Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope – book review

No matter what you read lately, whether it’s political, economic, or even comedy relief, the concept of a national divide keeps popping up. It seems there is nothing that we’re not crabby about – which song got the Grammy, whether poodles are better than dalmatians, whether corn counts as a vegetable or a starch. Umpteen books have been written on the divide of “liberal” vs. “conservative,” urban vs. rural, prosperity vs. lazy poor, criminal drug abuser vs. victim of Big Pharma, and into that mix Nicholas Kristof throws out an excellent one, called Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope.

Kristof grew up in rural Yamhill, Oregon, a White, conservative town of 1100 people. More than a quarter of the kids he went to school with died of drugs, alcohol, suicide, or reckless accidents caused by drugs or alcohol. Why did he make it out in one piece, while his friends died slowly of alcoholism, often homeless most of their lives? Why did families lose 3, 4, 5 kids to drugs and alcohol? Why did some do fine?

To keep it real, Kristof explores people in similar situations in places like South Dakota, Oklahoma, New York City, Baltimore, and more, bastions of poverty and drugs in the U.S. What he finds is the same issues, handled differently – humanely – makes a world of difference. In places like Oklahoma, the entire penal code is stacked against poor people. Indigent and need a free legal defender? You are then arrested for being indigent, and fined for your arrest. Now you’re in debt to the state. So you are sent to prison for being a debtor – even if it’s only ONE dollar! Now you have more fines added. People are released from prison – private, for-profit prisons, of course – with hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines from a mere $25 parking ticket. Can’t make the payments on your fines? Back to jail, and more fines. It’s a gerbil wheel of punishing the poor – even though intervention programs can save $10 of tax money for every dollar spent.

And of course, once you have a felony conviction, you can’t get a job. So people turn to selling meth and heroin. And get convicted, and can’t get hired, and get homeless and depressed and turn to drugs…. Over and over and over. Why are Mexicans taking the jobs from under-educated poor white people? Because the Mexicans can be counted on to show up for work, and aren’t drunk or stoned.

Kristof narrows the biggest issues down to two: One is education. Most of the people he knew didn’t graduate, had parents that barely made it to 8th grade, and grandparents who might not have made it to fifth. If you come from a home where there are no books, no magazines, and no expectations of further education, it’s harder to succeed. He explores one family where the mother had a 5th-grade education, and five children by four different fathers. When the first was expelled from kindergarten twice for behavioral issues, she – with a fifth-grade education – decided to home-school her kids (5 under the age of 6). How much of a chance do those kids have?

The second predictor of success was coming from a two-parent home. If you had two parents – and usually two incomes – you had a much greater chance of being successful. Single mothers with a trail of children left those kids in chaos. More than one child entering Yamhill kindergarten was described as “feral.”

Kristof also explores the programs – often started by those who had had enough – that give people just the right boost, whether it’s paying those $1 legal fees and freeing people from prison or getting them a job or housing or a drug treatment program. Such programs are a lifeline for the people involved, and often get them on the track to permanent success. Unfortunately, many of the government programs to do just that have been eliminated in recent years.

The book is easy to read, informative, and does not preach or even really point fingers. It’s careful to present only facts, though the family situations and the culture of violence surrounding them can be maddening. Despite the grim realities, the book ends up on a positive note. This is one to put on your To Be Read list, and check out these other titles in similar vein:

Hillbilly Elegy
The Left Behind
White Trash
Chasing the Scream
Broke, USA
Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America
Survival Math
Nickel and Dimed


Taming the Epidemic

51DfIYszbDL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_I have tried writing this several times, but I need 8,000 words instead of 800. I didn’t want to write about a politically charged topic at a time when politics are tearing the country apart. There is so much here you should read, need to read, that I cannot emphasize how important these books are, on such a difficult topic. And yes, if you’re living in this very town, they are relevant to YOU.

