Category Archives: Writing

Librarians and the Beauty of Surprise

On National Read Across America Day, I’d like to give thanks for local public librarians.

I find one of the great things to do is walk into a library and see what they’ve displayed as book suggestions. Mostly, what I love is the surprise. These books are almost always something interesting, quirky, something you hadn’t thought to read, or even ever heard about.

For writers, I think this is an essential endeavor. Reading widely, I’ve found, is so important. Putting yourself in the way of all kinds of ideas, people, modes of expression.

The library is where I find that. Mickey Spillane novels, nonfiction about municipal governance, biographies of some Japanese artist. I once read part of a book about the history of the word “Okay” because it was on display at my local library and the history of the word hadn’t occurred to me.

I don’t always finish these books – sometimes I take a brief excursion through them, is all.

But is it so worth it to stop in and see what’s on display!

My latest chance I took was on John Banville’s Time Pieces, which is an excellent piece of writing about Dublin, partly about his childhood, and some other stuff. I will finish that.

But I’m grateful that this community asset is available to me. So keep it up librarians, and many thanks for what you do!

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just can’t do no more today

As I try to keep a gauge on the opiate-addiction epidemic in America, one place I go is to The Addicts Mom Facebook page, with 22,000 members, one of whom is me.

The posts are from mothers as they attempt to deal with the lacerating addictions of their children. Here are a few posts, with names removed, that I saw at random this morning. Those who listed a location are from Georgia, Wisconsin, upstate New York, Pennsylvania, and Alabama.

At times, it gets to almost an aching kind of poetry.

Note: AS means addicted son; RAS recovering addicted son

__________

Well my almost 21 year old AS will be spending another birthday in jail I am sure! Please pray for his healing and mine!IMG_9349

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I always knew it was going to be my child one day. On the Fourth of July I found my addicted daughter unresponsive and blue. I breathed for her until paramedics came. They saved her life this time. She spent three days in Icu and was released with no help at all. I live in Florida and I was wondering if this is enough for a marchman act? Doc is Xanax and snorting oxicodone. Any advise is appreciated. God bless all of us Mothers. I just can’t take much more.

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I love having a place where people actually listen when I talk bout my addict children. Most people in my town don’t want to hear that there are children addicted in their town people need to wake up sad for the addicts who are outcast. Having trouble getting police to put narcan in there cars also

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UPDATE: His PO is coming to see him tomorrow– I will let y’all know how it goes.
My Birthday overall was a good day. Thanks for the wishes and prayers. Blessings to you all.

Dilemma- my 18 almost 19 AS was released from jail last Friday to serve out his probation-14 months (it’s a joke; very seldom face to face visits with his PO). On Sunday he apparently used LSD; when I confronted him he said ‘no worries Mom; it won’t show up on a UI.’ He had no where else to go but our house and the court said our house is not an option for him to stay (we have a younger child at home). He was told the rules- no drugs or drug use. A small issue he flat out refuses to pick up his clothes (drives me crazy) states he’s just defiant; like I’m supposed to be ok with that answer.
Suggestions??? Oh yeah; today is my Birthday- I feel like hiding in a hole not celebrating life

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Last night my phone rang at 11:30 my heart automatically started racing. Then I seen the caller I.D it was my RAS instantly worry washed over me, I picked up the phone and the first words out of my mouth was ” what’s wrong? Are you okay?” His reply was ‘Yes ma’am I was just on my way to work and I seen a shooting star and it was the brightest most beautiful one I’ve every seen, and just wanted to call and share with you”.

Four years clean, still suffer from shell shock but feeling blessed.

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So another week and another dirty urine at probation. Told me he wants suboxone, I suggested vivitrol. Someone on the MAT (medically assisted treatment) site posted a link for a slide show on all the meds used. I sent it to him privately. He wants to do vivitrol now and I sent him the local dr name and address. He swears he wants to be sober. I asked him, you know how awful detox is, why isn’t that enough to not pick up? He CANNOT deal with stress. No coping techniques. We all have stress but you have to learn to cope. I get the whole disease thing I truly do, but I also struggle with the you know it’s not good for you, you know what you are running away from is gonna still be there and you are making more problems to deal with when you sober up. I know my mind doesn’t function as an addicts but they are all smart kids or adults. Dang fight for your sobriety hard the way you chase that freaking drug. He looks terrible. Lost weight again. And all he keeps saying is everyone is judging me and that makes me want to use. No that gives you a lame excuse to use. We aren’t judging we love you and are worried. I know my dealer he wouldn’t do that yadda yadda yadda. Won’t be long and he is gonna end up in jail, then maybe I can sleep:( I am ANGRY this time.

