Editor’s note: Today, we present the second half of Nancy’s Campbell’s “Lessons of the Narcotic Farm, Part Three: The Jenny Barn.” You can find the first half of this post here. Part One and Part Two of the series make useful complements to today’s post!
In addition to nutritious food, women at Narco lived on a steady diet of talk about drugs. ‘Dope on dope’ was central to Janet’s experience:
“It’s an international exchange for information concerning dope. . . . You sit around in this dayroom . . . and tell one another stories about junk.” (1961, 220) She didn’t become any less of a junkie inside: “All is junk, and that’s all, you know; that’s the way it is. This identification of yourself as a junkie. After the first six, eight months that I was making it, I never said, ‘Well, I’m a junkie,’ as an excuse or anything. [Since Lexington] I say it constantly. I always refer to myself as a junkie, even when I’m not hooked on anything. And when you’re first introduced to somebody for the first time, the first thing you find out is whether he’s a junkie or not. It’s like belonging to some fantastic lodge, you know, but the initiation ceremony is a lot rougher.”
Something of an amateur sociologist, Janet described “petty class distinctions” at work in the social structure of the Lexington sorority. Everybody’s first question was, “Vol or Con?” Cons stayed longer and were on top of the social hierarchy. Then came drug of choice: “The people who use horse [heroin] all look down on the people who use M and the people who use M all think they’re much better than the people who use dilaudid, and everybody looks down on demerol users as notorious fools” (1961, 219). Janet herself acquired a reputation as a “female homosexual,” because she deviated from the “one-woman-to-a-bed” rule. She disclaimed sexual feelings for other women, but described with interest lesbians bleaching their hair, dressing in slit skirts and sexy blouses, and gathering to dance after dinner—“as if every day was a holiday.”
While not enticed by the lesbian subculture, she was drawn to the jazz subculture. Unlike many of their female compatriots, Janet and May, a pregnant African-American women she befriended, were “hep” to the Chicago jazz scene (where Janet had met her husband, a trombone player, and pianist Howard Becker). On Friday nights, the women eagerly went over to the main institution for the “con” show. Concerts were an occasions for male and female patients to socialize. The inevitable illicit romantic entanglements that ensued were aided by an elaborate system of “kiting,” or messages sent between inmates by every surreptitious method imaginable.