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The Crystal Meth/”Purpose-Driven Life” Coefficient

Years ago, I got an M.F.A. in fiction writing, thinking I’d be one of those novel-writing university professors who wear tweed jackets with leather elbow patches. But I gave up on fiction, and here’s why. The novel I was writing at the time was about a family very much like my own. Although I knew a good bit about my family, there were yawning gaps in my knowledge, which led me to deeper and deeper research. Before long, I realized that the material was in fact too strange for a novel: it wouldn’t seem credible. So I wound up writing a non-fiction book, a memoir called Turbulent Souls. Yes, it’s a hoary cliche that “truth is stranger than fiction,” but in fact the strangeness of real life is what makes me love writing non-fiction.

So you can imagine how much I loved this article in today’s New York Times. Here’s the lead: “Ashley Smith, who was held hostage in her apartment in March by the man now charged with murder in the Atlanta courthouse shootings, was hailed as a hero after she disclosed how she had persuaded her captor to surrender, partly by reading to him from the spiritual best seller The Purpose-Driven Life. But in a memoir released yesterday, Ms. Smith also recounts that she gave the kidnapper some of her supply of crystal methamphetamine during her captivity …”

Now there’s a combination — hostage soothes hostage-taker with spiritual wisdom and crystal meth — that few novelists would dare put on the page. Ashley Smith’s memoir, by the way, is called Unlikely Angel, and I would say that the crystal-meth part of the story is indeed unlikely. (Her hostage-taker first asked her if she had any pot, which she didn’t, but she did happen to have the crystal.) The book, by the way, is published by William Morrow/HarperCollins, the publisher of Freakonomics, but I hope you will agree that my discussion of said book is not unduly promotional.

The story did get me thinking a bit about crystal meth. Estimates of crystal meth use have been wildly divergent, with some law-enforcement agencies pronouncing it a massive scourge while other groups say the media is overblowing its prominence. So here’s the thing: The Purpose-Driven Life is one of the biggest-selling books in the past decade; Ashley Smith, a devotee of the book was also a devotee of crystal meth; might it be possible to conclude from this admittedly tiny (and unlikely) correlation that crystal meth is indeed a vastly popular drug? If only one-tenth the fans of Purpose-Driven Life are, like Ashley Smith, using crystal meth, that’s an awful lot of crystal meth.

For what it’s worth, there’s another piece in today’s Times about an unlikely druggie — a nanny who, besides ferrying around her young charge, was also ferrying 10 pounds of marijuana.