___

My soul is tired, my heart hurts, I just can’t do no more today😥

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What the Orlando Killer Was Thinking

Among the healthiest things you learn as a journalist is that the world is a hazy, cloudy place, rarely clear, not often black and white, where two opposites may be true at the same time, and that as things change all the time you need to move with them as they roil.

In my experience, these mass shootings teach us this over and over.

The latest wrinkle in the nauseating Orlando massacre, reported in the LA Times, is that the killer spent the previous year drinking at the gay bar he shot up, so much so that he was recognized by people he was shooting at that night. He also spent time on a gay chat app.

All this adds more nuance – predictable in all these cases as they unfold and more is known.Mateen 1

I think the idea that this guy may have been a closeted gay man seems to make sense; that he hated that he was gay, was violent because he hated that he was; that the shooting was in anger for what he was, venting on the people who provoked his attraction.

After all, what truly straight man goes regularly to drink alone at a gay bar? He’d been doing it for more than a year. What straight man also spends time on a gay chat app?

In that light, this Islamic thing may be as much of a cloak as anything else, a way of finding some kind of larger romantic rationale for what he was in the process of doing.

Mateen 2

Unclear to me that he was much of a clear thinker, but that’s self-evident.

(Note: Several days after I posted this, information surfaced that Mateen may have had as many as two gay affairs and that one with a Puerto Rican man may have resulted in him being HIV+.)

I mention all this because it falls in line with other cases I’ve covered as a reporter.

I’m very happy to ascribe fanatical religious/political/terrorist motives. But as a reporter, I’ve also covered seven mass murders (Stockton, Tucson, Aurora and Newtown among them) and in each case I was one of the journalists assigned to find out as much as possible about the suspect.

In each case, I came to have a very nuanced, though at the same time quite cloudy, view of the way the person thought or appears to have thought before he died. Because in the end, that’s the truth of the matter. It lies usually quite a way from how things appeared on first blush.

In Stockton (1989, the first of these mass shootings), we thought the shooter must have harbored great hatred for Asians, as the elementary school he fired on was largely SE Asian. In time, I grew to believe that he may have had some cloudy hateful ideas about Asians, but that was the most you could probably say. In fact, he was probably incapable of holding a clear thought of any kind – this from all I learned about his life up to then, and then his motel room where he spent his last night (with little green plastic soldiers deployed all over the room and a shirt on which he had written, “Death to the Great Satin” Mateen 3sic).

If anyone can tell me the clear thoughts that the shooters in Tucson, Aurora and Newtown had, I’d be very interested to hear. To me, they were all lost boys, murky in thinking, crazy, festering and unbalanced. Hence, finding a political meaning behind their actions was very difficult. We at first thought the Tucson shooter was a Tea Party member because he shot a Democratic congresswoman. Now, I can say with conviction that he was another boy out of his mind, lost, unfriended, scary to many, apolitical, and left by his parent to dangle on his own in the nether-reaches of virtual games.

This Orlando killer may have had some vague ideas of doing something for Allah and the Islamic state or (I now hear maybe) Hezbollah – I’m very willing to buy that. That’s who fanaticism wraps in its warm cloak – the lost, the embittered, the unbalanced. But the first information you get in these cases needs always to be balanced and blended with info, usually clearer, that comes later. So the stuff about his hanging out in Pulse for a year offers insight that we ought not ignore.Mateen 4

I can say that he does not seem like the Boston bombers, or the San Bernardino couple – all of whom were very focused, confirmed and dedicated Islamic terrorists, though perhaps technically solitary actors.

Those folks had a lot in common with Stavrogin, of Dostoevsky’s The Devils. Omar Mateen did not – at least that’s how it seems to me at this point.

Seems to me that his call to the cops about ISIS as he was shooting up the club was a way of very loudly saying, “…and just so’s you know, I’m NOT gay!”

What better way to say that than to invoke the world’s most notorious homophobes?

Then again, I’m always ready to let new facts change my mind.

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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.
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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…. 🙂

 

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DREAMLAND, “Best of” lists, & New Rules for Authors

I don’t think I’ll have a nicer time, as an author, than I’ve had in the last few weeks.

For starters, one morning Entertainment Weekly selected Dreamland as among the year’s 10 best books (“like a David Simon TV Show gone cosmic”). That afternoon, Bloomberg Business ran a piece with Princeton Prof. Angus Deaton, Nobel Prize winner for economics, recommending the book as his favorite of the year.

Both ends of the culture endorsing a book on the same day – I don’t think that’s happened before.

