“I think that if you say something three times out loud, people take it as fact. And also, I think there are certain ideas that people want to believe, that really fit in with cultural stereotypes, and it’s hard to get rid of those”– Claire Coles
A friend recently posted a Retro Report video about the crack baby myth on my facebook page with the comment, “you called this, like, a year ago.” Another friend emailed me the link and a note, “always ahead of the game, you are.” While I appreciate my friends’ propers, I should point out that people have been debunking the crack baby myth for over twenty years. The correction just can’t seem to stick. If I called anything, it’s that sad fact: we just can’t let go of the crack baby.
As I argued before, one reason why we can’t let go of this myth is that it has the structure of a conspiracy theory, one in which the conclusion is sacrosanct even if the evidence is not yet identified. We have such agile, creative minds, and we really want the crack baby to be real because it has the ring of truthiness. Just the other day, a friend tried to grok the crack baby that wasn’t and concluded that crack still did something – even if that was just to stand in for all the other awful consequences of using crack and, of course, it’s true: some of those awful consequences can have very damaging effects on a human being. I had to agree: in that way, yes, one could say that there is such a thing as a crack baby.
This is not the first time the New York Times has run a story about what it called (in 2009) “The Epidemic That Wasn’t.” A cynic might wonder if maybe debunking the myth has become almost as good a story as the crack baby him or herself, even if it does require a journalistic mea culpa. Perhaps this is a second reason for the persistence of the crack baby myth: saying there is no crack baby makes for some great copy.
Even in this newest report debunking the myth, however, the myth persists. The report can’t completely let go of the idea that crack does something bad to developing fetuses. Early on, the narrator informs us that, “almost three decades since Chasnoff’s initial research, which focused on just twenty-three babies, long term studies have only found subtle changes in the brains of cocaine-exposed research subjects.” Later in the report, Ira Chasnoff concedes that there was no crack baby epidemic, saying “well, there’s no question that cocaine use during pregnancy has some real effects on the unborn and on the newborn child, but these effects are not devastating and can be addressed through treatment for the pregnant woman and for the child.”
Even Claire Coles, who early on pointed out that the symptoms of crack babies resulted from their prematurity, could not avoid acknowledging that “certainly, cocaine was contributing to this problem, but they got very focused on [crack] as the sole cause of it.” It’s not clear what Coles means by “the problem,” possibly as a result of the editing, but that does seem to be a key issue here: without identifying the problem – low birth weight? pre-natal developmental problems? distressed newborns? hopeless or even sociopathic children? stigma? or something else? — it’s hard to know what we’re actually talking about when we talk about crack babies.
Why this lingering trace of the myth? Why does it lace through our language as evidence of previous mental ingestion? I wonder if the Retro Report-ers, Chasnoff, and even Coles are relying on a sort of knee-jerk paromologia, genuflecting to the notion that cocaine does something in order to argue that it ultimately does nothing really significant. Perhaps this gesture towards the residue of the crack baby results from the desire to remain “fair and balanced.” Or maybe this is just the last gasp of a conspiracy theory, the one where we all have to admit that there is an infinitesimally small chance that crack does something to developing brains just as there is an infinitesimally small chance that Obama really isn’t American.
Yet I simply cannot see how anyone could conclusively prove crack’s effect on a developing brain without conducting some extremely unethical research in the mode of Brave New World and, happily, we don’t do that sort of stuff to humans. The theory of limits would suggest that, as evidence recedes, we might as well just reach the obvious conclusion: at some point the line hits a wall, even if the ultimate contact is endlessly delayed. There is no crack baby.
I want to suggest a third reason for the persistence of this myth: it makes for such good metaphor. In some sense, this report itself functions metaphorically: while it appears to debunk (mostly) the crack baby myth, what it really disproves is the mythological epidemic of crack babies. In other words, the children born to crack-using mothers might still have biological and social disadvantages, but they didn’t cause as much trouble for the rest of us as early reports suggested they would. The baby that (almost certainly) wasn’t stands in for the epidemic that (definitely) wasn’t. The happy, successful, beautiful adult so-called crack baby, Devin Stone, is our metonymic evidence. There is no crack baby.
