Why I turned to fiction to write about opioids

Clip from Cheryl L. Reed's 1994 story in Dayton Daily News. Image courtesy Cheryl L. Reed. Photo by Skip Peterson.

More than two decades ago, I was a newspaper crime reporter in Dayton, Ohio, where I spent a summer following several white teenage girls who were addicted to crack cocaine. (When questioned about the reach of crack in the community, the local police claimed white girls weren’t addicted to the drug, and so I had set out to see if that were true.) One night, several weeks after I’d stopped interviewing the girls, they went looking for drugs and got into a fight with a group of young women. One of the girls—Michelle, a 15-year-old with freckles and long, red hair—was shot and killed.

The next morning, September 21, 1994, my story about Michelle’s downward spiral, fed by adrenaline and addiction, appeared on the front page. The judge who arraigned the girl’s killers opined that I and the Dayton Daily News had “blood on our hands” for not immediately reporting the girls’ drug abuse to the police. The judge’s comments initiated a criminal investigation, and prosecutors threatened me with a felony that would send me to prison for a mandatory 12 years. I was forced to take a polygraph test, at the urging of my lawyer, to dispel any notion that I had contributed to a 15-year-old girl’s death.

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Even now, so many years later, describing those events sounds apocryphal. I’m sure readers of my new novel, Poison Girls, which is based on what happened with the girls addicted to crack, assume the judge’s accusation and the polygraph are imaginative concoctions. A novel is fiction, after all. But some things you just can’t make up. It’s what I’ve always loved about being a reporter.

Plenty of reporters talk about writing a novel, and some do. Many certainly have enough material in their notebooks to craft one. But writing fiction—even when based on true events—has its challenges, and part of that is learning to trust your own imagination as you twist and bend the truth.

 

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For years, Michelle’s death weighed on my mind as I played out various scenarios, questioning how I could have saved her. Several authors encouraged me to write about what had happened. Finally, in 2005, I started writing the manuscript that would become Poison Girls. By that time, I’d already written a nonfiction book, Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns, and I thought the difficulties that lay ahead would be familiar. But the more I wrote, the more I realized I didn’t have enough detail. All I had were my old clips, some scribblings in notebooks, and a few documents—hardly enough to sustain a book. 

Perhaps I could have returned to Dayton, a city I’d left at the first opportunity, vowing never to return. Perhaps there were still a few officials around who would have granted me an interview. But what would that tell me? How would that advance the story? By that point, their memories were just as faulty as mine. And some of them were dead.

I briefly considered writing my story as a memoir. But my memories—even those surrounding something so traumatic as publicly being blamed for a teenage girl’s death—were faulty. Many memoirists step around fuzzy memories or lack of facts by insisting that what they write is simply how they remember events, and by acknowledging that the details aren’t necessarily provable. That approach felt sloppy.

While I weighed my options, another drug war was raging in Chicago, where by then I was an editor at the Chicago Sun-Times. Fentanyl-laced heroin was killing people by the hundreds, many of them suburban teens who were secretly addicted to heroin and opioids. In 2005, Chicago led the country in emergency room visits for heroin overdoses.

Many memoirists step around fuzzy memories or lack of facts by insisting that what they write is simply how they remember events.

In one case, a single drug dealer was suspected of killing dozens of people with a bad batch of fentanyl-laced heroin. Prosecutors charged him with murder, the first time in Illinois a drug dealer was held responsible for a drug user’s death. 

The heroin deaths continued, and eventually became so common that they rarely made the front page. I clipped the stories, many of them briefs, and began to see the similarities between the urban Dayton girls I had covered who used crack cocaine and the suburban Chicago girls who, a decade later, were quietly using heroin. 

Fiction, I realized, would allow me to take the parts I knew well—the girls and their secrets and their motivations and the games they played, the people part of the story—and overlay it with present-day reporting on how fentanyl-laced heroin was causing twice as many overdose deaths as crack.

There was just one problem: As a journalist, I’d never written anything that wasn’t true.

That session with the polygrapher all those years ago nagged at me. As he was setting a baseline, he ordered me to fib an answer. After examining the machine’s scribbles on graph paper, he looked up and announced, with the smugness of an expert, “You are not a good liar.”

I passed the polygraph. My inability to lie saved me from zealous police, but it would be a major impediment to my becoming a novelist. I’d have to spend years rewiring my journalist brain, so wedded to verifiable facts.

