Portsmouth, a small town I wrote about in Dreamland, has been slowly rebounding from years of economic decline and drug addiction.
That’s a remarkable thing. For it was Portsmouth – on the Ohio River — that led the way into our national opiate-addiction epidemic. The town was where the Pill Mill – sleazy pain clinics prescribing massive amounts of pills to almost anyone for cash – was born.
With the town blasted by this huge supply, and the sense of community shredded by job loss and more, widespread pain-pill addiction was a fact of life in Portsmouth by the end of the 1990s.
But a lot has happened since then. The town, each time I return, seems slightly more energetic, more invigorated, more about positivity and less about dope’s inertia and fatalism. A recovery culture has taken hold there that’s exciting to watch.
Not that all the problems are behind Portsmouth, Ohio. But there’s another story now competing with the “let’s get high” culture that gripped the town for so long. I wrote about the beginnings of this at the end of my book – the small clues of rebirth: new gyms, a coffee shop, lofts, refurbished buildings and more.
Along that line, the folks of Portsmouth – 500+ volunteers – get together this Saturday to wash, repaint, redo their downtown in something they’re calling Plant Portsmouth.
They’ll be painting light poles, scraping and painting all the curbs, replacing 120 streetlights, and more. “None of this has been done in 20 years,” said Jeremy Burnside, an attorney in town who got the idea started.
They’ll also be planting plants as a way of signaling the town’s rebirth.
Burnside’s hoping to set a Guinness World Record for the most people planting plants simultaneously.
(Folks — please send me photos from the day and I’ll post them here and on social media. #plantportsmouth)
Organizers have raised $75,000 from local businesses to pay for supplies. That itself is a sign of how locally owned businesses are now growing in Portsmouth. None of that money came from the chain stores and corporate fast-food restaurants that have dominated the town’s economy since things began to go bad in the early 1980s and the shops on its main street closed. (Btw, I bought a couple t-shirts, inspired by Dreamland and the community pool that was the source of my book’s title, from a company called 3rdand Court that began in downtown Portsmouth. Check them out.)
The antidote to opiates is not naloxone. It is community. I say this often in my speeches when I’m traveling around the country. We Americans have isolated and fragmented ourselves in a million ways – this in poor areas and in wealthy areas. That left us vulnerable; it left us dangerously separate and disconnected from each other – strange to say in this time of technological hyper-connectivity.
The final expression of all that is our national epidemic of addiction to opiates – the most isolating class of drugs we know.
Rebuilding community (in a million different ways) is crucial to fighting it, I believe.
I’m glad to see Portsmouth leading the way on that, too.
When the Senate’s health-care bill died this week, it was worth noting the few who led the revolt.
Most were senators from states hardest hit by our epidemic of opiate addiction:
Maine (Susan Collins), West Virginia (Shelly Moore Capito), Utah (Mike Lee), Ohio (Rob Portman).
“I didn’t come to Washington to hurt people,” Shelly Moore Capito said.
Let’s leave aside how the bill would have done away with basic health care for millions of working folks and provided a tax cut for wealthy people.
One of the biggest problems with it, I think, was that it would have reversed Medicaid expansion and that meant taking away coverage for drug rehabilitation from hundreds of thousands of people, maybe millions of them.
I could not understand how that was a good idea.
It was also interesting to see how, as the debate progressed through the spring to now, a lot of people began to realize what they were losing.
In so many areas where Donald Trump did best in November’s election, areas he promised to make great again, there is a documented need for massive investment in more drug rehabilitation capacity, not less. That is not an opinion. What exists is saturated. Getting into rehab takes weeks, months. Many addicts have no resources of their own with which to seek treatment.
I wrote in another post that opiate addiction was the crucial element in Trump’s victories in several states that were in turn essential to his capturing the presidency.
Eight months later, the Senate’s health-care carnival emphasized my belief that this issue is one of the most potent political forces of our time.
In the spring of 2015, shortly after Dreamland was released, I received a call from Hillary Clinton’s campaign advisor for health issues. Hillary was feeling the ferocity of parents in Iowa and New Hampshire from all walks of life, horrified at their children’s addiction and not knowing where to turn. This surprised the candidate, her advisor told me.
