Winona Ryder’s Mom Explains the History of Women, Drugs, and Literature

Doing drugs and writing about the experience is as much a woman's game as it is a man's.

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Aug 5 2015, 4:00pm

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Getting into Sisters of the Extreme takes a leap of faith if you're not innately into hippie shit. The anthology, edited by husband-and-wife duo Cynthia Palmer and Michael Horowitz, opens with a metaphor of Eve as "feminine principle," the snake that leads her wayward as a shaman, and the mythic apple as a mind-altering drug with its consumption leading to the fall of man. "Since then," the editors argue, "women have been linked with drugs and their dangerous allure." Even before the introduction, the cover of the candy-colored, textbook-size collection announces itself as an introduction to "women writing on the drug experience," and those women, ranging from Anaïs Nin to Star Wars's Carrie Fisher, are so varied that it's difficult to take the book as a serious authority. But the editors are serious. Having worked closely alongside prolific psychologist and writer Timothy Leary and later running in the same circles as Terence McKenna, they firmly root themselves in academic drug culture. Their other books include the first anthology of Aldous Huxley's psychedelic writings, Moksha.

Palmer and Horowitz have a thing for firsts. Sisters of the Extreme was one of the primary attempts to center women's subjectivity in the canon of drug literature when the first edition—then called Shaman Woman, Mainline Lady—was published in 1982. (It was re-published and expanded in 2000.) When I spoke with Palmer by email, she admitted that at that time "the culture was not quite prepared for it. Reagan was in office and the 'Just Say No' campaign had begun... We were against the grain, so to speak, but as time passed the book found its comfort zone and an audience."

The "welfare queen" of the Reagan era was the dominant archetype of a female drug user. Now, the culture, or at least a wider swath of it, is a bit more comfortable with varied portraits of women who like to get high. We've made micro-celebrities of writer-blogger hybrids for whom substances of all sorts are professional fodder. Prozac Nation author Elizabeth Wurtzel; Cat Marnell, who gained notoriety for writing about sex, crack, and make-up tips online; and Megan Boyle, whose drug-fueled memoir Liveblog comes out this year, immediately come to mind. But that doesn't mean the preface for Sisters of the Extreme is irrelevant. "Since 1960, more than a dozen anthologies of drug literature have been published in English," the editors write. "Almost everything in these collections was written by men." Thinking back to what I've had to endure in school from Kerouac, Burroughs, Kesey, and their fanboy disciples (too many of whom I've dated), Sisters appeared as a relief when I discovered it (Especially in the summer, when a mushroom trip just seems to be the logical way to spend a Saturday afternoon). In Sisters, Palmer and Horowitz's thesis is simple: Doing drugs and writing about the experience is a woman's game as much as it is a man's, dating back to ancient myth. That the two editors also happened to raise a girl who grew up to be known as Winona Ryder seems to add to their credibility.

The documented relationship between Western women and drugs starts off bleak in the Victorian era, when women made up two-thirds of opium users. The drug was commonly prescribed for many sicknesses, but it was often used in distinctly feminized ways. Mothers administered laudium—"opium in an alcohol tincture"—to soothe their crying children, and other forms of the drug were used for menstrual cramps or menopausal symptoms, according to Sisters of the Extreme. The drug was also the only acceptable "escape" for women living under the oppressive Victorian social structure. Conspicuous alcohol and tobacco consumption was considered far from ladylike, whereas doctors freely prescribed opiates after diagnosing women with hysteria. The Romantic poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who started using opium at age 15 for a spinal cord injury compounded by "nervous hysteria," wrote to her lover, the poet Robert Browning, to defend herself against his concern for her habit: Opiates helped her cope with the invisible pains of severe depression and anxiety. Her offhand letter rivals any sad, young, literary man's novel:

It might strike you as strange that I who have had no pain—no acute suffering to keep down from its angles—should need opium in any shape. But I have had restlessness till it made me almost mad... as if one's life, instead of giving movement to the body, were imprisoned undiminished within it, and beating and fluttering impotently to get out, at all the doors and windows. So the medical people gave me opium.

The fallout from these freely given medicinal opiates in the 1800s was widespread addiction. As the effects started to show, compounded by those from cocaine-infused drinks like the OG Coca-Cola, regulations and strict backlash drove drugs underground and painted women as susceptible victims. In the mid-19th century, "opium changed from 'God's own medicine' to a seductive and deadly weapon in the devil's arsenal." Racialized propaganda spread; "American women" were "held in the bondage of white slavery by Chinese opium purveyors," and "sex crimes" were being committed by "cocaine-crazed southern blacks."

Sisters notes that like the prohibition bootleggers of the time, white female drug users were outlaws by choice, many of them members of the educated, middle, or upper classes. For them, it was easy to claim life in a liberated bohemia. But for women on the other side of the class line, drug use was just an unglamorous addiction. Avant-garde writer Mabel Dodge Luhan exemplified the former, trailblazing for the Beats to come later in the 20th century. In her memoir, Movers and Shakers, excerpted in the anthology, Dodge describes a peyote trip with her circle of artist friends in New York's West Village in the spring of 1914. She writes about the drug with willing enthusiasm: "Now Raymond told us about a peculiar ceremony among the Indians he lived with that enabled them to pass beyond ordinary consciousness and see things as they are in Reality... When I pressed him, I found he actually had some peyote with him; then of course I said we must all try it."

