A Slow Goodbye to Our Pestilence? (March 17, 2004)

When Anderson Valley's 12 and 13-year-old daughters get sexually violated by some cranked-up, cretinous drug dealer, I don't think today's father gets nearly as outraged as did fathers of 50 years ago. I draw this inference from having seen a riveting Boonville-made 58-minute video, a project inspired in part by the historic “meeting of outrage,” two years ago when a big part of the community came together to do something about a problem you can witness daily as you drive through Boonville. It's out there; it's fairly open. Valley shoplifters run a bigger risk of getting busted than dope dealers.

Now, two years later, we have “The End of Silence,” a realistic group-talk video of students and middle-agers, most of whom live in the Valley. The video was produced by ex-NBC camerawoman Lee Serrie and Heidi Knott (who for eight years headed the Ecomedia International Environmental Film Festival in Germany), plus Valley teacher Mitch Mendosa, whose own interest was sustained by the knowledge of five generations of his family having lived in these parts.

Since this historic meeting the epidemic of methamphetamine use and addiction is still ongoing in Anderson Valley. Since the recent release of the video, however — which has reached virtually every adolescent in the area — things may be changing. Methamphetamine's Russian Roulette no longer seems to be quite so hip to school kids.

In the beginning, meth is fun and you feel like you can do anything. You can stay awake forever. Later, without it, it's like a small dog pulling a large log. It's a drag. In the video “The End of Silence,” the teenager Chance — always straight himself — says how people “feel like crap when they come down.” Chance, whose home has occasionally been the family car, has had his family so infused with drugs, that his lifestyle was a drug culture. But he knew it wasn't “normal.” His fear of addiction keeps him drug-free.

This social pestilence is like spreading salt over your garden — bit by bit, day after day, until every bit of green dries up, and then is blown away. In the video, there's a grandmother, Debbie. She talks about Anderson Valley 20 years ago. “This was a community where we all knew each other. We carpooled; we traded transportation. I didn't worry about drug dealers then. Today, there's no way I'd let my grandchildren walk downtown alone. Too many dealers out there. I don't say they prey on little kids. But why wouldn't they; that's their main concern; they want money.”

And so has settled a pall over another meth-infested rural paradise, where, Debbie could well join a chorus of a hundred Valleyites reminiscing about “the days folks didn't even lock their doors.”

Quite true, and speaking figuratively, Valleyites are still not locking up; that is, they're still not paying attention — even as their daughters — principally daughters — but sons as well, fly into the web of a stimulant, far longer-lasting than the baby boomer's cocaine, and because it is cheaper, it's therefore — as Amber in the video says about meth: “It's everywhere in the Valley.”

Before the video, the community attitude could be summed up: “Sure it's here, but we don't talk about it. Don't print my name.”

To break down the resistance to making a drug film, Lee Serrie and Heidi Knott ordered a flood of government films on the evils of drug abuse and asked the students to criticize them. The students found them funny as hell; and the hipper of the adults thought they were pretty funny, too. These sanctimonious “dramatizations” were no more effective than were long-ago members of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and its Carrie Nation, smashing down those swinging doors of Kansas saloons. Institutional films, such as those the kids watched, target a nation at large; they reach no one in particular. That's when a few people in the Valley decided they could make one of their own… and beginning with the Valley, reach everyone.

There are some 20 participants in “The End of Silence,” all of whom tell their story as it progresses relentlessly and inevitably through eight self-explanatory stages: What Got Me Going; Friends and So-Called Friends; Changes; DUI; Hitting Bottom; Family — Tough Love; Recovery, and Choices.

In terms of demographics alone the video is a work of collective genius. There are Anglo kids, a Native American, and a Latino whose history of use, for some, goes back to sixth and seventh grades. Most participants are recovering; there are two girls and two boys who have been straight forever. The video opens and closes with a hard-hitting rap song, composed by Josh Brokemond and Kevin Tobie, two African-American young men from a local group home. Culturally, this video is very inclusive.

