Tag Archives: memoir

Science v. Stereotype

ImageSadly, the issues Carl Hart discusses in High Price, his memoir-cum-manifesto about drugs and drug policy in America, have been much in the news lately after the death of the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Hart is a professor of neuroscience at Columbia who studies the neuropsychology of drug addiction.  He also grew up in working-class and poor African-American neighborhoods in Miami and saw firsthand the social effects of both drugs and drug policies on his family and friends.  The book is an unusual but not unwelcome mix of personal reflection and scientific information about drugs and addiction drawn both from Hart’s own work and previous studies.  It’s an ambitious project, and I think he pulls it off adequately, but part of me wished that he had written a spectacular book rather than a good one, since the ideas it advances are so pertinent and necessary.

Let me explain: everything about this book is fascinating – Hart’s description of his youth and his scientific gloss on the psychological phenomena at work that he now understands; the empirical information about drug addiction that contradicts most of our dominant stereotypes about it; and his political prescriptions for correcting decades of failed drug policy in the United States.  The combination of this material makes for one of the most unique and interesting memoirs I’ve ever read.  The problem is that in his ambition to retain an authentic voice, Hart wrote the book largely by himself (as far as I can tell).  He mentions and thanks a writer with whom he worked to shape the narrative, but she is not listed as a co-author and, judging by the slightly stilted prose, probably did not significantly contribute to the actual writing.  I hate to make this criticism, because it’s a perfectly well-written book, and based on Hart’s own description of his education it was no small feat for him to get to the place where he was able to write it; it’s just not beautifully written, and there are awkward passages and descriptions here and there (including some weirdly graphic depictions of women’s bodies).  I wish it had been  more elegantly written so more people would read it and take it seriously, because it’s an amazing story and offers the most humane and logical solution to the problem of drugs that I’ve heard yet.

What is this solution?  Decriminalization of pretty much all drugs.  Not legalization, in which use, possession, and selling drugs would be unpoliced, but a policy under which the possession and use of drugs is punished by citation and not by criminal penalty.  This might sounds like a radical move, but it’s not unprecedented and it is largely supported by the scientific evidence produced in Hart’s own lab and in other studies.  Several U.S. states have begun to decriminalize or legalize marijuana, and the country of Portugal decriminalized all illegal drugs in 2001.  Combined with expanded treatment and counseling options, this has caused a decrease in drug-induced deaths and overall drug use in Portugal.  Of course, it costs a little bit up front (costs that are saved on the back end due to decreases in prosecution and imprisonment) and so, like so many public policy innovations in the U.S. that cost now but save later (universal pre-K, universal health insurance) it will never, ever be implemented.

Also, of course, I despair of the U.S. ever implementing this eminently logical, well-reasoned policy because DRUGS!  One of the things this book addresses is our dumb stereotypes about drugs, many of them fed to us by Ronald Reagan and his cronies.  Drug policy in the U.S. since the 1980s has resulted in the devastation of poor and African-American communities across America, creating a cycle of imprisonment, economic failure, and violence that has been cleverly blamed on the drugs themselves.  As Hart demonstrates both statistically and anecdotally in High Price, it is not drug use or addiction that has caused the community he grew up in to fray, but the unequal penalties and uneven enforcement of draconian drug laws that specifically target African-American and other marginal communities (the poor, the uneducated, the rural).  This book stands as a corrective to those stereotypes.

I hear Portugal is nice this time of year.

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New Year’s Resolution

ImageWow, it’s been a long time since I’ve written anything here.  The past semester nearly drowned me, and although I’ve been reading, I haven’t been writing anything that hasn’t been absolutely required of me in order not to make a terrible fool of myself (and then, I may have done that anyway).  As is somewhat usual by now, my world is a precariously balanced set of items – work, money, family, among others – that I have so far put together in such a way that they have not collapsed (yay, me!) but could, it seems, do so at any moment.  I’m in the middle of another uncertain (perhaps doomed) academic job cycle and the future looks fairly dim.  There’s a little pinprick of light out there, but it’s far away and I know I can’t count on it.  I wouldn’t in any way compare my current situation to the grieving, drug-addled Cheryl Strayed of her memoir Wild, but let’s just say the book resonated with me particularly well at the moment.  As I scroll constantly though a list of both sane and crazy options in the event that I don’t get a permanent position, I’ve added “Hike the Pacific Crest Trail” to my list, although I’ve thus far avoided thinking about the damning logistics of doing so with a young family.  Probably not going to happen.  Nonetheless, sometimes the idea gives me a little glimmer of hope, or just makes me smile.

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Cheryl Strayed

Strayed has a great story, but so many things about this book could have gone wrong: it could easily have veered into sentimentality, self-help platitudinousness (this has to be a word, right?), or hectoring.  But Strayed is a really good writer, and she keeps it simple, mostly allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions/life lessons/caveats from the situations she describes, avoiding many common pitfalls of a memoir of this type.  This is probably also why the book has been extremely popular, and why I found it resonated with me: although her situation is unique and her solution extreme, there is a certain universality of emotion and response described in the book.  I might be facing a different set of problems than she did, and I might not decide to solve them by dropping everything and unadvisedly hiking the Pacific Crest Trail with no preparation, but I’ve certainly felt whatever sense of grief and abandon that leads her down that path, and the idea (as noted above) certainly sounds tempting.  In other words, Strayed does a good job of allowing me (or you, or anyone) license to both feel the extremity of whatever it is that’s on our minds or in our hearts and follow that to its logical conclusion.  She doesn’t allegorize her story, but she offers it as an allegory to you.  Make of it what you will.  I appreciated the opportunity to escape into my own fantasies about living on houseboats or moving to a country whose language I don’t speak or disappearing onto the PCT.

