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Open Collection of Student Writing (OCSW)

Book Critique: Chasing the Scream

Have you ever read a book and thought: Holy mother of earth! Is there any way that the universe can transport me back and time to see what went on back in the day? Because if the universe can, I am going. Chasing the Scream shook me to my core. As I am typing this book critique, the lush and smooth vocals of Billie Holiday are gently caressing away in the background of my front room apartment in Salt Lake City, Utah. You see, Billie Holiday had her fair share of demons. Heroin was one of them.

After reading this book, my perspective on drugs had changed. Don’t get me wrong, drugs are addictive. Drugs can kill. But what about the people that are consuming them? What about their story? What about Judy Garland? What about all of those Americans post-prohibition era who went stir crazy and did not know what was wrong with them? Do we just let “junkies” die? Why do we consider “junkies” second-class citizens? Are we too isolated in our addictions with technology and consumer products that we often overlook our battles? Isn’t it the same as a drug addiction? Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari is a book that opens the world’s eyes to corrupt politics and of course, the war on drugs and how it began. What we all thought was a problem that started the post-prohibition era was a problem that started long before our ancestors landed in America.

The most interesting parts of the book had to be the accounts of stories that were shared with the author. Billie Holiday for instance was a woman born in the jazz era where racism played a huge part in deciding whether or not she could land a spot in the entertainment industry. Billie’s story is a story that everyone should read and remember. I didn’t think Billie Holiday struggled with heroin, a pimp husband, rampant racism, and did not know that she was a bad-ass woman. Billie Holiday stabbed a bottle in one patron’s face because she felt disrespected and degraded by him (Hari, 2015, p. 21). I feel like her life and story can be so overshadowed by her stellar vocals. She dealt with countless beatings from her husband, Louis McKay, and the memories and feelings from her childhood. The author states that “When Billie wasn’t drunk or high, she sank into a black rock of depression and was so shy that she could barely speak (Hari, 2015, p. 21).”

Other stories like Marisela, Chino, Bud, Walton, Rosalio, and countless others tell of how drugs and addiction have killed close family members, friends, and in Marisela’s case, her own. Reading their stories will make you feel a sense of gratitude and appreciation for everything you have in your life. One important lesson that I can take away from reading this book is that people don’t just take drugs to take drugs. There is a reason behind the feelings of carelessness and freedom when it comes to taking drugs. For Billie, it was to escape the deep depression and loneliness that she felt when she was raped, beaten, harassed, and racism that she experienced in her childhood.

The author Johann Hari gave up his addictions a few years ago to find out the history behind the war on drugs. Johann dedicated three years of his life to travel thirty thousand miles around the world, talked with numerous people, read countless papers and books, and experienced an array of emotions and frustration trying to chase this so-called “scream” that is sweeping the whole earth. Johann traveled to Canada, Mexico, all around Europe, and in North America. But his experience in Canada and Mexico is what intrigued me.

In Mexico, he walked the streets and areas of some of the most dangerous places on earth to talk to people. In Canada, he traveled to Downtown Eastside of Vancouver where drugs wiped out people left and right. The war on drugs left the local government of Vancouver feeling that it was better if all the junkies died instead of trying to help them. Some people in the city of Vancouver said that “the only good junkie is a dead junkie” (Hari, 2015, p.197). As people who do not use, you tend to be ignorant of situations and the feelings of those who do. Everyone has a story. We’re so quick to assume that the drug users that we see on the streets are pathetic, worthless, forgetful, and poor. This mentality does not help the situation at all. The mayor of Vancouver at the time was blinded by ignorance and privilege. But then he saw how these drug users were people just like you and me. He made changes on the local level and the users were occupying less of the streets and some even stopped using. When we turn our eyes away from situations like these, the problems usually become worse and nothing will change.

Everyone has a story. Users have a reason why they want to get high. If you walk the streets of Salt Lake City and stopped a homeless person, you would be surprised to find out that they probably share the same music preference and taste of food as you. My view of those who use drugs has changed. I’m not so quick to judge those who use on the streets. Behind every user, there is pain, anguish, grief, sadness, loneliness, depression, rejection, and most of all, hurt consumed by others who took advantage of them in the past. The problem with the war on drugs to me isn’t the drug itself, it’s the people that have experienced cruelty and negligence at a young age that scarred them. Resorting to drugs was their only way to get their mind off of the hurt from their past. We need to care for them. Love them. Have compassion towards them. I echo the words of Liz herself “Our method is—be a human being with other human beings…be there for them (users). Don’t judge. Don’t tell them how to live their freaking life. Just be in their life. Be a nice, solid presence. Somebody who isn’t going to bow and bend…and walk away.  Who’s not going to abandon them. Who’s not going to leave. Who’s not going to kick them out” (Hari, 2015, p. 157). So be kind. Be loving. Users are human too.

Works Cited

Hari, Johann. Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2015. Print.


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