Louis Theroux answers your questions about his latest documentary, Heroin Town.
Mike Dinan: You must have had a certain understanding before making 'Heroin Town', on how bad heroin abuse has got, but while filming, did you still get unexpectedly shocked? And what was it that shocked you?
Louis: I think it was the normalisation of addiction - how everyone has just become used to losing friends and loved ones to the drug and how users overdosing on the street is a more or less everyday occurrence. There’s also something unexpected about seeing addiction and social breakdown in a white rural context. When I’d done similar stories before, they tended to involve people of colour in big cities. If there was one moment that upset me more than any other it was rather a small detail, which may seem strange, but it got to me for some reason. A small-time heroin dealer was being arrested and before the officers took him away they were going through the possessions in his backpack - and in amongst all the scales and the bags and so on there was a scrap of paper with “I love you Daddy” written on it.
Chris Ryle: What role (if any) should pharmaceutical companies take in helping assist the people who it has hurt?
Louis: Pharmaceutical companies should step up and start spending money to help sort out the mess they created. There have been a couple of long-form articles about the Sackler family that owns Purdue Pharma, the company that developed and marketed Oxycontin. The family is massively rich and they are big philanthropists - they make huge donations to museums and galleries but they seem to have no interest in acknowledging how their drug has ruined hundreds of thousands of lives. Hopefully, some of the lawsuits that various municipalities and counties have brought against the different big pharma companies will start leading to some pay-outs.
Joanna Taylor: Question for the legendary Louis Theroux: What is the most surprising thing that you learnt from 'Heroin Town'?
Louis: First of all, thank you for that “legendary”. I learned many surprising things. I suppose having gone in expecting to find a ravaged community filled with doubt and hopelessness I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of positivity, resourcefulness and hospitality we found. It’s not simply a story of tragedy and loss. There are amazing people in Huntington, like Jan the head of the fire service and Mickey the recovering user. Despite what it’s going through, Huntington is still a beautiful place. I was also surprised how cut and dried the story was in terms of where the problem stemmed from: there is no doubt that this is an epidemic that did not need to take place. It is a product of terrible decisions made by pharmaceutical companies.
Emily Normandale: I would love to know what impact all of these tragic stories have had on your life and if you have ever considered writing an autobiography?
Louis: I think of myself as a positive person. I see so much hope in the most dire circumstances. There’s a quotation by the Nobel laureate, Imre Kertész, which I sometimes think of. He was a Holocaust survivor and he once said in an interview: “I experienced my most radical moments of happiness in the concentration camp... Just surviving becomes the greatest freedom of all.” I’m not comparing the lives of the people I meet to genocide; the point is simply that there is a strange but powerful compensation that takes place in conditions of utter desperation. Small victories become huge and life is lived at a higher pitch of intensity. I don’t feel hopeless about the things I see and in many respects, I feel enriched. And on the book question, yes, I’m supposed to be writing one at the moment...
Yvonne Janine: This was such an interesting and yet heartbreaking doco. It left me wondering, why do some people give drugs the nod and head into addiction, when others don't, what is the "trigger". Some people have extraordinarily hard lives but still never touch drugs, and yet others with a privileged life get stuck in and vice versa. Does it come down to strength of character, I know that sounds simplistic, just trying to understand them. I have been told that it is actually a disease, but are people afflicted with the disease then become addicted or become addicted then comes the disease?? Is it rather a life choice? My heart breaks for the children of these addicts. It is all so very sad for everyone, such a waste of precious time and life.
Louis: I don’t think it’s about “strength of character”. My sense is that in general, some people are more pre-disposed to addiction than others, for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious. Most of us know people who can’t touch alcohol without going overboard, for example. Why is hard to say - something about impulse control, depression, something in the upbringing, some trauma, maybe even certain in-built chemical and biological features… It’s often claimed that there is a genetic side to it. That being said, my sense from being in Huntington was that opioids like Oxycontin negatively affected a far greater proportion of people. In other words, you might be able to drink in moderation and smoke weed recreationally and maybe even dabble in cocaine but the pull of Oxy and the like is incalculably greater. Prescription opiates have lured in people who ordinarily would have no interest in illegal drugs. Doctors sold them as benign, safe, non-addictive and of course, they turned out to be anything but.
Watch more Louis Theroux documentaries on BBC Knowledge.