Dealing to Kurt Cobain? Riding Layne Staley’s Hog? Hiding heroin for Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan?
TNB contributor Tom Hansen’s book American Junkie may be more than these mind boggling rub-ups with Pac Northwest music icons, but those details alone make us want to check it out. Read the full review over at City Arts.
November 1991. I stared out the partially fogged up window, my cheek pressed up against the cold glass. Down the street people at the grocery store were going about their lives, on their way home from their jobs. Walking into the store. Pushing shopping carts. Making choices. Standing in lines. Opening the backs of their Jeeps. Loading bags of groceries. Closing the backs of their Jeeps. Strapping kids into car seats. Driving home. It was raining.
I hadn’t left my room for three days, hadn’t slept in four. Most of the time I’d been at the window. During the day I watched the people down the street. At night I stared out into the darkness, seeing shadows move or imaginary rodents in the bushes. Every half an hour or I would drag myself from the window and over to the mattress to fix up another speedball, or two or three, or however many. I threw the used syringes on the floor. Every week or two Monica would come in and gather them all up and take them to the needle exchange, come back with a couple grocery bags full of new ones.
I heard the deep rumble of a Harley pull up outside the house. It was Shifty. Ordinarily I didn’t let customers come over to the house but I had been ignoring my beeper for three days and I was running out of money. These coke binges had been really screwing me up. As long as heroin was all I used everything ran like clockwork, but once or twice a year I would feel an irresistible pull to shoot coke and then it would have to run its course, usually a few days, maybe a week. I would shut myself in a room and not come out. I could hear Shifty’s motorcycle boots clomping up the stairs. He knocked.
“Come in,” I said.
He opened the door, took one step inside and froze.
A few days before this Monica and I had been on our way out to see a movie. The Addams Family. As I was pulling out of the driveway, Sharon, our roommate, pulled up. She’d just spent a week at her mother’s in Eastern Washington, detoxing. She rushed over and stopped me before I could back out of the driveway, an urgent look on her face. I knew what she wanted. Usually I would give someone like her the lecture, “You’re past the worst of it. Why do you want to get messed up again?” It had never worked, but I usually gave it a shot. And when they persisted, which they always did, and I relented, which I always did, I would say, “Be careful, your tolerance is down. Do it in two or three shots.” But that night I was in a hurry, Monica and I had to get to the movie. I ran into the house and sold her thirty-five dollars worth, then ran back to the car and headed for The Cinerama downtown. I thought the movie was dumb but Monica seemed to enjoy it. When we got home I went straight up to my room to do a shot. I had just finished when Monica knocked and stuck her head in.
“Sharon’s dead. She OD’d.”
I’d seen it before. People OD’d and died most often after they tried to quit. Their tolerance would be down, or they would get drunk and want to get high and that was that. People should just stop trying to quit, I thought. Then they would have a tolerance, some margin for error and this kind of shit wouldn’t happen. Sharon had been a nice girl, smart, quiet, not pretty enough to be a stripper like Monica and had struggled to get by with a regular job. I told myself that this is what happens when you choose this life. I told myself that where Sharon was now wasn’t so different from where I still was, that I was the living dead and she was just plain dead. I told myself, and Monica told me too, that it wasn’t my fault. All those things might have been true, or not. I wasn’t sure what my level of responsibility was. But I knew one thing, I had to get out of there. The cops would come, and the medics, and I didn’t want to be around for that circus. I cleaned all the syringes out of my room and packed up my drugs. As I walked out through the living room I looked over at Sharon’s door. It was open slightly. A picture formed in my mind, of her in there sprawled on the bed, her eyes open, staring, a needle in her arm.
Shifty stood there stunned, looking around the room. The entire floor was covered in syringes, two or three deep in some places, like hundreds of driftwood logs washed up onto a beach.
“Come on,” I said, “sit down.”
He stood there, staring at the syringes.
“Hey!,” I said, “come on.”
Finally, he snapped out of it and walked slowly and carefully over to the mattress, his boots crunching on the syringes. It sounded like someone walking on a gravel road. He sat down carefully on the corner of the mattress. Speechless, he looked around the room again at the hundreds of used syringes and the bottles of piss.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“A hundred,” he replied.
I began weighing up his piece.
“Man….,” he said, looking around, “this is….wow.”
I chuckled. “Yeah.”