 

I began investigating the heroin deaths in Chicago as a journalist. I interviewed the prosecutor who oversaw the case of the drug dealer convicted of murder. I sat in drug court. I dug through the court files of women charged with drug offenses. I interviewed addicts. I interviewed drug counselors and people who ran support groups for heroin addiction. I rode on the needle exchange van. I interviewed the squatters who charged users for a place to shoot up. I even studied a book called The Heroin User’s Handbook, a bit of research that caused me some embarrassment when a student’s parents rented out my house for a week. 

And yet, I didn’t write a single news story about heroin. 

I used what I had gathered from my reporting, researched what I didn’t know, and made up material to fill in the cracks. My lies were like mortar, gluing together bricks of truth and fact, memory and fantasy. It took me 12 years to write my novel and get it published. Much of that time I spent cutting my dependence on reporting.

In those 12 years, I learned that just because something really happened, does not make it inherently believable. The author’s job is to make scenes feel real on the page, regardless of whether they are truthful.

Take, for example, one problematic scene in which my main character, a crime reporter named Natalie, is called into her editor’s office. The editor, an upwardly ambitious woman named Amy, undresses down to her waist to show Natalie her new bra, all the while bragging about how hard it was to conceal her “Playboy body” in the newsroom. Nearly everyone who read the working manuscript complained that the scene didn’t ring true.

Those who have worked in newsrooms probably aren’t so surprised. Most seasoned news veterans know how bizarrely journalists can behave, how crude some newsroom cultures can be. But my book editors weren’t buying it, no matter how much I insisted the scene had really happened. After multiple rewrites, they finally accepted a pared-down version in which Amy pulls lingerie out of a box to show Natalie what she bought at lunch, then prances around her office holding the lacy bodice to her chest. It was one compromise, among many, as I labored to create a work of realism.

What’s not so clear to me now, having rewritten the polygraph scene over and over for the book, etching my brain with small details I’d fabricated, is whether the polygrapher, who I call Carl in the novel, really had square glasses smudged with fingerprints, a menacing black monobrow, and bad breath. I can’t remember whether he wore a short-sleeve dress shirt that revealed a military tattoo on his left bicep, or if I made up those particulars in my attempt to develop a character whose singular encounter with me took minutes, but whose judgment determined whether I would be charged with a crime that could send me to prison for more than a decade.

I wanted readers to feel the fear of being interrogated while tethered to a machine that recorded every heartbeat. I wanted them to feel relief mixed with anger when Carl—after hours of asking questions, including many about sexual preferences and partners—tells Natalie she has passed the polygraph. He then admits to knowing she would all along, because he had administered polygraphs to the accused and others involved in the case. Natalie realizes Carl’s inappropriate questions were simply to satisfy his prurient interests.

Surprisingly, all these years later, the real story of Michelle’s death in Dayton keeps making headlines. Late last year on Christmas Day, one of the convicted killers, a woman name Tyra Patterson, was released from prison after Hollywood celebrities, including the filmmaker Ken Burns, campaigned to get her life sentence revoked. The Guardian even did a lengthy, three-part series on Patterson and how police had coerced her into confessing to robbing the girls during the shooting. These were the same police who had threatened me with a felony, saying I had influenced the girls to do drugs in order to get a story.

When I give readings and talks about Poison Girls, someone in the audience inevitably asks: With the true story so dramatic, why did you decide to write the book as fiction? 

My answer is usually some version of this: Journalism typically captures a snapshot in time. It’s not so good at telling an overarching narrative from multiple perspectives, from multiple time periods. And it isn’t so good at relaying lengthy dialogue that can reveal depth to characters. Factual reporting can’t convey a character’s interior thoughts and motivations. Some nonfiction authors say they get around these problems by “inferring” unknowable thoughts and feelings. But why guess when fiction can do all of these things better?

Even now, much of the reporting on the heroin crisis feels stilted. Most victims die without recognition. It’s so rare for young adults to be identified as overdose fatalities that a Navy admiral was recently applauded for doing so in connection with the death of his son. Many pieces are filled with numbers and statistics but lack stories of real people. Rarely do we hear from the addict who is a young girl, a cheerleader or soccer team captain, someone studying for her ACTs who started using heroin or opioids to take the edge off, or because she felt pressured by a friend or a boyfriend, or who just got caught up with the party scene.

That’s the kind of story I wanted to tell with Poison Girls. Sure, it’s wrapped up in a suspenseful plot and the characters are a tad more colorful than they might be in real life. And it’s true that in most novels the bad guys/gals get their due, because that’s how Americans like their thrillers. But underneath, hidden within the factual details and the characters who are based on real people, is journalism. And sometimes writing a fictionalized story is the closest you can come to telling the truth. 

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Cheryl L. Reed is an assistant professor at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Communications where she is working on a sequel to Poison Girls.