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dirtyCould you follow three drug-addicted teens through juvenile court, rehab, therapy, and AWOLs, then write a book on your discoveries? Well, that's exactly what author Meredith Maran does. Her latest book "Dirty: A Search for the Answers Inside America's Drug Epidemic," focuses on the lives of three erratic Bay Area teenagers who battle drug addictions and life issues. Maran shadows the adolescents for one year, discovering that teenage drug abuse entails much more than what's visible on the surface.

Mike, a 17-year-old crank user, grew up in the white working-class suburbs of Santa Rosa. After taking drugs and drinking excessively, Mike was turned in to the police by his father and was incarcerated in Center Point Adolescent, a residential rehab program.

Tristan, a 15-year-old pot, pill and mushroom user, lives in affluent Marin County, making evident that money proves insufficient to buy sobriety or love. After stealing prescription drugs from medicine cabinets, selling pot at school, driving drunk without a license in "borrowed" cars and tripping on mushrooms, Tristan landed headfirst in several therapy groups, a therapeutic boarding school in Utah, an Oregon wilderness program and finally Phoenix Academy, one of 25 such recovery schools nationwide.

Zalika, a 16-year-old middle-class African American girl from El Sobrante, ran away from home and began prostituting and dealing crack at age 12. Four years later, she finally agreed to enroll in the Richmond Juvenile Drug Court and its counseling program, Choices. She is AWOL once again, hiding from the law and spending her nights on the street.

In addition to telling the real stories of real life teens and their families, Maran peppers the book with meticulously researched facts, penetrates the stigmas and misconceptions of addiction and drug rehab programs, and unravels the truths of the families' ordeals. She reveals, for example, that those in drug rehab centers are there for more than just recovery from drugs.

In exploring the lives of these three adolescents -- as well as that of her own son who is a recovering addict -- Maran is able to speak to readers with sincere honesty about trying to help youth grow up to be responsible adults in a world that overlooks them. Though at times I felt stabs of anger and distress at the parents for not listening to their teenagers, and at the teenagers for continuing to rebel, I realized that this is what Maran intended. She hopes that we try to understand the problems they face and find solutions that would prove most effective. Her meditations force us to take a closer look at the drug reality of our country, and in doing so, help us to feel more compassion for those recovering from drugs.

After reading "Dirty," I couldn't help but wonder what this reporter was like away from her laptop computer and far from adolescent drug rehabilitation programs.

WireTap: Who did you intend the audience of this book to be, and what do you hope they get from it?

Meredith Maran:
I guess when I was writing, the people I had in mind or in my heart, really, were parents who were going through similar situations to the ones that I went through with my son. You liked it?

WT: Yes, I did. It was really amazing.

Oh, okay, well, that means a lot. See, I'm really into seeing teenagers liking it, too. So that's always my ultimate praise that if high school kids like it.

Anyway, the worst thing in my life was the eight years or so that my son was in so much trouble, Jesse, and during that time, I felt really isolated. I felt like there was nothing I could -- nothing I did seemed right and I didn't really know where to turn, even though I had a lot of support in my life... So I really, genuinely, wanted to look into the questions that I laid out in the book. Why do kids do drugs, and what are we doing for them now, when they do, and what could we be doing now that would be better?

One of the biggest points I try to make in the book is that each child, each family, really has their own set of needs, their own solutions for the same issues. They would be different depending on who's having them. One of the problems we have right now in the way that we deal with teenagers and issues with teenagers is that we have so many budget cuts, and so few resources available.

WT: What kind of teenagers did you have in mind when you began writing this book, and how did you come to choose Mike, Tristan, and Zalika as "the ones?"

When I started researching it, I wanted to have the most representative selection of teenagers that I could have. And when I started the research, I didn't really know what that would mean because I didn't know enough about what kinds of kids are in drug rehab today to know what I was actually looking for. So I spent several months hanging out in several teenage rehab programs before I selected any of the kids and I went to a lot of different kinds of programs.

I knew that I wanted to have a mix of kids from different economic and racial backgrounds, and I knew that I wanted to have a mix of genders, and I knew I wanted to have a mix of drug involvement. So it wasn't like, three kids who were all in rehab for smoking pot, or three kids who were in rehab for doing speed, and so that's pretty much, you know, the ground rules.

