Category Archives: Books

Writing Better Stories For Ourselves

Two weeks ago I had a heart attack at a high-rise hotel in Atlanta on the morning I was supposed to deliver a speech at a large conference on prescription-painkiller and heroin abuse.

Turned out one of my major arteries was completely blocked. I’ve written elsewhere about what happened that day and you can read it here.

I rebounded quickly because I was near help, and also because of an outpouring of prayers and good wishes sent from many you, which I greatly appreciated.

My wife and I were teary-eyed for days reading your posts and comments.

I went to visit my new cardiologist when I got home. I had never thought of what was happening during a heart attack.

“What you were feeling is the pain of the heart dying,” she told me.

This hit me much harder than anything else I’d heard from a doctor. I began to understand more deeply the enormous good fortune I’d had in being where I was when this happened. Another two or three hours without help, “and you’d have been in serious trouble,” she said.

I’ve spoken a lot about personal accountability in my talks about Dreamland. I believe it’s one of the lessons we ought to learn from our opiate-addiction epidemic: that as a culture, we almost demanded doctors cure our pain quickly and completely and we weren’t going to do much to help them do that – like eat better, exercise more, avoid processed foods. Opiate painkillers were quick, cheap and those were the tools doctors turned to.

So midway through writing the book, I stopped drinking sugary drinks; lots of junk food I’d already eliminated from my diet. I don’t buy food that’s advertised on TV. I’ve always walked a lot, but I added swimming. I had no clue that I had a blocked artery, or ought to believe I had one, because I thought I was doing a lot right. (My cardio rehab nurse said she thought the swimming had saved me, because through it my blood had found new ways of circulating around the blocked artery and used those when the attack came.)

Still, I’ve come to believe that our heroin/pill epidemic has a lot to say about who we are as Americans, how we do live and how we should live. I think I felt that a bit more deeply following my heart attack.

As part of that, I came across a discussion of the work of Viktor Frankl, a great philosopher and Holocaust survivor. It reads in part that what gave him the ability to survive Nazi concentration camps (four of them) was the search for meaning. That life is more than the pursuit of happiness; it’s the pursuit of meaning and with that comes fulfillment.

“We all said to each other in camp,” he writes, “that there could be no earthly happiness which could compensate for all we had suffered.” But it was not the hope of happiness that “gave us courage,” he writes. It was the “will to meaning” that looked to the future, not to the past. In Frankl’s existentialist view, we ourselves create that meaning, for ourselves, and not for others. … We must acknowledge the need to make sense of our lives and fill what Frankl called the “existential vacuum.” And we alone are responsible for writing better stories for ourselves.

That last sentence is the most important one.

Frankl’s work, I think, is hugely relevant amid this opiate-addiction epidemic.

I’m just beginning this new life – renewed approach to exercise, avoiding stress, and thinking of food differently than even I had. Feeling very fortunate to be alive and be around people who care – like many of you.

Hoping to continue writing a better story for myself, and wishing the same for you.

13 Comments

Filed under Books, Dreamland, Storytelling

Saints and Sinners: Growing up in Portsmouth

A letter from a reader of Dreamland:

I was living in South Shore when Dr. David Proctor arrived in 1978.  I had just come back from college and was working at the local brickyard.  For a few years I was still apart of the local drug crowd but slowly moved away from it because I found it scary and upsetting.  I did not like buying from biker dudes I did not know and I did not like the small dealers that sold drugs to kids.

In small rural towns there are the “saints” and “sinners” and the doctors in any town normally are in the “saint” category.  One of my local small dealer friends went to Proctor while he was still apart of Dr. Riddle’s office. Proctor told him he would write him a script for any drug he wanted.  When my friend told me this I will never forget the stunned and serious look on his face, even though he got a prescription for Black Beauties.  My friend knew in the back of his sinner brain that something was very wrong.

Once my extended Pentecostal rumspringa was over, I returned to church.  I got married and left the area.  However, my husband was an abusive man and I returned to my mother’s home in South Shore with a small child.  It did not take me long even in my state of mind to see that Dr. Proctor along with another doctor had done major damage to my small town.  Even in my mother’s church there were five people that I knew about that were addicted to prescription drugs.

 Your book focused on the opiates but there was a doctor who ran a “diet” clinic who was free with the amphetamines. I would walk around the corner to see his lot filled with cars from Hamilton, Franklin, Pike and other counties in Ohio plus cars from counties in Kentucky and West Virginia.  The people I saw were lean not obese.  So South Shore was a one-stop on the small time dealer network for both opiates and amphetamines.

 There is one thing I would like to say about kids raised in fundamentalist churches. This is about the saint and sinner perspective.  They will be zealously saint or zealously a sinner and there seems to be no middle ground. This especially applies to rural areas.  If you are trained to live your life a religious zealot then when you turn away from your religious upbringing you live your worldly life just as fervently and passionately in the negative. However, when these same people turn back to their religious roots from the addictive life they are not ashamed to help others to do the same.

