Commentary Magazine


People Get Hooked

But after we got down to the Key that’s when I really started digging it, what was happening. We walked into that place and everything was a hundred miles away. First kicks on horse are strange, just the strangest, just the biggest gas in life, you know. I guess that’s why you keep on it. Everything was cold, but not terribly cold, just impersonally, beautifully cold and I saw all of these rows and rows of people and faces and everything and they were all just statues. They didn’t mean anything to me. I sat down at the bar and Bim Connors was there too, and he kept insisting that we go out and smoke some pot; that’s all I can remember of his conversation. He kept saying, “Well, I’ve got some pot, man. Don’t you want to get high?” And I didn’t realize it, but he’d been sitting there talking to me for about three quarters of an hour, sounding me. Finally he said, “Well, do you? Or don’t you?” And I couldn’t talk. I just sat there and smiled, listened to everything that everybody had to say but I didn’t say anything; I couldn’t. It was like being paralyzed in a very pleasant manner.

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The American “narcotics problem” is an artificial tragedy with real victims. One such victim was “Janet Clark,” the pseudonym of a young heroin addict whose taperecorded confessions were published a couple of years ago in a volume titled The Fantastic Lodge1 Reading passages in it such as the above, chosen almost at random, one realizes how little reality and compassion there have been in the prevailing notions of the drug addict. The studies in recent years by medical researchers, sociologists, and lawyers have done much to reveal the narrow, brutal, and ineffective framework of thinking that has governed our laws and attitudes concerning drug addiction. However, while directing attention to the artificiality of this social tragedy, the portraits of its victims drawn from scientific and legal data have tended to divest them of their actuality, not to mention their humanity. The gray image of the addicts produced by socio-medical research thus joins other, more lurid images of him that are prevalent in our culture, and while introducing a note of common sense and common justice into the rather hysterical discussion of the subject, has not particularly deepened public awareness of and concern for the plight of the addict.

The oldest and most popular view of the addict is that of the criminal dope fiend, the wild-eyed monster who rapes, robs, and murders between his fixes. This view underlies nearly all our narcotics laws, beginning with the Harrison Law of 1914 up to those of most recent vintage and greatest harshness, as well as the policies of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics during the long and grim tenure of Harry J. Anslinger. One result has been to make the medical profession shy away from treating addicts as patients and addiction as a pressing research problem; another has been to force tens of thousands of addicts into continuing symbiotic relationship with the criminal underworld or the police or both, usually precluding any chance of rehabilitation. The classification of the addict as a violent public enemy has justified many gross violations of our system of justice and such enormities as lobotomies to “cure” addiction.

Spawned and held to tenaciously by lawmakers and the police, this image has been spread through the culture by popular journalism. Along with being an ever sensational topic, drug addiction is one of several social problems whose discussion allows the reader to feel at once titillated and virtuously superior. Inevitably, too, it gets attached to the cold war; Mr. Anslinger and others have periodically invoked the specter of Red China poised in the wings, waiting to turn everybody on, or at least Our American Youth.

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This image of the addict as a dangerous criminal who can be coped with only by the stringent enforcement of harsh laws screens off a number of well-established facts. Most American addicts are on one of the opiate series—usually heroin. The opiates are depressants, which sharply reduce aggressive and sexual drives. Most addict crime results directly from the cost of supporting a habit at underworld prices. Addicts who do not have to depend upon the underworld for their supply rarely become criminals or commit acts of violence. (One sure-fire way to suppress violence in our society would be to locate the potentially violent and get them hooked on heroin.) In terms of reducing addiction, the treatment of addicts as criminals produces vastly lower permanent cure rates, and, finally, after nearly a half century of exposing and persecuting the “junkie,” the United States has the highest addiction rate of any Western nation.

On the other hand, literary intellectuals and more sophisticated journalists in the past decade have created a counter-image—the addict as a symbolic hero, the extreme example of the rebel-victim of the Eisenhower age. The prototype for the spate of narcotics-centered novels, plays, films, TV scripts, and sympathetic think-pieces during the 50’s appears to have been Nelson Algren’s tough-sentimental and successful, The Man With The Golden Arm. (Algren claims that the drug angle was added at the suggestion of his agent after the initial draft.) The writers of such works have tended to cast the addict in one of two roles, either as the supreme romantic, an adventurer in perception who dares to explore the farthest edges of consciousness or, more commonly, as ourselves writ large and naked. Most of us, after all, are hooked on something—alcohol, tobacco, tranquilizers, barbiturates, or, by extension, TV, sex, careers, secret fantasies. If addiction and its attendant rituals are denounced as a perverse attempt to fend off the contemporary tensions and terrors, how many of our other institutions of escape can withstand similar criticism? Such questions contain enough truth to embarrass: at times one is tempted to accept the man with the monkey on his back as the master symbol of a driven and drugged age.

Tempted, but not persuaded. For the rites of junk are too radically reductive to have an authentic relation to other modes of behavior. In the addict’s shrunken world, all roles and rules are pre-assigned—the addict knows in advance the range of possible relationships in his eternal triangle of himself, his connection, and the police—and indeed, even the handful of words he will need to use. Moreover, to see the addict as a romantic hero or cultural anti-hero, one must ignore the masses of hard fact compiled by medicine and sociology. One must make a symbol out of a man who is finally most concretely described in terms of sclerosis, abscesses, degree of constipation, changes in blood sugar level and alteration of basal metabolism during withdrawal, whose life can be limned so quickly by psychological and social surveys.