I spoke with her for about ninety minutes. I told her that I thought this was the great silent issue in America today and whoever truly owned it, embraced it, treated it as a thing of the heart, would have a good chance of getting votes from unexpected places, but that this probably would not be felt in opinion polls ahead of time. Mrs. Clinton did some of that, but never enough, and in the end she wrote a position paper and that amounted to most of her campaign’s attention to opiate addiction. I might be wrong, but she didn’t seem to understand the latent power of the issue. Least she didn’t act on it. That was a huge mistake.
Politicians would do well to better understand the deep well of pain and anxiety surrounding, and thus the political power within, this issue. It’s not something expressed easily in polls. People aren’t likely to admit to a pollster on a phone that a loved one is an addict.
But it’s there and dims the view of the future of so many people, the prospects of so many towns and counties, the economies of so many regions, and thus is of paramount importance to them. Right up there with jobs – connected inextricably with jobs, in fact. In so many depressed areas, huge numbers of folks can’t pass an employer’s drug test.
Nor does it take many addicts for that foreboding to spread. A few cases in a small town, I think, are all that’s needed. People see it hit almost anyone and seemingly at random – like a plague – including families who before had no connection to the drug world or the criminal justice system. Soon everyone’s view of the future turns negative.
On top of that, today we have the increasing nationwide notoriety of the issue as compared with just two years ago. An awakening has taken place in those short years – a reckoning and a truth-telling when before there was subterfuge and fabrication.
Overall, this is healthy – for the families now telling the truth and for the country, I think.
But one effect is that the knowledge, and thus dread, has spread to even families untouched by addiction.
In that room where 13 of them put that bill together, Senate Republicans didn’t seem to understand that.
That was a huge mistake.
Because in the small towns or suburbs where folks live, they now know the high school’s quarterback has landed in jail again, and that their pastor’s daughter died from an overdose and that it wasn’t a heart attack after all.
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.
A DREAMLAND PODCAST – John Russell is 26 and an organic farmer, raising melons in rural Ohio, not far from Columbus. This year he ran for the Ohio state legislature as a Democrat – and lost badly.
I had the chance to talk with Russell today.
We had a wide-ranging conversation, about his decision to go into farming, about his campaign, about Donald Trump, as well as job loss and opiate addiction in America’s Heartland, PC culture, the challenges Democrats face in rural areas.
He’s one of the few, it seems, to go away to college then return to a rural community. So many towns have lost young people to the cities where the jobs are.
We talked about that as well, and about what happened to guys on his high school football team.
This is the first interview I did like this, via Skype, so I’m still working out the kinks, and there are a few buzzes and etc. So please bear with me.
This fall I traveled a lot to Heartland areas to talk about a book I’d written about opiate addiction in America, and this provided me with a close view of the rise of Donald Trump’s candidacy.
The areas where I spoke were particularly hard hit by narcotic abuse — rural Michigan, southern Indiana, West Virginia, Kentucky, and several towns in rural Ohio.
The prevalence of Trump/Pence yard signs in these areas, particularly by mid-October, was stunning. As I traveled, it seemed palpable, this connection between Trump support and opiate addiction.
Not that there weren’t other reasons people supported him. A suffocating political correctness on the left is another factor in his appeal, I believe.
But nothing darkens your view of your present and future prospects quite as thoroughly as addiction to opiates (pills or heroin) in your family, on your street, or in your town. With opiates comes a fatalism and negativity that clouds a town or a family’s feeling about its world, even as unemployment falls and the economy improves.
In theory, addiction knows no race. In reality, though, our national opiate scourge is almost entirely white. Very few non-whites are among the newly addicted to prescription pain pills, then heroin. In three years of book research, I met one.
Though this scourge has affected every region of the country, it is felt most intensely in rural, suburban – Heartland – areas of America where Donald Trump did extraordinarily well.
