American Junkie by Tom Hansen is the powerful memoir of a Seattle addict that not only tells a harrowing, self-destructive story, but also demonstrates how Mr. Hansen found a calling to write in mid-life following years of using and selling heroin. On the surface Mr. Hansen provides a gritty, real-life glimpse into the Seattle drug dealer underworld during the 1980’s and 90’s. Prior to reading this book it was difficult to imagine just how much damage heroin can do to a body. Not anymore. His story contains enough personal graphic detail of self-inflicted wounds fed by narcotic addiction that it could almost be used as a text book for young teens about why, as South Park’s Mr. Garrison would say, drugs are bad. That the story happened in my backyard makes it even more real. It confirmed my suspicion that the area around 2nd and Pike is ripe with drugs.
The book’s greatest strength is Tom’s challenge to find a place in the world. The author tells two parallel stories: one of his recovery following a 911 call he barely managed to dial, the other his life story from the fourth grade through his downward spiral culminating in a skeletal 30-something junkie. Mr. Hansen’s struggle and experiences are not unique and apply to most heroin addicts, dealers, and the seedy underworld in which they belong, though the depths to which he plunged are likely on the extreme side.
Mr. Hansen documents hurdles in his early years that may seem typical, but to Mr. Hansen were deeply significant. Tom discusses two events he found traumatic: the death of his father and learning he’s adopted. While being adopted and losing a father aren’t necessarily a recipe for a life of opiates for Mr. Hansen they proved to be stumbling blocks. There’s no point psychoanalyzing or looking for easy scapegoats to explain why, according to the author, these events fueled a young man into a disillusioned adult who self-destructed. His use of a few select childhood and teen memories paint a picture of his timeline well enough for his readers to understand his trajectory started at a young age. He doesn’t expect the reader to think he had a bad experience, killed the pain with a binge, and from that point was forever owned by the needle. Rather, the reader can see his character and personality convincingly gravitate to a world dominated by others who, like him, for one reason or another never found a place in the world.
Mr. Hansen’s struggle to find meaning in 1980’s Pacific Northwest suburbia began in Edmonds where he was a quiet kid. At one point around the age of 15 he found himself in Norway visiting his uncle Sverre on a farm. While there he was put to work doing manual labor, spending hours collecting grain in fields and then shoveling it into a hole in a floor that drained into trailers waiting to take it away. It’s this point in his life that Mr. Hansen remembers “a strange feeling, a sense of being in tune with the world”. He writes it was a “feeling that this was what people were supposed to be doing in this life, surrounded by family, part of a community, just doing what they had to do, rather than being faced with a thousand meaningless choices”. Over the course of the book he refers to this memory several times. At one point he likens his dealer life with a similar sense of satisfaction where he’s in tune with his surroundings, performing work that doesn’t incur significant stress, and serves a need. It’s easy to take argument with the last suggestion of a dealer’s life not being stressful. He had to contend with constantly looking over his shoulder for cops and concern that one of his customers or sources might rat him out as part of a deal with the law. However, Tom’s picture of a dealer driving around town making deliveries on his own schedule while never exceeding the speed limit is convincing and for a brief time he likely experienced relaxed job satisfaction similar to what he got out of his work as a youth in Norway.
A big point in his autobiography is his desire to live in a world without those thousand meaningless choices. One could say this is a burden on those who haven’t found their calling or their purpose. How do they know what to choose to do? On the other hand, for those blessed with knowing what their passion is and who have courage, will, and support, this world is a playground. These people are fortunate to live in place where they’re free to pursue the happiness and joy of doing what they want. Mr. Hansen’s book implicitly suggests that those who struggle with finding their calling might be happier where work choices are made for them. Perhaps North Korea? Read “Escape from Camp 14” by Blaine Harden, another Seattle-based writer, if you don’t believe such places are real.
While reading the book I found it difficult to consider that Mr. Hansen’s struggle is not isolated to those who become junkies or pimps or hookers. There is an abundance of the same disillusionment in the white collar world filled with numb workers walking carpeted hallways in high rise buildings, doing their job in cubes cluttered with family photos day after mundane day. Ironically, some of these people also happen to be customers of people like Mr Hansen, secretly numbing their life with heroin. Many who don’t find their way pursue other people’s dreams, rather than their own, which prevents them from finding the joy they were lead to believe would be at the end of their path. These people allowed their parents or the world around them make their decisions for them. Many expect happiness from their corporate job because of handsome paychecks and a false sense of purpose, but are loathe to admit their greatest reward is friends and family who smile with approval at their name on a business card. “American Junkie” posits that Mr Hansen rejected this life of subconsciously catering to others’ expectations, in favor of a path followed on his own terms, albeit one on the wrong side of the law that nearly killed him.
However, not all who find themselves lost in this world with a thousand choices gravitate to the world from where Mr. Hansen emerged. Mr. Hansen’s book doesn’t account for those who successfully find socially acceptable work that makes them happy, fulfilled, and look forward to getting up for work. As a writer friend, Sydney Salter, wrote to me, people in her profession “sometimes envy those blissful souls who never even consider a creative life,” though deep down she knew she had to actively decide to write because a life without a creative outlet is one in which she discovered she doesn’t fit. Her words counter Mr. Hansen’s desire for a world without decisions where people find a zen-like sense of purpose in a life of assigned manual labor. She chose her path, Mr. Hansen longed for a path to be chosen for him. The irony is this is a review of a product of Mr. Hansen’s creative work as a writer, a pursuit actively chosen.
Despite the horrors, the cringeworthy detail of Tom’s heroin-induced wounds, and the sadness conveyed about those in the drug world, “American Junkie” has a silver lining that is apparent from the first few pages. Tom made it. He survived. Not only did he survive, but he found his calling to write and put his experiences on the page. He actively made a choice to abandon the drug underworld and pursue a creative outlet. I don’t think it’s spoiling the book to quote the following from the its second to last page about leaving the hospital. “I have no clue what I’m going to do once I walk out that door. … Maybe I’ll crawl into a hole and finish dying. Maybe, I’ll write a goddamned book.” Those who read American Junkie will be glad he opted for the latter.
Note: This review was originally published May 12, 2013 on one of a handful of blogs I started in the past.