How does an emergency room physician become a crime fiction author, traveling around the U.S. talking about addiction? For Dr. Steven Kassels, it has been a logical evolution, an ongoing journey as physician, educator, and now author. His new book Addiction on Trial: Tragedy in Downeast Maine, is a murder mystery, legal thriller with a dual purpose. On the one hand, it is clearly entertaining. Kassels’ characters include an egotistical Boston attorney, two heroin addicts, and a dead woman. On a more subtle level, however, the book educates and informs readers about the opiate epidemic along the US east coast, while highlighting the heated socio-political debate around what to do about it.
“I wrote this book to appeal to readers who want to be entertained, either on the beach or sitting in front of the fire,” Kassels said in an interview last month. Did Jimmy really kill Annette and throw her body down the ravine? “But I also wanted the reader to get a realistic view of the struggles and to put a face on addiction based on medical and legal truths. If people learn from it, while being entertained, that’s great.”
I came to know Dr. Kassels through social media after my hashtag #fictionwithamessage caught his attention on Twitter. It seems we both realize the power of fiction as a means to call attention to social issues.
“Fiction can create significant social change, and it’s a way to reach an audience that would not necessarily want to read about a specific topic,” Kassels explained. “If I speak at an event, I end up preaching to the choir. So how do I reach a segment of the population who may not choose to read about addiction, or not be aware of the importance of the societal consequences related to the medical treatment challenges; or the political, economic, and philosophical intertwined factors? I decided the best way was through the back door, through a murder mystery, legal thriller.”
I did the same thing in my first book, murder mystery Truth Runs Deep, which explored the pain of exclusion based on religion, sexual orientation, and race. Just like Kassels’ book, my book can just as easily be an entertaining beach read. Still, our hope, as authors, is that some of our messages will penetrate, leaving the reader more mindful about the topic at hand. Perhaps even willing to help create change.
For Addiction on Trial, learning more would mean coming to terms with the depth and breadth of drug addiction. According to Kassels, if you think you don’t know an addict, you are wrong. You just don’t know which of your family, friends, colleagues, or neighbors are addicts. “I’ve treated college professors, elementary school teachers, nurses, IRS auditors, carpenters, and plumbers. Need I go on?” Kassels asked rhetorically. “It’s truly an epidemic along the entire east coast, and it’s penetrating into the heartland of America.”
It’s complicated, Kassels explained. “Politicians are split. Some think we should incarcerate addicts, while those with more understanding of the science and economic ramifications know the importance of treating addiction.”
Kassels named Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin as a politician in the know after Shumlin dedicated the majority of his State of the State address in January 2014 to the topic. In his speech, Shumlin emphasized the urgency of this crisis. Just minutes into his delivery, he laid down his truth.
In every corner of our state, heroin and opiate drug addiction threaten us. It threatens the safety that has always blessed our state. It is a crisis bubbling just beneath the surface that may be invisible to many, but is already highly visible to law enforcement, medical personnel, social service and addiction treatment providers, and too many Vermont families. It requires all of us to take action before the quality of life that we cherish so much is compromised.
And then Shumlin cites facts.
- In Vermont, since 2000, opiate treatment increased more than 770%
- In 2013, there were twice as many federal indictments against heroin dealers than in the prior two years, and over five times as many as had been obtained in 2010.
- Last year, the number of deaths in Vermont from heroin overdose nearly doubled compared to the prior year.
The facts are sobering to those in the know. Kassels knows. He’s practiced medicine for more than 35 years. Having been Board Certified in both Emergency Medicine and Addiction Medicine, he sees the impact of addiction on the lives of others every day of his practicing life. It’s from these sobering experiences that he draws inspiration for his fictional scenes. Within the story line, there is the medical aspect highlighting the disease of addiction and how it impacts an individual physically, mentally, and emotionally. There’s also the sociological aspect that shows how the disease of addiction impacts family, friends, neighborhoods, the community….
“Whether you want to believe addiction is a disease or not,” Kassels emphasized, “we don’t incarcerate cigarette smokers; we treat the diseases they develop as a result of nicotine addiction. We don’t incarcerate alcoholics; we treat the diseases they develop as a result of their addiction. We don’t discriminate. Yet we send our young men and women to fight a war, and when they come back with a heroin addiction, we stigmatize them. That’s considered a bad addiction.”
Yes, it’s complicated.
Kassels’ book is meant to entertain. As a symptom of consuming it, however, a reader may become more informed. A full-blown case of reader mindfulness could result in efforts to create political and social change.
“I wrote about heroin addiction in my book to de-stigmatize it,” Kassels said, “because there’s no significant difference between alcohol addiction and heroin addiction. Both drugs affect a similar area in the brain that stimulates the reward center. We feel pleasure from many things — good food, sex, exercise. Simply stated, if you stimulate the reward center by drugs, you can desensitize it, so you may not feel the rewards from the other things.”
Dr. Steven Kassels’ dedication to being a voice in the highly-charged political-socio-economic #addiction debate is noteworthy.
— sheila callaham (@SheilaCallaham) February 16, 2015
A full-time medical director, he estimates that he spent 2,500 hours, over five-plus years, to complete the novel. Working with both developmental and copy editors, he reworked the manuscript through 14 edits over a two-year period. He’s been an expert voice on the witness stand in criminal trials. He has actively worked with paramedics in the field, teaching them how to best treat the critically ill and opiate patients. He is a passionate and serious advocate.
Still there are those who, like Governor Paul LaPage of Maine, think addicts should be incarcerated. Unlike his enlightened Vermont neighbor, Governor LaPage increased funding for law enforcement and judicial support to deal with addiction while at the same time cutting funding for treatment. Maybe Governor LaPage could learn a thing or two from Governor Shumlin, who clearly has a handle on what incarcerating addicts means.
Nearly 80% of our incarcerated population are either addicted or in prison because of their addiction. And listen to this math: a week in prison in Vermont costs about $1,120, but $123 will buy a week of treatment for a heroin addict at a state-funded center. Today, our state government spends more to imprison Vermonters than we do to support our colleges and universities, and our prison spending has doubled in the last nine years. You do not have to be a math major to realize that we can’t afford our current path. We have to figure out how to spend taxpayer money more wisely, while we treat the disease more effectively.
It is said that great works of literary fiction offer deliberate commentary on larger social and political issues. Kassels’ book may be categorized as a murder mystery, legal thriller, but zooming out one can see a bigger, more critical message being delivered. The question is, what will the reader choose to do with it?