It was shocking, I suppose, to him, to other people, even ordinary junkies. But to me it was simply the natural landscape of my world. I finished weighing up his piece, he thanked me and left, his boots crunching on the way out. As soon as he was gone, I began cooking up some speedballs.
My veins had been gone for a couple years. They’d simply dried up, run away from the onslaught of needle pokes. It’d happened quickly, over a few months, it seemed, with the big ones. Then the smaller ones went as well. I wasn’t about to do what my friend Nikki did, sit in a hot bath for hours trying to raise a vein to the surface of her skin, or mess around forever stabbing myself a thousand times. Some junkies got all wack about the ritual of shooting up and would sit there playing with their dope and needles for hours. They were half-asses, part-timers, dilettantes. Minor leaguers. It wasn’t some gas-powered radio controlled model airplane, it was heroin. You do it, you get strung out, it ruins your life and you die. End of story. Get the drugs inside your body so you can get on to the next thing, even if it was just staring out the fucking window. Even if it was just dying.
I lifted up my pant leg and unwrapped the ace bandage from my calf, then removed the wad of soaked paper towels and tossed it onto the floor. The wound was about six inches long and three inches wide. It was deep. At first I’d used little veins in my calf, ones that didn’t take too long to find. But eventually, they’d gone too, and I began injecting the heroin right into the flesh, into the muscle. Not skin-popping, shooting with the tip of the needle just under the skin, but deeper. It wasn’t the same as hitting a vein, not by a long shot, but it did the trick. I felt it. First a black spot appeared under the skin, about the size of a quarter. Then the skin on the surface just sort of dissolved, peeled, melted away. I could rub it with my finger and it would just sluff off. Then the black flesh under that melted away as well and left a wound, a hole. I figured it was the high potency of the shots and all the crap they put in black tar heroin that caused the flesh to die.
The wound didn’t bleed, or hurt, it only oozed a liquid the color and consistency of olive oil. The heroin seemed to cauterize the flesh and kill the nerves, so I shot there again. I would have left it alone, moved to another place but I soon discovered that I felt the shot a lot stronger when I shot into the wound, almost as strong as before when I had veins. I figured it was all the tiny capillaries trying to repair the flesh that carried the heroin to my heart and then my head faster. And so it went. I continued shooting into the wound until it got bigger and deeper. It didn’t affect me at all, I watched the flesh dissolve away, as if driven by some weird desire that if I could just get to the center of myself I might be able to find out something about myself. I began trading for and gobbling antibiotics to keep the wounds from getting infected. It didn’t smell bad and it wasn’t draining pus, so no worries. I packed it with paper towels and wrapped it with an ace bandage to keep my pant leg from getting wet.
I went to stick the needle into the wound and it stuck. I let go of the syringe and it stayed there, wobbling. I got a firm grip on it, pulled back and it sprung free. I felt in the wound with my finger. I had noticed this hard lump in the wound before but hadn’t thought much of it. It didn’t look like bone, I thought maybe it was a tendon or something. There was a little edge that I could get a grip on with my fingers. It was sort of loose, and I moved it back and forth, then more rapidly, jiggling it.
Suddenly it came free with a sucking sound, like a stuck boot pulled out of the mud. I held it up and examined it. It was about two inches long and a half an inch wide, and looked like a little piece of rotten driftwood except it was blood red in places. One side was smooth and rounded, and the other was porous like a sponge. With a paper towel I rubbed it. I could still see red in places but now some of it was off-white. I was pretty sure it was bone. I sighed, and decided I had better find another place to shoot, the other calf, my buttocks, shoulders, something. But that would have to be next time. Right now I needed to get the heroin in me. I injected the shot into the wound, away from the area where I had pulled the bone fragment.
I placed the piece of bone in a little wooden treasure chest, the one I’d kept firecrackers in as a kid. A couple of days later I took it out and examined it. It had dried. I tied a string to it, made a necklace and wore it around my neck. A medal of honor. Something I had picked up on the battlefield. A trophy, a memento. A souvenir of the enemy.
Well, it wasn’t my idea, really. Other people encouraged me to write it. I’ve never been into memoirs or nonfiction much. I had reservations about memoir, that it was becoming the reality television of literature, that it was losing credibility, becoming not art, not literature, but just schlock. Bullshit. Garbage. But I began the project anyway, in the beginning partly to push back against that, you know? And then I received some encouragement and after a while it acquired a kind of momentum, especially after I figured out what I wanted it to be.
