Drug Policy

The Calm Before the Storm

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On his 1950s TV show, Milton Berle jokingly called himself "Uncle Miltown," in praise of the drug that helped him cope with a stressful career. By reminding us of such episodes, The Age of Anxiety (Basic), Andrea Tone's revelatory history of tranquilizers in America, complicates the usual tale of patriarchal oppression, in which greedy pharmaceutical companies profit by keeping housewives placid and subservient. From the beginning, Tone notes, the tranquilizer market was driven by the demands of Americans who used "little peace pills" to relieve lifeimpairing anxiety.

Many of them, like Berle, were high-achieving men who saw tranquilizers as a badge of hard work. Before Valium pills were denigrated as "mother's little helpers," Miltown was valorized as "executive Excedrin." Without minimizing the hazards of tranquilizers, Tone suggests that the backlash against them has caused more harm than the uncritical embrace that preceded it. She also shows that a drug's reputation is a function of culture as much as chemistry.