Picks and Pans Review: Recovery
by Amy Stromsten
America's tendency to societal schizophrenia is nowhere more apparent than in its attitudes toward alcohol. This is a country where hard drinking—being able to "hold your liquor," chug-a-lugging, grabbing for all the mythical gusto—has been celebrated since the days of the Pilgrims. It is also the country of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, Prohibition, endless caricatures of drunks and a sneering ostracism of the alcoholic. Lender, who teaches at the Rutgers University Center of Alcohol Studies, and Martin, chairman of the University of Houston history department, have chronicled the evolution of these attitudes in their book (The Free Press, $19.95). It is a fascinating account of the struggle between America's drys and wets, which has been full of ludicrous excesses on both sides, from Carry Nation's "hatchetations" (violent vigilante campaigns) against turn-of-the-century saloons to liquor advertising that implies drinking will attract all sorts of sexy mates, plus expensive cars to put them in. Lender and Martin give plenty of statistics and legislative histories, but there are also some painfully pointed anecdotes, including a recipe for the awful concoctions some frontier traders used to sell to Indians. While Lender and Martin neither condemn nor endorse the use of alcohol, they do cite a 1978 National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism study that said more than 13 million Americans have problems with drinking.
Stromsten's book (Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies, New Brunswick, N.J., $20) records the autobiographical case histories of 47 alcoholics, including herself. A photographer, she also shot portraits of her subjects. The combination of often chilling personal detail with her photographs results in a much more immediate, affecting description of the impact of alcoholism than the usual anonymous tales. (Stromsten's alcoholics are, however, identified only by first name and occupation. Two famous, recognizable men have been included, ex-Congressman Wilbur Mills and former baseball pitcher Don Newcombe, both of whom have become public crusaders for treatment of alcoholism.) Most of the essays are success stories involving Alcoholics Anonymous; the main exception is the briefest story in the book, but it may tell most about the overwhelming nature of alcoholism. Writes John M., a Vietnam vet who relapsed after going 90 days without drinking, "I was never so happy as when I was going to A. A. but for some reason I can't go back. I am still drinking and I know I'm an alcoholic but I don't want to stop."
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