By Fred Koenig
If you live in rural Missouri, you probably read your hometown newspaper. Chances are, a new regular feature that has developed in your newspaper in the past decade or so has been stories about methamphetamine lab busts. At one point you may have heard that your county is one of the worst in the state. You may have also heard that Missouri is one of the worst states in the country in terms of manufacturing and selling meth.
If you grew up in that same community 20 years or longer ago, you probably don’t remember meth as being a big issue there. Nick Reding noticed this shift accidentally, when he was writing about a different issue in a small town in Idaho. He was shocked at how abuse of this drug had proliferated, and the impact it was having on rural communities. So he decided to write a book.
Initially the idea wasn’t an easy sell to a publisher. Perhaps Reding had just witnessed an anomaly, they said. And how successful would he be at trying to interview people about their experience with an illegal drug?
Reding didn’t interview many people, at least not in the traditional sense of firing questions across a desk while furiously scribbling notes. Instead he got to know them. He went to community barbeques, he hung out in the bars (particularly the seediest bars), he spent countless hours in homes and in cars of people on both sides of the law. He shares intimate details from the lives of the users and the community leaders who have watched addiction wreak havoc on their community in his book Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town.
For Methland, Reding focused on a town in Iowa. It’s not just Anytown, USA; he chose it because the meth problem there was particularly bad at the time. But the issues that exist in this community are certainly present in many more.
Reding is careful not to generalize that he thinks all rural areas are a meth haven. “It’s a general long term trend, but there are plenty of places where these findings don’t apply,” he said in a phone interview. “As much as it represents thousands of places, it certainly doesn’t represent every small town.”
He went on to say it’s tempting to think back to a Golden Era when there were no problems, but that’s not really the case with most communities.
“This hasn’t been a fall from grace for everyone,” he said. Reding spent quite a bit of time with the Methodist pastor in Olewine, and said he expressed feeling overwhelmed by the meth problem, and unsure of what kind of strategy the church should be taking to best help its community.
Although a big supporter of separation of church and state, and of churches generally staying out of politics, Reding would like to see churches advocate for prescription-only Pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in methamphetamine. Reding also believes in expanding recovery programs for people with addictions, and in drug courts – which focus more on rehabilitating addicts, rather than just punishing them.
Methland isn’t just a story of an epidemic, it’s also a story of hope. Reding gives many pages to the work of people who have made an effort to help their community. And he now sees that their work has reaped rewards.
“The reality of journalism is that at some point you have to call it quits and end the story,” he said. “Things have continued to improve since I was there writing the book. If I was writing it today, it would probably be more of a redemption story about how the town was able to come back from its low point.”
Nick Reding lives in St. Louis, where, after extensive church shopping with his wife and child, they all found a church home in The Gathering United Methodist Church. For more on Methland, go to www.methlandbook.com.