How the Drug User Became a Junkie

Today’s post comes from new contributing editor Jordan Mylet. Mylet is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of California, San Diego. Her dissertation examines the emergence of addiction recovery communes in post-World War II United States, and centers the political activism of self-identified ex-addicts in the national struggles over the possibilities and boundaries of radical participatory democracy in the long 1960s. Welcome to Points, Jordan!

Screenshot 2019-10-10 at 8.36.11 AMFour years before William Burroughs’ Junkie was published, Norma Lee Browning, a reporter for the Chicago Daily Tribune, described how a middle-aged housewife had gone from a “pretty woman” to “an old time incurable junkie.”[1] Browning’s casual use of “junkie” reflects her mainstream audience’s likely familiarity with the term, whose usage in popular media to describe drug addicts (to use another loaded term) had skyrocketed in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The term was a type of shorthand for inevitable physical and moral devastation. To be a “junkie” or involved in “dope peddling” was to “descend into unimaginable levels of baseness” before death, if she was “unable to break the hold of drugs.”[2] Today, the word has the connotation of a slur, a dehumanizing epithet that paints a person as wild and dangerous. 

Yet a look at the term’s genealogy, along with its close associate, “dope,” reveals surprising conceptual and practical links to an industrializing Gilded Age and Progressive United States, a time when the most familiar “junkie” was the “junk man” who worked in the flourishing trade of old and discarded items, as American consumers and producers piled up more trash than ever before. Traces of this lineage appear even today, like in the character Bubbles from the famous HBO show The Wire, depicted as a “junkie” in both senses. 

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