I left South Shore in the middle nineties with my middle school aged daughter.  I went back to Morehead State and cleaned up my mess from the 70’s and graduated with honors just in time for my daughter to start college. My daughter went on to get her masters at UK.  After reading your book I am glad we left the area for I can see decades of destruction manifest in South Shore when I go back to visit.

A positive note:  I loved your description of Chillicothe Street especially during the holidays.  I was not part of the middle class but was raise by a single mom with three children and no welfare. We would take a taxi to Portsmouth to shop on Christmas Eve.  I can remember the Salvation Army Santa ringing his bell in front of Kresges’ and my mom singing “Silver Bells.”  We would go to Kresges, Greens Five and Dime, Kobacher’s and to Martings to see their window display and buy hot peanuts from their candy area and play on the escalators.

All of this is etched into my childhood mind as well as all the great times swimming at Dreamland with my brothers and the neighbor kids who took us with them.  I thought all city pools were like Dreamland.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Drugs, The Heroin Heartland

True Tales From Another Mexico – at 15

Fifteen years ago this week, my first book, True Tales from Another Mexico, was released, just as George Bush was about to make his first trip abroad – to Mexico, governed by its new, duly elected president, Vicente Fox.
cover1big
 
I remember not really being able to absorb the idea that I’d actually written a book. Over the years, it sold only well enough to be known as a “cult classic” – a description I like.
I think it remains relevant, largely because of the stories in it: A colony of drag queens, a lynching, Oaxacan indian basketball players, the section of the Mexican Congress then known as “The Bronx,” pistoleros, telenovela queens, the Paleteria La Michoacana popsicle makers, the slum boss known as La Loba and her Chippendale dancers, and Chalino Sanchez, the late, great narcocorrido singer.
 
It’s still for sale, and is now on Kindle. … Hope you like it…. 🙂

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Mexico, Writing

Thank You!

The last few days have been tumultuous for my family and me – and filled with strong emotions.

But I wanted to say how much I appreciated all those who wrote in, via various media, with kind words, words of support and encouragement. Tens of thousands read the blogpost below. Thousands of people shared the post below on Facebook. Hundreds more tweeted it. I received many e
mails, and (now that my WordPress comments section is fixed) comments on my blog.  Many folks wrote in on the 60 Minutes website and the show’s Facebook page to object.

It means so much that you would do that. Thank you!

“People can see the truth,” said one editor and friend. I think that’s probably right.

Journalists and writers sent me notes with their own tales of how 60 Minutes and other shows had taken their stories/books/articles/reports and redone them without giving credit.

“This has been going on for years,” said one.

Maybe, but that doesn’t make it right. I hope writers/reporters will speak up when this happens in the future.

I hope my public objection, calling them out, means that a show like 60 Minutes will think twice before it appropriates the work of others without giving them credit. Television in particular seems afflicted with the weakness for taking the stories of others.

To those who would do that, I say, fine. Just give credit. It’s common decency. Show the work the real reporters did. Show respect. Don’t pretend, as 60 Minutes did so brazenly, that you’re blazing some new trail.

All that show had to do was mention my name, my work, my book, and that I did indeed help them.

That seems unlikely now, given the comments of the show’s spokesman. Let me say for the record: I spoke up not to promote my book. I spoke up because I had to defend my work. Because if I didn’t defend my work, no one else would. 60 Minutes was profiting from my work. I spoke up because this was work that 60 Minutes had not done by themselves. I had and I did it when almost no one in the media cared about this issue; early on, some questioned my judgment for even getting into the topic. Who cares about heroin addiction?

I spoke up because we’re in a new world, where if you want to do good journalism you almost have to go independent. And if independent journalists are routinely, and with impunity, scavenged by predators without the interest or energy for doing the work themselves, then we are doomed.

I spoke up because 60 Minutes, while taking what I’d taught them in phone conversations and in Dreamland, displayed no interest in advancing the story, taking it new places, teasing out new angles. None of that. Just the “Cliff Notes,” as one retired cop told me, to my book.

After 30 years in this business, three books and more articles than I can count, I’m accustomed to seeing stories that I scooped get picked up by other news outlets. I barely flinch. It’s part of the job. It’s even happened with many news outlets since Dreamland appeared. Everyone seems to be talking about the heroin epidemic in the last six months. Time Magazine, New York Times, Sports Illustrated. That’s great, and one of the reasons I wrote the book.

I called out 60 Minutes because it was such an egregious violation.

They could have gone anywhere in the country and done this story. You’d have to ask them why they didn’t. I suspect they went to the place I told them to go (on the phone and in an email) and where a major part of Dreamland was set  – Columbus, Ohio – because it was cheaper to do it that way, with the roadmap I provided them.

The night of the show, I was proud of the parents who were interviewed, several of whom I know. They spoke for millions of mothers and fathers like them across the country who have suffered this nightmare of watching their kids transformed into something like zombies under the influence of pills and now heroin. They pushed along this  awakening regarding the opiate epidemic that has been gaining strength across the country in the last six months.

