By Geoffrey Norman
It was the kind of story that, five years ago, would have made you sit up and take notice. “Good Lord,” you might have thought. “Unbelievable.”
It was merely a small item in the Caledonian Record, the paper that serves what is known in Vermont as “the Northeast Kingdom.” This is where the state’s old ways, habits, and customs have dug in and are making a stand… of sorts. The “Kingdom” votes conservative, by Vermont standards, and the Caledonian’s editorial page is an anomaly in the state. (Which perhaps explains why it publishes me once a week.)
The Kingdom is poor. The sort of place where the fondest hope of young people with any ambition to speak of is… to leave. These days, they have found another means of escape.
Like the young woman who, as the Record reported, “… took her five-year-old daughter with her to purchase heroin last week, ‘cooked and injected’ it in front of the child and then overdosed behind the wheel while driving home.”
Where I once might have read this and been shocked, my response in 2018 was more on the order of, “Oh, yeah. Another day, another overdose.”
I suppose I’d first started hearing, reading, and writing about heroin in Vermont around five years ago. Someone told me a man whose garage I had done business with was dealing smack. It turned out to be true.
And that man who had worked on my car was not alone. He was just one of many, I realized, as I read story after story about police busting yet another dealer on the interstate, with out-of-state plates, bringing in a thousand bags or more that would retail at $30 each.
I’d moved to Vermont to get out of New York, which was drowning in drugs at the time. I wanted to raise a family and preferred that my kids not grow up to be addicts. And it had worked out. My two daughters had been launched into the world from Vermont, and even when they were in their teens, I hadn’t worried much about drugs. If I had, I would have been thinking pot. There was plenty of that in Vermont, and you could only go so far in shutting out the world.
The idea was so inconsistent with everything I knew – and loved – about my adopted state that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. So I did what people in my line of work do with an obsession. I got an assignment to write about it for a magazine where I’d been publishing some articles. Mostly about Civil War battles on the 100th anniversaries of those engagements.
“From Cold Harbor to Cold Turkey,” I said to my wife when I set out for the Kingdom. My plan was to start there, drive south, and learn more about what I had begun to think of as a heroin “epidemic.” I saw the assignment, in part, as a road trip. I thought about taking my fly rod but decided against it. That turned out to be the right call. It was not a fun trip.
This was in the fall of 2013 and I quickly realized that I had, if anything, undersold the story to my editor.
There is a prison just outside of St. Johnsbury, the Record’s hometown. And the paper’s editor explained that after the convicts are released, many just move into town. After all, behind bars they had learned everything they needed to know to become successful local dealers.
In the middle of St. Johnsbury was an old, elegant hotel that had been converted into apartments for people dependent on “public housing.” Many of them were, of course, addicts. They crowded the street in the afternoon (they were not early risers) and they panhandled and hassled and generally made the public space into an area the public avoided.
St. Johnsbury, which had once been a lovely and prosperous little city, was dying – and the dealers and junkies and convicts might have been the maggots on its corpse.
Before I left town, one of the paper’s editors told me he had been driving to the office on a Saturday morning and noticed a large crowd at the free clinic. Larger than the one a little further down the road at the farmers market.
In Vermont, it seemed, if the race were between the junkies and the organic farmers, then the junkies were winning.
“Well, yeah,” someone said. It was needle-exchange day at the clinic. In Vermont, it seemed, if the race were between the junkies and the organic farmers, then the junkies were winning.
I went on with my travels, covering much of the state. But the mother lode of my research was in Rutland, where the mayor acknowledged to me that his city had become the face of Vermont’s heroin problem. “Ground zero,” he and his chief of police called it. He was neither happy about it nor willing to sit still. He and the chief said they would cooperate with me in any way they could. They wanted it known that they understood they had a problem and were working to fix it.
I spent several days in Rutland coming to admire the people who were trying to get their hands around the drug problem, and I felt the sort of compassion you extend to anyone who is giving it all in a lost cause.
One of those people was a cop named Matt Prouty. When I met Prouty, he was booking a couple of women he had just arrested for dealing. As he tagged some syringes as evidence, he told me that one of the women was a nurse at an old-age home.
Prouty explained how his boss, Chief Jim Baker, was a believer in saturation policing: You go where the crime is. The police knew where the junkies and the dealers lived, dealt drugs, and shot up, so that’s where they went. They wanted to make life as hard for the druggies as the druggies were making it for everyone else.
I rode with Prouty to one of the worst areas in the city. It was also the neighborhood where he lived in a handsome, 100-year-old Victorian with his wife, his four children, his parents, and a brother. There were drug dealers living on the same street, three or four houses down.
On another street, when he parked to point out something, a fat, tattooed woman wearing filthy clothes screamed at us from her porch. Something about always coming around and hassling people.
“We get a lot of that,” Prouty said. He was calm as evening prayers.
Through the entire ride-along, Prouty talked about the importance of staying visible and not giving the druggies any relief. The police would “fight the blight.” First, through sheer police presence, and then by rehabbing or tearing down crumbling buildings and bringing in new residents. The kind of residents who’d make it a neighborhood that didn’t need a constant police presence.
