Another casualty: A review of A Boy Who Mattered
In January 2019, the National Institute on Drug Abuse issued an updated report on the use of opioids in the United States, including this observation:
In 2017, more than 47,000 Americans died as a result of an opioid overdose, including prescription opioids, heroin, and illicitly manufactured fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid. That same year, an estimated 1.7 million people in the United States suffered from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers, and 652,000 suffered from a heroin use disorder (not mutually exclusive).
Some of us have only secondhand knowledge of the damage done by these drugs, not just to those who use and abuse them, but also to the families and friends who share their agonies. We read the reports of drug dependency, or watch documentaries on television, and think, “There but for the grace of God go I.” We see the devastation, but we don’t really understand the mental and emotional cost of dealing with a relative or friend hooked on opioids or heroin.
Then there are those who in the thick of this battle, watching loved ones whose lives have gone off the rails, trying, often in vain, to help them on the road to recovery, desperate to find some remedy to allow those so addicted to conquer their dependency and find the path to a chemical-free life.
Retired police detective and writer Marshall Frank belongs to the latter group.
In A Boy Who Mattered: Examining the Roots of Drug Addiction (Frankly Speaking Enterprises, 2019, 229 pages), Frank tells the story of his first-born son, Bennett (1960-2019), who began using drugs before he became a teenager and remained an addict until his death. The product of a broken home — Frank’s wife, Betty Jo, left him without explanation when Bennett was still a baby — Bennett grew into adolescence with little influence from Frank, kept at a distance by Betty Jo. She openly smoked marijuana in her home and first offered it to her son at age 12
From that point, Bennett spent the rest of his life obsessed with drugs. The consequences of that addiction became quickly apparent. As a teenager, he several times ran away from home. As an adult, he found and lost many jobs. He was in and out of various treatment programs, but nothing worked. Frank’s many efforts to help his son — encouraging him to enlist in the Army or to attend college, finding him places to live, including a home Frank paid for himself, giving him money or even food — also failed.
Bennett was a gifted man, highly intelligent, a musician who could play the piano by ear and a poet who left behind pages of verse, some of which Frank includes here. The excerpts from his journal, called here “the sufferer’s diary,” contain flashpoints of brilliance. In several chapters at the end of A Boy Who Mattered, Bennett’s children and several others write fondly of him, and forgive him for his addiction and his absence in their daily lives. His daughter’s words remind us that even those whom society condemns as weak and pitiable are also human beings: “Dad loved with his whole heart. He was kind and thoughtful. He was a writer, a poet, father, a son, a grandfather, and an old soul.”
In the second half of this book, Frank gives his readers a larger view of the horrendous damage done by drugs in the last 60 years and why so many are addicted. Here he tells us “the problem, mostly unidentified or unspoken, begins in the home,” and that early neglect, abuse, glamorization of drugs and alcohol, broken homes, and socialization with peers are just some of the factors leading to addiction.
In addition to the strains and fractures suffered by families, Frank reveals part of the price our society pays for such widespread drug usage. Since 1960, for example, the population of the United States has increased by 82 percent, while the prison population has skyrocketed by 700 percent, with most of that increase in crime a direct result of the sale and use of drugs. Meanwhile, as Frank notes, some of our songwriters glorify drugs, gangs, and violence, thereby exacerbating the problem.
Near the end of A Boy Who Mattered, Frank writes, “I have long opined the lure to drugs and crime does not begin in schools and street corners, it begins at home. They begin by osmosis, as babies and tots watch and listen to big brothers and sisters, plus users in the adult world, as they go about daily life blathering these kids with lyrics and then using drugs openly as though it were an everyday part of American life.”
Bennett fell victim to this scenario:
Hey Mommy, keep your men
Your wine and bags of grass
For I will always remember
The days that I came last.
Bennett Frank’s life as recounted here reminds us that human beings from the earliest age need to feel wanted. Bennett’s mother failed to fulfill that need, Marshall Frank was kept away from his young son, and Bennett filled those places hollow of love — the dark holes of yearning — with drugs. Like alcohol, those drugs become first a temporary solace, then set up a permanent residence within his mind and soul.
Our government has fought and lost the “war on drugs.” One lesson implicit in A Boy Who Mattered is that our police, our judges, our prison wardens, our schools, our other government agencies, cannot win that war.
Only we can. By way of example, counsel, prevention, and care, we are the ones who can make the difference to those we love.