But I also found myself dumbfounded, then outraged as I watched,  remembering all the work I’d put in on this topic, the time I spent away from my wife and daughter – all of which 60 Minutes just appropriated as if it belonged to them. After it was over, I apologized to my daughter for my outbursts during the show.

“You don’t have to be sorry, Daddy,” she said.

So I’m not.

But I am grateful. Thank you!

8 Comments

Filed under Books, Storytelling, The Heroin Heartland, Writing

Sad for 60 Minutes

I grew up admiring 60 Minutes for its storytelling and investigative reporting.

So many original stories. No one on television was doing what 60 Minutes was doing then. It looked so exciting and that was part of why I became a journalist.60 Minutes Logo

So six months after the publication of my book Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, it saddened and appalled me to watch the show last night.

Last night, 60 Minutes ran a piece about heroin in Ohio. I’m very happy that these Ohioans, who I know and like and respect, are getting this megaphone. Their story needed telling.

But I have to stand my ground.

Months ago, my publisher and I pitched 60 Minutes on stories from Dreamland: first, the Xalisco Boys heroin traffickers, and then a story about heroin in Ohio.

Over the span of several months and several phone calls, 60 Minutes decided against both ideas.

The Xalisco story wasn’t doable, they concluded, after I convinced them that it was unrealistic to assume that they could show up and in 3-4 days have someone magically open up a heroin lab for them to film. I argued that there were other ways to tell the story. I found them sources, people with years of experience in the drug underworld who trusted me. That wasn’t good enough. They wanted traffickers who spoke English. I told a producer that the traffickers in the Xalisco system were working-class guys from Mexico without even sixth-grade educations and that they spoke only Spanish. He also insisted that 60 Minutes had to have film of dope being made, and had to have it accessible after three days of reporting on the ground.

The Ohio story that we then pitched 60 Minutes had no such cost/danger/language concerns. The state was awash in heroin now. America’s opiate ground zero – for many reasons I made clear in Dreamland. Pills had taken hold there first, and heroin had come sooner than it had anywhere else. Over lunch, a 60 Minutes producer even asked me what story I would do in Ohio. I gave her some ideas.

60 Minutes did go to Ohio. Made it look as if they had figured out who to talk to, and what questions to ask, all on their own. No mention of what led them there and what explained the whole story to them. When I asked them whether they were going to refer to my book, one producer said they wanted to focus on the personal stories of local folks. They could have done the personal stories of local folks in Alabama, or anywhere else in America, but then they wouldn’t have had a book telling them specifically where to look, whom to talk to, and what the story was.

Care to leave 60 Minutes a few of your thoughts? Here’s the comment page to the episode, and here’s the show’s Facebook page.

Parents and others in Ohio and elsewhere are understandably thrilled that major media like 60 Minutes are finally taking an interest in this topic. I’m glad for them and very happy that the issue is now getting attention. Wayne, Brenda, Tracy, Jenna, Rob and others spoke with eloquence and force, and in my opinion saved the piece.

I hope they won’t see this as raining on their long-overdue parade … but I have to say something to defend myself, my family’s sacrifice, and my work. If I don’t, who will?

I spent years working on this story, interviewing hundreds of people, poring over documents, taking collect phone calls from Mexican traffickers in prisons. Before doing it, I lived and wrote for 10 years in Mexico, which made me distinctly prepared to see a part of this story that 60 Minutes producers, judging from our phone calls, knew only because of me.

I took a leave of absence from the LA Times, where my book’s story began (as I note several times). I finally resigned from the paper to finish this book. I went all over the country. Each trip meant time away from my wife and daughter; each trip meant scrimping on meals and motels. When few people were talking about heroin, when most folks I met looked at me askance for researching the topic, I risked my professional career and my family’s financial future: all to find a story that I believed to be profound in its nationwide impact, and in what it says about our country.

I’m thrilled to receive emails like this one, from a retired undercover narcotics officer, who helped in my heroin education:

“The 60 minutes Heroin story last night was the “CliffNotes” version of your book, they needed to have you on that piece! … These news stories are great but they are quickly becoming “old news”. They need to go a few layers deeper. It’s time to talk about solutions! Thanks to guys like you the nation now knows very clearly what the problem is, now it’s time to move the national narrative towards developing real solutions through accountability. … Keep up the good fight Brother …Be Safe!”

It isn’t often that a book more or less scoops radio, TV, and print. But I believe that, to a large degree, is what Dreamland did.

Since its release, I’ve been disappointed to see Time, Sports Illustrated, Washington Post and now the New York Times publish stories on topics that I dealt with first in Dreamland and not mention it. (Btw, my book clearly cites several books to which I am indebted, both in the text and in the acknowledgements.) But 60 Minutes seemed to me to cross a line.

And even after the months of dealing with them, I might not have written this blogpost had not Sunday’s show itself seemed to involve so little original reporting and seemed to rely so heavily on my book.

Is that what it means to be 60 Minutes these days? Just riff off the work of an independent reporter and do nothing to recognize it?

The whole episode reminds me that 60 Minutes is no longer a standard bearer of anything except cost containment. Shows like 60 Minutes no longer set the national debate. They’re followers, imitators, People Magazinenow, where once they were leaders.

