Don’t be dull

Miranda Critchley

  • White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin by Michael Clune
    Hazelden, 261 pp, £11.50, April 2013, ISBN 978 1 61649 208 3

Michael Clune first took heroin in July 1997. Afterwards, he lay on the roof of his friend Chip’s New York apartment:

A single cloud moved through the blue sky … My eye was a glass box, and inside it there was no time. I kept the cloud inside it. I wish I could show it to you. I never imagined this could happen. A breath entering my nostrils coiled over the nerves, losing all dimension. This was the end of desire. The end of wanting. The end of fear. The end of desire. I had carefully preserved some precious memories from my childhood. Those memories seemed to promise a great happiness at the end of things. I had taken them as signs from the invisible world, and made a private religion of them. Lying on my back on Chip’s roof, all the memories of my childhood turned white one by one.

Clune now teaches English at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and has been clean for more than a decade. Accounts of addiction often begin with the first time – Burroughs started Junky with his first opiate experience, ‘during the war, about 1944 or 1945’; De Quincey began Confessions of an English Opium-Eater with an explanation of how he became an addict, ‘on a sudden, overmastering impulse derived from bodily anguish’ – but Clune’s memoir opens a few years into his habit. He is visiting some addict friends, Dominic and Henry, in Baltimore. Henry has one arm; Dominic has a syringe sticking out of his neck. Clune has come to ask them for OxyContin, but what he really wants is heroin, ‘the white thing’. He sees a ‘half-empty white-topped vial’ on the table and starts thinking about the colour white: white Jesus, the white moon, the white teeth in Dominic’s ‘gaping red snoring mouth’, the white stoppers in the vials of Baltimore’s best heroin:

The power of dope comes from the first time you do it. It’s a deep memory disease. People know the first time is important, but mostly they’re confused about why. Some think addiction is nostalgia for the first mind-blowing time. They think the addict’s problem is wanting something that happened a long time ago to come back. That’s not it at all. The addict’s problem is that something that happened a long time ago never goes away. To me, the white tops are still as new and fresh as the first time. It still is the first time in the white of the white tops.

Clune describes his life as an addict in Baltimore: selling stolen CDs, lying about a black eye, going to various detox clinics. His style is direct and confessional, and draws attention to the humour in addiction. In one episode, Clune and an acquaintance he calls Fatty trick Fatty’s grandfather into giving them $60 by offering him a lift, but then leave him outside the house in his wheelchair. As they drive off, Clune says: ‘His wheelchair did look real nice, though. It was brand new, practically. It had the red leather armrests. I bet he wouldn’t feel too bad if he did have to wheel himself to the store.’

He also writes about his theory of addiction, in which the colour white takes on several meanings. As well as the colour of heroin powder and of the stopper in that first vial it’s also the blank memory space that allows him to believe that the first time has, in a way, never happened, and so means that dope never gets old. The novelty doesn’t come from the feeling of doing the drug, which Clune says ‘starts to suck pretty quickly’. Instead it’s the image, and the persistent newness of the image, that keeps him coming back:

Something that’s always new, that’s immune to habit, that never gets old. That’s something worth having. Because habit is what destroys the world. Take a new car and put it in an air-controlled garage. Go look at it every day. After one year all that will remain of the car is a vague outline. Trees, stop signs, people and books grow old, crumble and disappear inside our habits. The reason old people don’t mind dying is because by the time you reach eighty, the world has basically disappeared.

Clune’s easy movement between the anecdotal and the theoretical suggests that it’s his own experience that has led to his thoughts about addiction. But those thoughts also align closely with the arguments he makes in another book, an academic study of writers’ attempts to counter the dulling effect of habit. In Writing against Time, drawing on the work of the neuroscientist David Eagleman, Clune looks at the way ordinary experiences are affected by repetition. When we first perceive something, time seems to slow: ‘the moment of perception swells’ and ‘the “fraction of time” expands.’ But the effect fades after the first time we see an image. ‘Time poisons perception,’ Clune writes. ‘The more we see something, the duller and feebler our experience of it becomes.’

The numbing effect of repetition, Clune argues, has long been a concern of writers. In the sonnet ‘Bright Star’, Keats wants to feel forever the ‘soft fall and swell’ of his lover’s breast; he wants to be like the star, steadfast and unchangeable, and to preserve sensation’s initial intensity. The Romantics stressed what Clune describes as the ‘richness and vividness of the first experience’ and tried to create a perpetual feeling of novelty as the antidote to time’s dulling effects. Clune looks at several methods of defeating time, including De Quincey’s and Nabokov’s use of the image of the addictive object. De Quincey’s first encounter with opium is ‘immortal’ and inescapable; he ‘compulsively returns to the image of the bottle of laudanum or the lump of opium’, just as Clune does to his white tops. Most things in the world are ‘drearily familiar’ to Humbert Humbert, but the nymphet always seems new. The effect derives from the intensity of the first encounter: ‘in a certain magic and fateful way Lolita began with Annabel.’ These addictive objects work in the same way as the ideal work of art: ‘If … “poetry makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar,”’ Clune writes, quoting Shelley, ‘then poetry would do well to study the addictive object.’

