In Memoriam: Marcia Hood-Brown

From Willamette Week, May 26, 1999

In the fall of 1997, Marcia Hood-Brown had the world on a string. She had just finished her doctorate in sociology from Brandeis University. She was respected, even revered, by her students at Portland State University. She had landed a coveted postdoctoral position doing research for the federal government. She was a brilliant scholar, an eloquent writer and a beautiful woman.

She was also a junkie.

Marsha Hood-Brown

Marsha Hood-Brown

Last month, at the age of 33, Marcia died of a heroin overdose. There were no needle marks on her arms, no syringes in her purse–just a couple of baggies in the kitchen trash containing a few telltale crumbs of brownish powder.

The news of Marcia’s demise reverberated through Portland like a thunderbolt. “This came as a terrible shot out of the blue,” says her mother, Elaine Fleskes. “I wouldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was a mistake. It had to be a mistake.”

Without question, Marcia’s death is an extraordinary tragedy. Sadly, it is by no means unique. Across the nation, heroin overdoses are increasing at an alarming rate. In Multnomah County alone, heroin deaths more than tripled, from 33 in 1989 to 102 last year. In the past four months, the number of deaths surged another 60 percent. If the present trend continues, 160 Portlanders will die of a heroin overdose by the year’s end.

“How can we allow this to go on?” asks Richard Harris, executive director of Central City Concern, a local nonprofit agency that operates the Hooper Detoxification clinic. “It’s an outrage.”

Researchers, treatment providers and law-enforcement agents say that cheaper, more potent heroin is seducing a whole new generation of users, many of whom get hooked by smoking or snorting the drug. In addition, they say, heroin addiction is increasingly reaching into the ranks of the affluent and the well-educated.

“We hold an image in our minds of the heroin addict as a sort of monster. We want to believe they are out-of-control, unhealthy, grotesque people,” says Harris. “It just isn’t the case. The drug does not respect economic barriers.”

“We’ve got a heroin epidemic in this valley,” says Dr. Walton Byrd, the medical director of Allied Health Service, a local methadone clinic.

It would be foolish to pretend that the life of Marcia Hood-Brown fits neatly into any demographer’s pigeonhole. But her death raises a profound and disturbing question: How did this brilliant social researcher, a woman who had dedicated her career to working with troubled women, succumb to an addiction whose consequences she had witnessed and analyzed in the charts and footnotes of a dozen academic papers? And having fallen into the jaws of the drug, why couldn’t she find a way out?

Marcia always had an independent spirit. “She knew her mind, and she knew what she wanted to do, and she did it,” her mother says. Born in 1966 in a tiny coal-mining town on the edge of the Kansas prairie, she grew up in the rural Oregon community of Parrett Mountain, near Wilsonville. Her mother was an artist, and her stepfather worked in construction. In 1970, they built a house on five acres of woods and meadows, without plumbing, electricity or heat. That first winter, they slept huddled in sleeping bags around a wood stove.

A precocious girl, Marcia took care of her younger brother from an early age. She loved to explore the woods and hunt for mice and lizards. She showed sheep for 4-H and played sax in the school band.

In the recession of the early ’80s, the construction business collapsed and, with it, her parents’ relationship. At the age of 16, Marcia moved into an apartment in Northwest Portland with her mother.

For Marcia, the city represented an intoxicating antidote to the parochialism of Parrett Mountain. The year was 1982, and children of the hippie generation had finally found an identity to call their own. Across the nation, a defiant sound–punk–was smashing through the complacent disco and bubble-gum rock that dominated the airwaves. Punk had energy, attitude and shock value. Most of all, it belonged to them.

Overnight, Marcia’s dark brown curls, headband, sweatshirt and jeans were replaced by a new look: raven-black hair, a black velvet dress, black leggings, combat boots, white face, cat’s eyes and bright red lipstick. She wheeled around on a vintage red bike adorned with plastic flowers, and later in a ’60s-era Ford Fairlane. She grew dreadlocks and became a fixture in the local music scene. “She was the Gothic queen of Portland,” says Lisa Friedli-ClapiĆ©, a close friend who teaches French at Portland State. “She was the coolest,” agrees Fiona Ortiz, another good friend who now works as a reporter in Mexico.

Marcia was cool, but she was no nihilist. An excellent student, she graduated from Jefferson High School at the age of 17 and worked her way through college, first at Portland Community College and later at PSU, graduating with a degree in sociology in 1989. She also became active in women’s issues, volunteering as a counselor at the Council for Prostitution Alternatives and at the Portland Feminist Women’s Health Center, where she held women’s hands while they underwent abortion surgery. “I was proud of her,” her mother says. “She was my little fighter.”

In 1990, Marcia married Aaron Brown, a graphic-design student at Pacific Northwest College of Art; they held the wedding outside a stone house in MacLeay Park. The next year, she won a prestigious fellowship at Brandeis. Returning to Portland in 1993, she taught classes in sociology and women’s studies at PSU while writing a dissertation on treatment programs for drug-addicted prostitutes.

Her former students describe her in glowing terms. “I just thought she was brilliant,” says Kristin Christopherson. “She inspired me to go to grad school.”