In “The End of Silence,” there are middle aged “cranksters” (four very articulate men and a heartbreakingly eloquent woman, who as with all others, just went by her first name, JoAnne, and who at one point, doubtlessly speaking of herself, said: “I know I am short, but when I used I was ten feet tall.”) There was at least one addict from an upscale home; others had slept with their families in cars. One of the men, who had used other folks' cars to sleep in, said the trick was to split before the owner headed off to work, perhaps thinking in terms of a paraphrase, “Sorry to sleep and run.” Rudy, the recovering addict did more than talk. When speaking of meth's resultant bone-loss from this poor man's cocaine, he illustrated by smiling broadly, then pulled out a partial, exposing a gaping hole where his three front teeth had been.

There's also a justifiable bit of preaching in the video — this time from local doctor, Dr. Gary Fasconi, who told of a 17-year-old boy who had lost his first time out in this game of Russian Roulette. His loss was in the use of half his body. Ten years ago a stroke left his right side paralyzed — so immobilized that tubes are even connected to his penis. This physician's message didn't last long. But it didn't have to. (People with high blood pressure or a family history of heart disease should shun amphetamines. Thus another big disadvantage to street sales: with that twenty-buck score, you don't get your blood pressure checked.)

Both the doctor — as well as several middle-aged recovering addicts — spoke with a matter-of-fact candor that is both sad and uplifting. One of the men openly said that having dope was having friends. His name is Mike and he imitates the slowed-down, affected drawl of a stoned rural hipster. Pointing to the entrance, Mike says: “Let's say Bill comes through the door, before he even sits down, he asks if I have any dope, and if I don't he's out of here — he's gone like roaches under a kitchen light.” Roger, another middle-aged recovering addict, had this to say: “Well, the ‘Candy Man’ is always a popular man, and I guess I was the candy man.” (The word friend is said throughout the video, expressing a need that is in all of us. When relationships are working, no friends can beat those to be found in one's own family.) Roger now has a good relationship with his son. “Last week,” he says, “I pinned my son's wings on. In the old days, I wouldn't have done anything like that.” Roger said this last with both self-deprecation and heartfelt pride. This ceremony of pinning the wings on his son will need no camcorder or scrapbook for remembering.

There is no time more crucial than in one's formative years, particularly adolescence. Laura, a recovering addict/alcoholic is now a purposeful, no-nonsense 20-year-old, who today has her sights set on running a business of her own. On the video, Laura's comments are those that she read a year ago before all the middle-schoolers in Anderson Valley.

For Laura, things began to go haywire when she transferred schools in the fifth grade from Comptche to Mendocino. “Everyone thought I had a wonderful future ahead of me, but… I got my first taste of girls competing with each other and how it feels to be rejected from the popular crowd…

The feeling that Laura experienced was the kind that pushes the rejected to that group which sadly wears its rejection like a badge of honor and is overly democratic in its acceptance of new members. Laura naturally gravitated toward “girls from broken homes and druggie parents. Troubled girls who didn't quite fit in. They all used drugs, so I did too… We numbed our pain and problems with substances… The person that I had been — with dreams and goals — was drowned out.

“It wasn't that I didn't know the facts. I knew that marijuana destroys your motivation. I knew that meth is very addictive and destroys your body. But I was more interested in keeping my friends than in taking care of myself.

“Even though my parents had warned me that a number of close relatives were alcoholics and that I might be susceptible to alcoholism, of course I thought it couldn't happen to me. My first clue was when I was 13 and some of my lovely friends broke into our neighbor’s trailer and we drank his vodka. I got so drunk that I put my arm through the window and cut my wrist. That could have been the end of me, but I was lucky and stopped the bleeding. I thought I was under control. One of those sad friends continued abusing substances until he put a gun to his head and blew his brains out a couple of years ago.

“I dated druggies and losers, ran away from home because my parents did not approve of my behavior; I lived homeless on the streets of Mendocino.”

On the video, Laura's mother, Sara, tells of losing contact with her 15-year-old for days and nights at a time. Laura would be wandering the streets of Mendocino, while her mother Sara was in Anderson Valley. Wistfully, Sara says, “Mendocino friends would contact me from time to time and tell us they'd seen Laura. One time, at night, I drove over to Mendocino; I had heard there was a kids' party off the Headlands. I walked toward the point, screamed her name at the sea. There was no answer. I couldn't find Laura… that's how distraught I was.”

