I will add though, that I wasn’t simply picking up text from Bill’s book and dropping it in mine. Once I found these stories, then I did do research on my own. Some of it in primary sources. It would have been an enormous undertaking to have tried to tell this story for the first time by myself.

Andrew: Now, it’s one thing to gather the research together and to do the investigative work that’s necessary in developing a book like this, but it’s entirely another artistic endeavor to practice the art of storytelling. Is that something that you’ve been able to do since you were a child? Is this innate?

Christopher F.: I had an interest in writing I think from a fairly early age. When I went to college, I thought I was going to become a reporter and I was a reporter of a couple of years in Ohio before I went to graduate school. The thing I liked best about reporting was finding people with interesting stories and helping them tell those. I also think that story is such an essential skill that all of us who are in recovery learn because it’s something that when we first go into whatever fellowship we go into, we hear the stories of people who are ahead of us in recovery who have some time and who know their own stories by that point pretty well. Then we learn how to tell our own personal stories.

I actually think that being in recovery now for some time, a long time, I benefited from the story telling that we inherit.

Andrew: Yeah your book starts at chapter one. A chapter entitled Mountain of Bones. It’s about an individual, not a place, called Handsome Lake. Can you give us a synopsis of what Handsome Lake is all about?

Christopher F.: Mountain of Bones is a reference to the terrible damage that alcohol did to Native Americans. It was a Native American description. It was actually from Handsome Lake’s experience of that damage. Handsome Lake himself was a member of the Seneca tribe of the Iroquois confederacy. In his day, a successful warrior and he was born in the mid 18th century and at a time when the Iroquois were still very powerful and spread out through much of the eastern United States. By the time I encountered him for the first time, he was an alcoholic on the point of death. He described himself at that point as but yellow skin and bones. Handsome Lake, following a very heavy drinking episode lasting weeks, at the age of about 50 experienced a vision. He was very sick as a result of his heavy drinking and after several days in bed really thinking about his problem with drinking, he heard his name being called outside the hut in which he was lying.

He walked outside and encountered four middle aged Indians, paint and feathers and other aspects of Native American costume who told him that the great spirit wanted him to lead a religious revival. To bring the Iroquois people back to their original religious roots, but that all of that must be based on a renunciation of alcohol abuse. The total use of alcohol because without this, none of the rest of the revival could be successful. When he recovered from this vision and told his family what he had experienced, this was following a period in which the village that he was living in had been really torn apart by drinking spree. They carried the message to the elders of the village who almost immediately agreed that they were going to ban the use of alcohol.

Over the next several months while he was still quite ill, he had several other visions and together, they constituted a fairly comprehensive program of spiritual recovery that when he was finally able to get back on his feet, he led for the next 15 years and as a result of his leadership, the Iroquois became one of the more sober Indian confederacies in the nation. The difference was so pronounced that even many of their white critics couldn’t help but respect and by the time he died in 1815, he had established a religion that was celebrated into the 20th century. It is the first recovery movement in America to sober a significant number of people. It wasn’t a national phenomenon and it didn’t get everybody in the confederacy sober, but it significantly changed the lives of thousands of people.

Andrew: Handsome Lake’s work influenced many others as well along the way. In particular, a doctor and minister in New York who founded really the first state society to try to combat what we would call today alcoholism and they called it something different then. Can you tell us about that story?

Christopher F.: Well, at the same time that Handsome Lake was leading his people toward sobriety, there was a similar crisis in the white community, the white settlers who by that time were the first generation of Americans because the country had completed its successful separation from Britain. There was this rapid increase in consumption of alcohol and not just alcohol but the most powerful alcohol, particularly whiskey that was heavily impacting white society as well. I talk about the story of John Adams’ alcoholic son Charles who died tragically at the age of 30 as a symbol of that crisis. Out of that crisis comes a response, is the formation of what would later be known as the Temperance Movement that was led in its early stages by ministers and it wasn’t however initially really focused on the problem of alcoholism. It was really focused on … Because at that point, it wasn’t even clear to most people that alcoholics could be cured. The only white doctor who had really advocated this view was Benjamin Rush.

Most of the rest of white society thought that alcoholics were a lost cause. The Temperance Movement was really focused on trying to prevent the creation of more alcoholics. They were obtaining pledges of abstinence from people who had no problem at all with alcohol on the assumption that this would eventually protect the country as a whole. It was a very successful movement. Millions of people signed pledges not to drink. In the beginning, the pledge only applied to whiskey and other distilled liquor, but as the movement became more militant and also more logical, the abstinence pledge related to all alcoholic beverages. The Temperance Movement that started with that one society we’re talking about with the minister and the doctor eventually became a national movement and millions of people signed the Temperance pledge, but I think that was moving on a different track than Native American recovery.

Andrew: When was alcoholism first considered a disease, a medical ailment?

Christopher F.: Well, I think almost from the beginning. Almost certainly doctors in the 18th century recognized that alcohol was very powerful and physical very deleterious if consumed in large quantities. One of the first American doctor to see alcoholism as an illness as opposed to a moral failing, lack of responsibility, irresponsibility was Benjamin Rush who was a Philadelphia doctor and actually one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence who wrote a slim pamphlet in the late 18th century that he eventually expanded on as he got to know more about alcoholism. It was far from being a widely accepted view. The view of alcoholism as a moral failing is really very strong until at least the 1840s when the Washington Temperance Society, the Washingtonians began their movement and propagated the view that alcoholism was in fact curable on a national level.

Andrew: Now we have a large set of individuals understanding that alcoholism is a disease, a medically based problem of some sort. What would be to follow is the treatment of alcoholism in some sort of an organized or specialized way. How did that come about?

Christopher F.: Once there was a more acceptance for the view of alcoholism as something that could be treated, it was natural for people to begin to establish institutions where this treatment could occur. The first inebriate homes as they were called were established at that time. Now we’re talking about the 1840s as part of the Washingtonian movement. There is a Washingtonian home in Boston where people went to first of all dry out and detox and then to begin to rebuild their lives. It was a residential institution. People stayed there in the evenings and worked in the city during the days and attended lectures, but perhaps most importantly learned that they weren’t alone and that they weren’t responsible for their inability to stop drinking. Those early institutions were few and far between for before the Civil War. It’s really only after the Civil War that institutions begin to appear in many of the major cities of the country and it’s the time when there are enough doctors and enough proprietors of these institutions to form an association and they create the American Association for The Cure of Inebriates, which is the way they describe drunks in those days.

They, for the first time, made a strong medical argument about alcoholism. They founded the first journal of inebriety which was the first scientific journal to study the problem and advocated strongly for the ability of alcoholics to recover.

Andrew: It’s fascinating to me that this goes back so far in the history of our country and that it has taken so long for us to address the problem of alcoholism to still some limited success.

Christopher F.: Yeah, well we have a long way to go. Even at that point. I don’t think it was ever … We could ever say it was a view of a significant part of the American population until the 20th century, but it’s absolutely true that there were many forms of help for alcoholics in the 19th century. One of the most important is the Keeley Institute which I write about and this was an institute that was founded on a fraud. Dr. Leslie Keeley told the world that he had created a gold cure for alcoholism. A drug that when administered four times a day over roughly a four week, three or four week period could entirely eliminate alcoholism and put people back to their original health, restore their health. This gold cure was so successful, at least the promise of the gold cure was so successful that more than 100 institutes were created around the country in the 1890s to administer it. The graduates of those institutes, the drunks who had recovered went out into the world and began to recruit other people who needed help and brought them in for treatment.

They established a national Keeley League to advocate for the medical view of alcoholism and to pressure state governments to expend funds to send people to these institutes. The fraud was of course that there was really nothing in the drug that cured alcoholism. It was primarily a placebo. Although Keeley himself until his death insisted that it did have these miraculous powers. What was miraculous about the Keeley Institute was the experience of being among other alcoholics. Again, isolation is part of the worst part of the illness. The idea that we are alone and that what happens to us as a result, drinking is our fault and that we are bad people really melts away when we are surrounded by others who have the same problem and many of whom are in fact not severely degraded people. Many of them are leading citizens. Prominent lawyers, doctors, ministers, people who are widely considered good people.

That not only were we not alone but that we gain strength from being together. This is a lesson of course that AA would rediscover 60 or 70 years later, but it’s always been part of recovery and it was a part of recovery for the Iroquois as well. One of my favorite quotes that I found was a Native American who had been influenced by Handsome Lake was asked, “Why [inaudible 00:24:50] taken you so long to get sober? Why didn’t this transformation take place before?” He said, “Before the prophet, before Handsome Lake, we never knew it was possible to recover.” In each experience of recovery throughout our history, alcoholics have had to rediscover this, that there is hope and that there are living examples of people who have conquered the illness. To get back to your original question, this is something that definitely didn’t start in the 20th century.

