Friday, January 28, 2011

Crack Epidemic: Equivalent to Pyro Epidemic

History will tell that the United States of America faced a crippling Crack epidemic from 1985-1990: “The Crack epidemic hit the United States full force, resulting in escalating violence among rival groups and crack users in many U.S. cities. By 1989, the Crack epidemic was still raging and drug abuse was considered the most important issue facing the nation” (U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency). During this era Crack-related crime was all too frequent; according to the, U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, “The Crack trade had created a violent sub-world, and crack-related murders in many large cities were skyrocketing…On a daily basis, the evening news reported the violence of drive by shootings and Crack users trying to obtain money for their next hit” (U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency). In Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler metaphorically illustrates the negative impact that Crack had on the United States; Butler illustrates the lack of control that authorities put around the epidemic and shows how the epidemic highlighted economic division.

Though the setting of Parable of the Sower took place several years into the future, it appears to be reminiscent of the infamous crack epidemic of the 1980s and early 90s. In the novel Crack addicts are represented by poor, scavenging “Pyro” addicts. In regards to the Crack epidemic, several economists “suggest that Crack Cocaine was the most prominent factor contributing to the rise and fall of social ills in the African-American and Latino communities…distribution of the drug occurred mainly in low-income inner city neighborhoods” (Wikipedia). In my opinion, Butler illustrates this decline in the African-American and Latino communities by showing how Robledo, a prominently African-American and Latino community, was destroyed by “Pyromaniacs”.

Although the vast majority of Crack users were of low economic status—just as Butler portrays Pyro users to be of low economic status—citizens of higher economic status were negatively affected by Crack-related crimes such as robbery and homicide. Butler shows how the crack epidemic contributed to social division and tension among poor and wealthier citizens: “We’ve never been rich, but to the desperate, we looked rich. We were surviving and we had our wall. Did our community die so that addicts could make a help-the-poor political statement?” (Butler, 163). Additionally, Butler illustrates economical divide as the rich community had the most protection from drug-related crime: “…although perhaps with their [the rich] big guns, private armies of security guards, and up to date security equipment, they’re better able to fight back. Maybe that’s why we’re getting so much attention. We have a few stealables and we’re not that well protected” (Butler, 117). To an extent, this illustrates how the less wealthy communities were more adversely impacted by the Crack epidemic than more wealthy communities.

Through the metaphorical use of “Pyromanics”, Butler does an amazing job of portraying the real life addictiveness of crack and the sociopathic behavior of crack addicts. She portrays the typical “Pyromaniac” as a desperate addict whose sole concern is just to get high on fire: “Sometimes the paints like the fire so much they get too close to it. Then their friends don’t even help him. They just watch them burn. It’s like…I don’t know, it’s like they were fucking the fire, and like it was the best fuck they ever had” (Butler, 111).

Octavia Butler seems to critique the lack of control that authority figures had over the Crack epidemic by showing the lack of control and concern that authorities had over “Pyro”-related crime. Throughout the novel the police and firefighters were either unresponsive or extremely slow when responding to emergencies: “There were no unburned houses back in the neighborhood, although some were burned worse than others. I don’t know whether police or firefighters ever came. If they had come, they were gone when I got there. The neighborhood was wide open and crawling with scavengers.” (Butler, 158). This may be textual evidence which demonstrates Butler’s criticism of the lack of authority or governmental control over the crippling Crack epidemic.

Although Robledo was a middle class community where there were probably no “Pyro” users, it was still destroyed by the “Pyro epidemic”. I believe that Butler was attempting to illustrate the effects that the Crack epidemic could have potentially had on the United States as a whole, that despite the fact that the epidemic had began in low-income neighborhoods its damaging effects would trickle up and adversely impact the entire nation. Butler metaphorically demonstrates that financial status, in the form of a gated community, would fail to protect from the Crack epidemic; the following passage expresses this idea: “We found the cold remains of a fire with a human femur and two human skulls lying among the ashes. At last, we came home and wrapped our community wall around us and huddled in our illusions of security” (Butler, 133).


