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I couldn’t tell you why George W. Bush gave up snorting coke. But I know why I did.
It wasn’t just the sheer human degradation. Remember early-’80s coke parties—back in the First Madonna Era? You’d walk into the living room to find at most three people, looking hurt and bewildered as they fingered warm Heinekens. They were the ones who hadn’t kicked in any money on coke. Everybody else was locked in a back bedroom, snorting lines through a rolled-up tenspot off a framed photo of the host’s mom and dad. Then they (OK, we—hey, I always made sure my bucks were in the hat) would emerge, blinking, and feign interest in what your best friend/girlfriend/wife was jabbering on about. While, actually, their little smiles were turned inward, cruising the high.
Ahh, good times.
But in truth, disgust at such decadence wasn’t what got my nose out of the dope bag. Rather, it was an almost embarrassingly simple insight: Coke, it struck me one morning as I gathered up the little envelopes scattered about the living room, was no different from, or better than, scratching your ass. Sure, it felt good for a minute or two—but that was it. And pleasure is not satisfaction. I could blow coke every night for the rest of the decade (the option chosen, I believe, by some in our select circle)—and have zip to show for it. No novel, no girlfriend with a horizon past the next coke party—no life. Suddenly, coke seemed about equal parts dust and illusion—no, mostly illusion. Not evil, not even harmful. Just a poor pick to make among life’s pleasures. I never did it again…more than once or twice.
Now, of course, we’ve moved on: through the crack craze of the early ’90s to what seems to be a current heroin boomlet, at least in pop culture. And, given my youthful coke indulgences, I’ve viewed the recent torrent of smack movies with a pretty jaundiced eye. Permanent Midnight, High Art, Trainspotting—true, they operate at a higher level of sophistication than such ur-classics as the Frank Sinatra crazed-hophead flick Man With the Golden Arm (which is not to say, for sure, that they’re better movies). Yet they still, it should be noted, flaunt the tried-and-true myths of junkdom, both high and low: Trainspotting avers that dope is better than sex (and gives your life an Iggy Pop soundtrack) and is truly hellish to kick (so much that a cold-turkey withdrawal scene features hallucinated dead babies).
Too good (and bad) to be true? Absolutely, according to How to Stop Time, a “memoir with heroin” from New York arts writer and former regular heroin user Ann Marlowe. Marlowe, in fact, is something of a one-woman junkie-cliche buster—at some risk to herself. After all, she’s a card-carrying member of downtown New York hipsterdom, an East Village rock ‘n’ art scenester who writes for the Village Voice, LA Weekly, and Artforum. In such circles, heroin chic is a cherished article of faith. As Marlowe says, junk in her world is “like riding or sailing in upper-class society: it’s not that everyone does it, but the general cultural style is influenced by some people doing it.”
But, although Marlowe’s chilly, almost spookily affectless prose, arranged into sections whimsically characterized under alphabetical headings (“irritability,” “jail,” “Jewish”), broadcasts junkie cool, she’s in fact a tireless, impressively clear-eyed unraveler of the deceptions told by both junkies (including, in Marlowe’s view, literary junk-king William Burroughs) and the drug’s foes. True, she periodically veers into pretentiousness—as when this ex-Harvard philosophy grad student insists on exploring the metaphysics of dope—but her book is mostly characterized by a brave, plain-Jane look at what doing dope was really like—and why she was doing it.
Marlowe sees straight through heroin cool: It is, she writes, “the way of describing from certain exterior viewpoints what registers as loneliness on the inside…And when you are alienated enough from your own feelings to be able to identify with the exterior viewpoint, you decide you’re cool.” She herself didn’t try heroin until she was nearly 30, after moving downtown to the East Village and determinedly hanging out at insider rock clubs—where for months, she says, nobody would talk to her because she wasn’t in a band or sleeping with somebody who was. From an emotionally barren suburban New Jersey home, she’d already endured a somewhat surprising first adulthood uptown, working in well-paying business-consulting jobs that interested her little and sleepwalking through passionless romances, at least one with a married man. She quite bravely builds up a picture of her younger self as somebody deeply needy, though quite unaware of it, as well as perversely independent and touchingly, masochistically, dogged.
Even a decade later, her prose radiates the relief and pleasure she felt at finally being accepted by these hip junkie kids, most of them five to 10 years younger than she was. Dave, a member of a prominent local thrash-rock band, picked her up one night, and they became a couple—and, soon enough, started snorting heroin together. (Marlowe says she never shot up, hating needles; she also says she used heroin regularly for about seven years—typically four or five days a week, never more than a bag or two a day.) From the beginning, then, her decision to do dope had much more to do with complex social and psychological needs than with getting a great chemical high.