And then once I got into the programs and started meeting some of these kids, it was really a matter of which kids and parents were willing to do it -- there were a lot of legal constraints. For good reason, you know there are confidentiality laws about people who are in rehab and then more laws about people who are minors. So they had to be willing, and they had to actually be more than willing, they had to be eager 'cause it was going to be a big pain in the butt for them to have me hanging around.

And I actually really kind of fell in love with those three kids. So if I hadn't liked the kids, I don't think I could have been able to make them likable to the readers.

WT: I was really amazed at how you were able to restrain yourself every time Zalika asked you something about a pregnancy test, or when she'd tell you that she'd only used condoms twice. You were able to be so objective and restrain yourself from shaking her and say, "Sit down so I can teach you Sex Ed!" While I was reading it, it really felt like you were really trying hard to keep yourself grounded to just listen to Zalika and not judge her.

Yeah, that was really hard and really necessary, and I still have relationships with all three kids today, and I think it's because of that, because there were so many adults in their lives who were rightly or wrongly judging them who needed to judge them. You know, their therapists, or their counselors, or their parents, or whatever, and I knew that if I was one of those adults, they would have no reason whatsoever to want me in their lives.

WT: Since we're on the topic, I was wondering how you were able to keep such an objective voice throughout your work on this project.

It's different to be objective or to be not judgmental. I was nonjudgmental, but I was not objective. All three of the kids knew -- and still know -- at any given time what I want them to do, what I hope they will do. Zalika knows I don't approve of her prostituting and that I wish that she'd stop... And you know, Mike definitely knows that speed kills, and that I think he needs a career or something that would really motivate him to get off of it. And Tristan knows what I would hope for, for him. Similarly, I think he needs something to direct him, something to look forward to, and something that would really move him. So I told them what I thought. It's not like they didn't know what my opinion was. It's just that also I told them I wasn't going to stop hanging out with them or you know, harp on them about it. I just kind of let them know and then I dropped it. And consequently, I think that's why we're still friends and why they still trust me and talk to me when they have issues.

WT: When you were just getting into the project, what kind of direction did you think you were going to take the book in?

I only knew it was going to be a wild ride, and it sure was! I surely didn't know that two of the three kids I would write about would run away almost immediately after I met them. (laughs) I was warned beforehand, and I put it in the book that many kids do run away from rehab. Again, I picked kids who were -- I didn't even know how representative they were when I picked them because in fact, so many kids do run away from rehab programs. And also like Zalika, so many kids who are in rehab programs don't actually need drug rehab. What they need is what Zalika's lawyer calls life court, not drug court. It's supposed to be about their issues, whether they're drug related or not. So at first I thought, "Uh-oh," when I found out that Zalika didn't really have a drug program. I thought, "Oh no, how can I write a book about a kid who doesn't have a drug problem?" And then I realized that probably about half the kids I met in drug rehab programs, not to say they didn't use drugs, but the main issues they had were not drug addictions. So anyway, I really didn't know. I just knew that if I found the right kids, and if they trusted me enough, I could get their stories out to the world, and that was my goal, and that was what happened.

WT: How did you begin gathering facts and surveys that you wanted to include in this book?

I actually had the help of three young interns... I used Alternet.org a lot, I used the Drug Reporter a lot, I used Joined Together.org a lot. There are parent list serves that send out not so much statistical information but a lot of the sort of mood and the feeling of what parents are going through...The statistics was really a matter of reading everything I could get my hands on. I slaved through 40,000 brochures. Any organization I could find and research, watching TV and reading the newspaper and all that stuff, and taking all these numbers. The numbers varied so much. And it was really hard� I don't have a lot of confidence in numbers to start with because I think it's pretty much bullshit.

WT: It's all black and white.

And also, people lie. They obviously, if I want to prove that there's a big drug epidemic, I'm going to use the most dramatic statistics. And I also found that the way the research was done, most of it required a teenager in their own home with their parents possibly listening to say how many times a week they smoke pot. I just don't trust those numbers. So anyway, I just did the best I could based on my own experience, what I knew from writing a lot on teenagers I had observed and tried to fold that into what the numbers actually said.

WT: How were you able to take your research, your observations from the three teens, and what you already know from personal experience with Jesse, and mesh it all together?

You know, I spent a solid year doing nothing but hanging out with them and at some point, during that process I started actually writing a draft of the book but most of my energies the first year was... just finding them, and getting set up with them. And then the next year was just being with them.

Every day, I'd just get up and go to where they were, and every night, and the next night, and the early morning! So when I was with them, I wasn't really thinking, you know, "Oh gee, how does Tristan's mushroom taking fit into the national statistic on how many teens use these mushrooms?"

