My Ph.D. in Crack
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sometimes not-so-good things happen even to very smart people.
Josefine Nauckhoff, noteworthy Nietzsche scholar with a degree from Stanford and a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, was a professor at Wake Forest University in the 1990s when it all spun out of control. This is her story.
I come from a family of Swedish nobility.
The fact that our lineage was neither landed nor wealthy — I suspect my ancestors drank up all their wealth — didn’t faze my father. It was the family coat of arms that mattered. And ours was a family of culture. I had a talent for playing the flute; at the age of 9, I could play Badinerie from Bach’s Orchestersuite with the best of them. In 1979, when I was 13, my father got an assignment with IBM and we moved to California.
The academic structure of American schools suited me better than that of Swedish schools, where no student was allowed to shine. When I was a junior, I was selected to participate in the Santa Clara County Junior Miss Pageant. The hall was full of people and the spotlights blinded me when I played the “Maple Leaf Rag” on the piano. When it was time to announce the winner, I heard my name and burst into tears.
I graduated from high school with a 5.0 GPA and went on to get a B.A. in philosophy at Stanford, where I did a lot of acid and smoked a lot of pot. My Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania came easily, and I landed a tenure-track job at Wake Forest University in 1994. I was to be their new Kant scholar.
Winston-Salem is a small town. People would come up to me and say how proud the philosophy department must be to have such a prominent young faculty member. Or maybe it was my short, platinum blond hair and miniskirts that drew attention. The sudden fame made me uncomfortable, and I felt bad because I really hated that town. It was as suffocating as the summer air.
I used to hang out at a hole-in-the wall, moping and grading papers with a pitcher of Bud. One night, I spotted the V-shaped silhouette of a guy coming toward me. His name was Jamie, a sometime bartender. He sat down at the table and asked what I was doing.
“Grading papers,” I said.
Jamie looked around furtively and leaned in. “Wanna go out in the parking lot and do a key bump?”
“Sure,” I said. So we went outside and he fished out some coke with his car key. I inhaled, and it was gooood. We had sex that night. I was hooked. We’d go to bars and buy a bag. I’d do a bump in the ladies’ room before my lectures. I doubted anyone could ever tell I was high as a kite. Jamie did not approve of my habit. Deep inside, I knew he was right.
One morning, I was hanging out at the Microtel Motel doing lines. I passed a room with an open door, and in that room, I tried crack for the first time. I held it in and could feel my body grow warm and relaxed; I was tingling. But I felt ripped off. I should’ve been smoking crack the whole time, I thought.
Jamie was long gone, but my crack cocoon made me safe. As soon as the crack was gone, though, the lack of a high was like staring into a void of worthlessness. My dealers sensed my desperation. Soon, they wouldn’t even sell me anything until I had sex with them. It was no longer an issue of cash changing hands.
My visitors grew seedier by the minute and I had a lot of sex for tiny crumbs of crack. The days floated by in a haze of smoke. One night I got a DUI and the cops found some shake while searching my purse. I spent a few nights in jail because no one would bail me out.
Half a year later, half a year of teaching classes as an almost fully functioning professor, someone called the university and ratted me out for drug possession. I tested positive for cocaine. It was May 2001.
The faculty were concerned and supportive through the whole process. Department head Ralph Kennedy is a wonderful man, and I cannot stress enough that if the faculty had had a say in it, they would have kept me, but the dean advised me to resign. He made it clear that as a private university, Wake Forest was not bound by the regular strictures of drug abuse policy. Only public colleges are bound by law to offer rehab and not fire addicted employees.
I got nine months’ severance pay and an extended health plan that let me go to rehab.
There, I fell in love with a guy, and we relapsed together shooting cocaine. When the money ran out, I went to California with all I had left, my cat and my guitar. I went to Sunflower House, a rehab that uses attack therapy. I got kicked out for sex violations. That second rehab worked, but AA was really what saved me. AA and, weirdly enough, my grandmother Mormor, who helped when she could while she was alive.
But I was homeless now, on the streets, my clothes in a trash bag. I ended up in the Santa Cruz riverbed. At night, the place was hopping with junkies, and there was always a jug of vodka and Kool-Aid being passed around. I managed to stay off the coke, but the booze sure tasted good. I went on welfare and to AA. At one meeting, I met Adam, the most beautiful man I had ever laid eyes on. As we watched the sun set over the Pacific, he said, “I think we’re gonna be together for a long time.”
Except one day he started avoiding me. “I can’t be with you,” he said. “I’m HIV positive.” I wasn’t scared; I was in love. We kept having unprotected sex. Every month, I’d get an AIDS test. Negative. But one day after an argument, Adam stood in the doorway tapping an ax handle against the palm of his hand, the violence at first implied and just as suddenly turned very real, and I knew it was over. He hit me twice on my way out. After I picked myself off of the ground I never looked back. I was starting to learn I had value, at least in the social sense.
I’ve been in Sweden, drug-free, for 11 years now. I have two little girls. Their dads are gone, but as long as I have my kids, I’ll be OK. After all, we’re nobility.