On the other hand, the anonymous author O.W., who authored the first best-selling drug memoir written by a woman, relayed the story of her life as a cocaine-addicted sex worker. It inhabits a place far from the world of peyote-ingesting arrivistes. Published in 1930, No Bed of Roses is reminiscent, in its illuminating desperation, of Burroughs's short story "The Junky's Christmas."

After lying to her dealer to score some coke on a loan, O.W. writes:

I came back to my hotel, and started using it in large quantities... staggering quantities, but I must have been on the verge of insanity. Somewhere back in my head I knew that it would be disastrous, but I didn't care. Deep down in my heart, I guess, I hoped it would be fatal... Suddenly the lights stopped moving through the room, but I could hear Marian's sister in the hall, telling a bunch of detectives about me... Everyone said that I was a bad woman.

The 50s and early 60s saw the emergence of the Beat Generation, well known and venerated by college kids everywhere. Around the same time, however, Anaïs Nin, in her 40s, quietly participated in the culture evolving around LSD while living in Los Angeles. In The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 5: 1947-1955, she recalls a drug trip under a supervised experiment with a psychiatrist. The hallucinations start out wondrous, she writes, and then suddenly:

I was weeping, weeping... I could see Gil [the psychiatrist] smiling, and realized the absurdity of weeping when travelling through space. As soon as the concept of absurdity struck me, the comic spirit appeared again... The comic spirit was aware of Gil's predicament: 'Poor Gil, you are out with an ordinary weepy female!' What a ridiculous thing to spoil a voyage through space by weeping. But before we go on, I want to explain to you why women weep. It is the quickest way to rejoin the ocean.

Around the same time, on the opposite coast, Beat poet Diane di Prima wrote about the drug scene in Greenwich Village in her book Memoirs of a Beatnik, published in 1969 and chronicling the years before. In an entry written in 1953, Di Prima writes that "hallucinogens hadn't hit the scene yet," though by 1966 they definitely had. Di Prima recalls that year's raucous Thanksgiving when Allen Ginsberg led Hare Krishna chants as everyone at Millbrook—Timothy Leary's New York estate—unwittingly took large, unmeasured doses of powdered acid that was mixed into a bottle of apparently innocuous sherry. (All the while, di Prima remains firm that she will not be cooking for everyone in the house.)

As the 60s slipped into 70s, Palmer and Horowitz, self-described "scholarly hippies," gathered these stories from the Beat era in their personal collection of drug-related texts, which eventually became the Fitz Hugh Ludlow Library in the San Francisco neighborhood of North Beach. The fabled Beat stronghold in California was also the backdrop to Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums, and tourists still take tours of the overpriced cafés where Allen Ginsberg once lit joints. As an homage to the scene and the collection's focus, Palmer and Horowitz first called their museum of texts and artifacts the Beat Library. They changed the name when they realized that there was, in fact, drug life before the Beats. "One of our early discoveries was The Hasheesh Eater published in 1857 by an obscure 21-year-old, the first book entirely devoted to drug experience by an American writer. We named our library after him," Palmer said over email.

Cataloging the fringes of drug memoir, history, anthropology, ethnobotany, medicine, science, and art, the Fitz Hugh Ludlow Library was the first of its kind. The likes of Allen Ginsberg, Gordon Wasson, and Albert Hoffman donated their original research papers to the project.

One evening in the late 1970s, Palmer and Horowitz resolved to root out the women. "On an impulse we decided to pull out the books with accounts by women, personal and fictional. By the time we were done we had well over 100 titles from a variety of genres. We were excited," Palmer said. "Our large library of drug literature led us to these discoveries no one had made before us." Before Sisters ambitiously aimed to anthologize the obscure writing of women on the fringes, most scholarly attempts toward a unified theory of women and drugs portrayed them as victims, if they portrayed them at all. "The emphasis had been on female drug addicts: addiction to the narcotics in patent medicines in the 19th century and the prostitute-junkie types in the first half of the 20th," she said. "Even speed was known as 'mother's little helpers' at late as the 60s."

The impulse to change that lead to 300 pages that capture the distinct experience of tripping while female. What's best from those pages, or maybe just the funniest, is an excerpt from a 1978 High Times interview with the patron saint of literary women, Susan Sontag. She rebukes the whole concept of the anthology in which she's unknowingly placed:

High Times: Is that an interesting concept, the relationship between writers and drugs?
Sontag: I don't think so.

At the risk of committing sacrilege, I disagree. Reading some of literature's most high-minded women discourse on topics like whether water or outer space is "more wonderful" while on LSD (Anaïs Nin), or the distinction between the pleasure of cannabis and a husband's consuming heroin addiction (Maya Angelou) is pretty interesting, indeed.