Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Trysh Travis

Trysh Travis is Assistant Professor & Undergraduate Coordinator at the Center for Women's Studies and Gender Research at the University of Florida. Her new book is The Language of the Heart: A Cultural History of the Recovery Movement from Alcoholics Anonymous to Oprah Winfrey.

About a week ago I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
Having spent the last 8 years reading and writing about 12-Step recovery, I decided to wind down from my research by doing a little reading about addiction. I started off with David and Nic Sheff’s father-son memoirs about crystal meth: Beautiful Boy and Tweak.

The younger Sheff became addicted to meth in college after being a run of the mill adolescent partier. His father’s book ponders whether his frankness about his own youthful drug use and his lackadaisical attitude towards his son’s drinking and pot smoking in high school created the conditions for Nic’s devastating dependence on harder drugs later on. The books raise some interesting questions about “permissive” parenting in post-‘60s America: both come down hard on Sheff pere for having gotten divorced and subjected fils to a joint custody arrangement that had him spending summers and holidays with his working mother. Both seem to agree that the father tried too hard to be his son’s friend, denying him a “normal” childhood even as he created (with his second wife) an idyllic nuclear family focused on two precocious younger children.

The books share a setting—San Francisco and Marin County, where the Sheffs have homes—and expend a lot of energy detailing their bohemian pastoral lifestyle, with its excursions to the national seashore to surf and hike, its concerts and protest marches, and its delicious organic dinners eaten off of hand-made plates. This rich depiction of their perfect Pottery Barn existence is probably intended to throw into relief the question that both authors wrestle with: “how could anyone who had so much give it all away for the squalid life of a drug addict?” But for me it sadly had the opposite effect, exaggerating the narcissism so often at the heart of the addiction memoir genre.

I admit that the other book I’ve been reading influenced my impression of the Sheff volumes. Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg’s Righteous Dopefiend is an ethnographic study (in text and photos) of homeless heroin injectors living at the edge of San Francisco’s Hunters Point neighborhood between 1994-2006. It reveals the economic and political realignments that have made possible the incredible abundance enjoyed by the Sheffs and others in their class—and makes plain the degree to which those realignments have also created the conditions for the disaffection and degradation that characterize the lives of the hardcore homeless.

The book has two intertwined aims. First, it works to humanize the individuals that most Americans would prefer to keep nameless and undifferentiated at the margins of our cities. The members of Dopefiend’s homeless encampments emerge as individuals with complex histories, unique voices, and distinctive moral and aesthetic standards. All of these influence their attitudes towards drug procurement and use, as well as towards family, straight life, and race and gender relations.

Second, the text demonstrates that thirty years of warring on drugs and getting tough on crime have done nothing to reduce the demand for street drugs. However, when taken in combination with economic shifts away from an industrial and towards a knowledge economy, these policies have done an outstanding job of making the lives of impoverished drug users absolutely miserable. Bourgois and Schonberg chronicle the various efforts made by city, state, and national governments to harass and humiliate their subjects.

Theoretically, these policies are meant to stem the flow of taxpayer dollars to individuals deemed morally unworthy. But they have the convenient side effect of pushing indigent drug users further and further to the margins of society. At the margins, the authors argue, the moral suasions and behavior modification strategies that eventually get the Nic Sheffs of the world clean and sober have no effect. The righteous dopefiends of the world—and the larger society around them—would benefit more from a harm-reduction approach to addiction.

Since the 19th century, memoirs about addiction have worked to convey to readers the anguish and helplessness felt by the addict as she or he spirals downward from happy respectability to utter degradation and demoralization. The addiction memoir is a cautionary tale—a middlebrow genre for a middle-class audience. If you want to feel the psychic pain that the genre specializes in bringing to life, you’ll enjoy the Sheff volumes. If you want a picture of the political economy of addiction that is somewhat less sympathetic to middle-class discomfort, Bourgois and Schonberg paint a brilliant one.
Read an excerpt from The Language of the Heart, and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue