In the mid 1970’s at the Oakland Ensemble Theater, about a year or two before he began acting in the television show The Love Boat, Ted Lange directed a production of Melvin Van Peebles’ musical depicting the underside of inner-city life, Ain’t Supposed To Die A Natural Death (Tunes from Blackness). To this audience member, it was mesmerizing, so much so that I had to see it a second time. I knew the 1971-’72 production on Broadway had garnered critical acclaim and Tony nominations, but I could not imagine how it could have surpassed what Lange had done.
It is the opening lines of the soliloquy ending the show that comes to mind so frequently these days. The piece was delivered directly to the audience, with bone-chilling bitterness, by the character of a bag lady. It began with the words “Put a curse on you. May all of your children end up junkies, too.”
For the past several years, reporters in newspapers and magazines and on television have made sure we know we are in the midst of an opioid-addiction epidemic. For some, no such reporting has been necessary. They know from personal experience – either their own addiction or that of someone close. If anything, the media stories show the problem is not an isolated one. We are at a point where these tales surface monthly, weekly, sometimes daily. Last week alone, there was a report on CBS Evening News about the prevalence in Ohio of the drug Carfentanil, used as an elephant tranquilizer, which is ten thousand times more potent than morphine and a hundred times more powerful than Fentanyl, the drug that killed Prince this past April in Minnesota. Fentanyl killed more than a thousand people in Ohio last year. Carfentanil has killed at least thirty people in the Akron area since early July. These two drugs often are used as an admixture (cut) for heroin.
Two days after that CBS story, MSNBC had an interview with Maine state representative Drew Gattine, chair of the legislature’s Human Services Committee, who said “…we have a very, very serious drug crisis, people are dying in our streets from heroin overdoses.” Mr. Gattine may or may not have been engaging in a bit of hyperbole, but he was deadly serious about what he recognizes as a problem.
Wherever you are, you know it is not a problem limited to Ohio and Maine. Depending on who you are, you also may know none of this is new. One does not have to look back to the nineteenth century’s opium scourge in places as far flung as England or China. Some need look no farther than their own youthful days right here, wherein they or someone they knew had succumbed to heroin’s power. In doing so, they will recall there was none of today’s widespread compassion and concern. Instead, what they will remember is the launch of the war on drugs, a war that – as Jelani Cobb writes in the August 29th edition of The New Yorker – “has been a multitiered campaign that has enlisted legislation, private-sector initiatives, executive-branch support, and public will.” Cobb notes “it actually looks like a war, with military-style armaments, random violence, and significant numbers of people taken prisoner. It has been prosecuted throughout eight Administrations and has had the type of social and cultural impact that few things short of real warfare do. During the Civil War, more than a quarter of a million Southern men died, creating the phenomenon of a vast number of female-headed households throughout the region. Mass incarceration during the war on drugs has produced a similar phenomenon among African-American households.”
Again, depending on who you are, you know that heroin addiction in decades past never was limited to blacks. Neither was the opprobrium directed at addicts. White youths who trod what the larger society saw as troubling paths (civil rights; racial integration; anti-Viet Nam War activism; feminism; anti-capitalism; environmentalism; free love; flower power) sometimes were viewed as betrayers of either their race or class, of their families and upbringing, and therefore less worthy of the concern afforded them before. Being a junkie was just one more thing too many.
One reason people now show a concern lacking in the past is not just because of the prevalence of white, middle class addicts. Sure, the fact that addiction has caused that group’s premature death rate to increase considerably while it falls for other groups is certainly a factor in the push to help those who are suffering, but that push stems also from a mindset that sees something other than race or an affinity for the counterculture separating today’s addicts from those of yesteryear. It is the idea that junkies of the past just wanted to get high, but that today’s addicts are victims, that they are good, decent people who only sought to legally and legitimately manage pain, but were duped into opioid addiction by doctors and pharmaceutical companies, and – once the pills were no longer prescribed or available or effective – turned to heroin. This is a supposition that denies the fact that addiction often begins for anyone as an attempt to blunt pain, including the psychogenic pain common to us all. Addiction is both a preventable and treatable condition, and more of the resources needed to help those who were struggling should have been put in place long ago. Instead, incarceration often took precedence over rehabilitation, leaving us where we are today
It was Oscar Wilde who wrote “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”. That’s something to consider and decide for yourself. Van Peebles’ art was a portrait of lives ignored by those who should have cared but did not, not knowing what not caring would do, where it would lead one day. Now, as the saying goes, all lives matter. Some knew that all along. For others, arriving late and reluctantly to that realization has proven to be disastrous.
There’s been a lot of talk by pundits and others lately about the idea of men making monsters. This, of course, has been in reference not only to the Republican Party’s creation of its current presidential nominee, but also of his supporters. Wisconsin radio host Charlie Sykes, a conservative, recently said of his fellow travelers that in their constant assaults on mainstream news media, they have wrecked the very idea of objective, knowable fact. He added “We’ve created this monster.”
Well, I don’t think this summer should pass without the person responsible for Mr. Sykes’ imagery getting a shout-out. It was exactly two hundred years ago, the summer of 1816 when she turned 19 on August 30th, that Mary Shelley gave birth to the idea that was to become her novel Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus.
Mr. Sykes said of the coming election “When this is all over…we have to go back. There’s got to be a reckoning on all this.” Victor Frankenstein fails in his attempt to kill his creation. We’d better hope Sykes and his cohorts succeed in killing theirs.