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High and Low on Crack

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Christopher Peterson/BuzzFoto/FilmMagic/Getty Images
Bill Clegg, New York City, April 2010

Drugs, altered states of consciousness, and addiction entered modern literature with the Romantics. Much poetry has come from that artificial paradise, as Aldous Huxley called being high on something. However, the memoirs and autobiographical fiction in English written over the past two hundred years about what is now called substance abuse generally descend from either the rapture that Thomas de Quincey expresses in “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater,” the essay that in 1821 made him famous, or the disgust that Charles Lamb suffers from in his essay “Confessions of a Drunkard,” seven versions of which he published between 1813 and 1833. No matter the drug or the historical era, the patterns of addiction remain the same: the first encounters with the drug and the sense of blessed relief, of happy escape, are followed soon enough by an awareness of being enslaved to a habit, of having one’s life ruled by the necessity of acquiring the much-needed daily dosage of whatever. Bill Clegg’s new book on his crack addiction follows a similar pattern.

Oh, just, subtle, and mighty opium!” de Quincey exclaimed. In Doctor Judas, A Portrayal of the Opium Habit, published in 1895, William Rosser Cobbe noted that de Quincey had great thoughts not because he ate opium, but because he had genius and was able to do something with it in spite of the drug. Cobbe wrote his account of his addiction because he believed that de Quincey’s “extravagant praise of the narcotic” had helped to lure any number of innocents to their ruin. Yet as enamored of his dreams while under the influence of opium that de Quincey was, he also wrote of the languor when on opium that murders ambition. He decided that if the drug was going to kill him, then he might as well die in the struggle to throw off the tyrant. De Quincey said that if a man usually dreamed of oxen, then he would dream of oxen when on opium, too. His essay was written from the perspective of one who has overcome his affliction.

Charles Lamb, however, was still hooked on drink when he wrote and rewrote his essay. The addict is a liar, but Lamb was in an agony of candor about his downward path from malt liquor to wine and water, from “small punch” to “a great deal of brandy.” He wept over his bondage; he was beyond recovery. There was for him no middle way between total abstinence and the excess of the midnight cup. Lamb accused himself of cowardice; his sense of shame was acute. He had even lost his pleasure in reading. “The waters have gone over me,” but maybe he could help some youth to see into his desolation. “Let him stop in time.” He couldn’t forgive himself his dependence on tobacco either.

Most drug confessions are by people who have survived their nightmares. That they have been able to write their stories reassures the reader, in the way that the existence of the slave narrative announced that the fugitive slave had made it to a safe place from which he could look back and reflect. The drug confession also has much in common with the conversion tale. “For he, like Bunyan’s Christian, has had his load removed, the memory of it alone remains,” Cobbe observed.

In the nineteenth century in the US, certain drugs were considered medicinal. Cobbe was given opium cordials as a child and in adulthood he obtained the drug from his physician. Heroin was invented in 1898 and marketed as a cure for morphine addiction. When heroin was made illegal in the US in 1914, addiction was also criminalized. For a long time to be a social outcast had a kind of dangerous glamour. Heroin had a certain mystique. In many fictional accounts of heroin use, from Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm (1949) to William Burroughs’s Junkie (1953), from Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries (1978) to Linda Yablonsky’s The Story of Junk (1997), the drug is at first a rite belonging to a hip scene and a challenge to the status quo, as well as an inner liberation. But then such works are also about being strung out, the awful mechanics of getting and using, and white junkies in postwar American literature inhabit an underworld not much different from that described in heroin novels by black writers, such as Clarence Cooper Jr.’s bleak The Scene (1960) or George Cain’s sad and beautiful Blues-child Baby (1970). Drug addiction, the great equalizer.

When cocaine became cheap in the 1970s, many were glad to believe that it was not addictive, much as opium, morphine, and heroin had not been thought lethal when first introduced. In his memoir of the destruction cocaine wrought on his generation of black youth in the 1980s, The Streets of Harlem (2005), Lester Marrow recalls the contempt he and his friends had for heroin, the drug of his parents’ generation, and how convinced they were that they were nothing like junkies. Only the heroin user was a helpless addict, shuffling and nodding off. Then party people began to turn cocaine powder into a rock form that could be smoked in a glass pipe. When the powder was refined with alcohol and ether, it was called freebase. When cocaine powder was mixed with baking soda and reduced over a flame, it was called crack.