Yet I’m also invigorated, exhilarated even, by this experience. For it means that I and many independent colleagues have wide-open spaces now where we can harvest stories. That if we’re willing to put in the work and take the risks, that important stories will be ours to find. It means it’s a great time to be an independent journalist.

The Daily Show made fun of TV cable journalists, and gave respect to real reporters. It taught a generation to be skeptical of what was reported to them on television. The next step is to elevate real independent journalism.

As desiccated titans collapse, abdicating any role in maintaining standards of journalism, we now have this terrain to ourselves. We must work it, push at it, be relentless. But it’s there. People want it, thirst for it, as I’ve found in the reaction to Dreamland. When we find these stories – as now only we are equipped to do – they will probably mean more than ever.

Remember, too, that if you want risk-taking, on-the-edge, original, independent, red-blooded American journalism, then you have to look pretty far past 60 Minutes. The Atlantic is doing some good stuff. As is the Atavist. Might check out the Marshall Project. I thought Grantland looked good before ESPN pulled its plug. I’m sure there are many places I don’t know of – and I invite them to chime in.

I’d also strongly suggest that the books recently written by my friends and former colleagues Gerry Hadden, Alfredo Corchado, and Jill Leovy are well worth your time.

And if you want to read the full story of America’s opiate epidemic from a journalist with no one but his wife and daughter standing behind him, then I’d suggest my own book, Dreamland.

31 Comments

Filed under Books, For The Record, The Heroin Heartland

Eleuterio Cruz – RIP

I’m saddened to report the death of a fine man, Eleuterio Cruz, a campesino from the village of Xocotla high on a mountain in the state of Veracruz, Mexico. I visited Xocotla five times in 2002 and 2003,

Eleuterio Cruz

where I met with him, played guitar with him once, and mainly listened to his stories of his town.

He was of a generation of men from the town that for 31 years spent every Tuesday taking off from the farmwork that fed their families to hack a five-mile road out of the mountain that would connect Xocotla with the rest of the world.

They started in 1945 and finished the road in 1976.

It took them that long because they had only picks and shovels.

Mr. Cruz was the grandfather of Delfino Juarez, whose story I told in my second book, Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream. He was a nice man, kind and generous, and I remember him with great fondness.

Here’s what I wrote about him in the book:

Eleuterio was born in 1933. He began working on the road when he turned seventeen. For the next generation, every boy did the same.

Today, Eleuterio is sixty-nine and has a sharp nose and jaw. His skin is taut, dark, and calloused by years of hard farming. Raising corn and potatoes all his life on a hilly patch of land made him spry. He’d played guitar in cantinas for many years; he drank a lot, then he turned to Jesus.

Eleuterio worked on the road as his twelve children were born, and as they grew up, and as they had the first of his thirty-five grandchildren. He served as mayor for a spell and organized roadwork crews.

Every man in Xocotla had to work on the road one day a week. On Tuesdays they would usually gather their tools and march down to chop, shovel, and pick at the mountain.

The Second World War ended with atom bombs. Then came the Cold War and an arms race. In Xocotla, the men had no explosives, so they hammered and chipped at solid rock, and at times clawed at it by hand, then dumped the debris down the mountain.

The world outside was changing quickly. The Cuban Revolution, the Vietnam War, the student rebellions of the 1960s, the hippie era, a man on the moon, the drugs and sex revolution, dictatorships and coups in Latin America, the Tlatelolco massacre, and the Olympic Games in Mexico City. Through it all, Xocotla’s men remained steadfast to the idea of their road. Every Tuesday the mountainside rang with their picks and shovels glancing off the rocks.

“No one died,” said Eleuterio.

One man’s foot was crushed as he hammered at a massive boulder that stood in the road’s path. No one touched that boulder for a generation after that, believing it hid the devil, who wanted to take people.

“I don’t think so,” Eleuterio said. “This person didn’t know how to use a sledgehammer, which is why the rock hit him in the foot.”

For a full thirty-one years the men of Xocotla pounded at that five-mile road. As they measured progress in centimeters, Mexico’s population went from twenty million people to fifty-five million people. Six Mexican presidents, and twelve Xocotla mayors, came and went. A Mexican middle class emerged, though none of its members lived in Xocotla. Through it all, Xocotla’s men kept at their colossal hand-carved public work. The government gave them no help until the end, when it provided a gas-powered jackhammer with which the men shattered the last obstacle in their way—that solid rock where the man had injured his foot.

Finally, in 1976, they finished. A red Jeep carried the priest from a town at the bottom of the mountain up the zigzagging, rocky five miles of one-lane road. Xocotla had a party. Eleuterio Cruz was forty-three; he’d worked on that road for twenty-six years.

 

My condolences to Delfino and the rest of his family.

RIP Eleuterio Cruz.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Mexico, Migrants, Uncategorized

A Great American

I just finished David McCullough’s terrific biography of John Adams.

