If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be a 12 year old coke addict, or spending your whole teenage years on drugs, dodging the police, and getting sent to a special school, wonder no more — because Díre McCain has lived to tell the tale and she has written a red hot, spiky memoir.
Here in Berlin, we’ve just been graced with the presence of the David Bowie exhibition, which has reminded many Berliners to watch again the movie Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, that semi-documentary film that, aside from feeding the Bowie fever, zooms in on the lives of the tiny, tiny heroin addicts that used to fringe the Zoo station area in Berlin.
Like many representations of drugs and addiction in the media, this film was produced with the message in mind that “drugs are bad, don’t do drugs” (said Mr. Mackie). If you haven’t seen this movie, perhaps you’ve seen the more recent film Ill Manors, one of my favourite, or read Go Ask Alice, a fake memoir from the ’60s, which portrays the harrowing damages caused by LSD. And, yes, drugs are bad. I should know, I almost got killed by them myself, and everyone I knew who died far too young, died because of drugs. Or how about Requiem for a Dream : doesn’t this book show loud and clear how drugs ruin everything. But these tales of destruction and mental apocalypse only serve up the bad and the ugly; but what about the good?
Playing Chicken with Thanatos falls into this thematic complex of works that delve into addiction, drugs, and the shape-shifting landscape of life on drugs and without money. If it doesn’t glorify addiction, it’s an honest appraisal of why someone might say “yes” to drugs, over and over again. Already in the title, the word “Thanatos” — the Greek word for Death, and also, in Freudian speak, the human death wish, shadow side of Eros, the sex drive — lets on that we’re in the presence of a tale of heaven and hell, living and dying. And “playing chicken” : because it’s a tale of childhood, of testing the limits, growing out of games and child’s play, into “the game of life”, so to speak, with the same courage to do dares, the same excitement for surprises and adventure.
It’s a story of growing up in precarious conditions, with a mother struggling to keep it all together, separating from her partner in the middle of raising an armful of kids on just a nurse’s salary, in California. Things are slipping the mother’s mind left, right and centre, and although the family is loving, the narrator of the story spends far too much time alone as a child and receives only a piecemeal set of guidance, feels ill at ease in school in midst a bunch of cruel kids who know no better than to laugh at her. She discovers drink and drugs, and she really goes for it — what she is at pains to stress is how the drinking, and the using, always went in pair with making friends, having company, partying with the girls and the guys, getting up to some obnoxious adventures and just letting it all hang out.
Puberty takes its awkward, confusing seat in the course of this memoir. We hear about how she gets a good makeover from her girlfriend, after a lifetime of running around in ill-fitting hand-me-downs, getting rides from A to B, crashing parties and dipping her feet in the lives of other people she would not otherwise have met.
A mixed bag of meaningful conversations with strangers and unsavoury encounters with sexual predators, she talks about a few close shaves with rape and assault, and has some spicy stories of dodging the cops, or in fact spending the night in jail… all peppered with intensely precise explorations of the mind on drugs, the mind off drugs, and the feelings she starts to develop about life in a world of glammy rampage and delicious chaos.
If the parental love was there, but sometimes failed to deliver the “tough love” of a firm hand bringing the little ones back on track where they might have gone a bit astray, the school certainly comes through as the ultimate let-down in this book. More preoccupied with discipline and punishments than providing education or pastoral care, the teachers in this story are a cabinet of horrors, that very much reminded me of the Berlin 19th century drama Spring Awakening (which also exists as a Broadway show). This play is a tragedy about young teenagers, sex, and death, the moral struggles of the turn of the century, and it features some despicably impassive school teachers who are so far disconnected from life they are effectively ruining their pupils’ lives and driving them to destruction.
We find a flavour of this too in Dire McCain’s book, but a bitter-sweet twist comes as she eventually switches to a different kind of school, one dedicated to “problem kids”, after a stint in rehab. Here, she meets interesting and dedicated teachers, and begins to study the work of musicians, writers and film makers that really speak to her intellect. Tied up to the change of school in the story, is a reflection about culture and education that flits in and out of view throughout the book: Why is some culture considered “high” and worthy of being taught in schools, and other cultures are “low”, are “pop”, and have no place in the establishment…? The book itself navigates this space: independently published, but beautifully referenced.
If you want a book that offers a fresh take on drugs, the story of a survivor and a winner, and not the story of someone’s decrepitude and death, take Playing Chicken with Thanatos. It vibrates with the positivity and the love of life that is truly needed to overcome addictions and vanquish even the most threatening odds. It acknowledges the dark side, but doesn’t celebrate it; it leaves love where love is, in the family, and doesn’t darken the memory of childhood with a psychologist’s demonization of “the bad mother” or “the evil father”. It brings compassion, intelligence and humour into our appraisal of the problems we all should be facing together in a society where some people get hooked on drugs far too soon and for too long.
Writer and Surrealist.
Literophone Operator : sit in a fluffy cubicle & be on the phone to poets.
Author of “Cured Meat: Memoirs of a Psychiatric Runaway” – Guardian Best First Book Nominations 2014.
Interpreter of Ancient Tales.