David Morrison Dies at 59
Turn your attention, if you have a moment, to this appreciation, from early Washington City Paper editor Jeff Stein, of the journalist David Morrison. Then—and you may want to set aside the rest of your work day—click to "Me & My Monkey," a harrowing, anonymously bylined Washington City Paper cover story that still holds a special place in our newsroom's lore.
Morrison wrote that story—a hallucinatory, knife-sharp, self-indicting reflection on his own heroin addiction and the skeevy, just-below-the-surface world of white-collar drug use in which it thrived—in 1995:
Sunday afternoon, June 6. I am going to kill myself. No kidding. This time I mean it.
I'm sick. So sick. My last fix was 45 hours and, let's see, 20-odd minutes ago. Ancient history. Not a wink of sleep last night. Jumping out of my skin. No way to get comfortable. Every hour is a day. Every minute an hour.
Marrow sucked from my bones. Ice water in there now. Aching legs flailing. Why do you think it's called kicking? Snot streams from my nose, tears from my eyes. Rancid sweat pours everywhere. Shivering. Shaking. Every hair standing on end. Goose bumps on my goose bumps. Why do you think it's called cold turkey?
The 18,600-word piece spans Morrison's adolescent discovery of booze, pot, and pills and his career as a national security reporter for National Journal. (In one especially memorable passage, he interviews a Bush-era government official with a leading hand in the war on drugs). The feature landed with a hard splash when it was published in City Paper's Jan. 13, 1995 issue: "Photocopies were quickly circulated around the National Journal office. The Chicago Reader reprinted the story. City Paper readers wrote in to say they were moved," the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz wrote in an article not long after.
Morrison died in his sleep on June 5 in the District. He was 59. "Rest in peace, I'll add," Stein writes in his reflection for And Magazine. "Though I can't possibly imagine him doing such a thing."
Indeed, the juxtaposition of Morrison's hard-charging, scoop-studded career and his heroin addiction—the monkey of Morrison's story's title, a creature that eventually swelled into "King Kong," he wrote—propelled Kurtz's March 18 story to the front page of the Post. In that piece, Morrison revealed himself as the author of "Me & My Monkey," and told of his recovery and return to work in the National Journal newsroom. He soon left the magazine, and later worked at Congressional Quarterly. In between, he wrote more about his vices for City Paper, including this feature about shoplifting. (The publication of "Me & My Monkey" also landed Morrison a contract with Doubleday to write an addiction memoir. He never finished it, as he explained in another piece for City Paper.)
"Me & My Monkey" ran in the second-to-last issue of City Paper edited by Jack Shafer, now a media columnist at Reuters. "David, who I knew from a piece or two he had written about defense policy when I was an editor at Inquiry, rang me up and asked if I would run an anonymous piece by him about his drug habit," Shafer writes in an email. "After confirming with his doctor that he was heavily into drugs, I said yes, and he filed his masterpiece." Because Shafer was leaving the paper, City Paper's owner Tom Yoder "gave me extra pages as a going-away gift," Shafer writes.
"I generally rejected dope confessionals when submitted to City Paper, but David's story wasn't really about dope," Shafer writes. "It was about hell."
Read another excerpt. Then go read the whole thing.
What a bizarre double life I lead: Scoring a brick of junk—five bundles, or 50 $10 bags—I'm up in Spanish Harlem, wading through the crack vials that litter 124th and Lex like pebbles on a beach in hell. Deal done, I fix in the john of a greasy spoon on Third Avenue. Heading back on Amtrak to D.C., I don a suit to interview a House committee chairman. One night, I'm compulsively mixing and fixing speedballs by candlelight in a roach-infested shooting gallery on Avenue C. The next afternoon, I'm gassing away on a panel discussion at one of Washington's more strait-laced think tanks.
This is skating on thin ice, indeed. And on occasion, the brittle membrane dividing my double life threatens to shatter. Early one morning, I appear on one of C-SPAN's viewer call-in programs, a forum for politically and emotionally unstable cranks. Let's just say I hadn't exactly gotten my beauty rest the night before. "What do you know about anything?" a crazed but perceptive viewer phones in from Atlanta. "Your hair's a mess. Your tie's undone. You look like you just came in from a party." I was up late working on a story, I respond lamely. Yeah, the story of my life. The program veers off into a nationwide discourse on how fucked up I look. As I contemplate sliding out of the hot seat and crawling off the set, a sweet Virginian calls in. "It's not what's on your head," she says, "it's what's in it." Lady, I think if you knew what was really in my head, you wouldn't sound so sweet.