Lessons From the Narcotic Farm, Part Two

Editor’s Note: Today, Points continues a series of reflections on the Lexington Narcotic Hospital, from Luke Walden, JP Olsen, and Nancy Campbell.  You can read the first post in the series here.  Walden is a documentary filmmaker, Olsen a journalist (and documentarian), and Campbell a historian (and Contributing Editor to Points).  Olsen brought Walden into the development of his film, The Narcotic Farm, and along the way the two began collaborating with Campbell as well–ultimately producing not only the film, but an accompanying book.  We’re pleased to bring you the second post in this ongoing series:

Behind the Advertised Image of the American Dream

During the course of producing the film and book for “The Narcotic Farm” (with Luke Walden and Nancy Campbell), I interviewed nearly a dozen men who were involved in what could be described as a global teenage junkie epidemic. This was back in the early 1950s, when an estimated 5,000 teens in New York alone were hooked on heroin.

The men’s memories of that time were fascinating and instructive. One recalled with keen detail Lucky Luciano’s mafia takeover of the heroin trade; selling dope to Big Maybelle; and palling around with notorious addict Chet Baker while jailed at Rikers Island. Another described intricate scams he perpetrated around the country with his prostitute girlfriend in search of opiates. Still another recalled how, after being busted for needle possession, he discovered that Julius Rosenberg was in the same prison and often played chess between cell bars with another intellectual inmate (who later turned out to be an informant).

In their own ways, all the men I interviewed projected a sort of perverse pride in having been at the center of a criminal drug underworld and at The Narcotic Farm itself. These experiences gave them a front-row view of some of the major criminal and cultural stories of their day.

All the men with whom I spoke were frank about their involvement with heroin—no women addicts of this era agreed to participate in this project for reasons we’ll address in our next post. But most were less forthcoming about their earlier, pre-addiction childhoods. Why? One Narcotic Farm alumnus, David Deitch, who went on to co-found Daytop Village, put forward a reason: those who ended up junkies in the post-World War II era were all but locked out of the advertised image of the American dream. For them there was no shiny car, no new kitchen, no thick malts down at the town square. Those living outside this advertised image of America were, in fact, children coping with what psychologists today would call “psychic pain.”

In the 1940s and 1950s, to be a teen living on the dark side of the American Dream often meant you lived in the crap part of a city, negotiated violent street gangs on your way to school, dealt with alcoholism and violence in the home, and sometimes had to navigate corrupt and racist law enforcement. On this end, I’m reminded of a telephone interview with a former Federal Bureau of Narcotics agent—who I will not name but who worked for Harry Anslinger—who told me the reason for the explosion of drug use in post-World War II America had to do with the mixing of blacks and Jews. Remember, this is a federal agent in New York City we’re talking about, not some bailiff in a hamlet.

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