Sam Quinones’ Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Addiction (2015), has been rightfully acclaimed for detailing and regaling how America became hooked on opiates. Quinones shows how the venal pharmaceutical industry with the assistance of the medical establishment sold the country on the fatally mistaken notion that opiates when properly prescribed and managed were not addictive and dangerous. Free Market Fundamentalism, which is an article of faith with rightwing Republicans, is not a religion Quinones subscribes to. One of the valuable lessons to be learned from his book is that the profit motive, rather than being a panacea, is at best a necessary evil.
But Quinones does not stop there, for in an apparent attempt to provide a happy ending to Dreamland, he claims that the tide of opiate addiction in America has been turned around and that we are on our way to controlling if not eliminating what he calls frequently, with his fondness for alliterative phrases, “the morphine molecule.” That part of his book, the happy ending part, I find unpersuasive. It is a tall tale. And in particular I find the dreamland theme, enshrined in the book’s alliterative title, when it is not puzzling and confusing, to be wishful thinking if not a marketing gimmick. One of the perennial schemes in American marketing is using the American Dream, or one of its many variations, such as “dreamland,” to sell almost anything, even, in this case a book on the subject of opiate addiction.
Quinones apparently felt his narrative about opiate addiction needed the dreamland ending to provide the uplift that American readers, with their incorrigible faith in the future, appreciate and to some extent expect. Both in their own lives and in their narratives, Americans require uplifting, Horatio Alger endings, unaware that Alger’s life was anything but happy and successful, marred as it was by the long shadow of his father’s bankruptcy and by his own hushed sexual molestation of boys.
Portsmouth as Dreamland
Quinones’ very questionable claim is that the turnaround of the opiate epidemic began and is continuing in Portsmouth, Ohio, our rustbelt river city that in the last quarter century has gained the reputation of being, per capita, the most drugged, the most addicted, the most OxyContined city in Ohio, if not America. That the putative turnaround of the opiate epidemic is taking place in Portsmouth is all the more surprising to me because I have lived in Portsmouth for the last quarter century, and I have found it to be, as I have been pointing out in my blog River Vices since July 2004, not a dreamland—whatever that may mean—but the most vice-ridden and drug-ridden city I have ever lived in, and I’ve lived in my share of American cities. I only wish that Quinones’ dreamland claim was true, for if the opiate tide is being turned around in Portsmouth, then it probably could be turned around anywhere.
Unfortunately, a turnaround isn’t what’s happening in Portsmouth, especially in my historic Boneyfiddle neighborhood, close to the Counseling Center. If OxyContin is no longer easy to obtain and if the neighborhood pill mills are no longer flourishing in Portsmouth, the old-fashioned meth labs and heroin have taken up some of the slack caused by the lack of OxyContin. As I wrote about in a River Vices post titled “From Pill Mills to Counseling Centers,” the counseling centers with their sub-Oxycontin Suboxone solution have taken up some of the slack created by the departure of the pill mills (click here).
Portsmouth isn’t a nightmare; there are good people and positive things happening here, but it is light years away from being a dreamland, whatever Quinones may mean by that term. The crooked ruling clique and the addicts, many of whom were attracted and even lured to Portsmouth, are still here as are the people, like Ed Hughes of the Counseling Center, who got in on the ground floor of the business of luring and exploiting addicts. Though the Counseling Center has not been raided yet, Hughes’ local rival in the drug rehabilitation racket, Paul Vernier, had his operations in Portsmouth raided by local and state police and Vernier himself was indicted for cooking the books of his operation (click here).
