originally published January 11, 2006

DSCN0015_5_2Unlike the other women I interviewed, Jane was not recovering from homelessness. Jane was a crack addict. “Was” is the important word here. She is no longer Jane, either. Though, for the purposes of creating this portrait, she has asked me to use this name to identify her. Jane died… crack killed her. But fortunately, the person who was once Jane has found a new life… helping others who have found themselves consumed by the delusions and controlling power that is crack cocaine.

Her story was frank, jarring, and insightful. I couldn’t help be be thankful that my soon-to-be 19 year daughter was sitting there listening to the “former” Jane’s story. I wished that every young person could hear her story. My daughter sat there dutifully recording our interview, careful not to show Jane’s face, as she requested, and videotaping her hands, recording her voice, her words, her body language, as she told her story of a 20 year love affair with crack cocaine and the power it gave her… a delusion that she now describes as a 20 year mental breakdown.

“How did you get started?” my daughter finally asked her, speaking up from her silence behind the camera. It was the million dollar question. And I hadn’t asked it. I had let Jane tell her story the way she wanted to… But my daughter had her personal reasons for wanting to know. How does one make a bad decision that can ruin your life for at least the next two decades? if not you entire life?

A friend had introduced her to it. And she liked it. Or it liked her. And, as she describes it… if the devil were to put a drug on this earth to control people, it would be crack cocaine. Eventually moving from NYC where she had given up a successful career and filed for bankruptcy due (all due to her growing consumption of the drug), she settled into Detroit where she could hide from her sisters and mother and pursue the drugs without inhibition. Money was not a problem. She sold drugs and people, offering women hooked on the drug as a side sport for those successful businessmen who were making a larger buy. She enjoyed diamonds, furs, fancy cars, designer handbags… only to lose them to police confiscation each time she was arrested.

Facing a lifetime in jail due to outstanding warrants and felony convictions, Jane finally turned for help. Still under the delusions that the drug addiction imposed, she believed she would be able to manipulate the drug counselors to see things her way. And this is where Jane finally died. After a struggle to get through rehab, she stopped fighting and started listening… her compassion came back, her faith returned, her humanity returned… and she began to ernestly face the sickness that was her addiction.

Through divine intervention, or the strong will of a caring mentor, somehow the former Jane has been able to make restitution, and avoid jail time, while remaining on lifetime probation that may be shortened because of her remarkable success. She is looking forward to going to school to work towards a bachelor’s degree in social work. She has already gone through considerable training as a counselor and works two jobs in what is another application of her obsessive personality. She knows herself and she has chosen to rebuild her life in order to help others.

In creating her portrait, I did not have a lot of materials, at least not as many as for other portraits. Instead, I pulled some peripheral materials, photos that I had shot around Detroit… not yet knowing what they might be used for … I also wanted to pull in the cocaine. This is a literal story of a particularly horrible journey and it starts with the drugs. The singular nature of this topic helped. While Jane’s story is far more complex than I’ve outlined here, focusing on this one major storyline has allowed me to create a portrait that is both dramatic and informative. Jane tells an oral history. There were no journals, and very little in the way of written materials and a fairly shallow base of materials from her scrapbook. I was also conscious of the fact that I did not want to put in any obvious identifying photos… not photos of her daughter, sister, brother, etc. While there are some… I’ve purposely “blacked out” the faces using the black bar, a metaphor for the legal nature of protecting identity. So her own words became more important.

Without anything written, I went back to our interview. Jane told her story with an utter frankness that could not be replicated any other way except by direct quotation. I set about to type out the transcript of the entire interview. It took three days, stopping, starting, backing up, revising… Jane spoke with an urban slang that I wanted to capture,especially when she started getting excited about her story. I tried to capture it all.

Fitting it all into the portrait would not be possible. I chose important sections that seemed to tie the key points together. And besides, this was really meant to become a wallpaper, the proverbial “writing on the wall” so to speak. Only key phrases would stand out more than others… And the words would be waving across the canvas, matching the rhythm of the smoke that I put into the image, blending into the doorway with an “Exit” sign over it… The clock from a Detroit courthouse seemed apt, too… time running out… A photo I took of her reflection in her bedroom mirror that had been cracked beyond expected use, her back to the mirror… seven years, and then some, of bad luck… but her back was to the camera and the mirror…. her back to the bad luck. An angel taken from an image she had framed in her apartment… she said she felt that angels were always watching over her. Why, after all, had she been allowed to survive such a life? Her bottle of change… a thirst for money that will never be satiated the same way again.

No…Jane’s portrait became a portrait in drug-abuse prevention. I wanted her story to be there for all the world to “hear”… Maybe someone will be moved by it. I know my daughter was.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006
Mara Jevera Fulmer