Of the three current images of the junkie, the socio-medical one is far superior because it is the one most firmly grounded in verifiable fact. Still it is inadequate, because it takes its data as providing some sort of timeless, universal truth, rather than as partial descriptions of changing realities. (It is frightening to see how frequently statistics gathered forty years ago are cited in support or criticism of current or proposed policies.) More importantly, it tends to obscure the immediacy and depth of the addict’s plight.

Further, the treble confusion of competing voices has a number of undesirable effects: the “experts” have difficulty in establishing any valid communication with each other (as witness the babel of the recent White House Conference on Narcotics); the baffled public sinks back into apathy; and the addict finds himself in a hopelessly mixed-up relation with his society, his encounter with any individual contingent upon the particular view of addiction the latter holds.

With all this in mind, one is in a better position to realize the indispensable value of a book like The Fantastic Lodge. Janet Clark begins by telling of her childhood—a crowded apartment during the Depression, a divorce, followed by a period of being shunted from one relative to another. Then her father’s death, a first violent and senseless contact with sex, an attempt to escape into “culture.” We follow her through an unguided adolescence in a big city where, with a peculiar combination of innocence and sophistication, she searches desperately for an identity. This phase ends with Janet miserably giving birth to the illegitimate child of her first lover. From this traumatic experience she drifts into the jazz world. Her “graduation” from Dixieland to white “cool” to colored is paralleled by her shifts from alcohol to marijuana to heroin. She has an abortive marriage. She tries college. She lives with a famous Negro singer, but sex is merely the currency—meaningless to her, valued by others—she must use to get what she wants from the world. She spends a short period on the fringes of intellectual Bohemia. She lives with an addicted trombone player, the only man in her life to whom she can truly relate. She. makes a number of stabs at psychoanalysis. She is arrested. She goes to Lexington.

We are told in a post-script by the interviewer that in the five years following the making of the tapes she passed through the further stages: shoplifting, prostitution, several botched suicide attempts, self-commitment to a state mental hospital (one permissive enough to unwittingly allow her to remain on heroin and barbiturates), all leading finally to her death in the hospital of a self-administered overdose of barbiturates.

But to summarize is to corrupt. This down-hill path through sordidness and misery, though terrible, is by now trite—much as Naked Lunch, authentic but late, seems contrived. The book’s interest lies in Janet’s style, her ability to present both herself and her world as they are experienced. Her years were fewer than thirty and certainly messy enough, but she recalls them with a brightness of spirit that makes categorizing and moralizing finally seem irrelevant.

We would get ready then, go in the bathroom, take a bath together, nice big hot bath, then I’d get out pyjamas and stuff and iron them and we’d put them on and we’d get ready, everything solid. We would never take off before brushing our teeth, in other words.

Similarly, she colors all events with her awareness. Her relations with the police, for example, become horrifyingly comic, for she is lucidly aware, in a way that no outside observer could ever be, of the absurdities in the behavior of the various enforcement and judicial hierarchies.

If one responds at all to Janet’s style, the result is immediate compassion; the “forty to sixty thousand narcotics addicts” so glibly referred to at the White House Conference become forty to sixty thousand Janet Clarks. As one reads, there is a shift from thinking of a junkie who happens to have a specific history to an awareness of Janet, an attractive—albeit flawed—personality who has been drawn into an encounter with narcotics.

Janet’s happiest memories are domestic, as when she redecorates an apartment for her man. She is obviously not a vicious social menace. Nevertheless, in using her as a measure of the absurdity of our present narcotics enforcement system, two objections might be raised. First, she is atypical. As a female and as a “white” (an estimated three-quarters of known U.S. addicts are Negro, Puerto Rican, or Mexican), she does not conform to the sociologist’s model addict. But that is just the point. Once one starts adding qualifying adjectives to the label “addict,” the process is ever more extensible—until we arrive again at the individual, and the addict is seen as a person. The mere existence of her “case” should serve as warning against using stereotypes, of whatever degree of sophistication.

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A second, more cogent stricture might be that Janet’s fate could not have been otherwise, that with laws harsh or lenient there would have occurred the inevitable algebra of her needs and the “sweet death” heroin provides. Inexorably drifting toward trouble, she comes into contact with the drug world and one can hear the gears mesh in some horrible machine that will deposit her, dead, on the far side.

Yet we are not Greeks, and we can respond to her plight with more than pity and terror. It is surely possible to picture for her an alternative fate. In the 20’s she might have been an alcoholic, boastfully worrying about going mad, fussing with her coiffure. Or, pitching her a few years into the future, one immediately senses that the 60’s will have their own fashions in vice, that the H-craze was perhaps a lethal fad and may shortly be as exotically passé as opium smoking, having passed on with the jazz heroes who did so much to give it cachet. Or had she been raised in or moved to a small town she might have joined her counterparts, blithe but wounded spirits, those unwilling or unable either to join the square world or come to terms with it, releasing her defiance through the semi-Bohemianism of little theater, drinking too much, at parties rousing herself from the corner to wittily insult the guests, giving her husband much hell, and some joy. Janet Clark was, in short, a woman—a woman with whom it would have been possible to have fallen in love. Until that fact or any fact like it, is admitted, we cannot hope to have a just and effective system of narcotics control: we cannot achieve justice or even, we are beginning to recognize, simple truth.

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Footnotes

1 Edited by Helen Hughes, Houghton Mifflin (1961), 267 pp, $4.00.

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