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Recovery at the Grassroots: Addicts, Alcoholics, and Communal Living in Postwar Los Angeles

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Jordan Mylet, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of California, San Diego. This is Part 2 in a series on The Addict and Addiction Treatment Before the War on Drugs. 

In the early 1950s, just a few years after a group of patients at the federal narcotics prison-hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, started meeting under the guidance of a local Alcoholics Anonymous emissary, groups like Sun Valley’s Narcotics Anonymous sprung up all over the greater Los Angeles area. They went by all sorts of names: Habit Forming Drugs, Hypes and Alcoholics, Addicts Anonymous, or even the hyper-specific San Fernando Valley Alcoholics Anonymous and Addicts Anonymous. But they were bound by a shared genealogy, one in which the lessons of institutional treatment’s failure to effect a “cure” were merged with the communitarian tradition of alcoholic mutual aid networks in the mid-20th century. During the postwar years, while policymakers, law enforcement officials, and medical professionals debated whether the best way to treat addicts was compulsory hospitalization or providing them with drugs at state clinics, a movement of grassroots recovery groups—which would go on to revolutionize the system of addiction treatment in the United States—spread across Los Angeles.

It’s impossible to talk about addiction treatment in the postwar years without offering a snapshot of the severe legal repression that illicit drug users faced. At the federal level, the Boggs Act of 1951 and the Narcotic Control Act of 1956 set the first mandatory minimum sentences for drug violators, with the latter piece of legislation permitting the death penalty as a punishment for first-time offenders convicted of selling heroin to minors. Municipal police departments enforced state and local statutes targeting not just the distribution of narcotics but use itself. In California—and particularly in Los Angeles, whose police force created the nation’s first squad dedicated solely to narcotics—people were regularly arrested and jailed for having “marks” on their arms, presumably from hypodermic needles for heroin injection. For many California users, criminal charges led to commitments in a state mental hospital or a suspended sentence on the condition that they “voluntarily” commit themselves to the federal Lexington prison-hospital. 

Many addicts who experienced institutional treatment during the postwar era had conflicting opinions about its efficacy and fairness. Because there were so few options for drug users who needed help, some turned to legal-medical supervision as the only possible solution to their problem. One Los Angeles heroin user and subsequent Narcotics Anonymous member recounted how he called the California office of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and asked if they could send him to Lexington—something quite a few users tried during a time when treatment options were nearly nonexistent. Bettye Coleman, another Los Angeles user, committed herself to the nearby Camarillo State Hospital to “take the cure.” But their expectations about aid were not often met. For one thing, there wasn’t nearly enough room in Lexington’s 1,200-bed facility for prisoners sent there on federal narcotics charges, let alone people seeking voluntary treatment. For another, these facilities were not exactly the picture of therapeutic efficacy. In Camarillo, Coleman didn’t receive any discernible treatment; instead, she was put to work as a pseudo-attendant, bathing elderly patients and escorting them to shock treatment sessions. As for Lexington, a top federal corrections official acknowledged that patients received “virtually no treatment” there. Instead, they’d mostly spend their days talking amongst each other about wanting to use drugs and where to find some fastest upon release.

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Camarillo State Hospital, 1953

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Lexington prison-hospital, circa 1936

Somewhat paradoxically, however, a grassroots recovery community emerged from the increasing numbers of drug users who were institutionalized in the late 1940s and 1950s. The high rates of arrest, incarceration, and hospital commitment literally brought thousands of narcotics users together across lines of race, class, and region, while serving time at either of the two federal prison hospitals in Lexington, Kentucky, and Fort Worth, Texas, became a sort of rite of passage among the nation’s illicit drug-using population. At the same time, the Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) movement was gaining steam, as its membership swelled from 1,400 in 1940 to 96,475 in 1950. When a Kentucky A.A. member asked Lexington’s medical director if he could start an addicts’ chapter in the hospital in 1947, he was one of many who carried the A.A. message to jails, prisons, and hospitals in that era. Lexington’s Addicts Anonymous group started just as the hospital’s population skyrocketed, meaning that thousands of new arrivals were exposed to A.A.’s mutual aid philosophy and program. 