Nabokov and De Quincey describe the fascination of the always new addictive object, and Clune argues that if scientists were to study this, rather than focusing on automatic, ‘robotic’ responses to the release of chemicals in the brain, the study of addiction could be advanced. But what Clune finds in addiction comes closest to the Romantics: ‘Addiction lends salience to consciousness. Addiction makes experience matter. And it is literature – forever wanting to attain the status of the addictive object and forever failing – that informs us of it.’

In both his books Clune suggests that this perpetual newness can be found only in something somehow illicit – artworks or books can’t create the same attachment or the experience of constant novelty. In Writing against Time, he says reading Lolita for the first time was ‘vivid and intense’ but that now he sees the book only as ‘an object of intellectual interest and of a kind of nostalgia’. Lolita can’t do to a reader what Lolita does to Humbert. In White Out, Clune says the same about music (‘Crazy’ by Gnarls Barkley) and people (‘take a look at your shoe. Your television. Your car. Your girlfriend’), but his quick progression from the mundanity of stop signs to the mundanity of people might well seem facetious.

White Out is published by Hazelden, an organisation that runs treatment centres across the US. Its publishing arm has been running since 1954, and aims to produce works ‘to inspire and guide individuals in treatment and recovery’. Clune himself downplays the effects of withdrawal – ‘the sad truth is that the physical symptoms of withdrawal really aren’t so terrible. If you’ve ever had a bad case of the flu, you basically know what the physical symptoms are like’ – and disagrees with Burroughs that anyone who uses heroin will automatically get addicted, an error he thinks ‘flows from the common mistake of equating addiction to the drug with the physical dependence that is one of its less pleasant side effects’. His comments on the treatment available for addicts are understated: ‘We work with what we have. And I’m profoundly grateful for it.’ Recovery, as he sees it, is like a locomotive, a ‘makeshift contraption of group love, meditation and common sense’. It works as long as you can get on board, but many addicts can’t. No one knows exactly why. Clune accepts that progress in working out how best to treat addiction is slow but acknowledges that there are ‘hopeful signs’. Most of the time, he writes, he doesn’t ‘dwell on the problem’, but sometimes it’s unavoidable: ‘When a kid I’m sponsoring relapses, when my niece just can’t get clean, when I think about the faces that show up once to an NA meeting and never again, then I know that the cure that will replace our creaky recovery machine can’t come soon enough.’

It’s a calmer approach than Burroughs took. His theory of addiction was a confused mix of anti-capitalism (‘junk is big business’) and dubious science drawn largely from Wilhelm Reich, but there’s a directness and urgency to his writing on the subject that Clune lacks. Burroughs put the reader in the position of the addict: ‘A dope fiend is a man in total need of dope. Beyond a certain frequency need knows absolutely no limit or control. In the words of total need: “Wouldn’t you?” Yes you would. You would lie, cheat, inform on your friends, steal, do anything to satisfy total need.’ His total belief in the possibility of a cure added to the force of his writing, as did the responsibility he felt to publicise addiction treatments and campaign for better care.

Apomorphine was the treatment Burroughs advocated most strongly. He first took it in London, a city he hated, having come from Tangier to consult John Yerbury Dent, an addiction specialist who was the main proponent of the apomorphine cure. Dent saw drug use as a means of combating the crippling effects of anxiety, and believed that addiction was a disease and the addict should not attract moral condemnation. In 1956, Burroughs undertook a 14-day apomorphine ‘cure’, which he described in 1960 in the Evergreen Review. Apomorphine was, he claimed, ‘qualitatively different from other methods of cure … research with variations of apomorphine and synthesis of it will open a new medical frontier extending far beyond the problem of addiction.’ Addicts wrote to him for guidance and support. He sent unsolicited notes to doctors and hospitals with information about the drug, but there was no evidence that apomorphine was effective.

Burroughs was emphatic about the need for treatment: addicts were sick people who needed apomorphine. He was trying to counter the notion of the evil dope fiend, a stereotype encouraged by the punitive policies of Harry Anslinger, first commissioner of the US Federal Bureau of Narcotics, making it the dominant image of the addict in mid-20th-century America. The stereotype was an obvious target for Burroughs, who felt that those who assumed a self-righteous position on addiction only helped to ‘keep the junk virus in operation’. The differences between Burroughs’s and Clune’s views are telling: it’s less easy now to be confident that there is an answer to addiction. We don’t believe there will be a single ‘cure’.

Burroughs thought the reason for the short life of the American businessman might be that he experienced ‘no cycle of shrinking and growth’. Addiction kept Burroughs using and kicking the habit, shrinking and growing, and he thought this was a good thing: ‘When you stop growing you start dying.’ In his epilogue Clune argues that something can be gained, retrospectively, from the process of addiction, that there is a ‘glimpse of timelessness, that little chip of immortality that lies at the centre of the disease and recovery’.