Some of these areas did not fully rebound from the Great Recession of 2007 (southern Ohio). Others fared much better (North Carolina). A common denominator, I think political scientists will find, is that in these areas since the last presidential election the incidence of opiate addiction spread, grew deadlier, more public, and went from pain pills to heroin. In southern Ohio, where heroin has hit like pestilence, particularly Appalachia, Trump trounced his opponent in counties that Mitt Romney barely won four years earlier – though unemployment in many of these counties is at its lowest level in years, sometimes decades.
Shannon Monnat, a rural sociologist and demographer at Penn State I talked with, found strong correlations between suicides and fatal drug overdoses in counties where Trump’s increase was larger that the share of the vote compared to Romney’s four years earlier – this in six Rust Belt states, another half-dozen state in New England and all or part of the eight states comprising Appalachia.
One place I spoke was Hocking County (pop. 28,000). Hocking has lost coal mining jobs in recent years, though its unemployment rate dropped this fall to 4.5 percent, the lowest in more than 20 years. (It hit 14 percent in 2010.) But Hocking has also grown far more aware of its pill/heroin problem. Overdose deaths are up. Its drug court is among the first in the state to use Vivitrol, the opiate blocker. Trump earned 66 percent of the vote in the county Romney carried with 49 percent four years ago.
Opiate addiction – to pain pills or heroin — is the closest thing to enslavement that we have in America today. It is brain-changing, relentless, and unmercifully hard to kick. Children who complain at the slightest household chore while sober will, once addicted, march like zombies through the snow for miles, endure any hardship or humiliation, for more dope.
In many of these regions, folks were unprepared for it and, what’s more, believed they had done nothing to deserve it. Kids with no criminal record, star athletes, pastors’, cops’, and mayors’ kids all got addicted. Parents who’d imagined some glowing life script for their newborns years before were, as those kids reached young adulthood, confronted instead by late-night collect calls from jail, lying, stealing, conniving and that child’s body seemingly occupied by a mutant beast. Then came a felony record. Suddenly parents were co-signing for apartments, providing money and transportation for their addicted beloved, now 24, to take a GED class.
Though the number of actual addicts is small, the epidemic’s political impact has been substantial.
First because the states where the epidemic is most intense were crucial to the victor – whoever it was going to be.
Also, though, the opiate addiction rippled far beyond each individual addict. Addiction colored the lives of siblings, grandparents, uncles and aunts, friends and neighbors, pastors, teachers. As parents lost their fear of speaking out in the last two years, the problem emerged from the shadows, media coverage expanded, and now everyone for miles around was aware of it. County budgets buckled. Merchants saw theft increasing.
In several counties I visited, employers reported that more than half their job applicants couldn’t pass a drug screen. So though unemployment numbers fell, a good chunk of that was because many people were too hooked to seek work. Imagine what that does to a county’s productivity, and its buoyancy of spirit. It explains how a declining unemployment rate could create not optimism, but the foreboding that seemed to motivate many voters.
People also grew to understand that virtually all our heroin comes from or through Mexico – which is why it is cheaper and more potent than ever in our history. That did nothing to engender love for our southern neighbor in regions that had lost factories as well as kids. Nor did it make them feel that we have a serious and modern partner in Mexico when it comes to criminal justice and law enforcement.
This story plays out today with intensity in several of the states crucial to Trump’s victory – Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania. It does the same in states he was assumed to win: West Virginia, Oklahoma, Utah, Kentucky, Indiana, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and others. That these states – largely rural, religious, and white – are now our heroin beltways amounts to a stunning change in our national culture and one that most people in those areas became aware of only recently.
Equally stunning is that New York, California and Illinois – including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, once our heroin hotspots – are well down the list of states ranked by addiction rates. Hillary Clinton won each of them.
In many of the most affected regions, moreover, people, by and large, have taken as self-evident Ronald Reagan’s dictum that “government is the problem” — the starkest threat to personal freedom. The private sector and the free market are, therefore, to be exalted; government starved. (This despite a deep reliance on government programs: Medicaid, Medicare, SSI, SSDI, worker’s compensation, food stamps, welfare, farm subsidies, etc.) Confederate flags and 2nd Amendment bumper stickers were common amid the Trump signs I saw.
