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If my brother John were alive he’d be laughing hysterically–laughing at Channel Seven’s Say No to Drugs parade, which I watch alone Saturday morning. I imagine him kicking back, with his feet up on my flowered sofa, snorting and guffawing so hard his sinuses would act up. Maybe what my mother calls a “snot-bubble” would erupt from his nose when former Miss America Kelly Cash is posed the difficult question, “What do you do when your peers pressure you to use drugs?” He might respond crudely, “Frigid bitch looks like she needs a good lay,” or naively, “I thought Miss America was black!” John may have been a crude, frightening, and manipulative character, but he was also witty and charming, and had a remarkable, if somewhat perverse, sense of humor.
If John were alive, I’d be laughing too. But this morning all I can muster is a sneer. It’s not that I don’t find Miss Cash ridiculous. “Well,” she says, “I guess you could say I’m a strong person that doesn’t bow down to peer pressure.” Emotionally I need a good laugh. I imagine this question posed to Jerry Falwell, Nancy Reagan, or Pope John Paul II. But still, I cannot laugh.
I keep telling myself that if this hype stops kids from ruining and perhaps ending their lives, it serves a noble purpose. Over and over I hear in my mind’s ear, “If it works, terrific.” Yet the national media campaign that inspired this parade only angers me. Perhaps only because it arrived too late for John. If started in 1958, 1968, or even 1978, maybe it could have saved him. Yet I suspect the true root of my resentment is that I know it never would have worked for a kid like my brother.
I suppose John was not a strong person. According to new antidrug rhetoric, drug users are the real sissies, the real cowards. They give in to peer pressure, refusing to march to the beat of a different drummer. I disagree. John was certainly different from his peers. Unlike the majority of young American males born in 1955, he’s already dead.
Yet I will admit that John was cowardly. After all, when he spent a month in Cook County Jail, he slept with a sharpened toothbrush under his pillow, fearing another rape. But it wasn’t peers who coerced him to smoke marijuana at age 13, it was a family friend 12 years his senior. But I don’t blame Jeff (who died at 33 of cocaine poisoning) for John’s multiple addictions. In fact, the grass Jeff sold him did less harm than the airplane glue John was already sniffing at age 12. My family and I hoped that Jeff’s death would cure John. All it did was keep him from using cocaine; and in some strange way it gave him, at age 21, the illusion that he had at least another 12 years left.
Channel Seven’s entertainment reporter Janet Davies is now telling us that Pepsi-Cola, the primary sponsor of this event, hopes young people everywhere will say “no” to drugs, and “yes” to life’s alternatives. I suppose drinking Pepsi is an alternative. According to their ads, hang gliding, surfing, white-water rafting, and dancing like Michael Jackson are all activities kids will enjoy once they say “yes” to Pepsi, and, I assume, say “no” to drugs.
“Here’s one alternative,” chimes Davies, “joining a marching band!” A high school band marches across my screen, blasting the “Stars and Stripes.” I wonder if the neoconservatism of the 1980s has finally made piccolos, tubas, and glockenspiels hip instruments. Will we soon be treated to a remake of The Music Man, perhaps with Bill Murray in the Robert Preston part? Will there be trouble in River City, with a capital T, that rhymes with D, and that stands for Drugs?
I still can’t laugh. I remember that John was in a marching band in grade school. He played the snare drum. Eventually my parents bought him a trap set, and every day he’d race downstairs after school and blast the tom-tom, bass, snare, and cymbals to the Doors’ “The End.” My father would come home after a few drinks at the neighborhood pub and force him to drum along to a polka. Violent arguments would ensue. I’d be practicing piano in the living room, oblivious to the screaming, stumbling through “Fur Elise.” My father would barge in and tell me to practice when he wasn’t home–when, of course, I was in school. My mother would be next–berated for serving two vegetables, or not serving a vegetable, or putting something in a bowl that should have been left in the pot, or vice versa. The three of us would sit, stomachs twisting in frustration, as the Dick Van Dyke Show blared in the background. My father wouldn’t put any food on his plate until he’d finished his second double manhattan. We learned quite early that it was acceptable to start eating before him. We learned, when we were fortunate enough to have him fall asleep in his chicken paprika after five or six drinks, to leave the table as quietly as possible.
If you asked Jerry Falwell, the staff of TV 38, the Reagan administration, and the coalition of senators’ wives against dirty rock song lyrics, they probably would blame Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin for John’s problems. If only he’d stuck with John Philip Sousa and Frankie Yankovic, he wouldn’t have died of a drug overdose five years ago.
Ms. Davies is hosting the Say No to Drugs parade, along with Kirk Cameron and Tracey Gold, stars of Growing Pains–a cute sitcom about teenage characters and the adolescent traumas they face. In fact, this week on Growing Pains, according to my TV Guide, “Maggie learns that Carol’s new friend is using Carol (Tracey Gold) just so she can get close to Mike (Kirk Cameron).”
This type of thing never happened with John and me, since my teenaged girlfriends weren’t interested in a kid three years younger. More accurately, my parents used me in an attempt to straighten him out. I was their sounding board for complaints. Eventually I became the family mediator. John articulated this quite succinctly in a family counseling session at Forest Hospital–“She thinks she’s some sort of therapist, but she’s just as fucked up as me.” He was right–we both bore emotional scars, both needed more than parades and marching bands. John had equal insight about my father–“He’s just too fuckin’ lazy and too fuckin’ scared” to show up for family counseling. This gave my brother a convenient excuse to be uncooperative at the sessions. Nobody could tell either John or his father what to do.