John Adams was a simple man. He loved the same woman all his life. He never owned a slave. In his youth, even as an ardent revolutionary, he defended British soldiers in a trial because he believed everyone deserves a fair hearing in court.

He proposed complete religious freedom because he held firm to the Protestant view that every man is equal before God. He endured years-long separation from his family living in Europe doing the country’s difficult and crucial foreign business in England, France and the Netherlands. He despised the luxury he saw in Europe, and believed it would lead to corruption.01604dcdc6ee6e3ad097b31c66914b6e

He believed strongly in the balance of powers. He lived his last years as a farmer, still earning a living, living a simple life. He also read and wrote voluminously.

I have been developing a considerably dimmer view of Thomas Jefferson,  Adams’ vice president and successor to the White House, that this book did nothing to change.

Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, and promoted religious freedom, and established the University of Virginia. But he owned dozens of slaves, fathered children with one of them and freed only five of them upon his death – the mother of his children was not among them.

He lived the life not of a simple American farmer, as Adams did before and after his presidency, but of a European aristocrat – expanding then tearing down Monticello several times, all of which depended on revenue generated by the labor of his slaves. Adams died solvent; Jefferson, despite owning slaves, died $100,000 in debt.

Perhaps slave ownership allowed Jefferson the luxury of his utopian vision of a country of small farmers and an equally small government. He never apparently asked himself the hard questions of how those small farmers might get their goods to market without government taxation that allowed for the building of roads and bridges, and law enforcement to keep the goods safe. This vision sadly left him equally enamored of the French Revolution, even after that event descended into wanton murder. These victims he viewed as casualties of war, and, from this grew his famous statement that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

Adams was the deeper thinker and had a more mature understanding of self-government. He understood that for a union to work, taxes had to be paid, and a national government thus allowed to function. Anarchy would result otherwise. It seems to me this is an idea one segment of our country doesn’t, or doesn’t want to, understand.

Adams began the U.S. Navy, and thus kept us from war with France when we were too small and weak. To do this he imposed taxes that earned him Jefferson’s ire, his own defeat, but the country’s lasting gratitude.

Adams also rightly feared the horrible cost slavery would exact on the country, and abhorred its expansion following the Louisiana Purchase.

Both men, however, embodied the key to the success of the American Revolution, for both were lawyers. Despite its numerous contradictions, slavery being the main one, the American Revolution was made by lawyers, and thus the rule of law not of men was its cornerstone. The tenets of self-government they had thought out and debated in some detail. This is why the Revolution did not collapse into slaughter.

Having lived in a country where the rule of law is weak, I can say that this is fundamental. There is no justice, no equity, no development, no innovation without the rule of law. To the fact that the Founding Fathers were, for the most part, lawyers, and many of them thoughtful about the biggest questions, we can attribute the Revolution’s success.

Interestingly, it might easily not have been so had the wrong people gained power – Alexander Hamilton for one, I suspect. We’re enormously lucky that our first president was, though a general, so unwilling, and left power as quickly as he could.

At the end of their lives, Adams and Jefferson, friends, then adversaries, were friends again.

In one of the great details in U.S. history, the last two signers of the Declarations of Independence died within hours of each other on, amazingly, July 4.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books

William Zinsser Dies

William Zinsser, who wrote On Writing Well, has died. He was 92, according to his NY Times obituary.51gR+4G5mJL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

His book influenced me enormously. We learn to write by writing, but if there’s one book to read on writing in English, it’s his. I read it probably eight times, though I’ve lost count. Some parts of it, more than that.

His approach to writing is the correct one – that writing involves rewriting and more rewriting, each time with an eye to cutting words that don’t need to be there.

That through rewriting we achieve greater clarity, and come to know what we think.

He didn’t mean that all sentences should be short. Rather, that all sentences contain only words that are necessary. Same goes for sentences in a paragraph and paragraphs in a text.

He also said that if you pare down your prose to only what’s necessary and do this over and over, through a lifetime, you develop your own voice. That idea hit me as strange at first, but I know now that he was right.

His point, too, that writing is not to be done when you have inspiration, but treated as a job, something you get up and do every day – that was a revelation to me, as well. The anecdote with which he opens the book, about speaking on a writing panel with a doctor, is fabulous.

On Writing Well went through many editions, but the core of it – the first six or so chapters – remains always clear and relevant.

His essay on Clutter in language is probably more on point today than ever.

I wrote to him twice – once after my first book came out and the second time after we published the first Tell Your True Tale: East Los Angeles volume. Each time, he was kind enough to write back.

A good guy who changed English – by making those who write it do it more clearly.

