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HOWARD ROSENBERG / Television

Moyers Takes Poignant Look at Addiction

March 27, 1998|HOWARD ROSENBERG

He's not your everyday beaming face. Yet no journalist has done more than Bill Moyers to make television and its viewers smarter and more thoughtful.

Although generally adored by those covering media, Moyers has his detractors, too. He is accused, every so often, of being ego-driven and self-serving, of being a political insider masked as an outsider and of epitomizing the rightist-defined pinko tint of PBS.

Moyers has greened the moonscape, though. In a career in TV slung across three decades, he has yielded a body of eloquent personal essays, interviews and documentaries second to none, from his probing journeys inside the smoky attics of constitutional democracy and his explorations of the human mind and spirit to his earlier, more personal retrospectives on growing up in east Texas.

Although noted for his questioning of heavy thinkers, Moyers has always seemed as enamored of smallness as big ideas, and especially intrigued by roots, whether in philosophies, governments or individuals.

Moyers' best work in that category lingers indefinitely. Still vivid, after all these years, is Maya Angelou emotionally recalling her segregated childhood in a program that found Moyers accompanying her back to her hometown of Stamps, Ark. And one of TV's landmark documentaries was Moyers' televised return to Marshall, Texas, at once a revealing metaphor for small-town USA and a charming revisit with some of the folks who shaped his upbringing.

So it's not surprising that Moyers' latest PBS work also springs from personal experience, albeit nothing as rosy as the memories that drew him back to Texas.

The five-part "Moyers on Addiction: Close to Home" is close to home for Moyers and his wife, Judith, who is his executive producer for this important, transfixing series and helps run their independent production company, Public Affairs TV Inc.

They have been married for more than 40 years--and surely none of those was more painful than the period when their oldest son, William Cope Moyers, now 38, was bingeing on cocaine and alcohol. By age 20, he told the New York Times recently, he was addicted to "pretty much everything and anything." His long recovery was interrupted by several devastating relapses, the latest in 1994. However, he is now director of public policy at Hazelden, a substance abuse center outside Minneapolis where he was treated in 1989.

William Cope Moyers appears only briefly in the series, which his 63-year-old father says was motivated by "what we learned about addiction and are still learning" about the science, treatment, prevention and politics underlying this affliction that transcends socioeconomic boundaries.

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Like William Cope Moyers, the recovering addicts interviewed by Bill Moyers in the premiere are success stories, ranging from an actor to a woman who became hooked on drugs as a cop. Their testaments have a common thread, and listening to them makes you feel like a priest hearing confession:

"It was a general feeling of well-being."

"Heroin is an incredibly good feeling."

"I liked the effects because it took me from reality . . . to wherever I wanted to be."

Only temporarily, though--for then come the tales of wild fantasies, of paranoia, of rage, of binges, of obsession, of crawling on the carpet in search of that last rock of cocaine. And stories of trying unsuccessfully to quit, of awakening every day and vowing, "This is the day I stop." But it isn't.

One man, who's been off drugs for years, tells Moyers he's HIV-positive. The former cop, Kim Wozencraft, recalls how she and her partner became addicts while working as undercover narcs. "They didn't care that their narcotics officers were strung out on drugs" as long as they kept making undercover buys, she says.

No wonder that Wozencraft's story sounds familiar, for the 1990 movie "Rush" was based on her book about her experiences as a strung-out cop, a premise that some reviewers at the time found difficult to believe.

As is the plight, in a later episode of "Close to Home," of an exceptionally wise but sad 10-year-old named T.J., who's been forced into adulthood prematurely because of the drug addiction of his mother and father.

Sue and Ted seem like caring parents despite their history of heroin, and they could pass for your neighbors. They appear to love their children and want decent lives for them. They instruct T.J. and his sister, who is developmentally disabled, never to do drugs, and T.J. vows he won't. "They're nice people, they raised us good," he says. Yet . . .

A carpenter with a 20-year addiction, Ted once almost died when passing out from an overdose. It was T.J. who made the 911 call that saved his father's life.

And T.J. says of Sue: "When my mom couldn't get the needle in the vein, then she would get it in the rear end." Sue says that she and Ted used to go out searching for drugs, and then would even cook them up, with their kids in the back seat of the car.

Obviously, T.J. has seen more than a fifth-grader should.

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