But as the year went on, I was learning more about the national dimensions of the issue, I was able to tell them some of the stuff that I think was helpful to them so that they understood, like when they were having a hard time with the 12-step program, in their treatment programs I was able to tell them, nationally, kids were having trouble. Like, "Here are some things that some programs have done to make things more relevant to teenagers," or you know, with Zalika, around the prostitution, I read everything I could about teenage prostitution so that I could understand her better and also help her understand her whole situation culturally. So it was mostly being present with them when I was with them, but then also starting to sort of incorporate what I knew of the bigger picture into my relationship with them.

WT: In a conversation with you, Tristan says about his parents, "They say I'm going backwards. It makes me really angry 'cause I've been doing hella well." You then reflect to say that you believe it really is his parents who are going backwards, and you say you know this from falling backwards on your son Jesse yourself. What does this mean? Tell me more about what you mean by that.

To this day, if I get a phone call from the Oakland police, or even when the bank calls... it could be that it has nothing to do with Jesse. It could be someone selling a credit card or something but just when somebody says, "May I speak with Jesse Graham," my heart just sinks, you know? And I get this panic reaction. And it's been like three years since he was even in trouble. And he was in trouble for eight years before that. It's really hard because every parent wants to believe you wake up every day and you think, "I hope this is the day that he turns it around. This is when it starts to get better instead of continuing to get worse." When things do start to get better, it's like, you can't even believe it yourself. It's taken me this long to really start to feel relaxed.

And I know for the other parents of the kids in the book that, like in the case of Tristan, it's no miracle cure. He didn't wake up one morning and stop using all drugs and find a perfect career and love everybody and all that stuff. He's clearly getting better, and even now, it's hard for his parents to see that.

WT: There's one particular line that you say that I found interesting. "I am dumbstruck once again by the contrasts and contradictions in this girl's life. How did this home produce a 12-year-old crack dealer, a 200-dollar-a-trick teenage prostitute, the possibly pregnant girlfriend of a boy from the projects? Which part of 'intact, upper-middle-class, college-educated, suburban nuclear family' didn't Zalika understand?" So, what do you think Zalika's story and her relationship with her parents say about American culture? Power of drugs?

I don't really think it's about the power of drugs. I think it's about the individuality of kids. Zalika's dad told me, "You know, I have six kids and this is the only one who's in trouble." And this same thing was true in our family and lots of families. There's one kid who's doing horribly and everyone else is doing fine or vice versa. And I don't know the answer to that question, and that's one of the questions I ask repeatedly in the book. You know, why does one kid come out one way and another kid turns out another way? But the important thing is not to ask why, but to ask what can we do about it... I think that the solution is really more important than the question and the solution is to provide the resources that every child needs.

WT: In response to the solutions that we could use to prevent drug abuse, how do you think the Bush administration is responding to the need for drug prevention and treatment programs, and how does this relate to the war on drugs?

Well, the Bush family has had plenty of personal experience with this issue. Jeb Bush (governor of Florida) used to be in favor of incarceration, and all of a sudden he decided he wanted everyone to go into treatment when his daughter was arrested for crack possession. I don't think there have been big breakthroughs in the positive direction since Bush took office, in regards to drug treatment.

WT: So how do you think this will affect the war on drugs, how the Bush administration isn't doing anything about drugs.

Well, it is their war on drugs. I think they should call it off and so does everyone else in the world. But it's not the answer. It's not helping international relations, it's not helping people here, it's a very effective way to put a whole lot of people in color in this country in jail. And that's pretty much all it's doing. And in the book, I list the statistics of how much money they're spending to put people away compared to how much money they're spending on treatment and prevention.

WT: That really hit a chord.

It seems they want to put people in prison instead of helping them prevent the problems.

WT: When the war against Afghanistan broke out, you and Tristan had a conversation about his perspective on the war � Tristan vocalized his opinions quite well. What are the assumptions regarding drug-abusing teens, and how do these assumptions differ from the assumptions made of everyday teens?

I guess that people think that people who use drugs are just completely hedonistic and don't have any of the kind of moral or emotional qualities that kids who are not in trouble have. And I think that this example of, the story about Tristan arguing with his stepdad about the war, and also demonstrating against the war and being involved in a lot of social issues, is an example of a kid who uses drugs also being very much a citizen of the world, able to participate in his family and in his social life.

Yvonne Wong is a high school senior in San Francisco.

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