  1. I could read this and respond to it a couple different ways. One is by directing attention to your research. You're using wikipedia - which is fine as a starting point (you can think of it almost like a library catalog - where you are reading the wikipedia entry in order to get a non-authoritative introduction and to get some sources) but bad as an end point (you should not be trusting it or using it directly - only using it to get a start). You're also using the DEA. Opinions will vary on the DEA: my critique of using them as a source is that they, by definition, have an enormous vested interest in portraying the crack epidemic both as a devastating problem and as one they've solved. It's almost inconceivable, in other words, that their official account of the "crack epidemic" not be politicized.

    In other words, I think the initial quality of this research is low - you should seek out trustworthy (always problematic, of course) academic or journalistic sources.

    I also think that your initial connection between crack (why do you capitalize it?) and pyro is good. Here's my favorite line: "Butler illustrates the lack of control that authorities put around the epidemic and shows how the epidemic highlighted economic division." I think you put your finger on an important issue: she's not just concerned with a drug epidemic as such, but as both the cause for and effect of a larger societal crisis. I would have liked to see you put more detailed attention, then, on what she's arguing, if anything - if pyro is a way of illustrating the government's failure when dealing with crack, what is her opposing vision? ONe way to answer this question would be to focus on differences between pyro or crack.

    *My* interpretation, which you might or might not agree with, is that Pyro is almost a sick joke - because it *actually* makes people behave the way that middle-class society *thinks* that crack makes people behave.

    In any case, this is a fine start, which needs to push farther, and which would have benefited from better research.

  2. I think talking about the epidemic of cocaine addiction during the early 90’s was a good topic choice. As you made clear, it was an important issue during that time, one that would have acted an obvious critique of what society could potentially become.
    In your third paragraph you used an argument similar to one that I used about the economic status of the pyro users. The person that commented on my essay pointed out that a lot of the users were thought to be “rich kids”. This could be helpful to your argument because I think the next largest group of cocaine and crack users was the upper class.
    I think your last paragraph makes a good point that the crack could begin to adversely affect the middle and upper classes through the evidence of the pyro’s effects on Lauren’s neighborhood.

  3. Dr. Johns, I find your interpretation on this aspect of Butler's work quite interesting. However, I don't understand why you interpreted Butler's work in this way. Specifically, what part of the text lead you to believe that Butler was criticizing middle class society for "misunderstanding" Crack and the behaviors of crack addicts? I really think your answer to this question will give me more insight for my revision.

  4. Tamara -

    This might seem like guesswork, and it probably is. Take it or leave it - it's strictly an opinion, and doesn't have any thorough basis in the text.

    Here's my premise: the way that the government and the larger society understood and handled the crack epidemic was based on a false premise - that "crack cocaine" is different from "cocaine." Witness, for instance, differential sentencing between "crack" and regular cocaine.

    Which isn't to say that "crack addicts" don't often behave differently than "cocaine addicts." But it's not because the drug is different - it's because the addicts themselves are different (that is, poor instead of well off) and because they are treated and understood differently by the police, the courts, etc.

    All of that is background. My actual argument is that Butler - who is extremely sensitive to issues of race and class - certainly understands that "crack addict" is a social and often racial category, as much as or more than a medical one. It has a basis in truth (addicts are addicts, and the drug trade is actually, and not just theoretically, destructive), but it's also a tool and a weapon used against the inner cities (the crack epidemic was involved in the rhetoric of the white supremacists who infested my home town growing up - crack, in other words, gives white supremacists the excuse and occasion to hate people of color).

    Sorry for the length of this. What I'm saying is - and this is rooted in my own experience - that Butler's portrayal of the paints is a little too *perfectly* rooted in the way that scared, ignorant (mostly white) suburbanites portray inner-city addicts. I take it as satire because the addicts are *so* psychotic.

    On the other hand, maybe Butler had some bad experiences with addicts which are at the root of how she portrays the paints.

    Another point of reference here for this *kind* of satire is the old film Reefer Madness - which portrays pot as leading to insanity and mass mayhem.