Saturday, October 8, 2016

Alexandra Chasin's "Assassin of Youth"

Alexandra Chasin is associate professor of literary studies at Eugene Lang College, the New School. She is the author of several books of fiction and nonfiction.

Chasin applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Assassin of Youth: A Kaleidoscopic History of Harry J. Anslinger's War on Drugs, and reported the following:
Oddly enough, on page 99 of this book about the history of the war on drugs, Harry Houdini makes a brief appearance. Houdini pops up at the end of a chapter about the rampant prosecution of physicians in the late 1910s and 20s, following the passage of the Harrison Act in 1915. The Harrison Act was a stamp act that required physicians to pay a licensing fee for, and to report, prescriptions of narcotics to patients. But the Act was used to prosecute many thousands of doctors – some of whom were dealing drugs and some of whom were prescribing “maintenance” levels of drugs to addicted patients, in order to prevent them from going through withdrawals. Maintenance prescriptions began to take the moral taint of dealing.

Many cases of both kinds went to the Supreme Court. In another chapter, the book treats the case of Dr. Linder, a Spokane doctor who was busted, with the aid of a stool pigeon, for prescribing four grams of morphine. But on page 99, Harry Houdini concludes a chapter about the case of Jin Fuey Moy, who went to the Supreme Court twice, once for maintenance prescriptions in 1916, and a second time for dealing large quantities of drugs and charging money for them, in 1922. Moy is an interesting example of the rampant prosecution, but he also serves as a good figure for the connections forged between drugs and racial and immigrant social groups.

In the Jin Fuey Moy decision, the majority opinions states that
Only words from which there is no escape could warrant the conclusion that Congress meant to strain its powers almost if not quite to the breaking point in order to make the probably very large proportion of citizens who have some preparation of opium in their possession criminal.
Thus the chapter ends with an escape, with Houdini standing in for swarthy immigrants, who were also objects of suspicion:
After he had taken a train from his childhood home in Milwaukee to Kansas, and from there to worldwide fame, the foreign little Houdini could be seen in several states contorting himself into and out of a “Chinese water torture cell.” … Places that had no water, Houdini could sink himself in it anyway, and stay trapped below, while so many citizens waited breathless above the surface for him to perform the impossible escape.
This passage also demonstrates that the book takes poetic license, performs linguistic contortions to match the trickster Houdini, and otherwise offers lyricism as a set of moves leading to a rhetorical escape from the discipline and punish of the war on drugs.
Visit Alexandra Chasin's website.

My Book, The Movie: Assassin of Youth.

--Marshal Zeringue