The Dr. Phil show came calling in July after receiving video footage and a copy of my article from a former guest of the show who was living in Annapolis. Sarah and her sister Tecoa, herself a recovering drug addict and former prostitute, were flown to L.A. and placed in “The Dr. Phil House,” a picturesque halfway house-turned-Big Brother compound where hidden cameras would document the young women’s attempt to rehab while the good doctor used his distinct brand of bullying southern charm—imagine a football coach doing psychology—to get to the root of their self-destructive behavior. Another group of opportunists, it seemed, had latched onto Sarah’s story.
The three-part series that Dr. Phil’s producers dubbed “Heroin Twins” began November 20. I tuned in to episode two, a week later, and there was Sarah, looking particularly deranged as she roamed the streets of Annapolis smoking crack and hooking, all of it in slow motion while foreboding music played in the background. And there was Dr. Phil, appearing suddenly on a plasma screen to berate the girls with boot-camp rhetoric: “You’ve entered my world now,” he tells the sisters. And later: “Come tomorrow morning, I’m coming for you.”
The Fall and the Redemption—through self-discipline, of course, and in public, no less. I cringed as I watched; it was my story taken to the extreme. The narrative that Dr. Phil was exploiting was the narrative that I helped to establish. Sarah’s story always required simplicity to be compelling. If Sarah were black, had grown up in an inner-city neighborhood, and didn’t have albums of angelic childhood photos, would she be on Dr. Phil? Would I have even stopped my car that day? It occurred to me that I had no idea what led Sarah down her troubled path; certainly it was more than casual experimentation. As an inexperienced reporter in search of a great story, I had relied on a trite, one-dimensional narrative of tragedy and redemption, the kind of thing we’ve all seen countless times on television and in the movies. I had failed to try to understand Sarah more fully or give dimension to the long, often contradictory battle she’d waged with addiction.
I can still recall a warm afternoon several days after I first met Sarah, when I followed her as she was en route to her favorite spot. She had just been paid $20 by a customer and, after a five-minute detour through the local open-air drug market, she had $10 worth of crack, a small rock about the size of a pencil eraser, which she had wrapped into a plastic bag and stuffed down her pants. She passed through the gates of the old cemetery, following a narrow trail over rolling hills, past blossoming trees and chirping birds, through a dense maze of impassive stones. She slowed to an easy stroll and a rare look of calm came over her sunburned face. Moments later, as she sat atop an old stone crypt, she pulled out her crack pipe and began smoking. “This isn’t me,” she kept saying that afternoon. “I’m a lot smarter than this. I’m just stuck, and I really need help.”