I wished him luck and went my skeptical way. I wanted to talk to someone whose job was to rehabilitate the junkies, not the neighborhoods they’d ruined.
Dr. Cheryl McKenzie ran a program called “Mandala House” which took some 10 female addicts out of the corrections system and put them in a living environment where they received intensive counseling, job training, and close – almost relentless – supervision.
After many weeks – even months – in the program, most were ready to make another try at normal life. They’d gone back to school. Gotten job training. Even lined up employment. Some, of course, didn’t make it. But McKenzie’s numbers were good, and it cost the state less to put an inmate into her program than it did to keep one in jail.
Like Prouty, McKenzie was an incorrigible optimist. She had high expectations and demanded accountability from the women she called “ladies.” This probably came as a surprise to the parents, boyfriends, and children left in the wake of their addicted lives.
She was almost guileless in her enthusiasm, and with her many years of addiction-counseling experience, you wondered how she could not have given into cynicism, or even nihilism.
She was almost guileless in her enthusiasm, and with her many years of addiction-counseling experience, you wondered how she could not have given into cynicism, or even nihilism. She encouraged me to talk to her ladies and listen to their stories, which I did.
And I found them… boring.
In the essentials, every down-and-out junkie’s legend is the same. The great first high. Then the quest to replicate it. Then the desperate effort to satisfy the craving. Then the one to kill the pain of withdrawal… the degradation… hitting bottom.
I’ve always thought that the famous Tolstoy epigram, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” stands truth on its head. And the same is true for the tales from the land of the junkies. Their stories all sound the same, striking all the same chords of self-pity and narcissism. Prouty and McKenzie, on the other hand, have real stores to tell.
I had been hanging around for a couple of days when McKenzie asked if I would like to sit in on one of her “staff meetings.”
I said, “Of course,” though I almost wanted to warn her against trusting any writer – even me – to that degree.
The meeting consisted of maybe a dozen-and-a-half social services professionals, including case workers, probation officers, job trainers, and the like. They all carried file folders full of papers, and they were serious. Earnest, but not quite grim.
The meeting started, and after McKenzie introduced me, the women talked in turn. They consulted their folders and reported on the progress of one lady or another. This one had completed phase one of her job training, that one had earned a GED, and so forth.
Then, when it came her turn, one young staffer looked straight at me.
“You know what the real problem is?”
When McKenzie had introduced me, she had mentioned the name of the magazine I was writing for. It was the Weekly Standard. Conservative, but prudentially so. Sober, intellectual, and respectable. But even before the age of Donald Trump, the bonds of civility were being strained and rank partisanship was more and more the music of the spheres.
I sort of expected to be told that I, or maybe we – Bill Kristol and I – were the problem. I hunkered down and said, “Ah, no. I don’t think I do.”
“Well,” she said, stern and formidable, “We are enabling these people.”
From there, it went like I described it in the Standard:
“We make it too easy for them.”
“There are so many programs. So much assistance. This is a good place to be an addict and a single mom.”
The woman is not exactly angry and this is not the usual political rant against welfare mothers and paternalistic government. I’m the one who is supposed to be giving that familiar speech. This woman works for the paternalistic government, after all, and her clients are welfare mothers. Her words are spoken out of a deep frustration. And it is shared, around the table, as women nod and detail the various programs by their acronyms – WIC, EBT, etc.
That was a “scales falling from eyes” moment for me.
So much concern and pity lavished on these people. So much hard work put in by the Cheryl McKenzies and the Matt Proutys. All to save these people from themselves. The unfairness of it all strained my admittedly poor sense of Christian charity. Prouty watching the neighborhood where he lived with his parents, children, and siblings sink into a decline that looked irreversible because of people like the woman who had come outside to yell obscenities at him.
After that meeting with McKenzie and her staff, I went home and wrote my story.
The Standard published it. Even put it on the cover.
That was November 2013.
Two months later, Gov. Peter Shumlin devoted Vermont’s entire State of the State address to heroin.
Shumlin spoke boldly of how we “could not arrest our way out of the problem,” and of finding “new solutions.”
I’m certainly vain enough to claim some credit if I thought I could get away with it. But the truth is, Shumlin didn’t need to read an article in a conservative journal to learn that Vermont had a heroin problem. Like all of us who passed our days in the state … he knew. Because by then, it was impossible not to know.
Vermont, and its drug problem, became the subject of articles in publications ranging from the New York Times, to Rolling Stone, to Al Jazeera.
Shumlin’s new approach – prevention and treatment over arrest and incarceration – was widely praised, including by the administration in Washington. There seemed to be a conviction that the state’s general sense of enlightenment – Shumlin had, after all, just proposed a single-payer health insurance program – would carry the fight against heroin and opioid addiction to success.
But you continued hearing the awful stories. One in eight babies born at Rutland Regional Medical Center is addicted. Eleven people were treated for overdosing in a single day in one town. That day, incidentally, was Independence Day, with heroin as a new sort of fireworks display.
Everyone had a story. A classmate of my younger daughter died of an overdose. My daughter was sad but hardly surprised. “He’s not the only one,” she said.