Many thanks, Mr. Zinsser.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Storytelling, Tell Your True Tale, Uncategorized, Writing

Remembering Dreamland: One woman’s story

 Some people think that my use of Dreamland as the title to my book refers to the euphoria addicts are seeking.Dreamland-HCBig
    In reality, the title refers to an enormous pool that existed years ago in Portsmouth, Ohio, a town mightily afflicted by opiate addiction. Dreamland was the town square, in a sense. Life revolved around it. Kids grew up in public, under the watchful eye of hundreds of parents. It was a place where everyone was equal in bathing suits. The pool embodied the feel of community.
    I’m still awed by the letters I continue to get in response to the book. Here’s another …

____


    I grew up in Portsmouth, born in 1952.  It was a safe blessed time in post war America.  I had 6 cousins in my Catholic school class, picnics with the families on weekends, a perfect childhood of Dreamland every summer day, walking home from school with friends each fall, enduring the brief winter to count the days until Dreamland reopened.
     I left after high school and did college at Ohio Wesleyan where my husband and I met. We moved to PA and I did law school as my husband served the United Methodist churches of Central PA.  We made semi-annual trips to Portsmouth with our three children to see family.  Each time we went, the town was more depressing.  Family members became drug addicts.  We were stolen from at my mothers funeral.  I rescued my dad from a nursing home where the facility clearly had users on staff.  This was in 2013.  He was not safe in his own home due to a family member selling drugs right under my IMG_4147dad’s nose.
     He died in 2014, in PA, after having lived 92 years in Portsmouth.  He knew Branch Rickey, Rocky Nelson, and the great years of Portsmouth.  4 of his six brothers served our country; my dad was deferred due to problems after having polio and rheumatic fever.  I have Ohio River blood in my veins.
    Thank you for making me understand a bit more that the addictions which decimated my family were not totally their fault.  I worked 35 years as an attorney in health care law and  I knew the power of the pharmaceutical companies and the collision of profit in healthcare.
    If you would like to take on another pharmaceutical issue in the future, let me suggest Lyrica. It was presented as the holy grail for nerve pain.  I am no longer practicing law as I had to quit due to seizures after using Lyrica.    Facebook even has a Lyrica survivors page of which I am a member.  It is another sad tail of “big pharma” all over again.
    Thank you again for your wonderful work of Dreamland.
Barbara G. Graybill

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Drugs, The Heroin Heartland

Dreamland: A Mother’s Story

I’ve been getting amazing, intense email letters in the two weeks since Dreamland was released. I hope to be adding some of them to my blog. Here’s one.

____

I almost lost my beloved 23-year-old son (he is now 26) to heroin addiction, which had progressed from OxyContin to black tar heroin.  We are a family of hard working professionals in a university town.

Like most families, we cherish our kids and do everything we can to help then live an honest successful life. When this happened, my son was a pre-med college student. I was and am very close to him, and he had always been a very good Dreamland-HCBigstudent and loving son and brother. He was kind, funny, highly gifted, devoted to music and passionate about becoming a doctor.   He was also prone to depression at times.

When I found out, he was in his 4th year of college, and getting As and Bs in hard science courses such as organic chemistry, but could not seem to manage on his college budget. He kept running out of money.  He started having vague physical symptoms, like constipation, malaise and abdominal discomfort. His grades in his last year of college started to slip.  At Christmas, we visited my sister’s family in Midwestern farm country. Later, my sister, bless her heart, confided in me that her Oxy pills that had been prescribed for shingles had disappeared from her medicine cabinet when we were staying with her. She was reluctant to tell me as she did not want to make anyone uncomfortable or blame anyone. I am so very grateful that she told me this.

I immediately put together that my son had stolen the pills and had a life-threatening problem. I knew it in my gut to be true beyond any doubt. Perhaps because I am a child of the 60s and knew too many friends who were lost to drug addiction: classmates who were drafted and came back from Vietnam addicted to heroin, and 2 college roommates who went to federal prison for smuggling cocaine as an airline stewardesses.  We also have a family history of alcohol abuse and addiction, which my mom told me way too many times.

I freaked out! I knew that he had to be addicted to do something so desperate as steal my sister’s pills. This explained everything – his money problems, dropping grades, and vague feelings of being sick.  I could not sleep for fear he would soon be dead. I confronted him in tears and said I knew he had stolen the Oxy. He of course denied it, but finally admitted he had stolen the pills. He admitted he was addicted to Oxy pills, which he had started using after being given a script for narcotic pills after a foot laceration.

I immediately called an addiction doctor I know and, in tears and panicking, offered to pay her anything if she could please help save my son.  She drove in from out of town and (at a high hourly rate) met with him and helped him realize he was an addict. She personally went with him to an NA meeting (she is a former cocaine addict and involved in NA). I would have paid anything for any chance to save him.

He went to the NA meeting and started to see addiction therapists, which we paid for, but he remained in denial. He kept saying it wasn’t a big deal and he could kick the habit. He went to some NA sessions, but over the course of 18 months he relapsed 3 times, each time worse than the last. During one of the relapses, he called his father to say goodbye after injecting what he thought was a fatal suicidal dose of black tar heroin in his arm. He had started getting the heroin from a “friend” – a former college football player who had been selling him Oxy and was now selling him heroin once he could no longer afford the street price of Oxy.

His father found him in his apartment unresponsive, but he survived.  He was so ashamed that he could not defeat the problem that he said he couldn’t live with the shame and did not find life worth living. We did family interventions and told him we would not give up on him and brought him to more therapists.

