Starting Points

Points (n.) 1. marks of punctuation. 2. something that has position but not extension, as the intersection of two lines. 3. salient features of a story, epigram, joke, etc.:  he hit the high points. 4. (slang; U.S.) needles for intravenous drug use.

Toxicology, Conspiracy, and History

After John Crawford, III, was shot dead in a suburban Ohio Wal-Mart by police who mistook a toy gun he was holding for a real one, the Montgomery County coroner’s office received his body for post-mortem examination. The coroner also received the body of Angela Williams, a 37-year-old white woman who had been shopping at Wal-Mart at the time of the shooting, and who suffered a heart attack while fleeing the scene and died hours later. Autopsies performed on these two victims of accidental homicide included routine toxicological tests we might logically expect to be identical. Yet, according to the reports, “B Service” testing for alcohol and illicit drugs was requested for Crawford, while “A Service” was requested for Williams.

At the Montgomery County coroner’s office, both A and B Services include a simple test for the presence of alcohol and a type of screening, known by its acronym ELISA, for drugs of abuse. (This method is unsophisticated enough to be available in an affordable home drug-testing kit.) However, the B Service package requested for Crawford also included the more sensitive and pricey test for “basic drugs” by GC/MS, a technique known as the gold standard in toxicology. GC/MS is commonly employed to confirm the presence of cannabinoids after a positive ELISA result, and to quantify estimated levels in the blood. Crawford tested positive for THC, which was confirmed by GC/MS to be at levels consistent with recent use of marijuana in a living person. For good measure, the county also confirmed this positive finding with a urine test.

Even though B Service is a more time-consuming set of tests, and in spite of the fact that Crawford and Williams were killed on the same day, Crawford’s report was completed and signed by the deputy coroner more than two weeks before Williams’. Crawford’s report was almost certainly considered during the secret proceedings of the grand jury that declined to indict Crawford’s shooter, Beavercreek Police Officer Sean Williams. When Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine released Crawford’s toxicology report to the public the day after this decision, the Dayton Daily News led its article with the finding that Crawford had marijuana in his system at the time of the shooting. Montgomery County Coroner Kent Harshbarger told the News that Crawford had used marijuana in the past several hours before his death, calling it “acute use, that is recent, (within) hours.”

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John Crawford, III

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Fiction Points: Juliet Escoria

Juliet Escoria
Juliet Escoria

Juliet Escoria is the author of Black Cloud (2014), a collection of related stories, each of which features a corresponding video and is introduced in the print version of the book by an image of Escoria that represents its themes. Lazy Fascist Press will publish her debut poetry collection, Witch Hunt, in May 2016. Black Cloud was named a best book of the year by The Fader, Salon, and Flavorwire, among others. Escoria’s work has appeared in publications including Electric LiteratureHobart, Vice, The Believer, and Guernica. Escoria holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from Brooklyn CollegeBorn in Australia and raised in Southern California, she now resides in West Virginia. Escoria has been called “a gutter punk Grace Paley” by none other than previous Fiction Points participant Adam Wilson.

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?

Last year, I went to AWP [the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ annual conference] for the first (and so far, only) time. When I was waiting in line to get on the plane, this guy said “How many of you here are going to AWP?” No one responded and I felt sorry for him, so I admitted that I was. For the next ten minutes, I found myself trapped in a conversation about what I wrote about, what I did, etc. He seemed like a very nice man, but when I have those types of conversations, I can feel my soul slowly dying.

I told him I wrote “Thinly veiled autobiography,” which is the line I tell everyone, unless they are friends of my parents, and then I just tell them “short stories” and refuse to go any deeper. So I would probably ignore the fact that they were nuns and penguins and tell them that. Read More »

The Death of Marilyn Monroe and the Birth of “Drug Abuse”

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by contributing editor Matthew June, a Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University. You can follow him on Twitter @Users_Abusers.

For the past four decades, the concept of “drug abuse” has been the foundation of American drug policy. As many drug researchers know, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (www.drugabuse.gov) provides the scholarly basis for national drug programs. Since 1970, government assessments of potential for abuse have determined the legal status of all drugs. Focused on declarations of “war” against drugs, we have often failed to appreciate how this concept of drug abuse is neither timeless nor politically neutral. In fact, the idea was rarely used before the early 1960s and owes its sudden popularity to a confluence of events surrounding President John F. Kennedy in the summer of 1962 – including the suspicious death of Marilyn Monroe from an overdose of barbiturates that same year, on August 5.