But in time, if you looked at the big picture, the state’s efforts did seem to be “working.” The number of overdoses began to fall until the state’s rate was the lowest in New England. Nineteen states were worse, in this regard, than Vermont. So, more people in treatment did seem to mean fewer in the morgue.
In July 2017, a White House official with the ugly title “Drug Czar” came to Vermont to praise the state’s efforts in dealing with opioid addiction, calling the strategy “an incredibly valuable national model.”
Easy for him to say. He works in Washington. I wondered how things looked to people in the trenches. People like Prouty and McKenzie. So I went back to Rutland to find out.
Prouty was still there, but he was now Commander Prouty. He seemed glad to hear from me and eager to show me around. “Can you make eight o’clock?” he said, “I think you will find it interesting.”
When we met, he looked the same and his affable nature hadn’t withered under the strain of command. We got into his cruiser, buckled up, and returned to the neighborhood where he lived.
“We’ve been working to tear down the worst places and rehab the ones we can save,” he said. “Like that one, right there. It used to be one of the worst. You didn’t answer a call on that one without backup.”
I remembered it. Rotting clapboards, broken windows sealed up with green plastic trash bags, garbage in the bare dirt yard.
“We ran the squatters out. Got the building condemned and then found an investor to buy it.”
There are programs to help with the financing, he explained. And there are organizations that will come in and do their part. Everything from Habitat for Humanity to the state’s electrical utility, Green Mountain Power, which had taken one derelict building and turned it into a “smart house” with solar panels on the roof for power.
“There are young professionals living in that one,” Prouty said. “And more like them are coming back.” There was no missing the pride in his tone.
The sidewalks had been repaired. And there were parents using them to walk their kids to school. One vacant lot had been converted into a playground. The crumbling buildings on Prouty’s own block had been repaired.
“You remember how that woman came out and was screaming at us? It’s right here.”
It had been rehabbed beyond recognition.
I was impressed and said so, but asked, “But what about the drugs? They haven’t gone away.”
“No. And we still have some bad neighborhoods. It’s never over.”
But things were visibly and undeniably better. Like so many other fights, it seems, in the war on drugs there are no conclusive victories. But that doesn’t mean you quit fighting.
But things were visibly and undeniably better. Like so many other fights, it seems, in the war on drugs there are no conclusive victories. But that doesn’t mean you quit fighting.
A lot of people had given up on New York, after all, before Rudolph Giuliani was elected mayor. The city, they said, was fated to be
the Calcutta of the West. If New York could come back, why not Rutland? Men like Prouty will stand their ground and fight to defend their homes.
McKenzie had, however, moved on. She was in Arizona where she said the heroin problem was worse than in Vermont. But she was still fighting the good fight.
He shares his mentor’s gene for optimism. But, then, if your profession were treating addicts, you couldn’t survive otherwise.
Her successor, whom she had trained, is Eric McGuire. He is a big, friendly man from Boston who will never shed the accent. He shares his mentor’s gene for optimism. But, then, if your profession were treating addicts, you couldn’t survive otherwise.
“We’ve added a men’s program since Dr. McKenzie left,” he said to me, and went on to explain that the numbers were still good. Fewer relapses than those who came straight out of jail and at a lower cost.
“Locking people up is expensive,” he said.
The alternative is familiar, by now, to all. Group therapy. Job training. Close supervision. And, in some cases, alternative medications like methadone.
McGuire made a face when that subject came up. How, after all, can you not be an addict if you need a fix of some sort every day?
“But you do what works,” he said. “For some people, nothing else works.”
I recalled something that Prouty had said to me about how he knew that every day, he had at least one encounter with someone who was on a maintenance program. A waitress. A bank teller. A store clerk.
“That’s true,” McGuire said. “It is about learning to make good decisions.”
He walked me through the basics of the program he uses. Something called Moral Reconation Therapy (MRT), which is describes in its literature as “a systematic treatment approach that seeks to decrease recidivism, or the tendency of a convicted criminal to re-offend, among juvenile and adult offenders by increasing moral reasoning.”
As McGuire told me about MRT, I found myself thinking, “whatever works.” And MRT worked for him and for a good percentage of the people in his program.
Near the end of our conversation, I told McGuire about that moment when I sat in on his predecessor’s staff meeting and was told that addicts were being “enabled” by the system.
He agreed, but not happily.
For a moment, we were both silent. I imagine we were both thinking the same thing: “Yeah. But what are you going to do?”
Yes, Vermont was fighting the good fight. And gaining some ground. “We” are not losing any longer.
Yes, Vermont was fighting the good fight. And gaining some ground. “We” are not losing any longer. And if we are not winning gloriously, then perhaps it is a stalemate. Or maybe we are even doing a little better than that.
If so, it is thanks to people like Matt Prouty, Dr. Cheryl McKenzie, and Eric McGuire. Who are – and may the good Lord forgive me for saying so – a lot better people than the junkies deserve.
Geoffrey Norman is the author of 12 books of fiction and non-fiction and many articles for periodicals to include the Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated, National Geographic, Esquire, Men’s Journal, the Weekly Standard, and others.