Once a Dreamland, Always a Dreamland
As evidence that Portsmouth is now a dreamland, Quinone claims it previously had been one at least once in the not too distant past. He quotes former residents (who sound as if they might have been coaxed) who say the city was a dreamland when they were growing up there about forty years ago. Why do they remember it as a dreamland? At least partly because there was a swimming pool back then that they loved that was named Dreamland. But the former residents who told Quinones they loved this Dreamland were all white. Dreamland was a private segregated pool that excluded blacks. White kids may have loved Dreamland, but black kids didn’t. How could they love it when they couldn’t get in? One black kid who was excluded from Dreamland drowned swimming in an unsafe stretch of the Scioto River. When a new, public, integrated pool was later opened, it was named McKinley, after the drowned boy. Quinones knows all this, but he downplays racism in Portsmouth because it tends to undermine his claim that the city once was, and is becoming again, a virtual dreamland. “Virtual dreamland” is an oxymoron. An oxymoron is a contradiction in terms, such as “deafening silence,” “definitely maybe,” or to go no further than the title of Quinones’ book, a “True Tale.” A dreamland by definition is unreal, a never-never land, a contradiction that exists only in someone’s imagination. Just what Quinones thinks the word dreamland means he never makes clear. Does the dreamland in Dreamland exist only in his imagination?
In 2013, in River Vices, I wrote a brief history of the Dreamland pool and of the tradition of coverup in Portsmouth when it comes to racism (click here). One of the most infamous incidents in Portsmouth’s history, the expulsion of all blacks from the city in January 1830, on what was called Black Friday, was soon forgotten, as if it had never happened. The same denial and coverup occurred about drugs until Portsmouth became so notorious not only in Ohio but across the nation, that it could no longer be ignored. A pill mill doctor, the daughter of one of Portsmouth’s prominent medical families, tried to dismiss and ridicule the uproar about opiates by treating it as hysteria, but that did not stop her and her father from being indicted for illegally prescribing an astronomical number of OxyContin pills.
The Roots of Dreamland
Quinones’ history of opiate addiction, at least in regard to Portsmouth, is a little—and I emphasize little—like Alex Haley’s novel Roots, published in 1976, which became a phenomenally successful book and television mini-series. It would not surprise me if Dreamland was turned into a movie, but it not likely would have been without its intriguing packaging as Dreamland. What's in a name? Everything. Haley insisted his novel was based exclusively on history, on facts, on roots, but that turned out to be untrue. He used his imagination rather extensively and he plagiarized from The African, a novel published in 1967. He also talked to Africans who answered his questions by telling him not the truth but what they believed he wanted to hear. The Wikipedia entry on Haley says subsequent researchers “cast doubt on whether Haley tracked his ancestry to a specific village and individual, or was being told what he wanted to hear by people who lived there.” To some extent that may be what Quinones was told when he was asking questions of carefully selected Portsmouth residents, known as "Portsmouth boys," and at least one Portsmouth girl, in the carefully selected city of Portsmouth. He was being told what he wanted to hear, which was that Portsmouth was a dreamland city.
In tracing the history of the opiate epidemic, and tracing in particular the idea of Portsmouth as a dreamland, Quinones at times appears to be more a novelist than a historian. A dreamland is indispensable to the plot of Dreamland. Quinones went back not to Africa but to Ohio, a half dozen times. To resort to an old cliché, if Portsmouth the dreamland had not existed, Quinones, the novelist, would have had to invent it. He needed Portsmouth as the cure to America’s opiate epidemic on which to end his “True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.” “True Tale”—isn’t that another oxymoron? He needed “dreamland” and the “Portsmouth boys,” which is a term of endearment in endogamous Portsmouth, to balance the heroin dealing “Xalisco boys” of Mexico, who Quinones, characteristically, claims were not so bad after all.
Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Addiction: Thinking about Quinones' book in retrospect and especially its peculiar, alliterative title, with those hypnotic t's and lulling l's and that oxymoronic "True Tale," set me to wondering whether there weren't Freudian slips of alliteration as there are Freudian slips of the tongue, and whether the title of the book alone unconsciously tells the true tale about the tall tale, which is that it is fundamentally, when taken literally, not true. Whoever came up with that title was unconsciously linguistically spilling the beans about opiate addiction and about Portsmouth. Opiates are far more insidious and Portsmouth far more corrupt than Quinones is prepared to admit. If Quinones is not prepared to admit it, the title of his book is. To rework another cliché, "Trust the title, not the teller.'' Dreamland is a tall tale.