The irony is that behind this drug plague is a story of how the private sector introduced the most serious widespread threat to personal freedom in America today – opiate addiction. All profits from the massive prescribing of narcotic pain pills have accrued to the private sector, mainly pharmaceutical companies; all costs of addiction to those pills, and then heroin, are borne by the public sector. Indeed, for years, about the only people fighting the opiate scourge, my research showed, were government employees: cops and prosecutors, public health nurses and CDC statisticians, county social workers, judges and ER doctors, DEA agents, coroners and others.
The Sackler family, which owns Purdue Pharma, the company that makes OxyContin, has been estimated by Forbes magazine to be now one of the country’s wealthiest, with an estimated net worth of $14 billion, due to $35 billion in sales of the drug since it was released in 1996.
All this, I believe, helps explain the reception to Donald Trump’s populist message – including rejection of free trade and other sacred cows of Republican elites and conservative theorists. (“Worst Election Ever” proclaimed a post-election article from the conservative Hoover Institution.)
In these areas, too, the “throw away the key” approach to drug addiction was unquestioned dogma until the opiate scourge. That is changing. Democrats may still not get elected in a region like northern Kentucky, for instance, but Republicans who talk only tough on crime now have a hard time there, too – so harsh is the pill and heroin problem.
It’s likely that many of the regions where Trump enjoyed such support will require massive investment in drug treatment before they can be great again. (Ohio Gov. John Kasich realized that and went around his Republican-led state legislature a couple years ago to mandate Medicaid coverage for all Ohioans — largely because it gave people coverage for drug treatment.)
Will such an investment come from a president whose election seems to have so much to do with the opiate epidemic, yet who appears to have thought little about how to expand drug treatment?
How will people in these areas react to dismantling Obamacare, which provides coverage for addiction treatment that they didn’t have before?
In counties where half of job applicants fail drug screens, will the chambers of commerce line up to do away with the system?
Like so much that sprang from those Heartland yard signs, I guess we’ll see.
Recently, I was passing through Waverly, Ohio, on Highway 23, and stopped in at Prussia Valley Dulcimers and met Gary Sager, who runs the shop with his wife, Toni.
We had a long chat. Gary used to work for RCA making TV tubes until the plant in Circleville closed in 2004 and all that work went to China. He’d been making dulcimers for several years by then, so he and Toni opened the store.
Turns out, didn’t know this, but most good mountain dulcimers (the kind pictured here) are made by artisans in workshops around America. So Gary tells me. The work hasn’t been turned over to the Chinese entirely, in other words.
Gary sells only this kind of artisan dulcimers. Nice American story of a guy rebounding from the punches of globalization, not letting it keep him down.
So if you’re in central or southern Ohio and in the market for a real American-made mountain dulcimer, or a banjo, a mandolin, or a guitar, stop by Prussia Valley Dulcimers in Waverly, Ohio and see Gary Sager. He’ll give you a good deal….
These next several weeks I’ll be traveling to many parts of the country for speaking engagements about Dreamland: Dallas/Fort Worth, Huntington WV, Indianapolis (twice), Logan, OH, Salt Lake, and South Shore KY, among other places (full list below).
These follow many events over the last year. I can’t wait!
It’s been wonderful, after spending so long writing about a fairly depressing topic, to see communities like Scott County IN and Marysville OH plan to use Dreamland to begin discussions/alliances focused on combating the problem of opiate addiction, now nationwide.
I’m a storyteller not a policymaker nor an advocate, but I do feel overwhelmed at times at the intensity of the response and so honored that these towns would invite me to visit them to talk about this.
I want to say thank you to the hundreds of folks I’ve already met while signing books at numerous events – half of whom have stories so powerful that they might have ended up in Dreamland had I met them while I was writing. It’s become one of the joys of touring, meeting folks like this, going to places like these.
I note, too, that many of these place are not towns on a typical book tour. But this is not a typical book nor, I suppose, a typical time.
