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A World of Hillbilly Heroin: The Hollowing Out of America, Up Close and Personal

In a new book Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco explore the poorest pockets of the United States. In West Virginia they found communities ravaged by drugs.
 
 
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Illustration by Joe Sacco

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During the two years Joe Sacco and I reported from the poorest pockets of the United States, areas that have been sacrificed before the altar of unfettered and unregulated capitalism, we found not only decayed and impoverished communities but shattered lives.  There comes a moment when the pain and despair of constantly running into a huge wall, of realizing that there is no way out of poverty, crush human beings.  Those who best managed to resist and bring some order to their lives almost always turned to religion and in that faith many found the power to resist and even rebel.

On the Pine Ridge Lakota reservation in South Dakota, where our book  Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt opens, and where the average male has a life expectancy of 48 years, the lowest in the western hemisphere outside of Haiti, those who endured the long night of oppression found solace in traditional sweat lodge rituals, the Lakota language and cosmology, and the powerful four-day Sun Dance which I attended, where dancers fast and make small flesh offerings.

In Camden, New Jersey, it was the power and cohesiveness of the African-American Church.  In the coalfields of southern West Virginia, it was the fundamentalist and evangelical protestant churches, and in the produce fields of Florida, it was the Catholic mass.

Those who are not able to hang on, fall long and hard.  They retreat into the haze of alcohol -- Pine Ridge has an estimated alcoholism rate of 80% -- or the harder drugs, easily available on the streets of Camden: from heroin to crack to weed to something called Wet, which is marijuana leaves soaked in PCP.  In the produce fields, drinking was also a common release.

In West Virginia, however, the drug of choice was OxyContin, or “hillbilly heroin.”  Joe and I went into some old coal camps, largely abandoned, and there it was as if we were interviewing zombies; the speech and movements of those we met were so bogged down by opiates that they were often hard to understand. This passage from the book is a look at some of those West Virginians, discarded by the wider society, who struggle to deal with the terrible pain of rejection and purposelessness that comes when there is a loss of meaning and dignity. --  Chris Hedges, August 2012

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A Community on Overdose

About half of those living in McDowell County depend on some kind of relief check such as Social Security, Disability, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, retirement benefits, and unemployment to survive. They live on the margins, check to check, expecting no improvement in their lives and seeing none. The most common billboards along the roads are for law firms that file disability claims and seek state and federal payments. “Disability and Injury Lawyers,” reads one. It promises to handle “Social Security. Car Wrecks. Veterans. Workers’ Comp.” The 800 number ends in COMP.

Harry M. Caudill, in his monumental 1963 book Night Comes to the Cumberlands, describes how relief checks became a kind of bribe for the rural poor in Appalachia. The decimated region was the pilot project for outside government assistance, which had issued the first food stamps in 1961 to a household of fifteen in Paynesville, West Virginia. “Welfarism” began to be practiced, as Caudill wrote, “on a scale unequalled elsewhere in America and scarcely surpassed anywhere in the world.” Government “handouts,” he observed, were “speedily recognized as a lode from which dollars could be mined more easily than from any coal seam.”

 
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