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Fiction Points: Leslie Jamison

Author Leslie Jamison
Leslie Jamison

Leslie Jamison earned her MFA at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and, more recently, pursued a PhD in literature at Yale University, where her research focused on addiction narratives. She is the author of a novel, The Gin Closet (2010), and the essay collection The Empathy Exams (2014), as well as two forthcoming works of nonfiction: Archive Lush, which entwines cultural criticism, literary analysis, and journalistic reportage with Jamison’s own narrative, and Ghost Essays, a collection that centers on haunting and obsession, love and loneliness. The Gin Closet was chosen by the San Francisco Chronicle as a Best Book of 2010 and as a finalist for the Los Angeles Times’ Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. The Empathy Exams won the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize; reached #11 on the New York Times bestseller list; and garnered praise from The New Yorker, The New York Times Book ReviewCosmopolitan MagazineNPREntertainment Weekly, The San Francisco ChronicleBook Riot, and many, many other publications. Jamison is a columnist for The New York Times Book Review, and her work has appeared in magazines and journals including Harper’s, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The New York TimesA Public SpaceOxford AmericanThe Believer, and more. She currently resides above a smoke shop in Brooklyn.

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?

What are they drinking? Might depend on what they’re drinking. Is the nun on her sixth shot? Does the penguin have a tell-tale seltzer? I’d probably say my work is interested in the difficulties of intimacy, the struggle to get outside our own lives, and the way we (all of us) are always reckoning with the complicated experience of living in a body.Read More »

The Forgotten Drug War: Christobal Silvas Sierra (Los Angeles, 1929)

“The Real War Will Never Get in the Books”—Walt Whitman, 1875

 

As 1929’s Fourth of July celebrations wound down in Los Angeles, a teenager named Christobal Silvas Sierra—Christo, to his friends—law dying. No one saw him die in the darkness. But for an unusual sequence of events, we would not know how he had died. Frankly, we would not even remember that he had lived and died at all. But we do know how he died. And we have the power to remember him and many others like him. We should. And then we should attend to making some sense of it all in the larger history of America’s century-long drug war.Read More »

Fiction Points: Brian Alan Ellis

Brian Alan Ellis
Brian Alan Ellis

Brian Alan Ellis is the author of the story collections The Mustache He Always Wanted But Could Never Grow (2013), 33 Fragments of Sick, Sad Living (2013), and Something Good, Something Bad, Something Dirty (2014), as well as King Shit, a 2014 collaboration with illustrator Wayne Thornton. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in journals including Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Electric Literature, Juked, Atticus Review, Monkeybicycle, The Heavy Feather Review, Zygote in My Coffee, and many, many othersHis short story “Jerry’s TV”, which originally appeared in the 2011 flash-fiction anthology The Incredible Shrinking Story, was adapted for the stage and performed by the Buntport Theater Company in Denver, Colorado. Ellis lives in Tallahassee, Florida.

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?

I’d be scared if that happened and I’d probably just shriek, “But I’m a writer!” while gradually creeping towards the exit. If they managed to ask what I write about before I made it out I would probably shout, “Escaping!” which is generally the most honest answer I could come up with under regular circumstances. Read More »

Teaching Points: Reflections on “Addiction in American Life”

Editor’s Note: This post comes from contributing editor Kyle Bridge. Enjoy!

One of my best professors once told me that I should sit down and take stock of what went right and wrong after every course I teach, and I figure there’s no better place than Points to reflect on a class about oral histories of addiction that I helped put together this past spring.

Sam Proctor

Each semester the University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program (SPOHP) invites undergraduates to apply for its internship, through which they learn the ins-and-outs of oral history: archive management, transcription, theory and methods, and applied fieldwork, among other topics. The organizing theme changes every go-round, with past subjects ranging from veterans to organized labor.

I started as a SPOHP internship coordinator in January and chose to focus on addiction because my own work revolves around it, but also because I hoped the topic would resonate with students. I thought that drug use had a certain taboo that made it almost inherently alluring, and if students had watched the news with any regularity in the past five years they would be aware of the ongoing opioid crisis and might like some historical perspective. It was an educator’s win-win.

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Fiction Points: Maria Flook

Author Maria Flook
Author Maria Flook

Maria Flook, currently a Senior Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at Emerson College in Boston, is the author of the story collection You Have the Wrong Man (1996); the novels Mothers and Lovers (2014), Lux (2004), Open Water (1995), and Family Night (1993); two books of poetry, Sea Room (1990) and Reckless Wedding, which won the Houghton Mifflin New Poetry Series in 1982; and the nonfiction works My Sister Life: The Story of My Sister’s Disappearance (2011) and Invisible Eden: A Story of Love and Murder on Cape Cod (2003), a New York Times bestseller. Her work has also appeared in, among other places, the New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, The New Criterion, and TriQuarterly. Family Night received a PEN American/Ernest Hemingway Foundation Special Citation and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year upon its publication. In 2007, Flook was recognized with a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Award in Fiction. She is also the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship. She holds an MFA from the University of Iowa. Prior to her appointment at Emerson, Flook taught at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, Warren Wilson College, Rhode Island College, and the Graduate Writing Seminars at Bennington College.