In the 1980s, armed crack dealers and hypnotized, emaciated “crackheads” overran the abandoned streets of inner cities. Crack use was a class line that one crossed at one’s peril. Jesse Jackson complained that punishment for possession of cocaine in powder form was minimal compared to the tough sentences handed out for possession of the same amount of cocaine in crack form. The discrepancy, he said, was because middle-class people, white people, snorted coke, while crack was the drug of the black poor. Then rappers and comedians of the hip-hop generation in the 1990s poured scorn on crack, mocking the crackhead’s nervous jitters. Moreover, the gentrification of inner cities, together with stricter policing, pushed crack traffic into the urban background. Cocaine dealers have been the subjects of romanticized films, cocaine users have had their moments in fiction since the 1930s, but the crackhead has never had the bohemian stardom of the heroin addict. It’s a confession from the lowest depths. A few years ago Whitney Houston was insisting to Diane Sawyer that crack was too low-down for her ever to do it.

To smoke cocaine may be out of fashion, but the freebase/crack confession has been around long enough for some to wonder if the genre has not become exhausted. Maybe because cocaine use has been widespread in the US for a while, the ruined-by-coke story gets repeated because the subject is serious, not just a form of entertainment. Some two thousand people in Oprah Winfrey’s audience felt betrayed enough that James Frey had fabricated key scenes in his crack memoir to demand their money back. Readers in 1836 were outraged that the slave narrative of one Archie Moore turned out to be a fiction written by a white historian. Frey said that he couldn’t sell A Million Little Pieces when he was sending it around to publishers as fiction, but people don’t like to have their innocence taken advantage of, especially when trying to inform themselves about a social problem remote from their experience. The contract such a work makes with its readers is that it is true, not made up, and not “a truth” either. A novel by Augustan Burroughs or J. Leroy can seem in parts like a transcript from a drug counselor’s log, but to invent in a drug memoir is considered morally not all that many rungs above making up a slave narrative or stories about what went on in combat.

Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man opens in 2005, during Bill Clegg’s “bottom,” as the critical point just before the addict surrenders and seeks treatment is called in Alcoholics Anonymous, or AA. (Twelve-step programs such as Narcotics Anonymous are modeled on AA.) Clegg tells us that his first experience with crack was also the first time he went to bed with a man, an older man, a lawyer and family friend from his New England hometown. The chronology is not altogether clear, but Clegg seems to have been on and off crack for nearly eight years, which is surprising, considering how powerful and destructive the drug is. It usually takes people down much faster. Around the same time that he started to dabble in crack, he met his boyfriend, whom he in the book calls Noah, a rich filmmaker who in an AA program would be designated as Clegg’s “enabler,” the person who forgave him time and time again, sheltered him, covered for him, and unwittingly made it possible for him to continue to use drugs. An up-and-coming literary agent in New York, Clegg had a lot to lose and in addition to his boyfriend he let down a lot of people because of crack: his business partner, clients, employees, family. The hope of making amends, of trying to apologize to those he hurt and disappointed, gives his work the atmosphere of an AA meeting, of the newcomer’s testimony.

Clegg tells his story in the first- person present tense. It injects a sense of immediacy into his narrative, and, as a device associated with fiction, it may also give him some distance from the lost soul he had become:

I drink too much, and I can’t keep from dialing dealers and staying out until all hours. I’m a crack addict, I know this, Noah knows this, but to everyone else I am a dependable, decent guy with a promising new company and a great boyfriend. We live in a beautiful apartment that Noah’s grandmother paid cash for, and we’ve filled it with vintage photographs and furniture and expensive Persian rugs.

But Clegg complicates the structure of his narrative further: the first-person present-tense sections about his last, suicidal binge contain flashbacks to earlier episodes in his crack career. The chapters about his bottom then alternate with scenes in the third-person present tense, taking us from his childhood through his drug history. “His first drug is a line of crystal meth when he’s fifteen.” (Not counting the glass of Scotch he had when he was twelve.)

