Donald Goines’s Dopefiend: An Addict’s Insight

 

Donald Goines

Donald Goines

In 1971, America’s ‘war on drugs’ was just gearing up to full steam, and most were naïve enough to believe that the criminalization of drugs and prosecution of users and dealers would solve the issue.  It was the same year that Donald Goines published his debut novel, Dopefiend, a novel that features an ensemble of characters, each struggling with addiction save for Porky, the novel’s antagonist.  The novel delves into the root causes and symptoms of addiction, but over forty years later, the war on drugs continues to rage, and the root problems remain, leaving nothing unchanged.  Had those implementing legislation bothered to read Dopefiend, written by a heroin addict who knows the power of addiction, they may have realized that the users, and in many cases dealers, are victims of addiction and in need of help, not prosecution.

 

CONTEXT

 

dopefiend1One of the most compelling pieces of Goines’s novel is the way in which he provides a context for several of the addicts in the novel.  For many, drugs are a means of escape: a form of self-medication.  This is true of Minnie, an addict who at one point remembers “one of her drunken mother’s boyfriends getting into bed with her one morning when she was a child” (247).  This memory is mixed with the pain of withdrawals, indicating that it is not only a matter of staving off withdrawals that drives Minnie to use, but also a means of weakening that painful memory.  Far from needing prosecution, Minnie needs help.  Smokey, another of the novel’s addicts, shares a dark past as well.  In order to escape the violent South, whose prejudices proved fatally dangerous for many people of colour, she “tricked her way out of a cotton field in Georgia when she was thirteen” (13), and in the process developed a habit.  The drugs were no doubt a means for her to escape the debasing elements of the sex trade, but left her an addict.  For Smokey, a social worker would have been far more beneficial than prosecution.

 

 

Donald Goines

Donald Goines

One does not need a dark tragedy to be pulled into the world of drugs, as demonstrated by Terry, who seems well adjusted and comes from a caring family with a stable economic situation. Her only mistake was being naïve and caring for the wrong person: her boyfriend Teddy, who introduces her to heroin.  Terry soon finds herself addicted to the drug that was pushed onto her by both Teddy and Porky, the predacious drug dealer.  Despite his predatory nature, even Porky is given context.  Faced with rejection and bullying throughout school, he developed “a deep hatred for humanity” because “He could never forget the horror of his school days” (134).  While Porky, framed as a predacious peddler of drugs, seems the most likely candidate for justifiable prosecution, the other characters are clearly victims of their own addiction, each of which arose from contexts which were in a large part beyond their control.  Creating a system that punishes victims fails to address the root cause, which not only allows the problem to fester, but exacerbates it.  Goines provides some interesting insights, and though his writing borders on the repetitive at times, and is not always the most eloquent, it provides an important perspective.

 

SYMPTOMS

 

junkyThough the contexts provided by Goines often easily elicit empathy, the symptoms of addiction can be equally heart-wrenching.  In Terry, the reader witnesses the most dramatic downward spiral of the novel.  Having only been with one sexual partner in her entire life, she is soon turning tricks on the street and sleeping with strange men.  Disgusted with the thought of engaging in sex with a strange man, she desires to run out of the cheap hotel room where she works, but the “only thing that stopped her from running out of room was her terror of drug sickness” (195).  The pains of the drug sickness are themselves a direct symptom, but so too is the sex work.  The drug has essentially acted as a human trafficker and has compelled Terry to sell her body under duress.  Additionally, it is observed that “Each week [she was addicted] it seemed as though she would end up breaking another principle” (192).  Her moral compass, then, was lost to her addiction.  Minnie, who is farther along her downward spiral, commits suicide in a climactic scene, as she seeks “an ending of horror, the beginning of peace” (248), demonstrating that a depressed mental state are self-harm are also symptoms.  Another peripheral character is found dead due to an overdose, illustrating the fatal nature of addiction.

 

junky 1There are other symptoms that serve as compelling deterrents.  Goines wrote the novel more than a decade before the HIV/AIDS epidemic would hit America, but his work echoes one of the means by which the disease spread.  In one of the first scenes, addicts show up to a dope house without needles, leading to “an argument over who would use” the available “sets of works first” as the “rest of the tools were already in use by other addicts” (8).  One user offers his works to the women, and this sharing of needles goes on throughout the novel.  At the time, though Hep C could be transmitted by sharing needles, HIV/AIDS was not a concern as it had not yet been discovered.  Goines’s portrait of the desperation inflicted by addiction, and the way it supersedes rational thought demonstrates how easy it was for HIV/AIDS to spread among addicts, compounding the problems they were already facing.  These scenes carry an especially tragic weight to them in a post-HIV/AIDS world, but other, less fatal health problems are also documented.  In one scene, Teddy notes that “It would be nice to have a bowel movement… since he hadn’t had one in over ten days”, and then has to use his sister’s douche bag to give himself an enema (54).  This is a disturbing scene, but drives home the realities of addiction.  Later in the novel, Teddy tries to perform a sex act, but after trying “to force his limp penis inside” Terry, he gives up (90).  Erectile dysfunction, then, is also a symptom of addiction.  Goines’s novel provides insight into the stark reality of the health implications of addiction, noting how it can impede bowel movements and sexual performance.

