The opioid epidemic rages all around us. Its fires, far from abating, are feeding on themselves. For the first time, overdoses from heroin, fentanyl, oxycodone and other opioids exceed deaths from motor vehicle accidents. In 2015, over 52,000 people died from opioid overdoes in the U. S. No corner, no community is immune. The epidemic has spread through cities into suburbs and has ravaged rural areas. No demographic is spared.
The ravages of heroin and other opioids are nothing new. In the 1940’s and 50’s, they swept through urban New York, from the jazz clubs of Harlem to boho Greenwich Village to Westchester suburbs. For a young man eager to break out of the stifling confines of Jewish immigrant life, the “cool” Manhattan clubs were like a refreshing shower, washing away anti-semitic taunts, money troubles, family conflicts. The drugs were part of, maybe the essence of, cool. They fused with the jazz, the smoky dark interiors, the nodding knowingness of a beckoning life.
This is how Sara, the young protagonist of Sharon Leder’s debut novel, The Fix: A Father’s Secrets, A Daughter’s Search (KiCam Projects, 2017) imagines the beginning of her father Joseph’s twenty-five year struggle with heroin addiction. In this gripping account, a young girl of eight takes us into a striving Brooklyn Jewish family, riven by the relentless demon of Joseph’s need for the next fix. Through her eyes, we see the shame and denial, the hiding of this “shandah,” that supposedly doesn’t happen to “good” Jewish families. This is a story of addiction, not only as an individual affliction, but as a disease visited upon an entire family, metastasizing secrets, disappearances, and transformations. It is a story, above all, of addiction as felt by a child. When the child is an inquisitive, intelligent, and responsible first-born, a parent’s addiction can thrust her into the punishing role of “parentified child.” Psychologists have identified this as a common risk of parental dysfunction and neglect. A child, often a first-born girl, feels pressured to step into the role of “parent” to her own parents, to nurture not only herself, but also younger siblings, to be the provider, not the recipient of caregiving. This premature, unwanted “maturity” reassures parents in crisis, who see their child appearing to cope so well and be so helpful. Sara, the first-born, the responsible one, becomes a classic “parentified child.”
The Fix is extraordinary in its depiction of the havoc that addiction of any sort wreaks on the entire family. Disbelieving grandparents, who earlier had lost another child, blame Sara’s mother for not “satisfying” her husband. Sara’s grandmother, in her desperation, urges this confused and helpless eight year old to intervene, to plead with her father to stop. Her grandmother believes that only Joseph’s love for his daughter will be strong enough to break the grip of heroin. Burdened by this impossible demand, Sara blames herself. Meanwhile, whiplashed by the yo-yo of fix, withdrawal, and the next fix, Joseph morphs from good, loving dad to “monster” father, a looming threatening King Kong who could pin Sara’s mother to the wall and scream for money, and back again. At night, Sara imagines: “Does my daddy turn into a wild animal? Does he stalk and prowl at night when there’s a full moon like those werewolves in scary movies?” (p.15).
In The Fix, we follow the ultimately hopeless arc of Joseph’s many failed treatments. The “cold turkey” withdrawal at a facility that Joseph was sure would kill him, the doctors and therapists, electroshock therapy and finally methadone, then just emerging as a treatment. There are frantic attempts at a cure by “changing the environment,” having Joseph recover in Florida, and finally, leaving his family to move in with his parents in Queens. For the children, each treatment is above all, a separation, an upheaval and most damaging, a rejection. The children are shipped off to relatives for months at a time. Always there is uncertainty, since no one can reassure Sara when the family will be reunited, or even when her father will feel well enough to write. Always there is mystery, as Sara’s mother Helen tries to keep the full catastrophe from her children. Smothered under layers of secrets and silences, Sara becomes a detective, a dark-side Nancy Drew, determined to uncover the truth, not only about her father’s addiction and failed treatments, but about the roles her mother and grandparents are playing.
Joseph dies of an overdose at age 42 when Sara is sixteen. The last third of the novel deals with the aftermath. Sara’s mother doggedly clings to a threadbare normalcy, but Sara remains determined to uncover the truth. “ ‘Why can’t you tell me what I want to know?’ Sara demanded. ‘I want to know how he got hooked on drugs, and I want to know why he couldn’t stop!’ “ (p.149). It is Sara the truth-seeker that ultimately makes her the hero of the novel. She brushes away her mother’s feeble protestations of protecting her from depression, anger and despair. Ultimately, it is in writing about her father that Sara reaches understanding .
This novel has a deep ring of truth and not only because of its compelling writing. As Leder describes, it began as a memoir of her own childhood with a heroin addicted father. Drawing heavily on this memoir, she shaped a novel that enabled her to master childhood feelings of anger, shame and guilt in the service of truth-telling. In this way, the novel combines powerful childhood emotions channeled into adult insights.
While opioid addiction is, sadly, resurgent, general understanding of the causes has become more accurate. The Fix depicts a period in which addiction of any kind was viewed as a moral failing and a result of bad choices, for which the addict could only blame himself. In particular, Jewish communities of the time perceived heroin addiction as something “others,” (non-Jews) succumbed to, and particularly stigmatized the Jewish addict and his or her family. Currently, addiction is widely understood as a medical condition, a disease over which the victim has no control. We now know that Jewish addicts are not an oxymoron. Treatment and recovery programs specifically tailored for Jewish addicts are now available. Nonetheless, a present-day eight year old Sara remains vulnerable to pain, shame and hiding. The Fix has a message of hope and endurance and ultimate triumph for her as well.
Sharon Leder is extending that message to today’s youth struggling with the opioid epidemic. She has established The Fix Fund, a non-profit organization to which all proceeds from the novel, The Fix, will be donated. The Fix Fund will support building community and reducing isolation; fund additional addiction counselors in schools and towns; help establish after-school drop-in centers; and advocate for a recovery high school for youth in treatment. Meanwhile, put this book in the hands of every older child and teenager you can find, Jewish or not. You may think they are untouched by the opioid epidemic, but you are probably wrong.
Gail F. Melson is Professor Emerita at Purdue University in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies and in the Center for the Human-Animal Bond. She received her B.A. cum laude from Harvard University and M.S. and PhD in psychology from Michigan State University. Her scholarship focuses on the social-emotional development of children in the contexts of family, school, peer group and culture. Her blog for Psychology Today -- Why the Wild Things Are -- can be found at: www.psychologytoday.com/blog/why-the-wild-things-are.