There’s a scene in Toni Morrison’s Sula where, pursued by a gang of boys who intend them harm, Sula cuts off the tip of her finger. She then asks the boys what she might do to them if she is willing to injure herself this way. The ploy works and the boys leave Sula and her friend Nel alone. Crack is that lost fingertip; it is pure self-destruction for the immediacy of a momentary escape. Its economy turned poor minority communities on themselves in pursuit of profit, pleasure, or both. Families fell apart as the members of a generation lost themselves in the pipe. Unjust sentencing guidelines locked up a generation of Black and Latino drug-using men and women. Pregnant women and mothers couldn’t access treatment. Political hype turned the crack user into convenient code for unruly male and female black and brown bodies. I don’t even have to tell you what happens when we put a baby into this picture: suddenly the unruly bodies included children, doomed from the very moment of gestation. So it’s easy to say that crack destroys families if crack is permitted to stand in for what looks like the destruction of little human beings.
As a sort of monstrous birth, the crack baby also acted as a warning, an omen. Dating back to the early modern period, a monstrous birth signaled negative emotional transference from mother to fetus and, as such, revealed the (sexual) sins of the mother. The baby was the manifestation of the mother’s character, proof that she had violated social boundaries in thought or in action. So when we talked about crack babies, we were also talking about how they represent transgressive female desire made flesh by the infant.
“Transference” – the misrecognition of one person as another – is the Latin translation of the Greek work “metaphor,” and the connection is apt: as with any good metaphor, meaning depends on the similarity between the items (mother’s physical and emotional state as represented by the body of the baby). Yet meaning also relies on the gap between the two things (the baby is not the mother, which is why the baby can stand in for the mother). Metaphors – lies in service of the truth – often come at an interpretive cost because they set two different things as the same and, in doing so, obscure other variables (like poverty, injustice, violence, desperation). The crack baby did just this, functioning as proof that the social fabric of poor minority communities was tearing, mothers were not able to be mothers, and none of us were safe from the repercussions. We saw those images of fragile babies and we knew because crack already stood in as a sort of chemical master signifier for desperation and self-destruction.
Just as the crack baby became an effective metaphor, the debunking of the straw crack baby has also functioned as convenient metaphor. There were four jokes (only four! We might be running out of good crack baby jokes, finally!). Six people posted to say that they already knew about this, either from personal experience or from reading other reports. Unfortunately, eleven people were unconvinced, with five referencing personal experiences and six relying only on the truthiness of associating correlation with causation. Eleven others used the myth to talk about the prejudice, politics, and profit that fed upon the myth while five more talked about the real environmental culprits (lead pipes, for example).
But wait! There’s more!
The majority of comments used the myth itself as the vehicle for their own arguments by analogy. According to the comments, the myth is primarily evidence that the media sucks. It is also evidence that other drugs are not so bad for you either, obesity is not really an epidemic, we have over-reacted to food allergies, ADHD is not widespread, flu pandemics never actually happen, HIV/AIDS in Africa was overhyped, there is no such thing as global warming, the human population ever exploded, and the student loan crisis isn’t such a big deal after all.
That’s a lot of work for a nursery of imaginary boogeybabies, particularly when too many of them are busy proving all of us wrong, as Devin Stone did.
Early on, the Retro Report asks, “what is the true legacy of the crack baby era?’’ It might be too early for such questions since we can’t seem to give up that pipe dream. As long as we use those babies to make arguments about issues ranging from unfit parenthood to weapons of mass destruction to flu pandemics, we will fail to recognize and celebrate the real people who have lived their lives under the shadow of our worst imagined fears. They all deserve our apology because the myth of the crack baby has done some very real harm to people who deserved so much better.