We’re left to wonder how honest the patients of this line of treatment were with themselves. With opiates came opiate dependence: Those who used these drugs swore by them, and those who didn’t eyed those that did with increasing sanctimony. As commonplace as they were, opiates were always a drug especially reserved for those who were somehow more afflicted than the rest.
It was what “beggar-women” fed their teething or ill babies, Harper’s Weekly reported in the late 1850s. An illustration in the magazine captioned “Opium—The Poor Child’s Nurse” depicts a frail infant hanging limply over the side of his bassinet, which is situated in the middle of what looks like a washerwoman’s house. It calls to mind the Gin Lane caricatures of London’s drunken masses a century before, pushing the presumption of an indelible link between poverty and intoxication and general societal malaise.
By 1858, Harper’s reported, 300,000 pounds of opium were arriving on American shores each year, with an estimated 90 percent reserved for recreational use. Half a century later, when the U.S. at last addressed the addiction crisis, the rate of addiction to opiate-based medication was three times higher than it would be in the 1990s.
Never mind that the significant majority of American heroin addicts in the mid-1800’s were middle- and upper-class women who bought the drug for their medicine cabinet. In the public psyche, the custodians of America’s opiate addiction were the depraved, poor, and foreign. It was, according to psychiatrist Pearce Bailey in a 1916 piece for The New Republic, a commodity of the “city life,” an arena at that point still linked in the public psyche to Jacob Riis’ grisly snapshots of squalid and overcrowded Lower East Side tenement buildings.
“The majority [of users] are boys and young men who… seem to want something that promises to make life gayer and more enjoyable,” Bailey writes. “It would almost seem that their desire for something to brighten life up is at the bottom of their trouble, and heroin is but a means.”
Since, it has remained the domain of the marginalized: degenerate jazz musicians, Beat poet fornicators, shell-shocked Vietnam vets. By the late 60’s, 200,000 American heroin addicts had become three-quarters of a million, a number that would grow sizably if we accounted for the abuse of other opiate-based drugs (oxycodone, morphine, and the rest). Janis Joplin was found beside a motel bed in October of 1970, dead of a heroin overdose. Four years earlier, comedian Lenny Bruce had died of “acute morphine poisoning” after years of a regular sinusoid between opioids and amphetamines. Jim Morrison died in ’71; John Belushi a decade later.
The weeks since Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death have seen the usual scramble that follows the visceral death of an American celebrity. It’s a process of canonization, usually, often at odds with the narrative already in place: before Michael Jackson was the late great—greatest?—artist, he was hounded by allegations of child sexual abuse. This time it’s a particularly difficult task: not because Hoffman lacked the party boy reputation of a Belushi or Chris Farley, but because of how deeply his work impacted the American emotional psyche. At the root of the hoopla is a genuine sort of grief.