Andrew: In your story so far, we’ve talked about the physiological solution which is essentially abstinence from drinking. We’ve talked about the sociological solution which is the gathering together of all those that are suffering from alcoholism, where we’re missing the spiritual solution. When does that come in to play?

Christopher F.: I think the spiritual solution was always part of the experience. I think in the case of Native Americans it was definitely sobriety was interwoven into this religious revival. In each of the recovery movements after that, it’s also apparent, it’s not always a religious experience. Sometimes it is simply the experience of recognizing our humanity, our similarity to other people and our ability to help and be helped by other people. That was certainly apparent in the Washingtonians. The Washingtonian movement was not a religious movement. In fact, many meetings of the Washingtonians excluded ministers out of fear that they would try to hijack the movement and make it a religious movement. It was certainly there in the Keeley Institutes as well.

I think it was always there although it wasn’t part of a formal … I don’t think it was part of any formal movement until Alcoholics Anonymous really develops its 12 steps and makes spirituality a central core component of its program.

Andrew: What do you think the most significant developments in the sobering of Americans have been?

Christopher F.: Well, the most lasting because as I say, I think these early efforts in the 19th century were all … All had very positive outcomes for the people who got sober in them and were able to stay sober. The most lasting elements were I think in the years after Bill Wilson met Bob Smith in Akron and they began to develop the program of recovery that is the centerpiece of Alcoholics Anonymous and which would later be widely applied to all forms of addiction and even beyond that to things that had nothing to do with drugs or alcohol. For me, that meeting between Dr. Bob and Bill is certainly one of the most important things that’s ever happened to alcoholics because it laid the foundation for what we see today which is that millions are sober and it came from a very dark … It happened at a very dark moment. Many of these institutions that were established in the 19th century.

The inebriate homes, the inebriate asylums. By the turn of the 20th century, there were even some government funded institutions for alcoholics. All of these very promising developments were absolutely shut down by prohibition. Prohibition held out the promise of a solution to alcoholism that wouldn’t cost a dime. The assumption was as the assumption had always been in the Temperance movement that if you could just stop people from drinking, you would solve the problem of alcoholism. Perhaps that’s true, but the problem was you could never stop people from drinking and after a few years of prohibition when alcohol began to be available again, the institutions that had been created to help alcoholics, it all closed down. The government funding had been pulled. Even some alcoholics believed in the promise of prohibition. Dr. Bob desperately wanted prohibition to work.

He did of course also lay in a large supply of liquor but he thought that once that he had drunk his way through that and he could no longer get alcohol that his problem would disappear and of course the alcohol didn’t disappear and his problem just got by worse so that by 1935, there are only a couple of institutions in the whole country that are helping alcoholics and so Alcoholics Anonymous emerges out of that very dark time to once again create the promise of a solution for alcoholics. From that point on, we’ve had some reverses. We’ve had times in which that promise has been questioned again but it certainly nothing amounting to the kind of crash that we had during prohibition and I think that the more people stay sober, the more people we have to point to as examples of the promise of recovery. The harder it becomes to slip back into the old moralistic way of viewing alcohol and drug addiction.

Andrew: Many people believe that history repeats itself. If I could ask your opinion, do you think that we’re on a path with regard to treating addiction and alcoholism that’s going to repeat itself in some way?

Christopher F.: Well, I think that … Well, as I was saying, I think history never moves forward in a straight line. There are always periods of progress and regression. We’ve seen that even since the start of the modern recovery movement with the emergence of AA. Even after the explosive growth of treatment in the 1980s, we hit a wall in the mid 90s, in the late 90s in which many of the basic premises of the recovery movement were questioned once again and we saw addiction being treated with enormous severity as people who had become addicted during the crack epidemic were not treated but sent to prison. I think that after that latest reverse and the emergence of increasingly strong advocacy by people who are in recovery, political advocacy by people in recovery, the movement has grown much stronger and even at this moment where we are faced with another terrible epidemic, we don’t hear the kind of punishing desire for punishing of alcoholic or of people with opiate addiction.

What we’re arguing about is how much money is it going to take to fix this problem and how soon can we spend it?

Andrew: Christopher M. Finan, author of Drunks An American History, published by Beacon Press and available at all major bookstores. I want to thank you so much for joining us here at Recovery Illustrated Magazine today.

Christopher F.: Thanks for this opportunity, Andrew.

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