Happy Pills is a cultural history of modern psychiatric drugs framed around the stories of Miltown, Valium, and Prozac--three of the best known and most widely used medicines in the postwar era. The narrative begins in the 1950s with the minor tranquilizer Miltown, tracing the dynamic encounters between medicine and the postwar consumer culture that produced the block-buster drug phenomenon. It then explores how Miltown and later Valium became embroiled in postwar gender battles and the explosive politics of the "war against drugs," and how feminists brought the two issues together in a campaign against Valium addiction in the 1970s. This remarkable campaign capped off a decade of challenges to the pharmaceutical industry and highlighted the growing importance of political coalitions between social activists and consumer advocates in the world of commercial medicines. A final chapter examines the rise of Prozac and the accompanying revival of belief in wonder drugs. Prozac's boosters, I argue, successfully joined consumerism and biological psychiatry to produce a utopian narrative of selfhood centered around unbounded free choice. However exaggerated such promises may have been, they proved a powerful cultural vehicle for pushback against feminist-era drug critics.
Happy Pills joins the "new pharmaceutical history" in arguing that drug advertisers and lobbyists had broad influence over 20th century medical ideas and practices. It uncovers a rich history of direct-to-consumer marketing of prescription drugs dating back to the 1950s, for example, and tracks industry efforts to derail new drug controls over tranquilizers in the 1960s. But Happy Pills also seeks to expand this focus on the commercial dimension of medicines by linking it to a broader story: the emergence of what historian Lizabeth Cohen calls the "consumers' republic" after World War II. The drug industry's invigorated postwar influence, I contend, was important but not unique. The embrace of consumerism as a solution to economic inequality, democratic governance, and personal liberty brought radical changes to many sectors of American life. It also altered public expectations about how major social institutions like the medical system should function, and what they could--and should--provide. "Happy pills" and happiness itself, I argue, became a much-demanded part of the American Dream like new cars, suburban houses, and dishwashers--something thought of as a birthright (but also sometimes a burden) for those seeking to claim middle class status. Happy Pills thus shows that the commercialization of medicines was orchestrated by the postwar drug industry but was also born of the new cultural and political machineries of consumerism.
The focus on consumerism brings Happy Pills to follow people and groups not traditionally considered "medical" but who nevertheless played important roles in the story. Wonder drugs were not just medicines and profitable sales goods, relevant only to doctors, patients, drug companies, and regulators. Once placed into the public eye through marketing wizardry, the pills also became cultural icons deployed for social and political purposes by people who never prescribed, swallowed, or sold them. Happy Pills gives these other users--activists and cultural crusaders, journalists, politicians, and so forth--their due. Their efforts, I argue, had a surprising degree of influence on the development of medical theories and practices. Postwar gender "traditionalists," for example, raised public fears about a masculinity crisis made worse by tranquilization with Miltown. Their campaigns helped smuggle 1950s-era gender ideas into the emerging sciences of biological psychiatry and sociobiology. In later decades, some feminists' choice to transform Valium addiction into an iconic symbol of sexism helped bring an end to the tranquilizer era. In both cases, groups with little or no formal medical standing came to be influential in ongoing debates about the meaning and uses of new wonder drugs.
Such influences were not one-way streets. Just like those who actually swallowed the pills, those who "used" them politically could also be transformed by the experience. Happy Pills follows these stories too, tracing the consequences of these encounters with the medical system. The choice of Valium as a feminist issue, for example, helped intensified already existing fissures in the movement, reinforcing lines of class and race and cutting Valium activists off from potential allies (other critics of the nation's drug wars). Meanwhile, Congressional drug warriors who tackled tranquilizer abuse in the 1960s and 1970s became unlikely critics of the pharmaceutical industry, expanding the reach and political power of consumer advocacy and the patients' rights movement. By following these and other stories, Happy Pills uncovers the wide range of dynamic interactions that link the history of medicines to the broader political cultures of postwar America.
Finally, Happy Pills brings the history of medicine into contact with the history of drugs. For many good reasons these two fields are usually researched separately, but there is much to be gained by examining their connections. For one thing, the categories of "drugs" and "medicines" are dependent on each other (i.e., each is defined in part by excluding the other), and the contested boundaries dividing them have historically been the subject of important political conflict. Happy Pills takes an unusually close analytical look at the mechanics of these boundaries, asking how the lines were drawn, redrawn, and maintained in the face of real challenges in the postwar era. It shows how interactions between professional medicine, the drug industry, politicians, and political activists helped craft the ungainly and sometimes brutally unequal framework that still regulates drug use in America. Federal controls over tranquilizers, for example, emerged only after more than a decade of epic political battles, and even then the new laws still imposed lighter oversight and penalties for trafficking (and abusing) medicines as opposed to true "street" drugs. Epic battles such as these, Happy Pills shows, were not confined to the history of medicines or the history of "drugs." They emerged from the charged areas where those histories collide, and resulted in profound and wide reaching consequences for physicians and patients, medicine and the law, and feminists and antidrug warriors.