Meredith Maran
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Buy *Dirty: A Search for Answers Inside America's Teenage Drug Epidemic* online

Dirty: A Search for Answers Inside America's Teenage Drug Epidemic
Meredith Maran
320 pages
September 2004
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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In the book Dirty, Meredith Maran examines the issue of teenage drug use by tracing the lives of three teenagers though courts, jails, and treatment centers. The subtitle - "A Search for Answers Inside America's Teenage Drug Epidemic" - speaks to her own search for meaning: her son was a heavy drug user, and though he is now clean and a drug counselor for troubled youth, Maran remembers and relates her encounters with court-mandated treatment and visits from the police. She brings a surprisingly level-headed approach to this emotional topic, questioning the benefits of jails, the quality of treatment centers, and even whether treatment is needed in every case where a teenager chooses to use drugs.

Her cases are diverse, and while she hides the identities of her underage subjects, she does not disguise the treatment facilities, drug courts, or jails. She meets Mike, who does meth along with any other drug he can get his hands on, who makes his own pipes from test tubes with glass-blowing skills he taught himself, whose only motivation for becoming clean is the chance to go on a book tour with Maran: "he got clean without a drug program because he had a reason to. Not anyone else's reason; his own" (p 288). She meets Tristan, an introspective and intelligent boy who uses mushrooms and peyote for spiritual reasons, who refuses to believe that his spiritual quests are criminal, and who can only accept the existence of a higher spiritual power (the first step of AA) because of a vision he had on a drug trip. She meets Zalika, a prostitute since age twelve, who sells crack even when she doesn't use it herself, who escaped her upper-middle class life to live with the money, diamonds, and respect that only her different pimps could offer her. She questions the use of the AA program for teenagers (p 233). Specifically, it's difficult to imagine a teenager admitting that she has no control over her actions and that she must give herself over to a higher power (requirements of the 12-step program). Adolescence is a time of asserting control and independence, and the AA model may not work for these teens. Further, she explains that the illegality of drugs puts parents in a difficult position if their child decides to run from treatment. As Maran says, "They can (1) lose track of their kid, (2) harbor a fugitive, or (3) have their kid arrested. Unable to count of their parents' 'loyalty,' many kids run away from home when they run away from treatment... - the last thing they, or their families, need" (p 269).

My only complaint is the subtitle. "America's Teenage Drug Epidemic" implies that drug abuse is a disease and that it can spread like a disease, like influenza. But not all drug use is bad, Maran admits, having used illegal drugs herself and having watched one son smoke pot throughout his teenage years without problems. Drug use may be beneficial for some teens, either by relaxing them, helping them concentrate, or giving them access to a spirituality they couldn't get through their normal lives. But some teenagers abuse drugs; Maran's first son is one of these. But even for abusers, drug use must begin with a choice. Many of these kids have problems that could lead to drug abuse, like poverty, or affluent parents who substitute gifts for love, or drug-using parents, or learning disabilities, or profound boredom. But none of these implies "disease."

The word "epidemic" implies a disease that can be treated. And drug abuse can be treated, but not with a "one-size-fits-all" approach like tuberculosis. Treatment needs to be selected deliberately for the patient, argues Maran and many of the drug counselors she interviews. So the word "Epidemic" on the cover is misleading, as Maran does not argue drug abuse is an epidemic.

But this is a trivial complaint about an otherwise impressive sociological study. Her fieldwork is impressive, and her ability to get to know the teenagers she works with is probably unparalleled in the literature. She knows these kids, and she cares about them. This is due, in no small part, to her own son who was addicted to drugs and went to many different treatment centers. But however she did it, Maran has written a heartful, realistic look at teenage drug use that addresses abuse but does not dwell on statistics. She tells the stories of real teenagers, and she makes it clear that there is no easy answer to any of the questions she raises, despite the vociferous arguments of pundits and politicians.

© 2005 by Janine Peterson for curledup.com.

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