If John were alive today, he’d be laughing at Janet Davies’s next line, which she reads off a float, “Boy Scouts are always prepared to say no to drugs.” My brother wasn’t a Boy Scout, but he was a Cub Scout. My mother was even a den mother. I remember him as a fat nine-year-old in his dark blue uniform, always trying to prove he wasn’t a mama’s boy by getting into fights with the other kids. I remember my mother teaching the boys how to make string wall hangings with pictures of the Virgin Mary for their mothers on Mother’s Day. I remember my father sneaking contraband lead weights into John’s wooden slot car so that he would win the annual Cub Scout slot-car race.
But maybe John wouldn’t be laughing either. Maybe he’d be too oblivious to me, the TV, the world, to even make sense of the flashing images and garbled words. Drunk, stoned, and on downers, he’d drawl that “light drug use” was the only way he could stay off heroin. He’d also use methadone to stay off heroin. That’s how he died. The autopsy report stated “acute methadone poisoning.” Theoretically, my brother died trying to stay off drugs, and the state of Illinois paid for his fatal dose. Of course, junkies are devious; they know how to fake identification to pick up extra helpings of methadone, sometimes selling it on the streets, and often using the money to buy heroin.
Big Jim Thompson is now on my TV. He says, “Drugs are destroying our schools and the workplace. We won’t be able to compete with the rest of the world if we don’t learn to say no to drugs.” So this is what it boils down to–my brother’s disease was hurting our capitalist system and America’s strong position in the world economy. Until today I only thought it had been hurting his friends, his family, and himself. Now I know why Americans must say no to drugs, Toyotas, and Hondas.
Various people tried to save my brother, none of them celebrities. When he was in high school, in trouble for drugs, fights, and bad grades, we had a “big brother” sent to my home to counsel our family. I can’t remember if John had a police record yet, or if this was before or after his bottle-of-aspirin suicide attempt. I don’t even know if the “big brother” was court ordered in lieu of sending my brother to a juvenile detention home or school ordered in lieu of expulsion. But I do remember the day he arrived at our home. It was our family’s first experience with “social work.” He was a lean, gray-haired man with a weathered face–the farmer in American Gothic. He was shocked to discover that our family did not attend Mass each Sunday, and promptly ordered us to do so. He felt this was the core of my family’s problem, and insisted on accompanying us every week. My father, unfortunately, believed that church was only for women and children. And since, like John, he didn’t like being told what to do, he ordered the man out of the house. Momentarily, I was pleased. Mass would not save John. Besides, he barely managed to attend school five days a week, and I wasn’t thrilled with attending Mass myself. But if my parents had accepted the scheme, I would have gone along with it, in the spirit of “if it works, fine.” When the man left our house, I was devastated. I had expected a savior, someone who would counsel John, talk to him, fix him. Instead, his savior shoved him off on the Savior, hoping God would do his job for him.
A Gateway House float crosses my screen. Gateway House, a drug rehabilitation center with live-in facilities in Lake Villa, came the closest to saving my brother. It was 1973; John had been arrested for selling drugs; he was 18. My parents, at wits’ end, had left him in Cook County Jail until they could find anyone, any place, to cure him. After a month in County, John agreed to go anywhere else, and my parents posted bail. Unlike my father, Gateway House provided strict, consistent discipline based on tough rules (rather than states of sobriety). He was subjected to an unfashionable crew cut when he broke these rules, and the loss of privileges. He soon fit into the community at Gateway, enjoying his role as a fix-it man around the place, an old mansion that had been converted into dorms for teenage drug abusers. He bragged about being a jack-of-all-trades–not just an electrician, like my father, he was a carpenter, a plumber, there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do. The therapy at Gateway was as intensive as its discipline, and when John finally came home, he replaced me as family therapist. His language had changed; now it was filled with therapeutic jargon; he had the fury and manic obsession of a recent convert. Gateway was the world, everybody needed Gateway, especially my mother, father, and me. The word fuck was no longer part of his vocabulary.
Within two years it had snuck back, along with marijuana, amphetamines, downers, alcohol, and an old drug that was new for him–heroin. He still told us that we all needed Gateway, since we all were “fucked up,” although now he included my husband, most of his friends, and half the neighbors. John had been reprogrammed at Gateway, and normal life had deprogrammed him. Or perhaps, like the counselors there told him, he should have found someplace else to live when he was released–a chance to make new, straight friends, an opportunity to put his past behind.
John would have been quick to point out the hypocrisy when Davies opts not to read the complete message on several floats and banners: “Say no to drugs and alcohol” gets truncated to “Say no to drugs.” I suppose it is a catchier slogan, and after all, we wouldn’t want to hurt the economy too much. I suppose what’s good for high schoolers shouldn’t be expected from taxpaying adults. “Hypocrisy!” John would have fumed. He was always quick to point out how our “ol’ man’s” alcoholism and our “ol’ lady’s” helplessness were the cause of his problems. If he were still alive and still a substance abuser, I would tell him, as I did in the past, that he was too old to keep blaming others. The cause had become the excuse. It is time, I would say, to look within for solutions. It is too easy and too late to blame Mom and Dad, “peer pressure,” the hippies, and rock music. It is time for us to ask ourselves how we all contribute to the problem. Let go of your anger, I would tell him in my role as family therapist. Let go of your anger, my therapist tells me. Only I can’t. John was right–I too am “fucked up.”
On a TV special, a few days later, I learn of a high school propaganda campaign in which students pass out buttons to other students–and then hug them. The buttons read “Hugs, not drugs.” This too makes me angry. Maybe because I know kids need genuine hugs from parents and friends who really love them, not fake, sales-promotional hugs from strangers. Or maybe it’s really because I wish my brother John were alive today so I could give him a hug right now.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.