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?

I write about the human condition, and I am especially interested in fringe populations, and the challenges they face. Estranged persons, who have disconnections, from family, from acceptable factions of society. I like to follow them as they face their problems and try to find answers or at least find refuge from whatever devils are chasing them.Read More »

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

As an historian of the Crack Era, I am more often than not engaging the work of sociologists, anthropologists and criminologists that have treated the drug trade and the hyper-policed urban communities I study. While young graduate students and early career PhD’s are poised to properly historicize the period in years to come, those looking to teach the period right now need to be both creative and interdisciplinary. In the main, my own work and teaching often draws a great deal from ethnographies of the drug trade. This got me thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of said work, and a bit frustrated at the paucity of interdisciplinary and collaborative work on the subject. In many respects, the work of ethnographers and historians are inherently complimentary. Students and scholars benefit from cross-pollination in this vein as it provides a more nuanced, holistic, and humanized treatment of a long-standing, highly complicated, vexing social problem.

The first drug ethnography ever handed to me was In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio by Philippe Bourgois. in search of respectThe work re-affirmed my commitment to my field of study and convinced me of what I already suspected. Most poor young men and women involved in the drug trade—directly or indirectly—are rational economic actors that very much aspire to basic tenets of the “American Dream.” Many of the boys, girls, men and women populating the pages of In Search of Respect idealize and work towards establishing a traditional nuclear family, steady jobs, and security. Moreover, those in reckless pursuit of fast money and subsequently engaged in conspicuous consumption can hardly be castigated as outliers of the 1980s.

Ethnography provides qualitative insights that are often hard to replicate in strictly historical work beyond the exception of oral histories. Productive discussions followed in my own class on the Crack Era after a student asked why police repeatedly assumed Bourgois was an out-of-towner looking to cop. His apparent white skin and learned affect provided a window into the shortcuts police take when perusing districts disproportionately effected by the drug trade. Moreover, the disparate treatment of Bourgois and other subjects by police highlighted the ways in which race, class, and place all effect policing tactics and the likelihood of arrest and prosecution.Read More »

Fiction Points: Stephen Elliott

ED. NOTE: Long-time Points readers may remember our Fiction Points series from its first appearance way back in 2013. Fiction Points consists of interviews with contemporary authors whose writing often features drugs and/or alcohol. Having discovered new authors in the last two years, Fiction Points curator Amy Long wanted to bring back the series. Read more about the aims and historical significance of our Fiction Points series in Long and Managing Editor Emeritus Eoin Cannon’s introductory post to the first Fiction Points.

We begin the series with Stephen Elliott. Stay tuned for interviews with Brian Alan Ellis, Juliet Escoria, Maria Flook, Dagoberto Gilb, Leslie Jamison, and Kevin Maloney. New Fiction Points posts will appear every Tuesday for the next six weeks.

stephenelliott
Author Stephen Elliott

Stephen Elliott, founder of the online literary magazine The Rumpus and currently Senior Editor for Epic Magazine, is the author of seven books: the novels Happy Baby (2004)What it Means to Love You (2002), A Life Without Consequences (2001), and Jones Inn (1998); the erotic short-story collection My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up (2006); and the nonfiction works Looking Forward to It: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying About It and Love the American Electoral Process (2004), based on his time on the 2004 campaign trail, and The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder (2009). He edited the collections Sex for America: Politically Inspired Erotica (2003) and, with Greg Larson, Stumbling and Raging: More Politically Inspired Fiction (2005). A film adaptation of The Adderall Diaries premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2015. Elliott has directed two movies himself: About Cherry (2012) and an adaptation of Happy Baby, expected to release this year. His work has appeared in publications such as Esquire, The New York TimesThe BelieverGQ, Best American Erotica, Best American Sex Writing, and the Best American Non-Required Reading anthologies for 2005 and 2007Elliott holds a Master’s degree in film production from Northwestern University and was a 2001 Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, during which time he also served as Stanford’s Marsh McCall Lecturer in Creative Writing. He lives in Brooklyn.

Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?

This question doesn’t make any sense. Why would I tell them I’m a writer? Why would they approach me at a bar? I tell them I don’t talk to penguins. I haven’t spoken with penguins in a long time and I intend to keep it that way. I say I write about “stuff”. Or, more likely, I try to find out what they do, who taught them to talk. Are they real penguins or just butlers who look like penguins. I’m the least interesting person there; I would try to keep the conversation about them and their history and concerns.Read More »