He almost died three more times. After the first relapse, I demanded to know his dealer’s name as I wanted to kill him.  I traced his phone calls (I was paying for his cell phone) and had repetitive thoughts about killing the demon who sold him the drugs and taught him to inject heroin.  I wasn’t sure how I could go on living if I lost him.

When using, he would not see me as he knew that I would know if he was using. So he moved to LA and declined rapidly.  His father went to see him and told me that I should go visit him, as he would not be alive long.  I did. He looked like a skeleton. He was taking Suboxone, as well as additional narcotics and probably other drugs.   I kept saying that I would pay for any addiction therapy he could find, but would never give up on him and not give a penny to his habit. My life was hell.

Thank God, he found an addiction therapist in LA (a former Vietnam vet heroin addict) who he really connected with. He started seeing this therapist while still using.  I got a “call” (God how we fear those calls!), but it was not that he had died. It was that he had voluntarily decided to go into “long term” drug rehab.  We found an inpatient facility in Utah that the addiction specialist recommended. I knew the enslaving power of heroin addiction and how statistically unlikely it was that he would voluntarily say goodbye to heroin.

I don’t know how he had the strength, but he got on the plane, flew to the University of Utah hospital where he admitted himself into the psych unit for several days of detox. He then voluntarily admitted himself into a Utah inpatient facility for 30 days, then into 90 days sober living, and then underwent 18 more months of therapy and voluntary monitored UAs.

My son is now 35 months completely clean, and is in medical school. He keeps track of every single day he is sober. He says that every day remains hard work. BUT, he has done the work and gotten his life back. He started exercising, working and studying steadily. He took premed courses and passed grueling medical school exams.

My son is now successfully finishing his first year of medical school.  He wants to be an addiction doctor and find a way to help others survive this hell.

I still worry about him every day.  But we cannot talk about this, as most people do not feel comfortable with the topic. I also need to not jeopardize my son’s career. He tells some people and is doing an internship this summer at rehabilitation clinic. He was open with them when he applied for the position.  He answers all questions honestly, but does not bring the topic up with others unless they are very close friends.

I have read every book about addiction that I can get my hands on, and some are excellent, such as “Beautiful Boy.”  But no other book so skillfully and adeptly addresses this huge crisis like yours, nor does any other book touch me in terms of what I have lived with like your book.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Drugs, Streets, The Heroin Heartland, Writing

Another Family Steps Up – D.J. Wolanski RIP

Another family has stepped up to acknowledge in an obituary that a child has died of a heroin overdose.4318752_300x300_1

Daniel Joseph “DJ” Wolanski, of Mahoning County in Ohio, died April 20. Read his obituary.

It must be so difficult for this family to come forward and say this publicly. But this scourge has spread because so many people before them have kept quiet, allowing the rest of us to imagine that the problem really isn’t as bad as it has become.

So it’s important to acknowledge the courage of those who do step up, speak publicly.

The obituary reads….

“Over the course of DJ’s life, he made many bad decisions including experimenting with drugs. Unfortunately, his five year addiction and battle with heroin took over. His family and friends truly loved him and tried everything from being supportive to tough love as he struggled with his own inner demons and heroin. …

“DJ often talked about the growing number of friends that he had lost to this destructive drug and how it destroyed families. They used to say it takes a community to raise a child. Today, we need to say that it takes a community to battle addiction. Someone you know is battling addiction; if your “gut instinct” says something is wrong, it most likely is. Get involved. Do everything within your power to provide help. Don’t believe the logical sounding reasons of where their money is going or why they act so different. Don’t believe them when they say they’re clean.”

Profound words – the way to attack a drug that turns every addict into a silo, a loner wrapped in a cocoon – is through community.

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Drugs, The Heroin Heartland, Uncategorized

The Normalcy of Addiction

I’m in Little Rock for the Arkansas Literary Festival, a very nice book festival held downtown.Dreamland-HCBig

So here’s what happened yesterday. Flew in, met my fellow panelists, learned that Southwest lost my bag, went to the hotel, took a quick nap, went to a festival reception, met someone with an opiate addict in the family (the family member is a woman in her 60s or so).

Little Rock is no different from every other part of the country I’ve visited recently.

Researching our national addiction to pain pills and heroin to write my book, Dreamland, I’ve been struck by the normalcy of addiction nowadays. Everywhere, strike up a conversation, you find someone with a family member or friend or co-worker addicted to opiates.

It’s far more prevalent than crack use was, I believe, and certainly infinitely more deadly.

I remember starting the research, flying to Dallas a couple years ago. On the plane was an elderly couple from rural Oklahoma. We got to talking and before long, they were telling me of their oldest son, addicted to OxyContin.

Not long after that, in a tavern on New Year’s Day in Covington, KY, I met a family, celebrating a young girl’s birthday. Before long, we’re talking about two people in that extended family dead from heroin overdoses.

There are many reasons why this is so.