I love that I’ve been able to visit Peoria IL (home of Caterpillar) and Chillicothe OH (Go Cavaliers!), but it also shows you where the problems with opiate addiction are now in our country.
Anyway, here’s the full lineup:
Sept 19: Scott County, IN (Various events, including Austin High School Auditorium, 7-9pm)
Sept 20: Van Wert, OH
Sept 21: Marion, OH (Palace Pavilion, 3:30-5pm)
Sept 22: Dallas/Fort Worth, TX, Hurst Conference Center, (When the Prescription Becomesthe Problem: A community response to the Opiate Epidemic)
Sept 29: Salt Lake City, UT, Sheraton Hotel (Beyond the Needle and the Damage Done: A law enforcement and health care response to the opioid epidemic)
Oct 1: Huntington WV, Ohio River Book Festival, (12:45-2pm)
Oct 3: South Shore, KY (Recovery Works)
Oct 4: Zanesville, OH (and environs, various events)
Oct 5: Columbus, OH (North Broadway United Methodist Church)
Oct 6: Indianapolis, IN (Indiana Hospital Association)
Oct 6: Logan, OH (Hocking Middle School)
Oct 12: Marysville, OH
Oct 13: Indianapolis, IN (Indiana Attorney General’s Conference, Indiana Convention Center – Indiana Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention Task Force, public invited)
Oct 14: Des Moines, IA (Iowa Medical Examiners Convention)
Oct 24: Hillsdale MI (Hillsdale College, various events)
In Chillicothe, Ohio, the way I understand it, school janitors are heroes.
Many kids are growing up in families of addicts and have no place to go, their home studded with neglect and jagged edges; so they hang around after school. There, janitors have befriended them, bringing them food, giving them a sober adult to talk to and a calm place to hang out.
My family and I spent Thursday in Chillicothe, a southern Ohio town (pop. 21,000) bedeviled, as so many are, by the opiate-addiction epidemic.
I spoke all day long – a radio interview at 6:30 am, meetings with three groups through the day, and a 7 pm public talk at the Majestic Theater, the oldest (1853), continuously operated theater in America. Yet by the end I wasn’t exhausted; I was instead exhilarated by the electric, intense response of people I met.
That’s how it’s been everywhere lately.
Writing Dreamland wasn’t arduous; it was engrossing. But it was also about a tough topic in which the worst of human behavior was on display. So I’m thrilled to see towns like Chillicothe using the book to come together, form alliances, leverage talent, talk about this problem in a way that hasn’t happened before, and do something hopeful.
Heroin seems to be having the opposite effect in Chillicothe that it has on users. If heroin isolates addicts into self-absorption and hyper-consumption, the drug also seems to be bringing people together to fight against it. I see this elsewhere as well and that’s encouraging. I know the problem is big. A new sporting-goods store delayed its opening in Chillicothe for months, I’m told, because it couldn’t find enough workers that could pass a drug test.
I wish I had a better answer to those who asked what to do about families where drug addiction is now generational, where the grandparents on down are using, where great-grandparents are raising their grandchildren’s kids. Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, the day before in Louisville, told me that his state is on the verge of losing an entire generation, swallowed up in a morass of dependence, unemployment and now opiates. Kentucky has more able-bodied, working-age people who aren’t working than those who are, he said. That feels scary.
Heroin, it seems, is the final nausea to afflict small towns and rural communities already crushed by the farm crisis, downsizing, outsourcing, the loss of local retail, depopulation, and more. It seems that heroin has pushed many places to a life-or-death moment.
Knowing that, though, I also can’t help but recognize the energy I’ve been encountering in the people I meet.
In manufacturing, as I understand it, innovation happens through immersion in the work, people knowing the production process so well that together they find new, small, better ways to improve on how to make something.
Fighting heroin, I believe, is the same. When people come together, work together, knowing their community and its problems, when they leverage their talents and energies, the solutions specific to that place will emerge. I believe that.
