something shattered inside the words we use… to have wanted a story, whereas life alone was enough

Even after almost two years back at college, and six months clean (or 15 months, if I add the time before my August relapse), I still feel like an intruder in this world. Like an undercover agent. And since no one knows who I am, they say things around me that they wouldn’t say otherwise. Yesterday in class I learned a journalistic convention that made me so angry I had to restrain myself from outright yelling at my classmates.

I’ve always been able to pass as “normal” — I kept all my teeth, I almost always had a place to sleep (even if that place was sometimes a car or a motel), I had enough nice-ish clothes from the times when I was making more money, and I still talked like someone who grew up in the suburbs. In 2008-9 I reached my lowest point, and I was too depressed to shower more than once a week, but my hoodie and jeans were still relatively clean and I would put a hat over my dirty hair. I would still get whistles and propositions, so I guess I still looked okay.

Now that I’m clean and “better,” my appearance and demeanor have made it almost too easy to slip back into the “real world.” Back when I first started doing heroin, I marveled at how I had spent my whole life in the “real world” and now I had found this thing that opened up a whole other side to life — like Alice stepping through the looking glass. A whole world where nothing matters, no one cares, there are no goals or aspirations, only the all-encompassing high. You think nothing can separate you from your own personality, but heroin can. The effect was one of a disorienting scale shift. Everything I had known became tiny, irrelevant, forgettable. I had to create a neologism for the world I lived in until age 22 — I called it the “real world.”

The darkness was just as big as the real world, if not bigger. Once you find that you have a choice whether to live or to fall into a deep waking sleep, everything changes. You might think you’d miss the good parts of your life, but what really happens is that you will be so glad the bad parts are gone — no more anxiety, depression, worry, disappointment — that you decide you can live without the joy and personal relationships and hopes and dreams. I didn’t do it consciously, I struggled against it, but the darkness won.

And now I’m back in the real world. But I’m still on the border. Some days I almost forget that the darkness is there. Some days I can feel it more, can feel that everything in this real world is a chimera, like looking through the wrong end of a telescope.

It bothers me how easy it is for me to pass as someone who wasn’t injecting heroin and sleeping with strangers for money for 11 years. I feel like I should be covered in scars, like my skin should be a different color. People treat me like they would treat anyone, but I wish I got more credit for making it to class every day, which still shocks me.

You’d be surprised how often stuff like drug addiction and prostitution comes up in class. Last term a guy in class told us how he had written an article about escorts, and everything about his tone was mocking, even though he didn’t mean it to be. He called the women “whores” and ridiculed them for asking to be paid for the interviews. He explained it like they were just too low class to know anything about journalism. I kept my mouth shut.

Then there are the casual jokes about “whores” and “junkies” that seem to come out of nowhere. I can never think of those people the same way again. A kid in my Russian class made some offhand disparaging comment about “whores” last year, and it still colors the way I look at him. “Oh, so you believe some human beings are worthless… noted.”

Yesterday was by far the worst prejudice I’ve encountered, though. Mostly because it exposed a layer of entrenched classism in journalism that I guess I was hoping wasn’t there.

It was in my interview class — a whole class about how to conduct interviews with sources. One of the things that comes up every class period is the ethical issue of changing quotes. Non-journalists probably think that ethics dictate you never ever change a quote, but that’s not how most media organizations operate. You are allowed to take out stuff like “um” and “like” and “I don’t know.” You can cut off parts of quotes and some editors allow you to splice together sentences from different parts of the interview to make a coherent statement. This all exists on a continuum, with some reporters arguing that nothing should be changed, not even the “like”s, and some arguing that you can pretty much change anything as long as the meaning is the same.

The hard part is deciding where on that continuum you fall, and what rules you will use to decide what to change. Most freshmen students start out in the “no changes” camp and slowly relax their rules when they see how difficult it is to do interviews and how rarely people speak without random interjections. My professor, John, is on the far side of the continuum, believing that as long as you preserve the person’s meaning, it’s okay. Most journalists will put something in brackets if they need to add a word for clarity — like, “then I started using [heroin].” The New York Times even uses a bracket to show that a certain word wasn’t actually the beginning of the sentence. Like, “[T]hen I started using [heroin].” That way you know if part of the sentence has been cut. John says you can just leave out the bracket and write, “Then I started using heroin,” without indicating that you are adding words for clarity.

Where it starts getting difficult — and where I have to struggle not to yell at people — is when there are issues of grammatical errors. You’d be surprised how many journalists argue, with no awareness of how hypocritical they are, that if a doctor or lawyer makes an error, you should change it, but if a person living in a trailer park does, you should leave it. My teacher, John, and three other people were arguing this. That if the person is “educated” you should give them the benefit of the doubt and make their speech grammatically correct.

