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Lessons of the Narcotic Farm, Part Four: The Literature of Lexington

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today, Points returns to Lexington once more, for another revisiting of the narcotic farm experience.  Luke Walden gives an overview of the memoirs and other literary accounts of the institution, written by various addict-prisoner-patients over the years.  Aspects of this literature will be well familiar to readers with more than a passing interest in prison literature more generally, though the ever-present addiction concept lends these accounts their own distinctive quality.  For those of you new to this series, Luke authored Part One of the series, which offered a really useful overview.  JP Olsen’s Part Two reflected on their interview subjects and their subject’s young, Lexington-era selves.  Nancy’s Campbell’s Part Three (itself in a first and second part) covered women’s experiences at Lexington.

The U.S. Public Health Service Hospital in Lexington, KY was iconic of American drug culture from its opening in 1935 to its closing in 1975.  

Facade of Lexington

William S. Burroughs’ 1953 memoir-as-novel, Junky, published under the nom de plume of William Lee, first detailed what was becoming a rite of passage among young addicts in the post-war heroin epidemic — “taking the cure” at ‘Lex’, or ‘K.Y.’ which Burroughs did

Junkie Cover

Burroughs himself was so hungry that he never made it out of the Shooting Gallery (the detox ward) into Narco’s general population. Dope sickness after his last methadone shot drove him to check out two days later, an extremely common pattern among volunteer admissions to the institution, often called “winders” because they wound their way in and out of the facility again and again.   But despite his short stay the place made an impression on him.Years later he penned a disdainful prose poem entitled The Do-Rights about sycophantic junkies at Lexington who manipulated doctors into giving them larger doses of methadone.

William Burroughs Jr.

Like Father, Like Son

Burroughs’ loathing for authority was shared by many who wrote about their time at Lexington, including his own son, William S. Burroughs, Jr.  In his 1973 autobiographical novel, Kentucky Ham, he describes how his father dropped him off there (in 1966 or 1967) for a “cure” mandated by a Florida court as part of a four-year probation.  Burroughs, Jr. as narrator was extremely critical of group therapy at Lexington, which happened only once or twice a week and was led by “some fuzzy-cheeked little shrimp who’d never seen a junkie before he arrived” with such insights as, “we have found that many of you began taking drugs because…you want to be ‘cool’, you want to be ‘hip’, you want to be ‘in’.” Burroughs had no patience for doctors who wouldn’t let go of the simplistic idea that drug naïve youth have to be led astray, “by older kids, by Communist pederast pushers, somebody. It never occurs to them that some people burst from the folds with shrieks of joy….Fact remains, most of us love it out here. Wish you were with us.”

Burroughs, Jr. hit on a profound truth about the failure of treatment at Lexington—it was a top down affair in which “square” doctors alienated most of their patients, many of whom didn’t really want to quit drugs anyway. The persistence of this dynamic finally led in the late 1960s and early 1970s to the adoption of addict-run Therapeutic Communities on campus, an approach which seemed successful in similar programs such Synanon in Santa Monica and Daytop Village in New York.  It didn’t end well at Lexington, but that’s a topic for another blog post.

Though a speed freak on the outside, in Kentucky Ham Burroughs, Jr. describes quickly

Kentucky Ham

What fills the head of the protagonist of Clarence Cooper’s brilliant experimental novel, The Farm, is not just contraband mace, which he gets off on regularly, but also lust. Set

The Farm

The tantalizing proximity of the women’s ward to the male inmate population gave rise to a constant stream of “kites,” or illicit notes, and incessant “finger writing,” a simple form of alphabetic sign language common in many prisons.  Cooper and all of our interview subjects described the courtship ritual of male and female inmates thrusting their hands though tiny windows to “write” to potential mates across the courtyard, often without even seeing their faces.  Patients also went to great lengths to get close to the opposite sex.  Stan Novick, one of our interview subjects, remembered that many gentiles professed to be Jewish because men and women could sit side by side in Jewish religious services. In The Farm Cooper’s character joins special Addicts Anonymous meetings solely because they provide an opportunity to touch his girlfriend, Sonja. And the climax of his story finds John successfully blackmailing a guard for access to an unused stairwell where they can finally have sex.