I appreciated that because when I began this book I thought I was writing a drug-crime story. Midway through, I realized the book was really about where we are as a country, about what happens when, as a culture, we shred community, export our jobs,  build isolation and call it suburbs, claw at government and forgive the private sector its trespasses, and exalt consumption and seek pleasure and call them happiness.

Heroin is simply the embodiment of values we’ve fostered for 35 years. Isolation is its natural habitat. Doesn’t have to be that way. The antidote to heroin isn’t naloxone; it’s community.

Anyway … I thought I’d write to suggest my book to those of you looking for Christmas presents.

I know, it’s hucksterism. But the rules for authors these days are:

1) Write like hell; 2) Rewrite always; 3) Read a lot; 4) Talk to lots of different people; 5) Pay attention; and 6) Always be branding, marketing and promoting yourself because if you don’t, no one else will.

So, given No. 6, I’ll just quietly let you know that, in addition to EW and Bloomberg, in the last few weeks Dreamland was selected in “Best Books of the Year” lists by … Amazon.com, Slate.com, the WSJ, Seattle Times, Boston Globe, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Audible.

(In the two weeks after posting this, Buzzfeed, Daily Beast, Texas Observer, and the Guardian also added Dreamland to their Books of the Year lists. My thanks to each of them.)

Drug Czar Michael Botticelli named it his favorite book of the year – that was nice of him. So did the governor of Kentucky, Matt Bevin. Nice of the governor to do that, too.

You can see links to all this at my website.

Okay, so that’s done. Please have a happy holiday season, walk a lot, and take care of yourself and others you love.

 

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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!

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Filed under Books, Storytelling, The Heroin Heartland, Writing

Why I Voted Against California’s Prop. 47

Last year, Californians were asked to approve Prop. 47, which made misdemeanors of several felonies.

The idea was to send fewer people to prison and a majority of Californians voters approved it. I wasn’t one of them.

I voted against Prop. 47 for exactly the reason mentioned in a recent op-ed piece in the LA Times: that addicts frequently need the threat of jail or prison to get their minds around the idea of entering rehab.

The threat of prison was, in other words, a rock bottom from which some could achieve recovery.

cropped-IMG_0910.jpgThis comes from interviews with many recovering addicts whose lives were saved by being arrested, by going to jail and facing prison time.

The idea that government or society should play no role in pushing addicts into recovery is foolish, dangerous, too. It does no one any good to remove that threat.

But that’s what Prop. 47 does, to the detriment of folks addicted to drugs, I believe.

The op-ed makes the point that it’s leading to an increase in crime. That may be true. But from my standpoint, having written Dreamland, and seeing widespread addiction to pain pills and now heroin across America, it is the former reasoning that makes most sense, particularly given how horrifying difficult it is for so many to kick their habits.

Prop. 47 couldn’t have come at a worse time. Addicts need any kind of impetus they can get. Unfortunately, for many in California, it no longer exists.

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Katrina New Orleans

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Ten years ago, hurricanes whomped through southern Louisiana and the levies broke and everything flooded.

Six months later, I spent six weeks in New Orleans covering reconstruction for the LA Times before and after the first Mardi Gras following the disaster.

Photos here are from that time.

While there, I told the story of the Latino workers who had shown up – a quiet cavalry to the rescue – just as everyone was fleeing the city in the weeks following the flood.

The workers I interviewed described an amazing image that took place three weeks after the flood, in the days when residents were briefly allowed back in the city. They  came then left quickly as the city was unlivable. On one side of the freeway, heading out of town, were their cars and trucks packed with every belonging a family could salvage. On the opposite side, leading into New Orleans, were quietly coming cars filled with these guys — Latino immigrant workers, each with no more than a backpack and a few tools, who heard there was work. Armies of Mexicans and Salvadorans, mostly, who lived in the Martian landscape, coated with the grey sludge of disintegrated dry wall, that the city had become in the weeks after the hurricane and put up those blue tarps of the roofs of thousands of houses.

Many of them stayed for the day labor they could find, hanging out at Lee’s Circle. A lot of them didn’t get paid – usually stiffed by Latino immigrant contractors, who also descended on the city. When I met these workers months later, many swore they never would work again for a Latino contractor. It was a Wild West of labor law, and was still when I was there.

The hurricane did a lot, but to me what it did most graphically was to show how ill the city had been before the levies broke. I’d been to NOLA several times for the music and food and never seen the pathology.

When I arrived to cover it as a reporter, I learned about it more deeply. It was a city that had the same population in 2005 that it had in 1930 – unlike many Southern cities, which had grown vibrant in those years. It relied mostly on tourism jobs, which paid poorly.

