JK Rowling on Addiction

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the casual vacancy, by JK RowlingJK Rowling's recently released non-Harry Potter novel

The Casual Vacancy concerns a small English town and the race to fill a parish council seat after and untimely death. The major theme is social responsibility (the working title was Responsible) and it looks at addiction (among other subjects), showing a nuanced understanding of the subject.


Terri Weedon is a single mother, heroin addict and prostitute. About halfway through the novel, her grandmother dies, spurring an exploration of her backstory:


-her mother abandoned her and her two sisters when she was eleven

-her father molested her

-her father physically abused her (after her mother left, he threw a pan of burning chip fat at Terri, scalding her arm and sending her to the hospital for a few weeks)

-her only visitor in hospital was her grandmother, who invited her to live with her

-her father claimed her after three days, giving her grandmother a black eye. "When he got her back to the house, he beat and kicked every bit of her he could reach."

-"When Michael was not beating Terri, he was doing the other things to her, the things she could not talk about."

-her grandmother kept her distance, Terri losing the only loving caregiver she'd ever known

-Terri ran away from her father at thirteen, winding up in foster care

-she got pregnant at fifteen, at which point her grandmother disowned her, saying: "You don't even know who the father is, do yeh, your whore? I'm washing' my 'ands of yeh, Terri, I've 'ad enough."


In the novel, she's receiving methadone from an addiction clinic called Bellchapel. She's failed their program before, and is in danger of losing her four year old son, but struggles to stay clean. 


She says "When you were straight, evil thoughts and memories came pouring out of the darkness inside you; buzzing black flies clinging to the insides of your skull."


cover of the book In the Realm of Hungry GhostsCompare this portrait to those in Dr. Gabor Mate's non-fiction exploration of addiction, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. He presents (among numerous others) the history of his patient Serena, a First Nations woman in her thirties, a resident of the drug ghetto in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. 


-Her mother delivered her and left the hospital right away.

-Her grandmother raised her, giving her "the perfect home"

-she was molested by her grandfather, beginning at age seven

-she looked after her younger siblings, hiding them in the basement with bottles of baby food, protecting them from her grandfather

-her grandmother was drinking too much to protect her

-she had a daughter at fifteen, fathered by her aunt's boyfriend, who threatened to beat her aunt if Serena said anything.

-she abandoned her daughter (who's now a crystal meth addict), coming to the Downtown Eastside to find her mother.

-Her mother, on meeting her, stuck a needle in her arm, and spent the four hundred dollars Serena had left in a few hours. 

-"And then she sold me to a fucking big fat huge motherfucker while I was sleeping."

-"Me and my mom don't have a mother and daughter life. We live in the same building; we don't even see each other. She walks right by me. That hurts me large. I've tried everything. There's no point. I've tried to many years to see if my mom would get close to me. And the only time she gets close to me is if I have some dope or money in my pocket. It's the only time she'll say 'Daughter, I love you.'"


Explaining her drug use, Serena says "I was molested by my uncle and my grandfather, and the drug is keeping me from thinking about what happened."


A later scene in The Casual Vacancy involves the parish council discussing the future of Bellchapel: 


"They don't cure them," said Betty. "They just give them more drugs. I'd be very happy to see them out."


"I can think of better ways to spend money than on a bunch of criminals," said the accountant.


"It's their choice," said Betty. "Nobody makes them take drugs." 


"And let's face it," said Howard, "this is a problem with a simple solution. Stop taking the drugs."


(Howard Mollison is the head of the council - a morbidly obese and self-satisfied businessman. Parminder Jawanda, a GP, retorts…)


"Oh, you think that they should take responsibility for their addiction and change their behaviour?" said Parminder.

"In a nutshell, yes."

"Before they cost the state any more money."


"And you," said Parminder loudly, as the silent eruption engulfed her, "Do you know how many tens of thousands of pounds you, Howard Mollison, have cost the health service, because of your total inability to stop gorging yourself?"

A rich, red claret stain was spreading up Howard's neck into his cheeks.

"Do you know how much your bypass cost, and your drugs, and your long stay in
hospital? And the doctor's appointments you take up with your asthma and your blood
pressure and the nasty skin rash, which are all caused by your refusal to lose weight?"


In In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Mate shows how the heroin addict, the workaholic, the Casual Vacancythe shopping addict, the chronic over-eater and the internet addict lie along a "subtle and extensive continuum," although our culture condemns certain addictions and praises others. 


I didn't love The Casual Vacancy. But I'm encouraged to see this kind of portrait in a book that sold more than a million copies in its first two months, and is certain to be read by many more. Let's hope some of them are encouraged to explore the subject of addiction and treatment further, and go on to read other books on the topic. For instance, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.

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