First: the massive over-prescribing of pain pills nationwide. We often debate whether supply or demand drives drug plagues. This one is supply driven. Pain pills eventually lead to heroin addiction – as the pills are molecularly similar to heroin and much cheaper; in some areas, like those serviced by the Xalisco Boys I write about in Dreamland, heroin is easier and more convenient to obtain the pills.

But this is also driven by silence. There’s no violence to fuel public ire. Meanwhile, though, parents are loathe to talk about their children’s addiction. When they die, they camouflage it in some palatable cause of death. Some parents are going public. But far too few given the huge numbers.

The result is silence, and stories you never hear until you’re sitting next to someone on a plane, or chatting with them at a cocktail party.

7 Comments

Filed under Books, Business, Drugs, Storytelling, The Heroin Heartland

DREAMLAND – At Last!

Been a very long time, and lots of hard work, but finally my third book of narrative nonfiction is out.Dreamland-HCBig

Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic was released this week by Bloomsbury Press.

When neck-deep in writing a book, I’m never sure if it’s any good. Too much time spent laboring over every phrase, whether one clause should be separated by a comma or a semicolon, which adjective best describes a person’s mood – on top of all the facts that, like cats, need to be corralled and herded in one direction or another.

And new facts you learn every day that may change everything.

Then there’s the rewriting – which is what writing is all about.

So I’m thrilled to hear reaction to the book – that people couldn’t put it down. Love hearing that, I have to say.

I’ve had great appearances at the LA Times Bookfest and at Vroman’s, with more to come at Powell’s Books in Portland, Elliott Bay Town Hall in Seattle and Bookstore West Portal in San Francisco, not to mention the Arkansas Literary Festival in Little Rock, where I’m heading as I write.

Amazon.com chose Dreamland one of its Best Books of the month, alongside books by Toni Morrison, TC Boyle and others. That was nice of them.

The NY Times ran a column of mine on the front page of its Sunday Review opinion page. Nice of them, as well.

Salon.com wrote this terrific review of the book. Kirkus Review ran a long story on it. Willamette Week published a review, and an article on Dreamland. Mother Jones, where I was once an intern (1984), reviewed it as well. Thanks, you guys.

KPCC in LA aired an interview i did on their show, Take Two, and CSPAN did the same with an interview at the Bookfest, then covered the LA Times Bookfest panel I was on with some terrific nonfiction crime authors  – Ruben Castaneda, Barry Siegel, and Deanne Stillman, and Tom Zoellner doing a bang-up job moderating.

All in all, an exhausting but fulfilling first few days to a book’s life.

Thanks to all who’ve bought the book, and especially to those who’ve written me about it with such feeling.

5 Comments

Filed under Books, Drugs, Storytelling, The Heroin Heartland, Writing

Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside

Six percent of Americans are black men. Forty percent of homicide victims are black men, most by far killed by other black men, though many of the cases remain unsolved.

This kind of impunity is the result not of too much policing but of far too little. Too often police in places like South L.A.FullSizeRender are swamped, given the caseload and resources at their disposal. They can make little of each murder case, which, once unsolved, strengthens the culture of impunity and of witness silence, and encourages more murder.

That is the analysis of  my colleague at the L.A. Times, Jill Leovy, in her great new book, Ghettoside, based on years of her reporting and research in South Los Angeles.

I’m only a little way into the book, having purchased it only last night. But this already seems like some of the most original, clear, observation-driven thinking on crime that I’ve read in years – and brave as well given the current discourse over policing in the black community.

Here’s some of what she writes:

“…where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic. … African Americans have suffered from just such a lack of effective criminal justice, and this, more than anything, is the reason for the nation’s long-standing plague of black homicides. Specifically, black America has not benefited from what Max Weber called a state monopoly on violence – the government’s exclusive right to exercise legitimate force. … Slavery, Jim Crow, and conditions across much of black America for generations after worked against the formation of such a monopoly. Since personal violence inevitably flares where the state’s monopoly is absent, this situation results in the deaths of thousands of Americans each year.”

Reading on. Can’t wait for more.

1 Comment

Filed under Books, California, Los Angeles, Writing

A new Tell Your True Tale book

The new Tell Your True Tale; East Los Angeles book is out, the product of a workshop I did with a great group of eight new writers.FrontCover

The stories are again fantastic — about Albert Einstein in East L.A., a Czech “almost blind” boy growing up in a Communist boarding home, a young man going to Tijuana to help a deported friend return, a woman on her deathbed remembering the last time she saw her kids, and a girl on her way to Mexico, a child bride.

Check it out, on sale at Amazon.com for only $5.38 hardcopy or $2.99 as an ebook.

We present the book this Saturday, Jan. 24 at 3 pm at East Los Angeles Public Library, in the Chicano Resource Center.

Please think of coming.

My third TYTT: ELA workshop at the library begins the Saturday following that – January 31.

Over the next year, with the generous support of the County Library, I hope to be expanding the workshops to other parts of L.A. County – Compton, South Central and elsewhere.

TYTT draft cover JPEGBy the way, the first TYTT: ELA book, which we published last year, is also on sale, packed with very cool stories as well.

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under Books, Storytelling, Tell Your True Tale, Writing