Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Drunkard's Refuge: The Lessons of the New York State Inebriate Asylum

By John W. Crowley and William L. White;
ISBN 1558494308

Reviewed by Marty N.

The state of Maine was in the 1820s the most besotted territory of America. Its residents, by one estimate, spent on drink in every generation a sum equivalent in value to all the property in the state. Lawlessness, chaos, misery and demoralization stamped every town and village. Out of this stinking swamp arose a man possessed from his early adulthood with a healing vision: to build a refuge where the inebriates of the whole nation would be treated on medical principles. Joseph Edward Turner, M.D., brought to this vision a zeal commensurate to the challenge. To raise funds, he had more than 120,000 doors shut in his face, was turned down by more than 1,100 wealthy men, and was bitten six times by their dogs. But in June, 1864, with a grant from the New York State legislature, financed by a portion of the excise tax on liquor, the nation's first "Inebriate Asylum" opened its doors at Binghamton, New York. Drunkard's Refuge is the story of this pioneering institution, based on recently unearthed documents.

Those who seek here for a story of medical or moral uplift on an institutional scale will come away disappointed. Turner, his board, his staff, his patients, and the nearby town were in almost constant friction before the doors opened. Two arson fires, cynical maneuvering, power struggles, schisms, corruption, and numerous instances of abuse marked this institution's relatively brief life before it closed its doors in 1879. Few are the testimonials of men who achieved lasting remission of their addiction within its walls.

Much of the book attempts to draw the lessons of the asylum's demise for today's treatment institutions and for the larger recovery culture within which they operate. The authors are eminently qualified for such a task. John W. Crowley is the author of The White Logic: Alcoholism and Gender in American Modernist Fiction and William White wrote Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America. Many themes of the latter book are recapitulated and interwoven with the story of Turner's asylum.

It would be interesting one day to compare and contrast this high-profile institutional Titanic with the much longer and more successful story of the Washingtonian Home, which opened its doors in Boston seven years before the Inebriate's Asylum and survived in various forms until modern times. For those who seek to understand treatment institutions and their conceptual underpinnings, Drunkard's Refuge is an illuminating microcosm, a universe seen in a grain of sand. It's also a good read, without a dull chapter. Recommended.

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