Many patients were thrilled to learn about a way of thinking about recovery that emphasized solidarity and a community of peers—a stark contrast from the establishment consensus that professional medical care and state supervision were essential to the treatment process. An early participant attributed the group’s success to their shared understanding: “We find ourselves listening to some other man’s story, and we look at ourselves in a way in which we had never seen ourselves before.” Another member appreciated how this community gave him something else to “depend upon,” especially since he “had had the advantage of the very best medical attention known to the medical profession, to no avail.” From this enthusiasm, the Fort Worth facility started an Addicts Anonymous’ group shortly thereafter, while the Lexington chapter founded a newsletter, The Key, which circulated among the hospitals’ patients as well as recently released men and women on the outside. In fact, the early Los Angeles addict groups would even pass around Key articles during meetings. The official A.A. newsletter, The Grapevine, sometimes printed articles from The Key, as well, keeping a line of communication open between alcoholic and addict members of an emergent grassroots recovery movement. 

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The Key newsletter, October 1959

As this fledgling community expanded beyond Lexington and Fort Worth’s walls, many recovering addicts looked to integrate into the world of Alcoholics Anonymous, particularly in Los Angeles. Many former patients joined A.A. chapters after leaving the federal hospitals or created hybrid organizations like the Hypes and Alcoholics group, or San Fernando Valley’s joint Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous chapter. Joining A.A. in these years was a bit like acquiring citizenship to a new society. The A.A. universe was all-encompassing in the 1940s and 1950s, in a way quite different from how we might think of the organization today. Its members didn’t just attend weekly meetings or work with their sponsor, but spent nights playing cards in A.A. clubhouses, celebrated holidays at A.A. parties, and even lived in A.A. halfway houses. 

This network built upon the model of the group’s earliest days, when Bill Wilson moved into Dr. Bob Smith’s home in Akron, Ohio, in 1935 only to be joined by ten more alcoholics over the year. When Wilson moved back to Brooklyn, he and his wife brought dozens of recovering alcoholics into their home. As the movement grew over the next two decades, so too did the group’s presence in members’ lives. The New York City chapter alone opened thirty clubhouses in the 1940s; its flashiest one, located in Times Square, stayed open until midnight so members could enjoy its billiard rooms, library, café, and gym. Not every chapter had access to such resources, of course, but they carried on the communal tradition nonetheless. Cleveland threw New Year’s Eve parties, while Chicago groups hosted open houses every weekend night, so that nobody would ever feel they had to drink to avoid loneliness. The 1950s saw the spread of A.A. “halfway houses” (a name that came from law enforcement circles, rather than A.A. members themselves) across the United States.  

In postwar Los Angeles, the close-knit A.A. community merged with the new addict groups, culminating in the establishment of the first addict-alcoholic clubhouse, the Tender Loving Care club (TLC), in 1957. A year later, the club would become the Synanon Foundation, the addicts-only therapeutic community that spearheaded a revolution in addiction treatment in the 1960s. TLC’s co-founders, Charles “Chuck” Dederich and Grey Thompson, came directly out of the city’s robust A.A. clubhouse world. Los Angeles had both formal A.A. halfway homes, like 12 Step House and Friendly House, as well as a multitude of informal “flophouses,” where hard-core A.A. members roomed and attended meetings together. Reform-minded judges looked to the halfway houses as a cost-effective solution that took the burden off police, parole officers, and the courts, which dealt with an enormous amount of public drunkenness cases. But for members like Dederich and Thompson, running an A.A. house was “God’s work,” a natural outcome of their deep commitment to the movement: “We found an alcoholic, and we cleaned him up,” then Thompson would find another one and Dederich would, too, until they had to rent two “flea bag” apartments in 1957 to house everybody. 

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Grainy picture of the TLC club taken from a TV broadcast, Los Angeles, 1958

At the same time, Thompson and Dederich interacted with the emerging community of recovering addicts. By some accounts, they attended meetings of Hypes and Alcoholics, which took place nearby. Thompson had multiple “righteous dope fiend” friends, one whom a judge released into Thompson and Dederich’s care for his one-year probation. In fact, starting in the 1950s, judges across the country had started to release inebriety cases into the custody of known A.A. members, which further contributed to the commune-like nature of many A.A. chapters. After Thompson’s friend arrived at their A.A. house, more heroin users followed, until a rotating group of recovering addicts and alcoholics were sleeping on their couches, listening to records and smoking cigarettes late at night, and holding supplemental meetings in the living room. In 1957, they scrounged up the money to rent a storefront under the name of Tender Loving Care—the direct ancestor of Synanon and the model of the recovery therapeutic community that would become so popular and influential in the 1960s. And yet upon its founding, the TLC club wasn’t a novel concept at all, except in the greater mixing of addicts and alcoholics. It was a contemporary of the A.A. clubhouse world—and the Depression-era tradition of solidarity and mutual aid—that has been mostly lost to history.

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