“Nothing about us without us”
Can drug users speak?
NPR is running a series on drug users in Vinton County, Ohio. In three stories broadcast so far, no drug users were heard from — not a word. Instead, people who use drugs were described by others and in the uniformly stereotypical terms that we’re all familiar with.
Part 2 put a lump in my throat, for everyone involved, but especially the silenced mother who loses her child.
In a story called “Children Are the Losers When Parents Struggle With Opioid Addiction,” a woman adopts the son of a Vinton County drug using mother deemed an unfit parent. The birth mother isn’t heard from in the story. The father isn’t mentioned.
The adoptive mother is the storyteller who provides all descriptions of the drug using mom’s behavior and emotions.
“She was always late, but she was doing enough of her case plan that she was really close to getting him back. And she was actually about a month from getting him back, and she came to a visit under the influence. And she actually – they tried to drug test her, but she ran.”
“So she went MIA for a couple of months after that, and at that particular time, that’s when they filed to terminate her rights. So after they terminated her rights, I emailed some of the supervisors just to say, hey, you know, he’s been with me (as a foster child); I don’t know what – exactly what to do, but if it, you know, gets to that point, I – you know, I want to adopt him.”
“It was a struggle because, you know, for the adoption, that was the happiest day of my life, and it was the worst for hers. One of the last times I talked to her at his last visit, she was in prison, and…”
“She gets a last – after the rights were terminated, they get a goodbye visit. She wasn’t really sure what we were doing there at first, but when she found out, it – she started crying. And, you know, I think then, finally, she realized, this is really going to happen. And I don’t know. It was heartbreaking.”
The adoptive mother tells the story with kindness and insight. But is it journalistically and culturally appropriate for her to be the sole voice for the birth mother? The woman who lost her child is not a barn animal or a freak or a piece of garbage. She’s a human being who lost her child and is entitled to be heard, not spoken for by others.
What if mom’s drug use were treated like alcohol use, getting her in trouble only if she did something harmful?
What if mom could use drugs in the confines and context of civil society rather than as an outcast?
What if mom could be judged on the content of her character rather than the content of her urine?
The belief that drug use strips a person of humanity, the right to be heard and an obligation for other to listen to them is a bigotry so pervasive that even an NPR reporter accepts the silencing of drug users as natural.
Can you imagine a story on “what gays are like” or about a child being taken away from gay parents to be broadcast with the gay person not being heard from?
“Nothing about us without us” is a term often used by marginalized groups asserting their humanity. The disability rights movement used this concept to powerful effect. “Nothing about us without us.”
When’s the last time you’ve seen the picture of a heroin user at work? I suspect never, although most heroin users work and at levels nearly the same as non-users. Imagine if alcohol users were portrayed exclusively as drunks in the gutter. The particular photo might be true, but it would be false in its representation of alcohol users as a whole.
If this one NPR story were an exception, it would not matter. But this NPR story is, at its core, a lie. The facts are right, but the story is not true. Or, at the least, incompletely told.
Is the mother really a stereotype as she’s presented? We know that she came for her child, and that the government chased her away because of a urine test, not because of her behavior to the child.
Did mom have a different perspective on what happened? I suspect she did.
Our own prejudices are the hardest to see.
— Dennis Cauchon
Dennis Cauchon, a former national reporter for USA Today, is the founder and president of Harm Reduction Ohio.
The Vinton County series, by NPR reporter and host Rachel Martin, can be found here:
Part 1: “In Rural Ohio, An Opioid Crisis Becomes A Meth Crisis”
Part 2: “Children Are the Losers When Parents Struggle With Opioid Addiction”
Part 3: “Teachers See Firsthand The Effects Of Drug Crisis On Children”