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The Pacific Crest Trail

I won’t give away all the details of the story here, but Strayed, having lost her mother and gotten divorced within the space of a year and at an age when most people are thinking about graduate school, not marriage (much less divorce) or death, does a lot of stupid things and then decides, with the kind of clear thinking we expect from a grieving, possibly drug-addicted, immature person, to hike a good portion of the PCT, a wilderness trail that runs from the Mexican border to the Canadian, through California, Oregon, and Washington.  Unfortunately, she’s never even really camped before, much less backpacked hundreds of miles on her own.  Despite her ill-considered decision (which she regrets within the first ten miles), she sticks with it, more or less, figuring out along the way how to do the things she doesn’t know how to do and making alterations to her route when it is proves impassable.  It’s not really a traditional tale of stick-to-itiveness or goal achievement, which is both the essence of the story and the source of its appeal.  If she executed her plan perfectly and emerged whole and healed from the experience everyone would smell a rat, despise her, and hate the book.  Instead, she mostly accomplishes what she set out to do, not quite in the way she set out to do it, and ends up in a better, but by no means perfect, place at the end.

Maybe the kind of messy reality the book winds up with is another source of my personal resonance with Strayed’s story.  Of course, I haven’t quite ended up where I thought I would, in senses large or small.  I’ll leave aside the bigger issues for now, but certainly as regards this blog I have no illusions that I will accomplish my goal by my birthday, which is now a few weeks away.  I really did think that it was an achievable mark, 40 books in a year, and maybe in another year it would have been.  I’m not giving up; I’ll try to post on as many books as I can before the 25th, but I’m not going to delude myself or chastise myself about my prospects.  I probably am not going to do what I set out to do, but I did what I could and at this point that has to be enough (I’ve been working on applying this principle to my professional life for years and I’ve been less successful; maybe this will help).  I do plan to keep the blog going, and I hope people will continue to read it.  I’m going to try not to beat myself up about it or call it a failure.  Rather, I’ll take what feels like a success – writing about what I want, sharing it with people, reading more books and thinking seriously about them – and leave everything else.  Part of Wild was about achieving tremendous goals, but an equally important part was about keeping those goals within the realm of the possible, or even the probable.  And that’s what I’ll take with me into the new year.

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Magic Undone

ImageIt seems uncharitable to admit that I was less than enthralled by Joan Didion’s memoir of the year following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne.  I was expecting to love The Year of Magical Thinking, having been a Joan Didion fan since I read Slouching Towards Bethlehem in high school.  And I didn’t exactly dislike the book, I just found it surprisingly flat for an account of such a difficult, turbulent time (Didion’s daughter was also mortally ill during the period about which she writes).  There were a number of wonderful moments in the book, and its circular chronology mimics the mourning process well, but on the whole it lacked some vital spark that seemed to leave it a little bit empty.

As I mentioned above, one of the innovative and interesting things about the book is its somewhat circular chronology, which moves slowly forward in time while always doubling back on itself and on memory.  Didion repeats events and memories, always from a slightly varied perspective, much the way the human mind does when preoccupied, anxious, or sad (at least this is true of my human mind, and I am narcissistically extrapolating).  She recounts the stages of grief not in a procedural way, but through a kind of formal mirroring in which the structure of the book elucidates the mourning process.

There were also many moments that seemed real in the way of shared secrets, things no one admits but everyone shares.  Didion recounts that the first night after Dunne’s death, she felt she absolutely had to be alone.  After considering it from several angles, she realizes, “I needed to be alone so that he could come back.  This was the beginning of my year of magical thinking.”  It is this very kind of magical thinking that we all naturally engage in, I think, when something unimaginable or tragic happens, and yet it is rarely disclosed.  We are so quick to pathologize any emotions, thoughts, or behaviors outside of our narrow norms that we often don’t share our “magical thinking,” although in some ways it is the very thing that makes us human.  This is the major strength of the book, and its value, despite its faults or lack of energy.

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Joan Didion

Here I must also admit that part of what turned me off of this book, despite the very real strengths I’ve described, was the kind of unthinking privilege Didion describes in her every memory.  She rarely acknowledges that her spontaneous family trips to Hawaii or celebrity life in Los Angeles are fantastic luxuries, available to few, or essentially none.  She jets back and forth from New York to L.A., spending weeks at the Beverly Wilshire hotel when her daughter falls ill unexpectedly in California.  I don’t begrudge Didion the time with her daughter for one minute, but the casual assumption implicitly contained here is one of normality, of universal experience, and I found it difficult to relate to the emotional truths contained in the shell of extreme and unacknowledged privilege.  Perhaps I am too sensitive because of my own straitened circumstances or my concern about privilege and its political and social consequences in the present moment more generally, but I found this consistently off-putting and it really affected my ability to sympathize, which, of course, a memoir about grief requires.

I wonder now if I reread Didion’s older work, writing I once loved and made me want to write, if I would have the same reaction.  I think I’ll let it live in my memory rather than reread it and risk losing it forever.

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