And just as manufacturing processes improve incrementally, in small steps, so this problem has no sexy silver bullet, I suspect, but will be best fought with a combination of tiny efforts, many partial solutions, none of which is perfect, but together amount to something powerful. That’s good. Haven’t we had enough, after all, of the one sexy solution to solve all our problems: Didn’t `one pill for all people and every kind of pain’ do enough damage?
While I was writing Dreamland, people seemed to work in isolation, cut off from each other. Parents of addicts seemed hidden, silent. That’s the biggest change I’ve seen. People have now started talking about this issue, forming new alliances, comparing notes.
In Chillicothe, we stayed in the Carlisle, a beautiful brick building, restored after many years empty due to a fire. A hospital group decided to move into downtown and refurbish the building, believing apparently that it served the community best by being part of the revival of its core. The Majestic Theater will soon get a renovation. Luckily, the town never tore down its old beautiful brick buildings, which are being repurposed. New retail businesses are opening downtown. A t-shirt shop sells shirts of companies that have left town. My daughter now has a shirt proclaiming “Chillicothe, Ohio.” So the town seems to be rebounding, even as it battles this debilitating scourge. Maybe that’s the story – complicated, and not easily or neatly told.
I want to thank the people of Chillicothe for so hospitably welcoming my family and me. Thanks to Hudson Ward, at the Carlisle.
Thanks especially to Nick Tepe, the county’s head librarian, for organizing folks to bring us to town. Librarians ought to be playing exactly this kind of role in communities, and Ross County, Ohio seems to be blessed with a talented one.
Next, I’m heading to Knoxville, for the International Tuba and Euphonium Conference. And from there to Springfield, IL to speak to a conference of that state’s rural hospitals.
Meanwhile, Chillicothe had an annual street fair going while we were there, known as The Feast:
What this bust shows is that the larger Mexican cartels, which for a long time ignored heroin as a revenue generator, have in the last few years figured out the new market that exists in the U.S., created by the overprescribing of narcotic pain pills nationwide, and shifted priorities.
Through the 1990s and into the last decade, these cartels didn’t dabble too much in heroin. Other drugs were more popular and profitable. Plus, in Mexico heroin is viewed as about as scuzzy a thing as it in the United States.
That’s changed in the last few years. Mexican cartels, which already dominated on the western side of the U.S., have recognized the widespread opiate addiction among Americans and moved to take control of the markets on the eastern half of the U.S. that once were served mostly by Colombian heroin traffickers back to the 1980s — the same way Mexican cartels wrested the cocaine market from the Colombians in the 1990s.
Pills to heroin to Mexican drug cartels in areas that never had much of any – all in the space of 15+ years.
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.
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.
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.
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, now, 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.
Some people think that my use of Dreamland as the title to my book refers to the euphoria addicts are seeking.
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 dad’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.
The interesting part of this story is that they have apparently moved into the Cleveland market. I know they’re in Columbus, Nashville and Memphis, Indianapolis and elsewhere.
Until recently, apparently, they hadn’t made a move into northern Ohio, which seemed too close to Detroit, another heroin hotspot.
But things change in the underworld, particularly as the Xalisco Boys (delivering black-tar heroin like pizza with drivers and operators standing by) work like a lot of corporations in that they’re always competing with each other and seeking new sales territories.
Never ceases to amaze me how this system evolved and spread like a fast-food franchise – gaining special momentum after it arrived in 1998 in midwestern and Appalachian areas where pain pills were just then being massively over-prescribed.
That was the first example of a heroin distribution system discovering the market inherent in pain-pill overprescribing.
Here goes some of the above cited newspaper story:
“This group utilized numerous men to act as couriers to deliver the heroin to customers. Many of these couriers were brought illegally to the United States from the Nayarit/Tepic area of Mexico to the Painesville area with the promise of working on a farm or in an automobile garage. Once in Ohio, these individuals became couriers for the drug trafficking group, according to court documents and the FBI.”
Tepic is the capital of the state of Nayarit, which is on Mexico’s Pacific Coast. Tepic is a few miles from Xalisco, where this system started and where the guys who started the system are from.
Another family has stepped up to acknowledge in an obituary that a child has died of a heroin overdose.
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.
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.
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.