Marcia also encouraged several friends to complete their education. “She’s one of the reasons I went back to college,” says Brian Tibbetts, who is now studying English at PSU. “She believed in me more than I believed in myself.”

While many of her friends settled into more conventional lifestyles, Marcia remained resolutely cutting-edge. “She didn’t want to be a housewife,” says her friend Lisa. “She didn’t want to be part of the mainstream.”
She loved to organize fancy cocktail parties and sumptuous vegetarian feasts at her apartment on Northeast 7th and Knott and often patronized her favorite bar, the Sandy Hut.

In March 1997, she finished her dissertation and was awarded her doctorate from Brandeis. But even as she scaled new heights in her professional career, Marcia struggled with personal demons. Her marriage was falling apart. She had been rejected for tenure-track positions at several top-flight schools. Years of graduate education had left her thousands of dollars in debt. She began to have panic attacks and suffered bouts of depression. She even began to question the value of her own degree. After a 10-year hiatus, she started smoking again.

One night during the summer of 1997, Marcia sat around with an old friend from her punk days, who was working as a systems administrator. He was depressed. “I had tons of money and no life,” says the friend, who is now undergoing drug treatment.”I kind of wanted to throw a monkey-wrench into it.” Almost jokingly, he confessed that he was so unhappy he was thinking about trying heroin.

Marcia didn’t laugh. On the contrary, she seemed intrigued. In fact, she said she knew where she could get the drug. “I said, ‘I’ll buy if you fly,'” he remembers. He gave her $20.

The next night, Marcia came over to his downtown apartment. She was carrying a little plastic bag containing a tiny blob of black goo. They spread it out on a scrap of tin foil, then took turns holding a lighter under the foil until the drug bubbled and gave off a thick white smoke.

A few days later, they did it again.

Heroin has always held a perverse fascination for people on the fringes of society. Because of its association with tragic icons from Janis Joplin to Kurt Cobain, the drug also attracts rebellious youths searching for a way to set themselves apart from the mainstream they despise.

Like many young adults (including this reporter), Marcia dabbled with hard drugs in her 20s but escaped serious harm. By the time she was 31, she certainly knew the downside. She had seen friends spiral into the vortex of addiction. She had witnessed firsthand the ravages of heroin in the faces and the stories of the prostitutes she counseled at the CPA. She was “highly contemptuous” of hip junkiedom, according to her friend Fiona.

Why did Marcia take that first hit? It is, of course, impossible to reconstruct her thoughts. Perhaps she believed her exceptional intellect would protect her from harm. She had, in fact, written her dissertation on the social, economic and sexual dynamics of drug addiction. Perhaps she wanted to transgress the boundary between researcher and subject, to cut through the dry formulations of academic sociology and show those tenured Ivy League squares that she knew what she was talking about. Perhaps she simply wanted a vacation from reality.

“She was a little bored with her life,” says her anonymous friend. “I don’t believe either of us wanted to grow up.”

Whatever the reason, she took the plunge. As the acrid smoke filled her lungs, all Marcia’s anxieties–the crumbling marriage, the unpaid bills, the rejection letters–were swallowed by a sinister wave of euphoria.

Marcia’s descent into addiction followed a classic progression. She was careful, almost obsessive, about keeping her friends ignorant of her little secret and continued to maintain a respectable faƧade at PSU, where she taught class three times a week. “I didn’t notice any significant change in her at all,” says former student Christopherson.

Indeed, during this time she was recruited by the National Development and Research Institutes of New York City. The organization offered her a postdoctoral position doing research on female methamphetamine addicts. “She impressed me as someone who was knowledgeable and thoughtful,” says her boss, Dr. Greg Falkin. She even continued her volunteer counseling work at the Council for Prostitution Alternatives.

But little by little, like a meteor trapped in the gravitational warp of a black hole, Marcia’s life began to revolve around heroin. By the fall of 1997, she was using it every day. In the evening, she would go over to a friend’s house to buy the drug: $30 for a lump the size of a pencil eraser–just enough to get her high for the night, plus a little taste for the morning after.

At first, the changes were subtle. The parties and dinners tapered off. Dishes piled up in the sink. “She started staying in bed a lot,” says former roommate J.R. Pella. “I just assumed she was partying.”

With her research position in New York due to begin in January, Marcia quit teaching at PSU. The loss of structure in her life seemed to accelerate her slide. People around her noticed other mystifying changes. She became obsessed with her personal appearance. She complained about money. She imposed on her friends. “She wasn’t the same damn person,” says Lisa.

Marcia struggled to break free. Several times that fall she tried to kick the habit, lying in bed, sweating and moaning, gritting her teeth to stave off the cravings for another hour. She would last a few days, a week perhaps. Then her self-control would crack; the expert on treatment modalities would pick up the phone and call her dealer.

Pharmacologically speaking, heroin is a sledgehammer. Smoked, snorted or injected, it depresses the central nervous system and triggers a cascade of endorphins in the brain, producing an intense high that can linger for hours. “Heroin is the atomic bomb of opiates,” says Dr. Byrd. “It’s a nightmare.”

