Moving Past Mug-Shots: Addicts Are Real People Too
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Moving Past Mug-Shots: Addicts Are Real People Too


This post was originally published on July 27, 2015.

Let’s face it—we looked like shit when we were using. We had bloated faces, unkempt hair and, if you’re like me, unplucked eyebrows that grew into an unsightly unibrow. We had grey bags under our vacant eyes, unbrushed teeth and we may have even smelled.

Fortunately, we can trash pictures of those using days in the recycle bin on our laptop or the dumpster in our carport. And even if some stupid drinking pal posted a pic documenting our inebriation on Facebook, we can at least un-tag ourselves so we don’t have to revisit our past over and over and over.

But one recovering addict isn’t so lucky.

The Pen Is Mightier Than the Syringe

Keri Blakinger was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in the slammer for possessing $50,000 worth of heroin while a student at Cornell in 2010. Given she was a former dean’s list student with extremely high potential and a background competing in national figure skating competitions, media outlets ate up her arrest and trial. As a result, her mug shot—a cliché image of a heroin addict with blotchy, scabbed-over skin—popped up all over the Internet.

But it didn’t stop there. Even after she got clean, graduated from college and started a writing career—she contributes to the Ithaca Times and has penned an upcoming memoir—the image kept haunting her. Stories that covered her journey to recovery and writing success still used the mug shot as the main illustration, including one in Mic and another in the Cornell Daily Sun.

The mug shot also appeared at the top of an intriguing piece Blakinger wrote for the Washington Post about how she was able to rebound from a prison stint far more easily than a person of color. It’s questionable whether that image was necessary—her piece is about social justice in the prison system, not about how drugs took her down.

But instead of stewing about it silently, Blakinger has crafted a clear-headed, measured and polite “fuck you” to the public’s voyeuristic fixation with “the faces of addiction.”

Less Than Human

In the article for Pacific Standard, “Me and My Mug Shot: The Face of Addiction Stigma,” Blakinger laments the stigma-boosting power that images of fucked-up addicts have.

“Mug shots like mine are dehumanizing. And when we see people as less than human, it becomes easy to lob insults with impunity,” she writes. “Usually, the picture is contrasted with a picture of me now. Although that comparison offers a moving comparison between how badly I was doing then and how much better I’m doing now, it also plays on a dramatic visual contrast between ‘normal person’ and ‘ugly, addicted criminal.'”

Pretty badass. But wait, there’s more:

“It’s true that addiction is ugly—but when we contribute to the stigmatization of people with addiction, we make it harder for them to seek help. For most people in an active addiction, it is difficult to admit to the seriousness of the problem. By stigmatizing addiction, we only make it more unlikely that addicts and their families will recognize the need for, and seek out, help.”

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

It’s shitty Blakinger has to deal with that mug shot following her around after getting her life together, and to some degree you just want to lash out at the editors who contribute to this. But as Blakinger acknowledges, the editors are just doing their job and, in our digital publishing world, once stuff is out, it’s out. Like it or not, pictures and stories go viral, the good and the bad.

Still, this woman clearly has the chops to not wallow in self-pity. Bravo to Blakinger for writing her truth, staying clean and speaking out to kick the stigma of drug addiction to the curb.

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.