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Narratives of Struggle and Hope

Clara Wagner analyzes the life stories of drug addicted mothers and their families for her Div III   

What should be the goal of residential drug treatment?  Most people would say that sobriety is the only legitimate marker of success.

Clara Wagner Hampshire College
Clara Wagner

But Clara Wagner, a Div III student, would disagree. 

“Sobriety is the main goal, but people in treatment have to gain a sense of control for their recovery to be successful. That in itself is an important milestone,” says Wagner. 

Last winter, when she took a part-time job as a direct care staffer at Grace House, a residential drug treatment center for mothers in early recovery, she didn’t anticipate that it would become the basis of her Div III.

Located in Northampton, Grace House provides family housing to women in treatment for substance abuse so they can keep their children with them and avoid losing custody or placing them in foster care. 

In her job as a caretaker, Wagner spends hours with the residents: dispensing medications; driving the women to appointments; helping them fill out housing applications; and, occasionally, keeping an eye on their kids. 

Listening to the clients’ life stories, she got to know them personally. Yet, she also came to understand their experiences from an academic perspective.

“My classes in sociology, culture, and feminism have helped me give context to these women’s lives,” Wagner says. 

She compares public policies, like arresting and incarcerating drug-addicted women while they are pregnant, to the notoriously strict laws governing female welfare recipients in the 1970s. 

“Through the 1970s, women could receive aid for families with dependent children (AFDC) only if they had no man living with them. In fact, state workers would come to their homes to make sure no men lived there,” Wagner says. 

Wagner argues that arresting drug-addicted women and separating them from their existing children—or the child they will give birth to—is equally oppressive. 

Fascinated by the dynamics of power and disempowerment in the lives of Grace House residents, Wagner began interviewing them about their experience in recovery and recording their life stories. She presented those narratives in a sociological framework for her Div III project.

Her research, as described in her proposal, takes “a macro-level look at social forces that have shaped residents’ lives . . . The aim of this information will not be to exhaustively explore any given topic, but to give general context to their experiences.”

Wagner’s work—a complex combination of storytelling, history, sociology, and psychology—required a dedicated committee to steer her through, and she chose Kara Lynch, associate professor of video and cultural studies, and Lourdes Mattei, associate professor of clinical studies, for her Div III committee. 

“Students at Hampshire are very thoughtful and intentional about their work,” Wagner says. “I’ve worked closely with my advisers to shape my Div III.”

Her nine-page bibliography, which lists 77 sources, is a testament to her seriousness and diligence. 

Wagner hopes that her Div III will “create space for these residents’ stories to be heard and shared.” 

She describes her work as sometimes heartbreaking but also points to “times that the residents are joyful, hopeful, and inspiring.”

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