I read Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari in January – that’s how long it’s taken me to write this. I was skeptical – yeah, yeah, failed war on drugs. We know. But the information she presents is hard-core, well-documented, and agonizing. You can check it yourself. It blew my mind and changed my outlook not only on drug addiction, but my outlook on life. Hari shows – starting with Billie Holiday – that the war on drugs began early in the 1900’s as a method to exert control on “undesirables” – Mexicans, Blacks, Irish, Chinese. It blew up into a witch hunt, reinforced by Nixon to control war protestors. In the early 1900’s, drugs were legal. People could buy a small amount, get their controlled fix, and carry on. When the drugs were banned, junkies were forced to go underground, for huge amounts of money and unknown quality. People died. Crime exploded. Gangs took over. We knew this would happen, because we saw the exact pattern in Prohibition. The U.S. put a gag on every other country in the world – you want our aid, you make these drugs illegal. Now we control all the cartels.

And most of our addicts are addicts because…. they have psychological issues. Soldiers with PTSD. Rape and abuse victims. Homeless. Mentally ill. People with trauma. People without hope. And we have spent billions jailing them, punishing them, and sometimes killing them, because after all, they’re junkies, who cares.

But what happens when junkies (who make up only 10% of people who have used illegal drugs: 90% walk away fine) are not jailed, but treated as mentally ill, counseled, given a purpose? People tend to get clean and stay clean. What happens when illegal drugs are decriminalized – or even legalized, as in parts of British Columbia, or Portugal? Even heroin? Crime drops. Gangs fail. People become productive. And eventually, people get off the drugs themselves because it’s not who they are anymore. It’s a frightening concept, and against everything we have ever been brainwashed with.

Move on to Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, by Sam Quinones. 51pEBowSD9L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Quinones traces the perfect storm of the modern heroin epidemic: a false assumption, a powerful painkiller, a drug marketing lie, and a whole new method of peddling Mexican heroin. Oxycontin was touted as an addictionless drug because it was time-released, at a time when pain management was the rage in medicine. In reality, Oxycontin was very chemically similar to heroin, just as addictive, and pain “clinics” sprang up that did nothing but pump millions of addiction pills into the country. As people fought to get oxycontin, enter the Mexicans, who broke the rules by delivering drugs to your door. No guns. No violence. All under the radar. And their heroin was uncut Black Tar. Competition brought the price down to $6 a fix – cheaper than the $1/milligram Oxy. Washington State finally made the connection when their drug overdose fatalities were higher than their auto accident fatalities. Purdue Pharma paid more than $630 million dollars in fines for faking their addiction data. Pfizer paid more than $3 Billion for misrepresenting their drugs – less than 3 weeks take of their sales from them. Oxycontin was changed to help prevent abuse, but no one has yet put a dent in Mexican heroin sales.

51h74NFYq2L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_A slightly older book to read is Methland, which shows the damage done to the Midwest with the rise of Meth, which is so easy to produce you can manufacture it while riding a bicycle around town. Why does everything seem to start in the Midwest? These are the areas hardest hit economically by the collapse of American industry. When people are hopeless, with no jobs, or if you are injured on the job, the doc will write you a pain prescription. You stretch it out to a disability claim, get on payments, and you no longer worry about money, or how to pay for prescriptions. You sell those pain pills for three times what you were charged. For students, it’s often sports. Children are pushed to excel, to work through the pain, given pain pills to take the field and win this one, and they get hooked. Most teens start with sports injuries.

If you think drug users are minorities in deepest urban ghettos, you’re wrong. They’re here. At least two students in this very town died this school year from overdoses. We don’t talk about them. They don’t make the paper. But the students know. It’s bad enough that there is now a clinic in this town. Let’s stop pretending. It’s the kid on the sports team. It’s the kid behind the register. Your hairdresser. The PTA mom.

These books are thought provoking in their information and ideas. Though I’m – thankfully – not directly affected by the drug epidemic, I feel I dodged a bullet when my daughter was only 13 (2006). A heavy jar fell on her foot and I took her to the ER. It wasn’t broken, but badly bruised. They offered her Oxycontin or Percocet for the pain. I said no, something less strong. They gave me scripts for both, and I could fill which I wanted (dead truth). A thirteen year old. I tore up both of them. She did fine with Motrin.index

If you can read one book this year, read Chasing the Scream. If you can read two, read Dreamland as well. Even if you don’t agree with them, let’s get a national dialogue going. And if you want something a little more technical but utterly fascinating about the chemical aspects of addiction, track down How Drugs Influence Behavior: a Neurobehavioral Approach by Jaime Diaz. I was – still am – amazed at the information, and it’s not so technical a layman can’t understand it. Never have I seen a medical book with opinions like this.