As our interview subject and former Lex patient Eddie Flowers told us, “The thing about addicts is they can come up with some shit, you hear me? I mean if there was a need to find a way, we found it.” He told us about striking deals with a long-term patient called “Babs the keymaker,” who several times let him into an unpopulated section of the prison for trysts with his girlfriend, Dolores. Former farm administrator Robert Maclin even described male inmates practicing like acrobats to form human pyramids in the courtyard.  When the “hacks” weren’t looking, they would take turns climbing up the pyramid to a low roof outside the barred windows of the Jenny Barn in hopes of receiving what an abashed Maclin described as “you know, what president Clinton got.” This inventive and energetic drive to attain the object of desire regardless of all obstacles is both metaphoric for the addict’s drive to score and also a manifestation of what psychologist and former Lexington patient Dr. David Deitch meant when he told us “there is in the spirit of all human beings the resistance against being controlled.”

Mess Hall, Junkie Fraternity

Quarantining large numbers of recalcitrant addicts in one institution had the unintended consequence of solidifying addicts’ identification as junkies and perpetuating junkie culture. As Alexander King, a former art editor of Life and Vanity Fair who went to Lexington four times, observed in his bestselling 1958 memoir Mine Enemy Grows Older,  “When a young delinquent lands at the hospital he is greeted by a few hundred new connections and a couple of hundred old magicians, soothsayers, and alchemists.” King had little respect for the treatment offered by Lexington’s staff, least of all an enthusiastic occupational therapist who tried to teach him to knit using “horrific colors” while he was still dope sick and feverish. In May this House Be Safe from Tigers(1960), King opines that even if a patient wanted to

…And Knitting

stay straight, “The best the croakers and prison authorities down there can do for you is to stop you from using junk while you’re inside the walls of the institution. Once you hit the street you’re strictly on your own, and the tide of crap that engulfed you and sent you sprawling is again waiting for you right there on your doorstep.”

This failure of Narco to permanently cure the vast majority of its patients is the cornerstone of the narrative in Otto Preminger’s 1955 film adaptation of Nelson Algren’s book The Man with the Golden Arm.  The film opens with Frank Sinatra’s character, Frankie Machine, stepping off a bus from Lexington, a trip which serves as a concise signifier of his identity as a junkie (as does Al Pacino’s character Bobby’s boast early in the 1971 film Panic in Needle Park that he’s “been to K.Y. twice”). Back home in Chicago, Frankie extols the virtues of Lexington to his barfly buddies. He confides his ambition to become a jazz drummer but ruefully acknowledges that his doctor at Lex told him, “If I take even one fix, I’m hooked again.”  This setup is a key source of dramatic tension in the story, though the outcome is, of course, inevitable.

In the Narcotic Farm of story and screen, addicts manipulate doctors they don’t respect and resist guards they resent. They then go home with nothing to support their sobriety but good intentions, if that. Like more than 90% of all patients who passed through Lexington, they don’t stand a chance.  If there is a conclusion to be drawn from the literature of Lexington, it is that pouring federal money into a giant building out in the country staffed with employees whose dual mission is a cross between being a high school guidance counselor and a detention monitor is doomed to fail at long-term rehabilitation. It’s something to remember as we question our vast prison industry today.

I’ll conclude with a recent song by my filmmaking partner, JP Olsen’s rock band, The Malefactors of Great Wealth. The song, Prisontown, is itself a kind of institutional critique of the prison economy.  But it is also just a good rock and roll song, and the music video features footage from a rock concert at Lexington during the wild and wooly days in the late 60s and early 70s when the bars came down and the patients were practically running the show.  Looks like a manifestation of the resistance against control.

—Luke Walden


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