Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Dark Side of the SMOF

From 1970 until 1982, I was heavily involved in SF fandom. Susan and I attended our first con together in 1970--Atlanta's DeepSouthCon, although we didn't know many people at the con at that time--and we became regular Con attendees as of 1971. We didn't miss a DeepSouthCon through the 1970s and the early 1980s, we attended the early Halfacons, we threw a few cons ourselves in conjunction with friends like mike weber, Richard Howell, Angela Howell, Gary Steele, and Ward Batty (including Halfacons, ASFiCons, and a DeepSouthCon), and we were part of the original Atlanta WorldCon in '86 bid that was stolen from us by Penny Frierson & Charlotte Proctor, with manipulative help from a few others (yeah, I suspect there are still some sour grapes there... it was an ugly experience, and it did more than any other to convince me that SF fandom was no longer a place where I wanted to be).

Looking back on it now, a third of a century after my initial involvement, I realize that as much fun as I had, there were some dark sides to those conventions. They were a place where excessive drinking was not only normal and tolerated, but was actually encouraged through con suites stocked with unending supplies of beer, combined with parties overflowing with liquor. I was talking with Charles about a writer whose work both of us admire--a writer who died years ago, far too young--and I realized that, while he attended a great many conventions that I also attended, I have hardly any memories of him sober. Oh, he arrived at the conventions sober, I'm sure... but by the time I'd see him in the con suite, he had a beer in hand, or some Jack Daniels, and he consumed alcohol incessantly for the duration of the convention weekend.

And it wasn't just alcohol. There were a lot of drugs that floated around at those conventions, and by the time I was moving out of fandom in the early 1980s, drug use was becoming more and more common. The same parties that would have been alcohol-based a few years earlier were, in the 1980's, "lubricated" with a variety of drugs. It was another reason for my discomfort with fandom; I found that people I wanted to see, wanted to talk with, were frequently unavailable or uncommunicative because they were drunk or stoned. Some of the people who regularly attended those cons were hardcore alcoholics, but the con was one place where they could go to be cheered on to drink even more.

Back to that author... No doubt about it, he was an alcoholic, whether he admitted it or not. He didn't drink socially--he drank heavily, until he was impaired, and he kept on drinking. And I have to wonder now if some of the fans of that time, people who developed serious alcohol or drug problems--or who died far too young--lost some of their years, or squandered their potential, thanks to the drugs and the alcohol.

I'm lucky in that I have no taste for alcohol. I'm an obsessive person, and it's easy for obsessive people to become addictive people, but I never drank, and I never used drugs (I have an almost fanatical disdain for anything that is smoked, and I never felt obligated to experiment with any other form of drugs because I didn't like the effects they were having on my friends who sued them). So maybe it's easy for me to be judgmental about those who were hooked on one or both. But the truth is, I'm not condemning them so much as I'm wondering if those who encouraged them--and I don't think I'm one of those numbers, since I spoke against it in my amateur press alliance fanzines and was roundly excoriated by some of the heaviest users because of that--might have contributed to our loss of some great talents and some good friends.

Another friend of the time was a brilliant and talented young man who was everything I had hoped I could be. We were almost the same age, but he was the only person I've been close to who struck me as truly brilliant. He was a musician, a pianist with a remarkable skill. He sang beautifully. He wrote poetry so powerful it could make me cry. He had a charismatic personality. And he became a heavy drug user who not only squandered most of his gifts over the next decade or so, but he drew several of my other friends into drug use along with him. I still like him a great deal, but I don't think we're friends; I don't think, in fact, that he would return a phone call from me if I attempted to contact him, even though we've never had a real falling out.

He wasn't a pusher, mind you; he was just a charismatic personality who used drugs so regularly and seemed to deal with it well enough that those around him thought it must be a good thing to do, and they got drawn in to his lifestyle. What they didn't know was just how brilliant he had once been, how he had the whole world to draw from before he spiraled into a life of adequacy. He was lucky enough that, having started from a point so much above the rest of us, he could spiral into descent and still end up on par with everyone else. But those who emulated his lifestyle found it wasn't so easy for them...

I'm not writing this to condemn any of these people. I'm simply realizing that the golden synergy that we had during that era of fandom had its dark side, and it may have in some ways cost us more than I ever realized before now.

1 comment:

Charles said...

Our discussion has given me quite a lot of food for thought too. I'm sure you remember how disappointed I was in a comics pro I'd gotten to be on pretty good terms with when he offered me drugs at one point. Saw far too much of that sort of thing in comics fandom so I can only imagine what it was like in the SF days. Dark side, indeed.