Laura picks it up: “I dropped out of school and joined my friends in a pointless circle of either being high or looking for a substance to get high on. I did LSD, mushrooms, pills, animal tranquilizers. Got so drunk that the police were called. Did crank, coke and crack. Sat in the back seat of Deputy Keith's patrol car with the dog barking at me through the bars after my parents asked him to pick me up in order to save me from myself…

“The turning point for me came when I drove drunk and wrecked my new car with my little sister in the car. I thought I was fine to drive, but when the officers tested me, I was extremely drunk. I spent the night in jail on a cold metal bench with a bruised head and pounding headache from having hit the window three times. All I could think of was that I could have killed my little sister because I was a drunk. I realized that because of my substance abusing lifestyle… I had gotten pregnant in shame and ended it in shame.

“I finally admitted that my friends, my lifestyle, and the substances had not brought me pride or happiness. None of these things made me feel beautiful inside and out. They only made me feel… worthless. Hopeless.

“Drinking is so common in our culture, but some of us should never drink.”

Now, Laura admits to being an alcoholic/addict. It runs in the family. It didn't bypass her. Why should it?

Continuing, Laura concedes: “I was lucky. I could easily be dead by now…

At least one of my old friends is dead; several have been in jail; several are homeless, and all of them have given up on any kind of dreams for the future… Look at the druggies who hang out on the street in Boonville. Do they seem happy?

“I was lucky because of three things. God or the higher power above was watching out for me. My own strength and will helped keep me safe. But most of all, my parents stuck by me through it all. They never lost faith in me… Most of my old friends did not have a caring family to support them, so once they started the drugs and alcohol, they had no one to turn to for help.”

In the video, Joe, a Native American, and Luis, a Latino, are both engaging. From each came a wistful, but very profound self-knowledge. The video is particularly poignant when the camera caught Joe puzzling over “What Got Me Going,” one of the eight sections of “The End of Silence.” As a Native American, Joe had at least observed the joys of a tight family life. “For a long time,” Joe says, “I lived with my grandma; it was just me and her… I wanted friends… I just got the wrong friends.” The opportunity to seal such friendship came at school, when Joe and his friends “would smoke meth and weed during lunch break… At first I thought it helped with school. And then I noticed I was thinking more about my next fix than the books.”

For a period Joe also lived with his mom and step-dad. Joe comments: “There was violence. At one house, whenever the windows got broken out, the family would move to another room. All the doors had been broken down.” Joe speaks warmly of his step-father; they bonded when Joe “smoked weed with him.”

Fortunately, Joe went to rehab. There he saw what all recovering folks discover: he wasn't unique after all. “You think nobody knows what you're going through. There were others there who lived alone with their grandma, too.”

On the video, when it came time for Luis, he simply says, “Meth took away my love for sports… hobbies,” he says. “Meth became my hobby.” As with many of the others, Luis's comments were laced with a sense of inevitability. When the headlight hits the deer's eyes, the deer just has to freeze. “And so,” Luis says, “I was absent for 16 days, and they sent me to Rancheria, the continuation school.”

In another section of the video, a friend asked Luis — now that he was clean and sober — if he was still invited to turn on at parties. Luis smiled, and leaned his head back. “Yeah man, it happens all the time. I'm asked all the time. Man, if you can't say no, just walk away. Just walk away from that little group.”

In Luis's wistful manner, there seemed great, though not bitter, regret. As he looked to the hills beyond, I swear I heard Marlon Brando's words to his brother in “On the Waterfront:” “I could have been a contender.” I think Luis, and all the others down deep in them “have the right stuff.” Each of them, in his own way, in her own way, can still be a contender. Cesar Chavez, Lincoln and Mark Twain would have fit right in, in Anderson Valley. 

(For your own copy of “The End of Silence” send $30 to Heidi Knott; Box 589; Philo, CA 95466.)

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