Some wisdom comes only through suffering. Many of us would rather bury pain, to lock it up somewhere dark and deep where we hope it won’t be able to hurt us anymore. And then, there are writers. Whether from a desire to make sense of an experience or to say, “See? You are not alone,” writers often feel duty-bound to type out life’s hardest moments and bind them between the pages of a book.
Such is the case with Katherine James’s masterful memoir, A Prayer for Orion: A Son’s Addiction and a Mother’s Love (IVP, 2019), which recounts the heroin addiction and near-fatal overdose of the author’s son. James taught undergraduate fiction at Columbia University and won Christianity Today’s 2018 Fiction Book Award for her debut novel, Can You See Anything Now? She employs the same powerful storytelling in her memoir, a must-read for anyone concerned about today’s opioid epidemic or for those who love someone struggling with addiction.
“They say that when you tie a rubber tube around an upper arm, you feel the love the way a river feels a rock—a swish up or over or around,” James writes in the book’s opening. “The river tightens and narrows, the wake behind it shoots out water like the universe shoots out stars, but the gritty fog of sediment tells the whole story. The needle goes in. Rubber tube. Pull it tight. Flatten the arm. Needle.”
Such dynamic prose drives James’s story, which shifts in time between the overdose death of one of her son’s friends, to the earlier discovery that her son was using heroin and other drugs. Throughout the book, James refers to her son as “Sweetboy” and to the other troubled adolescents and drug addicts who populate her house, often living in the basement or hanging out in the loft of her garage, as “The Lost Boys.”
James tells about the young people who found their way to her Pennsylvania house, of Philadelphia’s Badlands, one of the country’s biggest drug markets where she once searched for her son, of heroin’s history as a war drug, and of the veterans who bought morphine from her grandfather’s New Mexico pharmacy to treat their cattle, only to shoot up behind his store.
Opioid abuse is now so common that it claims the lives of an average of 130 Americans every day, according to the CDC. James’s son was almost one of them. James writes about her family’s experience with beauty and unflinching honesty. She also shares her Christian faith in a way that is just as honest and full of beauty, without being preachy or sentimental.
“I often think that eternally speaking, a woman pleading with God to get her off heroin is better off than a woman planning her next meal,” James writes. “Seeking God is always better than not seeking God no matter what the circumstances, and while I’d been praying for years when I first learned that Sweetboy had tried heroin, I’d never been to the place where – like the woman I imagine on the couch trying to quit – I felt every pang and gag and twitch of pain and had to beg God to save me, until I understood how possible it was that we could lose him.”
Meadow Rue Merrill, author of the award-winning memoir, Redeeming Ruth, writes for children and adults from a little house in the big woods of mid-coast Maine. She is also the author of the children’s picture bookThe Backward Easter Egg Hunt and four other books in the Lantern Hill Farm series, celebrating the holidays in a way that builds children’s faith. Connect at www.meadowrue.com