As the user turns to the drug more often, the brain begins to compensate, shutting down its natural endorphin production. Gradually, the pleasure system withers, like an atrophied muscle, and the user becomes unable to enjoy anything except heroin.

Contrary to popular myth, addiction is a gradual process. Depending on the purity of the drug and the frequency of use, it may take several months to produce acute dependence. But the longer it goes on, the harder it is to stop. “Every addict says, ‘I can control the drug,'” Harris says. “And then one day they find the drug controlling them.”

In January 1998, Marcia moved to New York. If she had ever believed that geography would cure her addiction, she quickly discovered otherwise. As the drug’s grip grew tighter, she flew back to Portland every few months, ostensibly to conduct research. In reality, she was trying to kick the habit.

Ever secretive, Marcia hid her addiction from her friends and family–she would tell them she was sick with the flu–and the people close to her remained, for the most part, in the dark. “I was totally oblivious,” says J.R.

Lisa had no idea what was wrong until last summer, when Marcia was visiting Portland and asked her to help organize a yard sale. By the end of the day, Marcia had raised $250. Then she asked Lisa to take some vintage dresses over to a resale store and pick up some hair conditioner from Freddie’s. Coming on the heels of a long list of favors, the request stuck in Lisa’s craw. “I knew she was taking advantage of me,” she says. “But I thought she was sick.”

After Lisa returned from her errand, she discovered that Marcia had left. When Marcia came home, Lisa was furious. As she remembers, the conversation went like this:

“What the hell is up?” she said. “Why couldn’t you wait?”

“It’s no big deal,” Marcia replied, her voice sleepy and hoarse. “We just went to Taco Bell.”

“Taco Bell?! You don’t even like Taco Bell!”

“Well, I like it now.”

Marcia could hardly keep her eyes open. In fact, she was falling asleep on her feet. Suddenly, it all made sense–the midnight phone calls, the endless flu, the debts–and Lisa realized her friend was doing heroin. “I didn’t know you could buy that at Taco Bell,” she said.

There was an awkward silence. “Lisa, I can take care of myself,” Marcia said. “I’ve got it under control.”
Lisa burst into tears.

In October, Summer Gunter, a 26-year-old artist, took the train from Portland to New York to join Marcia in her Brooklyn apartment. Summer had known Marcia for five years. Although Summer had heard rumors about Marcia’s drug use, Marcia assured her that she had quit for good. “She told me, ‘Everything will be so wonderful when you get here. We’ll go out every night. It will be fabulous.'”

When they met up at the train station, Summer was shocked. Marcia looked old. The vintage dresses had given way to ratty jeans, the glorious dreadlocks to shapeless fuzz. She was short-tempered and rude–“a side of her I’d never seen before,” Summer says. In the cab on the way back to the apartment, Marcia started weeping for no apparent reason.

Over the next few months her behavior became increasingly erratic. She racked up thousands of dollars in credit-card debts and phone bills. She adopted the name Zuleika, took out personal ads in The Village Voice and went on frequent dates. She stayed up all night, using heroin, smoking cigarettes and writing sad poems.

Marcia tried desperately to get clean. Summer would hold her hand as she lay on the couch, unable to move.

“I’d tell her, ‘This is it–this is the last time you have to do this,'” Summer remembers. Marcia tried to enter a residential treatment program, but her insurance covered only outpatient treatment. It wasn’t enough. She would get clean for a few days or weeks, then drift back to the dope. “She thought she was too smart to get hooked,” Summer says. “She thought she could handle the drug. But no one can.”

Despite all she’d been through, Marcia seemed unwilling to acknowledge the depth of her problem. In an e-mail to her friend Fiona, sent in October or November of last year, she recited a long litany of reasons for her “cracking up,” including debts, the breakup of her marriage, the stress of moving to New York, physical illness and, almost as an afterthought, her addiction to heroin.

One Saturday morning last month, as Summer was getting ready to leave the apartment, she noticed that Marcia had fallen asleep on the couch, curled up next to the telephone. It was not an unusual sight. “She’d done that before,” says Summer. “It didn’t surprise me.” When Summer got back to the apartment that evening, Marcia was still asleep. But there was something wrong: Marcia was in exactly the same position as before, and her skin was gray.

“I kind of just stared at her,” Summer says. “I couldn’t believe it. Her head was next to the phone, and I couldn’t see her face. I thought, ‘Well, maybe she’s suffocating.'”

Summer pulled the phone away from Marcia’s head just a little bit. There was an indentation along Marcia’s face where the phone had been. She was dead.

Many of Marcia’s friends are asking themselves how they could have ignored her problem for so long–or why they didn’t express their disapproval more strongly when they found out. “I’m really pissed off at myself,” Lisa says.

“I look back, and I kick myself for not realizing,” says J.R.

Marcia was buried in Skyline Memorial Gardens, in a sloping cemetery overlooking the city she had called home. Her mother bought the burial plot next to hers. “I just wanted people who walk past to know she’s not alone,” she says. “I hope I go to the same heaven.”

As Marcia’s body was lowered into the ground and the first handful of dirt hit the casket, her friends realized she had been gone a long, long time.