The face of Crank

Ellen Hopkins writes about meth addiction from her daughter’s point of view

Ellen Hopkins verse novel, <i>Crank</i>, is intended for ages 14 to 20, although she knows adults will read it, too.

Ellen Hopkins verse novel, Crank, is intended for ages 14 to 20, although she knows adults will read it, too.

Photo By David Robert

Skeletal lines, jaundice yellow, evil little breezes up the nose
—from “A Couple of Toots,” in Ellen Hopkins’ verse novel,

There’s a slew of slang for methamphetxamine. A baker’s dozen: boo-yah, chizel, drano, fizz wiz, geep, go, jab, Satan dust, speed, spoosh, spinney boo, twiz, zoiks.

Washoe Valley resident Ellen Hopkins’ young-adult novel is titled Crank, the most apt of the argot terms. The Simon & Schuster cover artist lettered the word in chalky, embossed lines that look fit to snort. But Hopkins has her own moniker for the cheap upper that has gripped millions in a costly jones:

The monster.

“Crank is, indeed, a monster—one that is tough to leave behind once you invite it into your life,” Hopkins writes in the author’s note to her book (in bookstores in October). “Think twice. Then think again.”

The monster crunched Hopkins’ oldest daughter, Cristal, in high school. Cristal, with a high IQ, model-level beauty and art-school scholarship, went gray at 18, did jail time for trafficking and two years in prison for bad checks. Now 26, she is raising one of four children, each from a different father.

Crank, with a first run of 100,000 copies, “is a work of fiction, with composites of characters, but it’s really our story,” Hopkins says. Cristal “was good with the story getting out. She has a lot of guilt, too. And I think she wants other kids to understand, as I do, where even playing around with the drug can take you.”

Hopkins, 49, has written 20 children’s titles for an educational publisher, Perfection Learning. When a children’s picture-book author in Hopkins’ circle heard the title, Crank, she asked, “Oh, it’s about a kid who gets cranky?” Hopkins said, “You better read the book.”

Crank‘s power stems from three factors. One is the shared experience most readers will have with crank, directly or through family, friends, neighbors—or the enraged driver in the next lane. More than 5 percent of Americans use meth at some time, including 4 percent of high-schoolers, according to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services survey. In Washoe County, meth “has the most detrimental impact of any drug,” says Assistant District Attorney John Helzer. Meth—its market now usurped from bikers by Mexican manufacturers—produces more criminal cases than a decade ago and is a “huge burden for the community because of its widespread use and the fact it often leads to violence and theft.”

The second factor making Crank a nerve-jangling read is the high-speed impact of Hopkins’ first-person blow-by-blow of a dizzying descent into dependence by the narrator, a Reno High School junior, Kristina Georgia Snow. Her summer of experimentation is told in free verse, packing jagged intensity into each page so the reader feels the hyper highs and tumbling lows.

Kristina visits the New Mexico home of her biological father whom she hasn’t seen in eight years. A hormonal adolescent lugging latent baggage of her parents’ divorce, she discovers her dad is a drug-spun loser. In short order she is kicking it with a neighbor boy, tweaks for the first time and meth-morphs into another self, “Bree.”

Poetry packs a punch prose can’t. Crank‘s narrative screams along. The plot-propelling stanzas paint shard-sharp word pictures, and the 537 pages flip by, providing a literary buzz.

<i>Crank</i> documents the downward spiral of a young girl who discovers her biological father is a drug-spun loser and then becomes a meth addict herself.

Photo By David Robert

No Time Like That First Time

Your nose ignites,
flameless kerosene
(and, some say, Drano)
laced with ephedrine
you want to cry
powdered demons bite
through cartilage and sinuses,
take dead aim at your
brain, jump inside
want to scream
troops of tapping feet
fall into rhythm,
marking time, right
between your eyes
get the urge to dance
louder, louder, ultra
gray-matter power,
shock waves of energy
mushroom inside your head
you want to let go
annihilate barriers,
bring down the walls,
unleashing floodwaters,
freeing long-captive dreams
to ride the current
arteries and capillaries,
pulsing, rushing,
raging torrents
pounding against your heart
sweeping you away.

The third factor that propels Crank is saddest: Hopkins’ basing it on Cristal’s romp through hell. Harsh self-therapy. “I’m writing it from her point of view and had to look at my own hand in why she went the direction she went,” Hopkins says.

Crank is aimed at kids ages 14 to 20 but will reach adults, she says. “Parents will want to know what their kids are doing, and so many adults themselves are hooked on it.”

Hopkins’ erstwhile limited drug experience helped her describe meth. She’s never been an addict but was no “Goody Two-shoes in high school.” Raised in Palm Springs, Calif., she published her first poem at age 9 in the Desert Sun newspaper. She studied journalism but didn’t finish college. She was divorced with three young children when she met her now-husband, Mike Taylor, and moved to Lake Tahoe. When a stranger at a party asked her occupation, Hopkins chirped, “I’m a writer.”

Soon she was. She and Taylor became involved in an alternative newspaper. After it folded, they moved to Washoe Valley.

He found work in Reno radio and television. She freelanced for local publications and became a stalwart member of three writing groups. Hopkins organizes the annual Juniper Creek Writers Conference in Carson City. Her Juniper Creek Publishing produces Three Leaping Frogs, a newspaper for Nevada grade-schoolers.

She started writing nonfiction children’s books for Perfection Learning in 2000. She began Crank as a prose novel but switched because “poetry is so interior. It was the right way of getting into Kristina/Bree’s skin.” Hopkins often breaks stanzas into two columns—creating extra poems read vertically and letting different voices speak at once.

She met a Simon & Schuster editor at the Great Basin Book Festival in Reno in 2002 and ended up inking a contract without an agent. She has contracted for two more young-adult novels. She and her husband have adopted Cristal’s oldest child, 7-year-old Orion.

The final stanzas of Crank‘s final poem, “Happy Endings,” are unclear about Kristina’s fate:

Crank is more than a drug.
It’s a way of life. You can
turn your back. But you can
never really walk away.
The monster will forever speak
to me. And today,
it’s calling me out the door.

“There’s a teeny-tiny thread of hope that she can break from the habit,” Hopkins says.

She acknowledges addicts will be reading this article.

“There are people who think they can handle crank, that it isn’t in control of their lives. If that’s really the way it is, party away. But I’d like them to ask themselves these questions: How do I feel when I’m not cranking? How do I feel after a three-day bender? What do I do when I’m high, and my spouse, parents or kids nag at me?

“Life isn’t all about you. It’s about those who love you. If they’re afraid for you—or of you—maybe it’s time to take a second look at yourself."