Before the hurricane, almost no Mexicans lived in NOLA – which is a bad thing because Mexicans are usually found where an economy is growing and jobs abound. Mexicans are a pretty faithful barometer of economic vibrancy, or the lack of it. They came after the flood.

I remember the city funded its public defenders from traffic fines and had seven property assessors for 164,000 properties, which is why the city also had so little property tax revenue. (LA County has one assessor for 2.4 million properties). One assessor, from a small district the size of a large neighborhood, had had the job for 15 years or so. Someone with his last name – an uncle and his father – had had the job since the 1920s.

Municipal governance was arthritic. Everywhere – in the hospital, the schools – the signs of decay were present long before the hurricane showed up. Katrina didn’t cause the illness; it laid it bare.

Six months later, as these photos attest, the mud and grime was gone, but reconstruction seemed almost nil.

Still, it is one of our greatest cities, and I love it, in part for how it mixes folks up, throws everyone together, a big raucous America.

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Heroin & Hyperconsumption – A Poem

Ever since beginning work on my book, Dreamland, I’ve been struck by the way opiates isolate those addicted to them.

As I wrote and researched, they grew into a metaphor for modern American life.

Opiate addiction, seems to me, is some kind of final expression of our own destruction of community, our lack of connection across the country – both in poor communities and wealthy ones. cropped-Virgin-of-Guadalupe-dec-12-2012-La-Placita-11.jpg

We exalt consumption and the individual over community and have for a long time now.

These drugs seem to fit that; they turn everyone who abuses them into self-absorbed, lonely hyper-consumers.

The poem below was written by Andrew Smith, one of the thousands of Americans who died in 2014 of a heroin overdose. He was 24.

His mother, Margie Borth, discovered it after his death.

“There were several writings, this one is about scoring heroin and the lonely world that became his life,” she wrote, sending me the poem. “His brilliance still shines in his dark, sad words. His best friend described this as `hauntingly beautiful.’  I knew nothing of his addiction until just five weeks before he died. I was in a blur of grief when I first read it.  But now I do see the beauty of his writing.  I miss him so much, just like the thousands of other parents who are thrown into this nightmare. “

Simulate the Static

by Andrew Smith

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The waiting, oh god

The waiting

The parking lots, the bathrooms, the empty parks that close after dark

The driveways, the bus stops, the car backseats

The posh bank lobbies, flea bag motel rooms, gas station pumps

Oak trees, palms, and retention ponds meant to beautify

The ditches, the swamps, and one off dead roads that lead to nowhere

And the loneliness of that trap.

The broken windows,

The made for TV dinners

The busted speakers blaring bass on a burner cell phone

The children going hungry, ignored in the corner

Staring at a broken television; simulating static.

The characters

The hangers-on, the worn out, the washed up

The good, the bad, the ugly

and the pretty young white girls with the blank eyes

Staring in awe at this newfound world.

The sun is setting and it’s starting to rain

My eyes are closed and I’m wishing I’m somewhere else.

When I hear a tap on my passenger window

Within 30 seconds, he’s gone

And the wait seems like a thousand centuries ago.

                  In this moment, I rest my eyes a second

Breathe a sigh of relief and know that all is right with the world

At least for these brief few hours.

The rain falls and my windows are up

It casts shadows across the dashboard

And the radio plays a news story

From a country whose language I do not speak

And a land I do not know.

                  Life is a quest

And we all search for something:

Money, fame, power, an identity.

For most they never find it;

And like a mirage in the desert,

it wavers in allure on their weary walk forward.

For others, they do.

And what’s worse,

They’re left in the emptiness of what it means.

But in this moment a fleeting comfort comes to me

And I know I’m not alone.

(Feb 2014)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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

Charles Bowden, dead at 69

I didn’t love everything that Charles Bowden wrote, but I did love the spirit with which he wrote – very much out on his own ledge of the world.

I didn’t agree with some of what he said about the border and Mexico, but most of it came from a life steeped in both. He was no dilettante, this guy.

His book on Juarez was damn good.

He spent a long time writing about the border, about drugs, about Juarez and I’m sorry to hear he passed Saturday in his sleep in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Read an interview with Charles Bowden here. And an obit here.

Find his book on Juarez – Murder City, it’s called – and read that. Pretty fine piece of journalism, and reflective of the guy and his take on his craft and the world. With the rough-edged, opinionated, cranky prose that made him worth reading, and listening to. I met him once, at a conference at Cal State Northridge.

There aren’t too many out there like him any more.

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Filed under Border, Culture, Drugs, Writing