 

            CLASS & COLOUR

 

Ronald Reagan, who pushed the expansion of the war on drugs and signed the Anti-Drug Act of 1986 into law.

Ronald Reagan, who pushed the expansion of the war on drugs and signed the Anti-Drug Act of 1986 into law.

Though addiction in America is often a problem that disproportionately impacts people of colour, members of the working class and the economically depressed, Goines is sure to note that this is a problem that transcends such constructed categories.  In one scene, for instance, Terry observes “two white boys who would have been conspicuous in any other all-black environment.  But [in the dope house] the color problem didn’t really exists” (22).  This passage not only demonstrates that the drug problem extends beyond constructs of race, but also indicates that the principle character of addiction transcends perceived race and supersedes all other categories: an addicts is first and foremost an addict.  Though Goines did not write the novel with the Anti-drug Act of 1986 in mind, given that it wouldn’t be enacted to more than a decade after his death, this scene speaks to the inherent flaws in that act.  The act handed out stiffer punishments to those in possession of crack, which was more popular among people of colour, while those in possession of cocaine, which was more popular among Caucasians, received shorter sentences.  Goines’s assessment, though, defines an addict by their addiction, and not by the colour of their skin or their drug of preference. The implication of his observation, then, is that all addicts must have their addiction addressed and that their colour and drug of choice should not be a factor.

 

 

An abscess caused by repeated injections.

An abscess caused by repeated injections.

Addiction likewise transcends socio-economic status.  The novel captures an image of how an economically depressed background can push people into drugs.  Teddy, for instance, lives in a three-bedroom house with six people (56) where the primary breadwinner, his father, was killed when he was still young.  His sister, who also lives in the same house, can’t afford to by her children shoes, causing them to run “around with their feet on the ground” (59) and relies on government assistance to provide for her children.  The economic depression is reinforced with references to deserted homes (49) and also when Goines notes that even middle-class business owners, such as a hotel owner, can’t afford dental care and reveals “a mouth completely empty of teeth” (47) when she speaks.  Many of the addicts share a similar socio-economic background, but addiction pays not heed to class.  Terry, though she comes from a working-class background, has an economically stable family, and “There were no deserted homes on her block, nor any bars or pawnshops in the immediate district” (49).  Despite this strong foundation, Terry was easily made a victim of addiction, demonstrating the far reaching nature of the problem.

 

LAW

 

A political cartoon borrowed from here.

A political cartoon borrowed from here.

Perhaps the most important element of the novel is the way in which Goines frames the anti-drug laws as serving the legal professions rather than the people.  Laws are meant to benefit society, but given the number of innocent by-standers who have been killed or injured by police during drug raids, and given the number of people locked up in prison on non-violent drug offenses, it is clear that the laws do little to improve society.  Goines’s novel foreshadows this stark reality.  When in prison, Teddy begins to go through withdrawals and enters a medical emergency.  When he tells the guards that he is a dopefiend and requests being sent to a hospital, the guards laugh at him and threaten to beat him (230).  This utter disregard for the pain of addiction demonstrates the callous attitude that the legal system has in regards to citizens who need help.  More than not helping citizens, the system seeks to profit from them via moral policing.  Goines, for instance, writes that “Picking up prostitutes and drunks ain’t nothing but another way for the judges and lawyers to keep their pockets lined with money” (212), and this seems true in light of recent events, like the kids-for-cash scandal, and lobbyists paving the way for the privatization of prisons, or as it is might fairly be called, prisons-for-profit.  If legislation is not improving the lives of citizens, and is designed to create profit for members or the legal system at the expense of taxpayers, then the system desperately needs to be re-evaluated, and Goines’s novel illustrates how the path that led to the kids-for-cash scandal started over forty years ago.

 

OBLIGATORY CONCLUSION

 

Donald Goines

Donald Goines

Given its year of publication, Dopefiend reads like a work that was decades ahead of its time.  The current state of the war on drugs makes the attempt to police recreational drug use as ill-advised as prohibition, and looking back on texts like Dopefiend, it becomes clear that this should have been easily foreseen.  The media and the government have vilified drug users and those suffering from addiction, rather than seeing them as a segment of the population that needs assistance.  The result has not only been unjust laws, over prosecution, counter-productive mandatory sentences, but worst of all, no progress in the war on drugs, leading some to call it a trillion-dollar failure.  Though Dopefiend may not be the most comprehensive and in-depth examination of addiction, it remain a compelling one and offers insights into the nature of addiction.  Yes, drugs lead to crime, but it is crimes like poverty and abuse that precede and drive addiction.  Goines outlines the context and symptoms of addition, demonstrates how addiction transcends perceived race, class, and drives home the ways in which anti-drug legislation is designed, not to help addicts or address the root cause, but rather to garner profits for those enforcing the laws.  It is not until these factors are addressed that the issue of addiction in America can properly be addressed.

 

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Works Cited

 

Goines, Donald.  Dopefiend.  New York: Holloway House Classics.  1999.  Print.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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