Indeed, according to Marlowe, junk just isn’t that great. “The biggest, darkest secret about heroin is that it isn’t that wonderful,” she writes; “[I]t’s a substance some of us agree to pursue as though it were wonderful, because it’s easier to do that than figure out what is worth pursuing.” OK, she says, the first time was special—”a surge of astonishing pleasure”—but after that it was all downhill. First, there’s a body-based problem for the regular user: Once you’ve metabolized the drug, it can never again bang your gong quite the way it did the first time (a frustration coke users know, too). And, of course, junkies are pretty much by definition neurotics. “Scrutinizing the high, it weakens. You wonder if you’re quite as high as you should be, if the cut is different….Ah, for the good old days, when heroin felt wonderful,” Marlowe laments.
Marlowe gets it that the point about drugs is the people—not the drugs. The East Village heroin scene looks a lot better from a distance than close up. Marlowe’s rocker boyfriend (actually, they gave up on sex early on—heroin ain’t exactly an aphrodisiac) Dave liked picking street fights and driving his rich father’s sports cars up East River Drive at 130 miles an hour. And lying: Dave was a pathological liar long before he became a junkie; dope, Marlowe guesses, just gave him an entertaining new vice to fib about. Nearing 30, he eventually landed back home with his folks—and a 15-bags-a-day habit. Then there was Ondine, a talented graphic designer with absolutely no confidence in herself. Her habit got up to five bags daily; then she bounced in and out of treatment centers; then she disappeared. Comments Marlowe with typical cool bluntness, “I could only hope she was at an NA meeting, or in rehab, and not sucking dick on the street, the image that involuntarily occurred to me.”
Booze, gambling, dope—stress-hammered or emotionally fragile people will always eagerly hand over a big piece of their lives to such distractions. But just as popularity is no advertisement for the attractiveness of the bouquet on Thunderbird Exxtra Special Vintage or for Donald Trump’s Atlantic City version of the Great Mosque at Medina, so it’s a pretty poor basis for judging heroin irresistibly pleasurable.
But probably heroin’s biggest myth, according to Marlowe, is its addictiveness. Marlowe goes straight after what she sees as Burroughs’ paranoid, self-serving amplification of dope’s monkey grip: “[A]ll but the severest dopesickness is no more rigorous than a nasty flu,” she writes. Heroin craving in a heavy user can feel unpleasant, she acknowledges, but no more: “Heroin eventually made me bad-tempered and remote, but it didn’t make me beg, cheat or steal.”
Yes, there is a physiological aspect to compulsive heroin use—but “heroin isn’t that devilishly habit-forming…we choose our addictions,” she insists. (It might be noted that many medical experts are on her side; the World Health Organization stopped using the word “addiction” almost 20 years ago, substituting drug “dependence”—which it defines with no reference to the physical body.) Instead, Marlowe argues that outsiders make the same mistaken assumption about addiction that they do about heroin’s supposed pleasures: that because somebody does something over and over again, that thing must, in itself, be difficult to resist—addictive.
But that’s not it, she argues: Rather, heroin “addiction” represents a nasty fit between the way the drug breaks down in the body and certain folks’ appetite for punishment. Heroin, she notes, is “designed to disappoint you.” With each use, the body gets a little more used to the drug; you get a little less high, and the comedown comes a little bit sooner—even if you boost your dose.
Most people would walk away from such a clear example of diminishing returns. (Many do.) But not the gal who’s destined to become a junkie. For her, Marlowe explains, “Addiction occurs when you’re aware of getting less from the drug but this makes changing your situation harder instead of easier.” If you’ve come to the drug in the first place to get out from under the burden of your own psyche (or actual hardships out in the world that seem unfaceable), you may know, rationally, that you can’t beat heroin’s disappearing act, but still go on pretending you can—ever more desperately so—because it’s better than facing the world naked.
Which is a textbook description of out-of-control compulsive behavior. But it’s not physiological addiction, and it finally doesn’t really have a whole lot to do with poor old heroin. Indeed, although Marlowe doesn’t argue the point, her book makes a strong implicit argument for decriminalizing heroin use, which she sees as a personal medical and psychological issue.
Marlowe says that she gave up heroin when she finally tired of the life it provided: “At night I went out, properly insulated, with those desperate people, who might or might not show up, and were mainly on heroin, to gatherings where I babbled to slack jaws and pinned eyes and cursory attention spans and was babbled back to.” She wanted again, she says, “what heroin had eroded: love, friendship, writing that was a pleasure again.” After seven years of almost daily use, she says, she simply stopped, with negligible withdrawal pains. Nor, she claims, is she tempted to go back. For her, heroin’s charm is broken.
How to Stop Time is short on heroin chic—but it’s a strong and gracefully written argument for the proposition that when it comes to drugs, the fault, dear friends, is not in those starry white powders, but in ourselves. CP