Clegg comes across as determined to flinch at nothing in confronting how low he sank. Because of crack, he was not fully present for or conscious of family happenings or outside events, such as his mother’s battle with breast cancer. He went for months without speaking to her. The morning of the attack on the World Trade Center, Clegg was recovering from a wild night. He kept an appointment to have his hair cut in the Village, but couldn’t relate to the panic around him or pay much attention.

After years of controlled binges, of guilty mornings and tearful promises at lunch to stay clean, he lost control and went into meltdown. Clegg has enough clear memories of the lies, dealers, hotel rooms, and paranoid insanity that followed. One night he smoked so much crack in a taxi and then in an airport men’s room that the captain himself wouldn’t let him on a flight to Berlin. His boyfriend and his business partner finally changed their locks. After he burned through the last $70,000 in his checking account and became convinced in his sleepless haze that parked cars were cops observing him with binoculars, he accepted an ambulance ride to the hospital and soon went to rehab—not his first rehab, either.
It doesn’t matter if his audience has heard it before—the recovering addict must relive it all, including that first hit:

A pearly smoke makes its way down the stem, and he draws harder to bring it toward him. Fitz tells him to go gently and he does. Soon his lungs are full and he holds it the way he would pot smoke. He exhales and is immediately coughing. The taste is like medicine, or cleaning fluid, but also a little sweet, like limes. The smoke billows out into the living room, past Fitz, like a great unfurling dragon. As he watches the cloud spread and curl, he feels the high at first as a flutter, then a roar. A surge of new energy pounds through every inch of him, and there is a moment of perfect oblivion where he is aware of nothing and everything.

Cocteau said when he got off opium that it was hard to know that the magic carpet existed, but he wasn’t going to fly on it anymore.

By his own account, Clegg was good-looking and charming enough to get his way with people and to bullshit through most of his problems. Oddly enough, the narcissism that he admits to—his memories of the addict’s isolation sometimes involve looking at himself with a towel low on his hips—is very much there in his frank confrontation with his worst self, in the quality of the attention ones pays to the self after a crisis. Indeed, the class line he ended up crossing as a crack addict was humbling to his vanity: he lost forty pounds in one month; he looked so grubby at one point that he was turned away from a chic Soho hotel when he tried to register for a room. Someone in the throes of his or her drug bottom isn’t socially acceptable. But American society is capable of extending the hand of understanding to the repentant, while also imprisoning millions of black young men for often minor drug offenses. If you are in the right category, it’s okay to have fallen off the edge of the world; some of the best people have.

Alexander King, a writer for Smart Set in the 1920s, said in his memoir of his nine years on morphine, Mine Enemy Grows Stronger (1959), that he wanted to explain to his eight grandchildren that phase of his life, but he never trusted the breast-beaters who seemed less concerned with repentance than with reliving their gruesome experiences. AA warns against the dangers of “euphoric recall,” getting so carried away with remembering what happened that before one knows it, one is out copping drugs again. David Carr’s recent The Night of the Gun (2008) is strange as a drug memoir, because Carr, a reporter with The New York Times, interviews people from his bad days as a crack addict twenty years ago and sets their memories alongside his own. Carr has some valuable insights into how “recollection is often just self-fashioning” and how some memories are really “redemption myths.” Carr, as a journalist, became his own subject, and to a certain extent Clegg, as an agent whose story was known in publishing circles, also had a professional reputation to rebuild.

But Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man is somewhat troubling as an act of making amends. For instance, Clegg blames his parents on the sly, slipping in the suggestion that his childhood with a domineering, cocktail-swilling father somehow set him up to be an insecure compulsive. Then, too, poor Noah, the boyfriend, is disposed of in a cryptic phrase:

I will remember how his beautiful hands pulled me up that last time and how I fell away from them—finally, because I had to—and moved through the doorway, alone.

Recovery is largely an inner drama, and maybe Clegg is right to be brief about his life since rehab, because drug confessions often have a Paradise Lost/Paradise Regained problem: hell is more interesting than heaven. If there is one thing Clegg can do, it is to convey the sheer pointlessness of one more hit when one is numb and the utter boredom of being that high. Billie Holiday said she knew she’d kicked her drug habit when she realized she couldn’t stand television any longer.

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