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Maybe before I say anything else I should say that How To Stop Time is well written and interesting. I found it fascinating in fact. All the way through it, I debated whether or not I liked Ann Marlowe, whether I agreed with her, and whether I believed her.
I'm sure my reaction is largely personal, because I have some things in common with Marlowe: she is just a couple of years older than me, and she was into the New York indie-rock scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s, as I was to some extent, when I was at graduate school doing a Ph.D. in philosophy in New Jersey. So we probably listened to some of the same songs and maybe even went to some of the same concerts. She was a philosophy major at Harvard, and her preface is probably the only drug memoir that thanks three major American philosophers for their influence.
On the other hand, it's clear to me that I'm very different from Marlowe. I've never taken hard street drugs, and have never been even remotely tempted. Reading her memoir made me feel like a soft person. I often felt repelled by her. While my reaction to the book may be very personal, I suspect that most readers will have similar reactions even if they don't have the same parallels with the author's life.
On the back of the dust jacket, the praising blurbs use phrases like "stone-cold dissector," "very moral," "austere," "unflinching," "blunt, unsparing," and "intellectually incendiary." The adjective that came to my mind was "brutal." She describes her friends, her fellow users, her family, and her love life. Let me give a longish quote to convey some of the flavor of the book. She was with her boyfriend Scott for seven years, through college and after. One day they go for a pizza and he tells her, out of the blue, that he wants her out of his apartment "in the next day or two." She describes her reaction to the breakup, in the "dumped" entry.
Life without Scott was lonely at first. I did go to bed with Hans, who turned out to have the smallest dick of any man I've been with before or since, and then I thought: what's next? None of the men I knew were right. Single life didn't offer many advantages, since I'd done what I wanted to even when we were together, and there were the usual awkwardnesses about shared friends. I had been part of a couple for my entire post-college life, and since I had taken coupledom as the norm, I felt profoundly out of step.
Scott did not come crawling back. I met his new girlfriend, Sandy, who was sweet, socially smooth and unlike me as possible in physique and sytle: boyish-figured, short, pale, freckled, with a Saphic buzz cut and loose-fitting pastel Brooks Brothers clothes. She ran even more every day than I did and I privately thought of her as the Women's Pro Golf Tour girl. Sandy was a Catholic, and I was infuriated when I heard she was converting to Judaism to marry Scott. It had never occurred to me to try to please Scott at all, much less take a drastic step like that.
Often coming across as a bitch, Marlowe is hard on others and herself. She makes no excuses for her heroin use, and she makes no apology. She is clear that doing heroin is a bad idea. Being a user means wasting large amounts of one's life in finding the drug and living under its influence. It messes with one's relationships, and means one is not facing life. At the end of the book, she suggests that it prevents one from facing one's mortality--indeed, that's the point of the book title, How to Stop Time.
Combining her hardness with armchair philosophizing, Marlow generalizes about the nature of addiction. She denies that the craving for heroin is ever overwhelming: in her view, addiction is always a choice. Of course, it is generally an irrational choice, attempting to re-experience the magical First Time one experienced it. But it continued to have real attractions: being a "heroin user" made her feel special and different. She shows pride in the identity and the drug effects, expressing contempt for hippy drugs like pot that deliver a spaced out high. She credits heroin with making her a better, more rigorous writer. But she felt that she really only got the benefit after she had stopped taking it.
Marlowe did not go through any treatment program, and does not see drug addiction as an illness. She stopped cold, but rejects the horror stories of quitting "cold turkey." She says the withdrawal symptoms are comparable to bad flu, and are no excuse for any criminal behavior. Her own career did not seem to suffer from her drug taking: she worked on Wall Street after Harvard, making plenty of money. She travelled to remote places around the world on her own. She also started writing, mostly rock criticism, for publications like the Village Voice. Marlowe never injected heroin into herself: she always snorted. She was never a junkie, and she never had to prostitute herself or degrade herself in order to get money for drugs. She was never arrested, and I imagine that even writing a memoir about her illegal activities in the past does not place her in danger for future arrest. She knows how to benefit from her experiences.
Her childhood was as individual as any other. She grew up in an intellectual east coast family; her father suffered from Parkinson's disease which cast a shadow over her life after the age of eight. Also important was the revelation, after her father's death, that he had had an incestuous relationship with his sister. This news leads Marlowe to reinterpret many memories, and alters her relationships with both her mother and brother. But she never suggests that her difficult childhood drove her to drugs.
Even granting that Marlowe is accurately depicting her own drug life without self-deception, we are left with the question of how much she is entitled to generalize from it. Of course there are plenty of accounts of drug taking, and Marlowe is familiar with most of them. She is impatient with many of them. One she does not mention is The Heroin Users by Tam Stewart. Stewart describes her first hit of heroin as a disappointment: she didn't get high and she vomited. In contrast to Marlowe's description of heroin use as trying to recapture the first time, Stewart says she had to work at becoming an addict. While Stewart, like Marlowe, is unwilling to plead the victim role, she does put heroin addiction into more of a social context, and condemns many of the current drug policies. Even though Stewart is from Britain, many of her points apply equally to the US.
A comparison with Stewart's book also highlights maybe the most distinctive feature of Marlowe's writing. Although Stewart tells her story from a first-person perspective, she nevertheless adopts the style of a sociology textbook. Marlowe's tale is far more stylized. The book is split up into 130 different entries, in the manner of a small encyclopedia. Different entries cross reference each other, but there are no footnotes or bibliographies. The entries tell her life story in roughly chronological order, but each entry takes the opportunity to serve as a meditation on a theme. Marlowe is more of a philosopher than a sociologist. What she is more than either, though, is an autobiographer. Even if How To Stop Time is ultimately more about the author than about heroin, it is still a good read.