There was a process of elimination. The obvious thing would have been to do a journalistic document of a period in Seattle history, the Grunge thing, or an uplifting memoir of my personal struggle. But that sort of thing has been done before. So those were out. Of course, everything has been done before, but I wanted to find a fresh approach to the subject of drugs, heroin. That took a few years to get sorted out, while I fumbled around, eliminating one idea after another. At first I wanted to call it Dope Dealing for Dummies. I could have gotten away with it too, legally, framing it as an instruction manual on drug dealing, because the story ends badly, but the Dummies title is copyrighted, or trademarked or some such and I wouldn’t have been able to use it. Anyway, after I discovered how to approach the story, that’s when it took off.
Yeah, once I began questioning the disease model of addiction and thinking about it as something more inevitable, or fatalistic, thinking about my addiction as a kind of slow death and my recovery as a painful resurrection. That might sound hyperbolic, and people look at me strange when I say it, but I was able to do that, and not deviate from the truth. Of course I wasn’t actually physically dead, but I was as close as one can come. I had totally given up on life, on living. I hadn’t seen that approach to an addiction story before. From the other books about drugs, you still don’t get an idea of how bad heroin addiction can be, the utter despair, how close one can be to death and how a person can welcome that and still go on for years and years. You really don’t. With any of the contemporary drug memoirs, you get the feeling that your reading something written by a person with something going on in their life besides drugs. You get the impression that the authors, the subjects, are and were alive, that they haven’t really, totally, given up. In terms of self-destruction, they were amateurs. David Carr’s book Night of The Gun for example is very interesting, the self-examination, the exploration on the subjectivity of memories, but really it’s about a journalist and family man who takes a little vacation into the drug world. American Junkie is exactly what it says it is, a story about a person who had no identity, who was unable to define himself, who had nothing to lose, a lost soul who made a home in a kind of dead place and stayed there for a long time.
It is. It was. It’s a modern tragedy, more than anything else. It’s the story of all the junkies you don’t hear about, the ones that died alone in some shitty motel room. I certainly didn’t want to do what I call ‘the postmodern memoir,’ where I play the victim, where it’s all about my weird family and how it screwed me up. I didn’t get screwed up so much by any person, I got fucked by something more profound and eternal, my nature, my blood. But look, I don’t want you to get the wrong impression. American Junkie isn’t all doom and gloom, there are some funny parts. And there’s some hope, because I survived. It has an element of survival literature to it, like Papillon, who spent twenty something years trying to escape Devil’s Island. The difference is that after a point I gave up and accepted my imprisonment to heroin. I had reached that point where the drugs didn’t work anymore, and found something there. Limbo, purgatory, Hell, call it what you want. The point is I wasn’t actively trying to escape it. That just sort of happened.
One of my guiding lights when I write anything is what Nelson Algren said in the 50’s, “a writers duty is to give voice to the voiceless.” I mean, who’s more voiceless than the dead, right? All the real junkies are dead, the “people who died” as Jim Carroll would say. I was one of them. Somehow I didn’t go through that last door.
Riveting, heartbreaking, devastating, those are words I’ve heard to describe it. Girls read it and cry and wanna give me a hug. And I’ve been told that the book is addictive, people open it and then they’re hooked. They can’t stop. That was unintentional. But I’m glad people are affected by it, ordinary people. That was intended. I definitely wanted to avoid it becoming pigeonholed as ‘outlaw literature’ so to speak. A book that simply ‘preaches to the choir,’ a book by a junkie for junkies, serves no real purpose. So far, it’s looking like I achieved that goal, men and women like it, as do booky people and non-booky people, forty-somethings and teenagers, people who have done drugs and those who haven’t.
Again, it has to do with the kind of non-existence I was experiencing. I didn’t really know them. I didn’t really know anyone, and no one knew me. I sold drugs. That was all. I had customers, not friends. I saw them for a few minutes at a time, they gave me money, I gave them drugs, we mumbled a few words, slurred, and that was it. To have those people take up a larger portion of the book would have been untrue in the broader context and on top of that sensational and exploitative. But I included those parts because they contributed to the story, because it highlighted a theme of the book, my lack of identity, and despite them being like me they at least were someone, and were able to call themselves something.
