Book-It is adapting Tom Hansen's "American Junkie," his precise, raw, plain-spoken memoir about becoming a heroin user and dealer in Seattle's music scene, to the stage.
Tom Hansen was an American junkie. Or, if you tend toward the once-an-addict-always-an-addict approach favored by many in recovery circles, he still is — just one who brought himself to dial 911 from a mattress he hadn’t left in weeks, not even to go to the bathroom in his Northgate apartment, in the late spring of 1999.
His wounds were ghastly: a habit so deep, he was shooting two grams of heroin (requiring four syringes) at a time, the flesh on his buttocks so rotted away that doctors at Harborview could see his bones.
But Hansen lived — through withdrawals, skin grafts, months of careful medical and psychological attention. He got into recovery. “I’d thought about picking up that phone dozens of times,” Hansen said. “When I finally did, it was me admitting to myself that I do want to live, and maybe try something different.”
A decade later, he wrote a precise, raw, plain-spoken memoir titled “American Junkie,” about becoming a heroin user and dealer in Seattle’s music scene, published in 2010. It went out of print.
But his story, like his body, got another shot at life.
Jane Jones, co-artistic director of Book-It Repertory Theatre, came across “American Junkie” while directing “Balm in Gilead” (Lanford Wilson‘s 1965 play about a cafe whose regulars included heroin users, sex workers and petty thieves) and decided to set the Wilson play in 1990s grunge-drunk Seattle. Her assistant director, Joy Marzec — whose partner knew Hansen when they were teenage skaters — suggested Jones read the memoir.
“It was voyeuristic, so powerful,” Jones said and paused. “Addiction. It’s so stigmatized, but if it’s not in the closet, it’s in the living room of practically every family in America. Those of us who aren’t addicts, we just don’t get it. How could Philip Seymour Hoffman die of an overdose? It’s an insidious, stigmatized thing that slips into people’s lives and hangs over them and their families like a black cloud.”
She wanted to adapt “Junkie” for Book-It. “The two projects I’ve been most passionate about were putting abortion onstage,” she said, referring to Book-It’s popular adaptation of “The Cider House Rules,” “and now putting a junkie onstage. It’s a gritty, graphic story and we haven’t sanitized it. It would never be a Christmas show.” Plus, Jones added, she and co-founding artistic director Myra Platt recently announced they’d step down from Book-It in 2020. “So — risk time!”
Hansen said he first shot heroin when he was 19 or 20, got hooked quickly and became a dealer. His clients included a few big-money types but “strippers and musicians were my favorite customers.” He writes about selling to Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees, Mad Season, Queens of the Stone Age), who lived, as well as Layne Staley and Kurt Cobain, who didn’t. (Staley and Cobain, Hansen added, had drifted away as customers before their deaths.)
“I don’t know any heroin addicts from the time I was going that are still doing it,” he said. “They’re all either dead or clean.”
Any honest heroin story, told from the user’s perspective, flirts with the obvious “Trainspotting” problem: Hard drugs are fun until they aren’t. How can storytellers account for that without glamorizing the danger?
Ask the experts: Hansen, who still lives in Seattle, was around a decade clean when he started the harrowingly clinical “American Junkie.” Local actor Tim Gouran, who’s in the production, is nearly 10 years sober himself.
“This story definitely shies away from glamorization,” Gouran said. “If you read it for what it is, rather than as ‘oh, this is going to be a kick-ass drug story,’ you will recognize the massive amounts of loneliness and pain this brings on … addicts will tell you they wouldn’t go to the store to buy a roll of toilet paper, but they’d drive 55 miles for a bag of dope.”
“Of course,” he added, “there are times when I’m watching a movie, and someone will have a crystal glass of bourbon with a giant ice cube in it and to me it’s like: ‘That’s great! I want that!’ Then I realize: ‘That wasn’t me. I didn’t drink like that.’ I was the dude knocking back two fifths a day in my underwear and wound up living in a [expletive] blackberry bush for six months.”
When Gouran first heard Book-It would stage “American Junkie,” he immediately contacted Jones: “I said I wanted to be part of this in any way I can, whether it means being ‘the addiction guy’ in the room, or as a part of the cast. I think it’s incredibly important for people to see this kind of story, of a person in a world of hurt and the idea that this can get better. That said, there’s some gallows humor in it, some real ‘oh my God that’s horrible I shouldn’t laugh at that but now I’m laughing’ moments.”
The “American Junkie” team, inspired by something Hansen said at a Book-It season launch party, has taken up the motto: “If it can save one life …”
“I hope people who see this who are in active addiction will know there can be light at the end of the tunnel,” Gouran said. “Your life doesn’t have to be like this. And I am walking, talking proof.”
“American Junkie,” adapted from Tom Hansen’s memoir by Jane Jones and Kevin McKeon. Feb. 14-March 10; Book-It Repertory Theatre, Center Theatre at the Seattle Center Armory; $20-$50; 206-216-0833, book-it.org