Fiction Points: Carla Sameth

carlasamethCarla Sameth is the author of the memoir-in-essays One Day on the Gold Line (Black Rose Writing 2019). She teaches creative writing at the Los Angeles Writing Project at California State University Los Angeles, with Southern New Hampshire University, and to incarcerated teens through WriteGirl. She has attended and received financial support from the Vermont College of Fine Arts Post-Graduate Writers’ Conference (2017-2019) and the Whidby Writers Workshop MFA Program, was selected for a PEN in the Community Teaching Artist Residency (2016), co-founded the Pasadena Writing Project, and has worked extensively to bring educational and career opportunities to underrepresented communities. Sameth earned an MFA in Creative Writing (Latin America) from Queens University of Charlotte. Her work can be found at Brevity, Mutha Magazine, the Nervous Breakdown and Narratively among other publications.

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 say that I write about contemporary parenthood and “I see you are a blended family like ours.”

I’d want to know if they found any of it difficult since I thought it was easy at first then not so much. Our family eventually unblended. I’d tell them that I hope their family stays intact.

Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?

I think that writing as a family member of those struggling with drug and alcohol addiction (both my wife and son are in recovery) provides a unique perspective. I write a lot about the process I went through understanding addiction as a disease, and looking at my own shit (including addictive behavior) and how I interacted with my son who struggled with alcohol and drug addiction in his teens.

Finding humor has been vital to my relationship with my son and my own survival. It’s not always possible to find funny in the midst of tragic. But I often did see the humor and irony in dealing with addiction, and that is part of my story. My memoir includes a mock chapter of “What to Expect When Your Expecting: The Teenage Years, When Molly is Not a Schoolgirl.” I once did a stand up set at a comedy club on dealing with addiction which included making fun of my own crazy, desperate behavior, as a mom. On the way to my son’s first rehab, he came up with a whole rehab playlist including “Cocaine, Mary Jane and Dispensary Girl.” When he was put on 5150 holds because of being a danger to himself due to drug overdose, he used to joke about rating the adolescent psych hospitals on Yelp.

I write about wanting to create safe sanctuary for our family. I thought my son having a lesbian mom, being African American and Jewish, being part of a blended family or even with a single mom would just make life richer for him but the reality was much harder. My memoir is about how I navigated life’s challenges including race, identity, police violence, and my teenage son’s struggle with addiction.

What led you to write about drugs and alcohol in the first place?

My son began to use drugs and alcohol in his teens and became sober at 18. I went through several years in and out of ERs and Adolescent Psych Wards with him, hearing from medical professionals that he might die as a result of his using. Or become incarcerated. Or homeless. None of these were alternatives I could wrap my head around but they were in front of my face. Also my son is biracial, African American and Jewish and so is particularly vulnerable to police violence. I wrote about my experience but my son also encouraged me to write my book (which included some of his story, from my perspective). We felt that other families going through similar struggles would benefit from reading about our experience and feel less alone, even if the story doesn’t end tied up neatly in a bow.

How would you describe the way that drugs function in your work, whether in terms of thematic concerns or the choices you make about how to craft a narrative? Do you think there are things that you wouldn’t be able to explore as successfully if drugs weren’t in your writing arsenal?

onedayonthegoldlineI read other addiction memoirs, by addicts, alcoholics and by their family members. I didn’t necessarily see my story, including the multi-racial, blended and single parent, queer mom parts. As the parent of a black son, my experience also included not wanting to take the recommended step at some point of calling the police since my son already stood a substantially higher risk of incarceration being African American.

Writing about drug addiction lent a certain urgency and reality to my story. I worried about things like lead when my son was young and we moved into an old house, but I didn’t think about the possibility that he might grow up and become addicted to drugs or alcohol. I don’t know if that was naïve or what. I might have suspected my son could be an addict since I almost had to take him to a 12-step program, “Nursing Anonymous” when he was young. There seemed to be no end in sight to his desire to nurse. I didn’t want to have a four-year-old boy saying, “wanna nurse, wanna nurse” or coming home as a teenager asking, “Hey mom, can I borrow the car and what about a quick suck of the tit.”

