Righteous Dopefiend (California Series in Public Anthropology)
by Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg
–Reviewed by Monica Barra
Righteous Dopefiend is a bold title. And having “there is nothing righteous about dopefiends” as the opening line seems outright hypocritical. But these statements capture Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg’s powerfully candid and unsympathetic examination of the lives of heroin addicts living in modern-day San Francisco.
The result of over a decade-long field study, Righteous Dopefiend follows the lives of several heroin addicts living under Edgewater Boulevard, a freeway overpass in the picturesque city by the bay. The authors’ approach to the project is one that self-consciously “suspends moral judgment.” The challenge to both the writers and the audience is to set aside opinions on urban vice associated with homelessness and addiction, enabling the narrative to emerge from the people who live these lives.
The self-conscious decision to make a critical yet sensitive study is conveyed through the distinct style of the book. The risk of confirming negative stereotypes through “jarring photography” is of the upmost concern to the authors. Bourgois and Schonberg thus create a dialogue between rich black-and-white photographs, vivid excerpts from their field notes, and critical social theory. Excerpts from the fieldnotes give context for images which the audience may not readily comprehend.
By accompanying the photographs with fieldnotes and scholarly analysis, the impression of addiction becomes multi-faceted, ensuring that the addict experience is not pigeonholed. They remark, “as anthropologists studying people who live under conditions of extreme duress and distress, we feel it is imperative to link theory to practice. Otherwise, we would be merely intellectual voyeurs.” Bourgois and Schonberg’s balance between image, word, and theory reflects their research methods, inviting the audience to witness and experience, rather than analyze , this community.
The community created through drug use is the centerpiece of their study. The authors depict aspects of street life through the voices and meditations of various people living under Edgewater Boulevard. The personal relationships between addicts create a distinct community with its own particular moral and ethical rules. Dopesickness, for example, an ailment encompassing the severe physical symptoms of heroin withdrawal, is an experience that fuels the “moral economy of sharing.” Being sick elicits empathy among members who are both friends and enemies. “It is considered unethical,” the authors observe, “to leave a person stranded when he or she is dopesick unless one is openly feuding with that person.”
Assuaging dopesickness is one of the few instances where ethnic and racial boundaries may be crossed. Although the power of addiction may appear to overwhelm racism, division along racial and ethnic lines is part of everyday life on Edgewater Boulevard. When Bourgois asks Hank, one of the white dopefiends, why the scene is predominately white, Hank replies, “You’ll see very few black people homeless…because they’re knocking out kids on welfare.” Several members harbor mistrust and stereotypes of dopefiends from differing ethnic backgrounds despite being intertwined in a network of dealing and dependency.
Besides delving into the shadows of street life, the authors also explore the evolution of love between residents of the camp. One couple, Tina and Carter, develop a surprisingly domestic and committed relationship despite personal histories of abuse, homelessness, and addiction. Bourgois and Schonberg also follow Hank and Petey, best friends and lovers who struggle to live in a homophobic, yet fraternal, environment. Their turbulent relationship is tempered by the impediments that surround them: possible eviction, pan-handling, hospitalization, methadone treatment, and death.
Bourgois and Schonberg preserve the dopefiends’ humanity while simultaneously excavating the grittiest aspects of life on the street, managing to keep their commitment to put aside moral judgment. Reminiscent of an evocative documentary film, their book is beautifully shot, intelligent, and engaging.
Excerpt: Begging, working, scavenging, and stealing, the Edgewater homeless balance on a tightrope of mutual solidarity and betrayal as they scramble for their next shot of heroin, their next meal, their next place to sleep, and their sense of dignity – all while keeping a weary eye out for the police.