New Collection | Addicts Who Survived Oral History Project 

clear and red syringes inside open tin can near cigarette butt
Photo by Matthew T Rader on Unsplash

— by Keri Kelly, Oral History Archives at Columbia archives assistant.

The Addicts Who Survived Oral History Collection offers a robust picture of how the trafficking and consumption of narcotics such as heroin, opium, and morphine impacted twentieth century New York City. The collection contains a myriad of perspectives, including those of narcotic addicts and dealers, doctors specializing in addiction treatment, police officers and detectives specializing in drug-related crime, and founders of various narcotic treatment programs.

Herman Joseph, David Courtwright and Don Des Jarlais conducted the interviews in the early 1980s. The trio were put in touch with interviewees through New York City methadone clinics, thus a majority of the interviewees are methadone patients over fifty years of age.

The balance of societal trends and personal narratives allows this collection to paint a rich picture of the drug culture in twentieth century New York City.

Since the second half of the twentieth century, the scientific community has debated the nature of addiction as well as effective methods of treatment. In this collection, the two most popular contemporary models of narcotic addiction treatment are delineated: the methadone maintenance model and the therapeutic community model.

The founders of the methadone maintenance program, Marie Nyswander and Vincent Dole, are interviewed. Dole discusses the reaction to his controversial 1967 article “Heroin Addiction – a Metabolic Disease” which, as the title suggests, undermined the popular understanding of addiction as a psychological phenomenon and instead suggested it was a metabolic disease. Dole says,

…there were three categories of reaction: one was enthusiasm…The second category was one of violent opposition, particularly from the people who had been sort of the established authorities, the organizations in the field, and certainly vigorous opposition from the federal government that was attempting to extinguish this work. And the third and, I suppose, predominant attitude was one of indifference since addiction has never really been a subject of any great interest to the medical profession.

Founders of several therapeutic communities are also interviewed, including Mitchell Rosenthal of Phoenix House, Judianne Densen-Gerber of Odyssey House, and Monsignor William O’Brien of Daytop. In her interview, Densen-Gerber delves into the nature of addiction, and explains her view that addiction is rooted in psychological abnormalities, such as character disorders. She says,

I am still positive that the person with a stable, communicating, value-oriented life in which there is adequate self esteem does not become addicted…it takes a personality with a defect—and that defect can be manifold, it doesn’t have to be one kind of defect—to become addicted.

In the medical field today, there is consensus on the heritable, biochemical nature of addiction, as well as acknowledgement that it is influenced by psychological and social factors.

This collection also includes interviews with prominent writers of the Beat Generation, such as William S. Burroughs and Herbert Huncke, both of whom used narcotics.

They discuss, broadly, the blossoming literary scene in midcentury New York City, and how the use of narcotics and psychedelics influenced their writing. Huncke describes his experience in the Manhattan House of Detention where he met a young Puerto Rican man who passed away from heroin withdrawal, and became the inspiration for his short story “Alvarez”. Huncke says,

But this man was really, really ill. I mean physically wiped out. And when we got down to the headquarters, we were frisked, and then put into separate cells…And every time I would see him, which would be just momentarily, really, he turned sort of a green color…

The Addicts Who Survived collection also delves into the prevalence of heroin in the scene of African American entertainers and jazz musicians. The interview of Otha Williams, a commercially successful Black dancer of the early twentieth century, explores this reality in detail. He discusses the possibility of heroin functioning as a performance aid in show business to counter nervousness. He says,

Well, when you’re dancing when you were high, you’re more relaxed, and you can feel your orientation, when you’re straight, it’s the same vibration coming from the audience to you across the quick bass, and you’re more relaxed and you work harder for them.

The collection operates on both a macro- and micro-scale, with interviewees speculating on topics such as the Italian mafia’s involvement in the trafficking of narcotics, ports where shipments of narcotics entered the United States, periods of drug “panic” in New York City when narcotics were scarce, World War II’s impact on narcotic trafficking, and the relative ease of acquiring drug prescriptions from doctors across different American cities. On the other hand, some interviewees speak about more intimate experiences; their family life, the feelings of shame and regret they may have in regard to their addiction, their experiences incarcerated, and their experiences with detoxification, methadone, and drug cravings. The balance of societal trends and personal narratives allows this collection to paint a rich picture of the drug culture in twentieth century New York City.

Preparing this collection for publication over the past few months has been my first experience working closely with oral history. I learned that oral histories, while powerful individually, are especially impactful in the aggregate. It was fascinating and rewarding to watch the stories of interviewees come together like a puzzle, some filling in the gaps others that left open, some overlapping and corroborating others. The history of the drug culture in twentieth century New York City that this collection presents is a very democratized history; it reflects the experiences of a diverse group of individuals, all of whom are experts on their personal story.

One of this collection’s foremost virtues is the large number of interviewees who are addicts or recovering addicts. Throughout American history, lawmakers, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and certain media outlets demonized addicts, resulting in addicts’ criminalization, characterization in the public imagination as a “social ill,” or deemed a threat to public safety and domestic life. As a population, scant access to affordable recovery services renders addicts vulnerable. This collection foregrounds the personal experiences of addicts, making it an important resource for anyone interested in mending the American conceptualization of addiction.

Keri Kelly is a senior in Columbia College studying creative writing and ethnic studies. She works as an archives assistant at the Oral History Archives at Columbia, and is part of the team that processed the Addicts Who Survived oral history collection. Keri prepared transcripts, compiled interview summaries, and wrote narrator biographies. She’s been an invaluable member of our team!