Literature, Addiction and Communal Response

By Benjamin Nugent, Director, Mountainview Low-Residency MFA, SNHU 

What’s an American writer to do with the opioid crisis? It has ravaged pockets of the country, including rural New England. And it raises timeless questions about the nature of addiction and communal responsibility. Last summer, New Hampshire Humanities funded a public discussion in Portsmouth, orchestrated by the Mountainview MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction, about the opioid epidemic in New Hampshire. The event started with a reading by Leslie Jamison—author of the bestselling and widely-acclaimed essay collection The Empathy Exams and novel The Gin Closet —from her forthcoming addiction memoir-cum-study of addiction, The Recovering. But then the audience started asking questions, and Leslie started asking questions back, and something happened that I’ve never seen before.

An addiction counselor was talking to a former prison guard, who was talking to the wife of a local cop, who was talking to two former addicts. And all of them were sharing widely-different experiences. The former prison guard argued that it was often useful for addicts to go to jail; Leslie talked about the history of politicians using drug abuse as a rationale for mass imprisonment; the addicts talked about what had helped them stop using and how hard it was to stay clean. It was part recovery meeting, part policy debate, part reading, part history lesson. It was a forum in which people from groups that don’t often speak to each other—guards and ex-cons, psychologists and writers—traded ideas. It was a humanities laboratory: What happens when we sit in a circle and discuss a shared problem? 

It couldn’t have happened without our grant from New Hampshire Humanities. Our organization could have hosted an event about addiction on its own, but New Hampshire Humanities helped us pay to bring Leslie here from Brooklyn, and Leslie drew people from different walks of life. The result was a collection of Americans who, for the most part, didn’t know each other, arguing clearly, honestly, civilly, and in person. Right now that’s a rare and precious thing.