If you ask any true heroin addict, they’ll tell you that their addiction began long before they stuck that first needle into their arm. That’s what the backstory is all about, a self-examination where I try to find where my addiction began, how my life got so fucked, charting the events that changed my attitudes, the events that led me to the point where a kind of death was preferred over life. Charting the erosion of hope. How living in America and our culture contributed to it. Most addicts are predisposed to drug abuse, but all that means is that they’re on the fence, in the balance. They could go either way. At some point something, or an accumulation of somethings reach a tipping point and sends them down the wrong path. I wanted to explore the forces that pulled me off the fence, and then the wind that blew me over the wrong side of the tracks. It fascinated me because I didn’t have a particularly bad childhood, you know, the usual things, abuse and that shit people often point to as the cause of anti-social behavior. I just always had this immense aloneness that was like a steel bar inside me. And I wanted to see if I could find out why my addiction was so much worse than most.
I stayed with heroin using and dealing even as my body was completely falling apart, even though I was obviously dying, because unlike most addicts, I wasn’t good at anything except selling dope. I wasn’t a writer, or family man, or father, son, anything, before the drugs. Sure, I was okay at playing music, but I was utterly unsuccessful with it, and a person can’t live in a vacuum. When you don’t have an identity and can’t define yourself by what you do, and you are not strong in yourself, you will cling to that one thing you are good at through Hell and high water, even if it’s destroying you, because otherwise it’s like you don’t even exist. That’s what this story has that other drug memoirs don’t.
I was halfway through the book when the James Frey scandal broke, and I just wanted there to be no question of the book’s truthfulness. So I dug up everything I could. I think some kind of documentation should be a requirement in nonfiction now, actually. Besides people making up these fantastic stories, memories are just so fallible. If a writer’s going to classify their story as nonfiction, as real, they should have to be able to prove it. Otherwise, just say it’s an autobiographical novel. Originally I got the idea from Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted. She used her psych reports as a counterpoint to the narrator, another view to what she saw. But with me it was just about proof. Call me a cynic, but this is one of the problems with memoir in particular, an author is writing about themselves and that makes it highly vulnerable to spin. It’s insidious, omitting certain facts here and there, focusing on one aspect and ignoring another that paints a slightly different picture. It’s like reality TV, the subjects know they’re being filmed. The author is aiming his camera at himself. So I undertook this method where I wrote about myself as if I were writing about a stranger. I disconnected my ego from the process, as much as I could, without making things up.
Besides all that, I just thought people aren’t going to believe some of this unless I have some documented proof. You say you have a huge open wound on your leg and you’re pulling fragments of bone out of it and making them into a necklace–I’m just not gonna believe that unless I see something. Plus, the documents were necessary for me to reconstruct the story. There were 276 pages of hospital records, daily doctors’ notes, etc. I was in such a fog in the hospital that I never would have been able to recreate the timeline of events without them. Just like I had to interview dozens of people to reconstruct the other storyline, of my addiction and drug dealing. It was nonfiction, so I had to be accurate and truthful.
I have never really been into nonfiction. My influences, as far as style and theme came from novels, most of which were based for the most part on the author’s experiences, most of them more concerned with creating understanding for their characters rather than sympathy, most pretty bleak with depressing and/or ambiguous endings. I asked myself “Why can’t I do that? Do I have to follow this drug memoir formula?” I encountered some resistance about this, actually. When the big publishers in NY looked at American Junkie they loved it, but thought it was too bleak, too grim. They wanted the happy ending, they wanted me to find some redemption. I understand why. It has to do with a kind of escapism and simplicity that the public wants. Well you know what? It’s not that simple, it’s not black and white, drugs bad, recovery good. There is always the grey. I was a heroin addict and dealer for a long time. I found a degree of success doing it, money, status, stability, security. I found peace. That was the truth. And when I quit, it wasn’t like the sun came out for the first time in twenty years. I was in the hospital for six fucking months and came out a broken man, physically and emotionally, to an extent. There was no saccharine happy ending. I did permanent damage. There were lasting consequences. Besides being the truth, I felt it was the responsible thing to do. Apparently it wasn’t as uplifting as some people wanted, but they seem to have forgotten that the ending of nonfiction doesn’t have to be that way any more than a novel’s does. The catharsis a reader experiences when they finish a book, even nonfiction, doesn’t have to be all ‘happy shiny time,’ all it has to show is that the protagonist has turned a corner. Which I did.