Sisters of the Extreme by Cynthia Palmer and Michael Horowitz [Eds.]

Sisters of the ExtremeOriginally published in 1982 under the title ‘Shaman Woman, Mainline Lady’, this revised ad updated 2000 Park Street Press edition is entitled ‘Sisters of the Extreme: Woman Writing on the Drug Experience’. This collection of works of pharmacography is edited by Cynthia Palmer and Michael Horowitz. Scholars of drug history and literature, Palmer and Horowitz have also published a collection of Aldous Huxley’s psychedelic writings entitled Moksha.

The voices, or indeed pens, of woman writing on the drug experience have been notably absent from the popular pharmacography discourse. From Thomas de Quincey and Charles Baudelaire, through Aldous Huxley, Antonin Artaud and Henri Michaux, the male writer has seemingly dominated the discussion. However, this is not for lack of available works by woman. Palmer and Horowitz, who built the world’s largest library of pharmacographies The Fitz Hugh Ludlow Memorial Library, have produced a sublime selection that spans two centuries. Having said that however, in their introductory essay Images of Woman and Drugs in Myth and History, they go even further back to explore and introduce the motif of woman and drugs. Though an interesting essay that illuminates some fascinating examples, it perhaps lacks some critical context on what the images could themselves are communicating culturally—an area ripe for further investigation.

Broadly speaking, the book is partitioned along 8 sections. The first Opium and the Romantic Imagination, which takes its title from Alethea Hayter’s landmark book of the same name, includes some notable writers like Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Charlotte Bronte. However, it is the rich mining of literature and the surprising and unknown works that makes this collection really sparkle. Take the following description by the classical actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), who takes some opium to ease her fears over winning over a British audience:

“The opium I had taken in my potion made my head rather heavy. I arrived on the stage in a semi-conscious state, yet delighted in the applause I received. I walked as though I were in a dream, and could scarcely distinguish my surroundings. The house itself I only saw through a luminous mist. My feet glided without effort over the carpet, and my voice sounded to me far away—very far away. I was in that delicious stupor that one experiences after chloroform, morphine, opium, or hasheesh” (Palmer 56).

The portrayal that is given by woman in this period is often indicative of the male-dominated society of Victorian times. The struggles to conform to the strict codes of conduct, the stigmatisation of being anything other than the bizarre ideal that society wished them to assume and, perhaps more shockingly, the behaviour of the medical profession. Over the nineteenth century opium was prescribed to woman for many ailments, including menstruation, without warnings of the drug’s addictiveness. Many turned to opium/morphine for solace away from the Victorian conformity, and it was even prescribed/sold to pregnant mothers and their children. The dark poetry of Elizabeth Siddal (1834-1862) exemplifies this.

The following section, Expatriates and Vagabonds, one begins to see the interactions of newly discovered drugs with woman. A couple of passages written by Mabel Dodge Luhan, taken from the books Movers and Shakers (1936) and Edge of Taos Desert (1937), for example, are very early peyote descriptions: “Another thing that was noticeable was the eerie effect upon everyone’s expression from the dim light of the “fire,” that electric globe smoldering [sic] under the red shawl. It reminded me of the ghastly results we used to procure as children by having two of us stare fixedly at each other, while another turned the gas jet up and then lowered it” (Palmer 86). Set against a backdrop of increasing bureaucracy against drugs, this chapter, along with the Mainline Ladies one, is in stark contrast with the section Psychedelic Pioneers.

The newly emerging interest in hallucinogens in psychiatric circles gave a platform for woman to experiment in a more ‘socially acceptable’ environment. Among those who experienced their LSD trips under the psychiatric gaze was Constance A. Newland (real name Thelma Moss) in My Self and I (1962). Interestingly, many still chose to write under a pseudonym, like Jane Dunlap (real name Adelle Davis) who wrote Exploring Inner Space (1961) but who is not included in this collection as her estate would not allow it. This reflects a still existing social taboo on the topic. This is then reflected back with explicit social roles in the chapter Beats and Hippies where the details are more lurid, like the erotic Acid Temple Ball (1969) by Sharon Rudahl: “We become satisfied, our mood shifts: we want to go out, see things, do things. Something ecstatic and revealed remains ringing in my thighs and arms, a sense that we are beautiful and whole, going forth to shed light” (Palmer 214).

The final two sections, Choosers and Abusers and Shaman Woman at the End of the Millennium, continue to explore the social and cultural roles that woman assume themselves, and are assumed to have, in a variety of contexts. These range from the New Age South American invasion where power roles are being assumed, through to addiction and destruction narratives. The historical and authorial information that the editors include are an ample framework that tie all the pharmacographical texts together and, while they may lack some critical context, it is done in such a way that Gender Studies in general has a wonderful archive with which to use, if they wished. Interestingly, the last book I reviewed was Cultural Ecstasies: Drugs, Gender, and the Social Imaginary and though its theory was good, it lacked the substance for analysis—something this superb collection would very neatly have provided. Sisters of the Extreme is a great collection and well worth a read, for those who like great literature and who are interested in Woman/Gender Studies.

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  1. June 30, 2013

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