by Scott Thomas Anderson
Silence can be the most comforting way for a community’s future to disintegrate.
As city newspapers continue to shrink, there’s a shocking amount of pressure on smaller, community papers to engage in less investigative journalism rather than more of it: Some of this pressure comes from “the usual suspects” — political figures, developers and Real Estate interests, your local Chamber of Commerce. Yet, some of it actually comes from residents who worry factual, documented stories on crime and addiction will hurt their neighborhood’s image.
Well, there’s a cost to peripheral blinders.
I understand cynics will assume journalists are always guided by the myopic chant, “If it bleeds, it leads.” I wish it were that simple. After all, that would mean Northern California’s issues of gang violence, addict-on-addict assaults and young people dying from overdoses were all just anecdotal tales injected with media steroids.
Wouldn’t that be comforting?
But that’s not the truth. The truth is silence won’t serve us anymore. Pretending our communities are not being threatened by methamphetamine and heroin addiction, and the numbing human toll that follows, is simply a guarantee the problem will get worse.
I know because I’ve lived that story before in another place.
I grew up along California’s Mokelumne River, which splits the rural ranchlands of Amador and Calaveras counties. These were also the first communities I covered major crimes in as a journalist after college. When you work this job — if you work it well — you come to understand addiction first through the prism of crime. You learn the destructive reach through banners of dark copy, and in hundreds of numbing moments committed to paper by your own typing. You get educated to the waves of property crime, the hurricanes of domestic violence, the stomach-turning child abuse, the armed robberies, the sporadic assaults, the manslaughters, the attempted murders — and the actual homicides.
But those sweeping cattle ranges didn’t get that way overnight. Knowing what I know now, I can peer back into childhood memories and see methamphetamine’s corrosive force slowly penetrating the foothills. I realize now that in grade school I had friends living in drug houses lost on isolated country roads. Today it makes sense that my poorest confidants in high school had parents who rarely slept, pulling electronics apart and picking bloody craters in their face. I know now why young, female friends of mine dated men 20 years older, and then wouldn’t leave them even when their eyes were blacked or their ribs broken in a man’s crank-induced fit of rage.
We all must have seen it. But no one talked about it. Ever.
By the time I became a reporter in my own home region, the secret was evaporating. Meth held sway over huge parts of both counties. I wrote plenty of news stories about people I’d grown up with going to prison.
And then there was “Janie.”
She was beautiful once, with long chestnut hair and restless eyes. I knew her for 15 years. She was warm, intelligent, caring and easy going. She had a great sense of humor. I worked with her for a long period. After that I would run into her at the supermarket or the bowling alley, and she would always have an energetic glow about her.
Janie’s last name changed by marriage, so I didn’t notice when it started gliding across my desk in crime reports. One night, a Jackson police officer I was chatting with asked if I knew a meth addict named Janie. I still wasn’t making the connection, even as Officer Arevalos told me how he’d arrested her for stumbling around a senior citizens’ center, rambling, dazed and delusional — startling the elderly with her confused fits of paranoia.
Two weeks later I was sitting in Amador Superior Court, watching drug cases get processed through the system. A couple of rows behind me a vaguely familiar face kept glancing over. It wasn’t until Janie’s newest drug case was called by the Judge that I realized exactly who was staring at me: She should have looked, at the very most, 10 years older than I remembered her; but she looked far more worn away than that. Her stunning smile was really all that remained of the beauty I’d known, and my chest sunk even more when I noticed her grin was washed in wrecked teeth.
“Yeah, I’ve been having some problems,” Janie told me in the hallway. “But I’m working on things.” Then she mustered a self-deprecating smirk, trying to laugh off the chaos of her life. She asked how I was doing. Despite the lines and broken skin, she still had a positive glow in every inch of her mannerisms.
I called Arevalos to tell him that I did know the Janie he’d arrested.
“I’ve been friends with her for 15 years,” I said. “I had no idea she’d been pull into it too.”
A few weeks later I was hunched over my laptop inside the Starbucks late at night when Officer Arevalos walked in. He motioned for me to step outside with him.
“Your friend Janie was found dead yesterday,” he said quietly, leaning back against his patrol car. I nodded. I’d been covering narcotics long enough that I didn’t need further explanation. Janie was 38 years old. The same week she passed away, another person from Amador County I’d known for 15 years — who was struggling with methamphetamine addiction and scheduled to go back to prison — decided to hang himself. He was the same age as me.
I currently work in South Placer County, California: It enjoys a pretty high quality of life. And if that changes you can bet that communal silence will be the engine. For local readers who still don’t believe that the meth-related violence and heroin-triggered deaths are real, I would urge you to go talk to residents in my home region of Amador and Calaveras counties: Ask them, if they could turn back the clock, if they would do things differently?
Sadly a number of local parents I’ve gotten to know already understand this because they’ve lost sons and daughters to the terminating power of the addiction. Most were under 22. Lately, few have been older than 28. More silence around meth will spell more gangs, more crime and more violence. Silence around heroin is even easier to predict: More body bags. Communities need to look directly at this decimating force. If you don’t take it on, it will touch you nonetheless, through growing hopelessness, through grandparents raising grandchildren, through bright, promising people being buried before their 40.