Seriously, I had multiple miscarriages before he was born and plenty else to write about but something about the drugs and alcohol added a new dimension to my writing and reading. I don’t think that I would reach the same audience I’m hoping to reach or be able to tell the same story without this experience. Also the transformative aspects of recovery for my son and I contributed to the narrative. I’m currently writing fiction where addiction to drugs and alcohol also figures into the family dynamic. I also write about addiction in my poetry (I write multi-genre).

What do you personally find most interesting about how drugs work in your writing, and where do you see that interest leading you in future projects?

I don’t think I’m completely done with writing about drugs and drug use. As a mother, you never get over the fear of your child’s relapse. I also think that I could use a little self-examination about my tendency to turn to alcohol or a pill to deal with anxiety and “take the edge off.” I have written about fantasizing about trying heroin because I’ve been told that it is like Demerol, which I have had during medical procedures. For someone so prone to anxiety, the relief Demerol offered was amazing, the sense that “everything will be ok.” If I didn’t think it might kill me and/or impact my son’s recovery and really complicate my life, I would want to try heroin. I’ve been asked to write more about thoughts on treatment, specifically 12-Step programs. I had a lot of issues with the whole emphasis on Christianity and God (though it is said to not be religious but spiritual). Also, as a mom, you don’t want to see your son hit bottom. I do go to Al-Anon (I’m outing myself). I agree with one author – it might have been William Cope Moyers (son of Bill Moyers) who wrote Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption and talked about the down side of anonymity. Because when I started talking about drugs and alcohol, more people came out and spoke about their own struggles. Resources and support might not be easily found if we remain silent. Parents of addicts often also feel a sense of shame—as in what might we have done to have caused this?

BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope that One Day on the Gold Line gets made into a major motion picture. If you have your choice, which is it, and what song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?

I actually did a whole play list since music figures big in my life with my son. It’s on Spotify and it’s hard to decide which song would be the best fit, there are so many. May I name several?

A medley including:

“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” – Nina Simone

“La Vida es un Carnaval” – Celia Cruz

“You Want it Darker” – Leonard Cohen

“Ohh Child” – The Five Stairsteps

“All I Really Need” – Raffi

“We Got to Get Out of This Place” – The Animals

“This Little Light of Mine” – Soweto Gospel Choir

“Here Comes the Sun” – Beatles

“Piel Canela” – Eydie Gorme y los Panchos

“Can’t Feel My Face” – The Weeknd

“Dear Mama” – Tupac

Dispensary Girl – Wax

To Zion – Ms. Lauryn Hill and Carlos Santana

P.S. My first choice might have been “Hero” by Family of the Year but that’s been used in Boyhood. I also had “Beautiful Boy” by John Lennon at the top of the list but given the recent movie (and book by this title by David Sheff) I left it off.

The Points Interview: Dan Malleck

malleck2

Dan Malleck

Dan Malleck is an Associate Professor of Health Sciences at Brock University in St. Catherines, Ontario. He is the author of Try to Control Yourself: The Regulation of Public Drinking in Post-Prohibition Ontario, 1927-1944 (University of British Colombia Press, 2012) and co-editor, with Cheryl Krasnick Warsh, of Consuming Modernity: Gendered Behaviour and Consumerism Before the Baby Boom (UBC Press, 2014). Try to Control Yourself won the Canadian Historical Association’s Clio Prize for Best Book in Ontario History in 2013, and Malleck’s writing has appeared in news outlets including the Globe and Mail and The National Post. He earned his PhD from Queen’s University in Kingston, ON. Malleck’s most recent book is When Good Drugs Go Bad: Opium, Medicine, and the Origins of Canada’s Drug Laws (UBC Press, 2015), which he discusses below.

Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

This book examines the social and cultural forces that combined to encourage the creation of Canada’s drug laws.  It argues that we need to get past the simplistic statement that drug laws were racist reactions to foreigners in our country, and have complex roots.

What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

The book is not a political history, but it looks at how various cultural, economic, professional and social forces converged in the early 1900s to make it seem necessary to create federal laws restricting opiates and other mind altering drugs.  It takes long time-
line, following the threads of influence as they grew and expanded, gathering energy and cultural currency. I use the metaphor of streams converging into raging river.  

The main question driving the research was “why did we decide that addiction was a problem that needed federal intervention” and “when did it become okay for the government to severely restrict sales of certain substances that were previously generally unrestricted.”  I argue that Canada’s first drug laws were not laws against recreational use, but pharmacy laws that made it restricted certain substances determined to be dangerous. These laws, the results of political lobbying to deal with a social problem, made such restrictions acceptable.  From that point, the definition of “danger” expanded from the potential of death, to the potential for serious damage, to the potential for dependency.  The precedent for national drug regulation, then, was set in the pharmacy acts, which were a combination of professional pressure and social concern over access to poisonous substances.  

whengooddrugsI also challenge a dominant and reductionist narrative that the opium acts of the early 1900s were simply attacks on Chinese people in Canada.  This argument misses the power of the idea that drugs were a problem.  When William Lyon MacKenzie King argued, in his preamble to the 1908 report encouraging parliament to create the Opium Act, that opium’s “baneful influences” were “too well known to require comment” he was channeling that broader concern based upon the familiarity of most Canadians with the challenges of opium as a medicine and a habit-forming drug. He himself had experience of these baneful influences in his personal life, and most Canadians probably knew someone who had an opium habit. Most had probably consumed opium at some point.  To reduce this to an attack on the Chinese is simply a distortion of the past, often for current political reasons.  Moreover, the same session of parliament that passed the Opium Act also passed a Proprietary and Patent Medicines Act, dealing with another significant drug problem.  This book springs from that contention that reducing the drug laws to racist reactionism doesn’t do the story justice, nor does it help us understand the complexity of our drug laws in general, and the challenges of reforming them.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

It’s the same page length as my first book even though it’s much longer, but took less time to write. Figure that out.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

One thing I was never able to do due to the sheer volume of material and time it would take was track the changes in prescribing patterns as different laws came into effect. I have a database of probably hundreds of thousands of prescriptions from pharmacy records that span various provincial and federal law changes, and I wonder if those laws, restricting access to substances like opium, affected the way doctors prescribed, or the way customers purchased (or pharmacists dispensed). I suspect it did, but without a massive team, grant, and hiccup in space/time, I won’t be able to do that.

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?

Aaron Paul.

 

The Points Interview: Scott Jacques

Editor’s Note: In this installment of the Points author interview series, Georgia State University criminologist Scott Jacques discusses his new book, Code of the Suburb: Inside the World of Young Middle-Class Drug Dealers (co-authored with Richard Wright). Contact Dr. Jacques at sjacques1@gsu.edu. 

9780226164113

1. Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

A young, white drug dealer walks into the bar and orders a drink; thinks he’s real cool. Someone runs out with his drugs and money. Dealer yells in wimpy voice, “Hey, those are mine!” Does nothing else about it. Pays for drink with parents’ credit card. Goes on to live conventional middle-class life.


2. What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

The book explores the lives of drug dealers who, unlike their disadvantaged counterparts, rarely wind up in police reports, court records, and correctional rosters. This testifies to the importance of unofficial archives for understanding drugs, especially as they relate to crime and control.


3. Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

 

The cover. The baggie with little houses inside makes me laugh every time I look at it. The designer, Brian Chartier, is a genius.


4. Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

For the teenagers in “Peachville”, where most of the book takes place, it was easier to buy illegal drugs than tobacco or alcohol. This is because legitimate businesses only sold to of-age persons, whereas the dealers sold to anyone they knew and trusted. What I wonder, then, is whether legalizing marijuana will make it harder for youth to get high, and, in turn, make hard drug use and sales more common among them.


BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?

 

Aaron Paul in the voice of Jesse Pinkman.

Highlighting Race, Ignoring Motive: Science, Subjectivity, and Walter Bromberg at Bellevue

Bellevue

Bromberg’s Laboratory

The year 1934 was a turning point for cannabis in the U.S. This was the year that Harry Anslinger and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics turned its attention toward the marijuana menace, thus inaugurating the reefer madness era. That same year, Dr. Walter Bromberg, senior psychiatrist at Bellevue Hospital in New York, published the first in a series of articles about his examinations of cannabis users in New York. The article, entitled “Marihuana Intoxication” appeared in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Historians have pointed to Bromberg’s work as a direct challenge to the FBN’s narrative of the marijuana menace during this period. His general conclusions seem to affirm this characterization, especially in terms of the extent and impact of use. For example, in the ’34 article, Bromberg describes a survey of felony convicts in Manhattan in which only seven smoked the drug regularly, and none of their crimes were committed as a result of, during or after, marijuana intoxication. By 1939, Bromberg was able to link the misinformation directly to the propagandistic efforts of various public institutions, even forcing Anslinger to respond personally. Continue reading →

Points Roundtable, “Becoming a Marihuana User”: Cookie Woolner

Editor’s Note: This week, we welcome Cookie Woolner to the roundtable on Howard Becker’s Becoming a Marihuana UserWoolner recently completed her Ph.D. in history and women’s studies at the University of Michigan and is currently serving as a postdoctoral fellow in African American Studies at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. You can follow her work on her personal website and twitter

Cookie-WoolnerMarijuana, Race, and Music Cultures from Jazz to Hip Hop

Howie Becker’s pioneering study, Becoming a Marihuana User, emerged from the mid-century Chicago jazz scene. The relationship it chronicled between drug use and music subculture is a long one, which has been more dangerous for some than for others. In our current moment, many of the young black men whose lives have been taken too soon by the police are often demonized as weed-smoking, hip hop-loving thugs – that is to say, they brought their deaths upon themselves. The association of marijuana use with African American music and culture may be a stereotype, but it has real effects.

Ironically, when one digs into the history of marijuana and its connection to the jazz world in the early 20th century, it appears white men were primarily responsible for introducing black musicians and Harlemites to weed (or in the parlance of their day, gage, tea, muggles or reefer, among many other names). Italian-American Leon Roppolo, the clarinetist for the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, was said to have introduced marijuana to the Chicago jazz scene, in particular to Jewish saxophonist Mezz Mezzrow, who later became weed dealer to Louis Armstrong and much of Harlem. “Mezz” became another nickname for pot, according to the saxophonist, who also considered himself an “honorary Negro.”

Continue reading →

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. Continue reading →

Drugs, Demons, and Fiends: “I Can’t Breathe” (Guest Post)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s post is by Suzanna Reiss, an Associate Professor of History at the University of Hawai’i and author of the recently published book, We Sell Drugs: The Alchemy of US Empire (University of California Press, 2014). Reiss offers a timely meditation on the legacy of the Harrison Narcotics Act, which turned one hundred yesterday. 

As we confront the hundredth anniversary of the passage of the first US federal drug control law, it is difficult not to be haunted by current events. What is happening today in contemporary policing reflects the legacies produced by drug control and its origins in the deep racial animosities and inequities that contributed to the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Act in 1914. This centennial commemoration should provoke national soul-searching about the drug war’s contribution to racialized policing and its ties to economic inequality in American society. It certainly is not cause for celebration.

Listen to two accounts – separated by a hundred years, sharing too much.

Continue reading →