Lessons of the Narcotic Farm, Part Four: The Literature of Lexington

Editor’s Note: Today, Points returns to Lexington once more, for another revisiting of the narcotic farm experience.  Luke Walden gives an overview of the memoirs and other literary accounts of the institution, written by various addict-prisoner-patients over the years.  Aspects of this literature will be well familiar to readers with more than a passing interest in prison literature more generally, though the ever-present addiction concept lends these accounts their own distinctive quality.  For those of you new to this series, Luke authored Part One of the series, which offered a really useful overview.  JP Olsen’s Part Two reflected on their interview subjects and their subject’s young, Lexington-era selves.  Nancy’s Campbell’s Part Three (itself in a first and second part) covered women’s experiences at Lexington.

The U.S. Public Health Service Hospital in Lexington, KY was iconic of American drug culture from its opening in 1935 to its closing in 1975.  Facade of LexingtonSeveral literary accounts by former patients provide an intimate and richly detailed understanding of this often-enigmatic icon. Although these authors surely employed some poetic license, the general historical accuracy of this literature and its value in understanding the Lexington patient experience are confirmed by extensive interviews that JP Olsen and I conducted with former Lexington patients for our documentary film, The Narcotic Farm.

William S. Burroughs’ 1953 memoir-as-novel, Junky, published under the nom de plume of William Lee, first detailed what was becoming a rite of passage among young addicts in the post-war heroin epidemic — “taking the cure” at ‘Lex’, or ‘K.Y.’ which Burroughs did Junkie Coverin 1946.  Junky established important themes in the narrative of Lexington: the lack of genuine interest in quitting drugs that most patients at Lexington displayed, their general contempt for staff efforts to help them and their devious techniques to get what they wanted.  Burroughs also carefully captured the junkie argot that was a constant buzz at Lexington, for example ‘croaker’ [doctor],  ‘hack’ [guard], ‘on the nod’, even the term ‘junkie’ itself. Lexington patients were, as Burroughs put it, “like hungry men who can talk about nothing but food.”

Burroughs himself was so hungry that he never made it out of the Shooting Gallery (the detox ward) into Narco’s general population. Dope sickness after his last methadone shot drove him to check out two days later, an extremely common pattern among volunteer admissions to the institution, often called “winders” because they wound their way in and out of the facility again and again.   But despite his short stay the place made an impression on him.

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