The example was a doctor in one of my classmate’s article who had said, “some people that…” instead of, “some people who…” [“That” is only used for non-humans; “who” must be used when referring to a person.] My classmate had left the error in the quote. John said she should have corrected it.

I’m okay with some reporters having a more liberal view of quotes than I do — if they do it across the board. Which they don’t. These three students argued that if you’re talking to a “homeless person” you should leave in the errors and maybe even leave in the “like”s and “um”s. I was so angry that I think my face turned red. If this doctor is so educated, why did he make the error? In reality, no one talks without errors, not even grammar nazis like me. I constantly say “me and so-and-so” when I’m talking. Very few people talk in coherent, error-free sentences. My professor found grammatical errors in almost all of my classmates’ articles (not mine!) — if a group of journalism students can’t even get their grammar correct in their written assignments, how are we supposed to expect other people to talk that way?

John and these three classmates were arguing that in the case of the homeless person, you want to preserve their “dialect” — essentially, preserve the features of their speech that make them sound lower class. But if a card-carrying member of the elite makes a mistake, we should change it — we’re all friends here, up in the vaunted world of white collar jobs and college educations. It makes me so fucking angry and so fucking sick that these people can’t see how classist this is. What if that homeless person has a college education but has fallen on hard times? “Educated” is a word my classmates kept throwing around, which they seemed to think was a hard and fast category that could never intersect with being homeless or speaking with grammatical errors.

At first I thought I was hearing them wrong or that they hadn’t thought it through carefully enough — but they continued to argue with me and the other sane people, that treating interview subjects differently based on their perceived class is perfectly reasonable. I am still so angry it’s difficult for me to articulate why. It seems so self-evident to me why this is wrong, but I said most of what I’m saying in this blog entry, while looking into their eyes, and they still didn’t get it. I started to wonder if I’m crazy, wonder if a majority of reporters would show this shocking prejudice.

And I wonder what they would say if they found out about my past. In this class, I happen to be at or near the top in both writing skill and knowledge of grammar, just based on my grades, my professor’s questions about grammar and writing, and how few of my classmates know the answers. That’s okay, I’m 15 years older than them, I’ve had a lot more practice. But what if they knew I was a “whore” and a “junkie” less than two years ago, that I was even homeless briefly? If I made an error in an interview, would they change it, or leave it in to preserve my exotic low-class “dialect”? How the fuck do you put people in these categories?

I wrote my article based on an interview I did with another escort. I actually thought it was kind of boring. She didn’t have any scary stories where she feared for her safety — you’d be surprised how few escorts have been in actual danger. She’s a heroin addict, has a three-year-old son who lives with her parents, and is pregnant with the child of an unknown client. Only the last of those facts seems shocking to me. Junkies who have lost custody of their children were everywhere back when I was using.

But my professor praised me for getting such an unusual interview subject, and said, “This is great, because of the 14 of us in this room, how many of us have been a heroin addict or a prostitute? None.”

I was sitting there, trying not to laugh or cry.

And my interview subject had made plenty of grammatical errors, and I had left in some of them, and John said nothing about those, didn’t suggest that I correct them like he had suggested changing the doctor’s quotes in the other article. Because this prostitute apparently had a low-class “dialect” that we wanted to preserve, like an anthropologist stalking an exotic tribe.

It almost makes me want to tell the class about my past, just to try to get through to them, to show them that these categories aren’t as solid as they think. It’s awfully hubristic to talk like this about homeless or lower income people, as though none of us might ever end up in a situation like that.

My writing class last term included me, the junkie/whore, as well as two kids whose mothers had been drug addicts and had been in and out of jail, and two girls who were working at chain stores putting themselves through college. The Hispanic kid from the bad neighborhood in L.A. who hasn’t seen his mother in years — who wrote one of the best essays in the class, a letter to his absentee dad that almost made me cry — regularly spoke in what people would call “black” vernacular. So, if I’m quoting him, is he “educated” or is it a dialect that will add color to my piece? What if the subject doesn’t want their quotes changed? What if they want to preserve their unique way of speaking, not sound like a politician, bland and boring?

The funny thing is, when this topic came up in that writing class last term, that L.A. kid was the only one in the class arguing that you SHOULD change the quotes of “educated” people but not lower class people. The kid who was in a gang at 14 and somehow got his shit together and made it to college, was arguing that it’s okay to correct doctors and lawyers but not homeless people. I guess it’s aspirational — we all want to believe that we are the educated ones, that we will get the benefit of the doubt, that if we are interviewed the reporter will make us sound like the smart people we are.

Well, I don’t want that. I don’t want anyone to smooth over my mistakes. I want them to see my scars.

“Yes, there are moments, like this moment, when I seem almost restored to the feasible. Then it goes, all goes, and I’m far again, with a far story again, I wait for me afar for my story to begin, to end, and again this voice cannot be mine. That’s where I’d go, if I could go, that’s who I’d be, if I could be.”

[Beckett]