Rita Lowenthal lives in Santa Monica and devotes much of her life to activism. At one time a housewife with two sons, she went back to school to become a social worker, taught at several institutions including Hebrew Union College and the USC School of Social Work, and has worked in both Jewish and secular social organizations, such as the Drug Policy Alliance and the Progressive Jewish Alliance. In 2002 she was a recipient of Santa Monica’s Communitas Awards for her contributions to the community.
But a shadow has hung over Lowenthal’s life. Her son Josh, after years of struggling with heroin addiction, took his life at the age of 38. Why did it happen? Was it anyone’s fault? Lowenthal grieved for a long time, wrote down her reactions, and eventually published a book about her son’s downward journey. The book is called One-Way Ticket: Our Son’s Addiction To Heroin.
Lowenthal begins her account at the end of the story, describing Josh’s death, the funeral, and her period of mourning. She works her way backwards through Josh’s childhood, and even earlier to her meeting and marrying Josh’s father. Josh began using at age 14, apparently “turned on” by school friends. Then followed years of rehabilitation centers, special schools, incarcerations, periods of Josh being “clean,” and then going back to heroin. Lowenthal pursued her own self-improvement and career development, went through a divorce and remarriage, and kept trying to understand her son – and to love him despite the blight of his habit and its disastrous consequences.
The latter half of One-Way Ticket is drawn mostly from Josh’s letters and journals written during stretches in San Quentin, to which he periodically returned due to convictions for theft. The letters paint a stunning picture of prison life:
“Locked in a small cage with a one-eyed, toothless, illiterate peck o’ wood 23 hours a day. We shower for 60 seconds, twice a week and go out for half an hour at breakfast and dinner…. I fluctuate between anger and depression. I have never hated prison more, though I am a relatively experienced convict.”
Josh Lowenthal was a remarkably bright young man who loved music, played in jazz bands, dreamed of being able to play music to get by, and toward the end of his life, helped out in the tutoring program that his mother ran at Santa Monica High School. It’s hard to read One-Way Ticket without saying to oneself, “If only.”
But Rita Lowenthal, as she explained to the Mirror, wrote her book not just in an attempt to understand (and she admits that her son’s motives will always elude her), but to comment on how she feels our society is not doing the right thing when it comes to helping people with drug dependencies.
Speaking on the issue of parental guilt, she says:
“People who seem to be the most touched [ by my book] are the people who say that the really hopeful part was learning that they really aren’t totally responsible. That really is my mission. It’s all about the parental control or anybody who’s in control in a culture that encourages the accessibility of drugs and then punishes them for becoming addicts. The other stuff – the grief and guilt – Josh himself gave me the help when he said, ‘Mom you can’t compete with heroin. Do what you can do to keep our relationship going. Be comfortable.’ That was incredibly helpful to me and it’s incredibly helpful to other people.”
Two years ago Lowenthal spoke at a meeting for parents of drug dependent children. She told them: “I don’t know what to say to you. I’m your worst nightmare.
“I read a lot of Josh’s poetry to them. One man said, ‘You give me courage that one day I’ll love this kid again.’
“A lovely lady said, ‘I have three children, two of them are hooked. You are my worst fear. But look at you. You’re here. You’re doing this. Please publish your book.’ Well, I’m a social worker. How could I not? It just gave me cause.
“I self-published it. I had two very good agents. One in New York and one here. Both loved it and sent it out to big companies and nobody was interested. So I just said ‘Screw it, I want to write a book anyway.’ ”
In her book, Lowenthal gradually comes to see that her son’s pattern of coming clean, getting re-hooked, and going to prison is not being aided by a system that punishes addicts as criminals.
“The criminal justice system is broken,” she says. “It’s a public health issue, not a criminal issue. It does not belong in the criminal justice system. You can’t criminalize the world. It was the same thing with Prohibition. Prohibition didn’t end alcoholism.
“There’s not enough money for research. The criminal justice system is taking all the money that could go into research. It costs more money to put someone in prison than it does to go to Harvard.”
Asked if she thinks prison creates a self-perpetuating cycle for substance abusers, Lowenthal replies,” I don’t know the answer.” But she sees that the system of incarceration does not help most people improve. “Some people go to prison, find God, and clean up. Most people go back into prison because they’re hopeless and there’s nothing for them on the outside.”
“There is so much information on what addiction is about, but we just don’t have it out there in the curative system.”
Lowenthal has done some speaking engagements about her book, but she says she is not planning to travel much because of her husband’s health. She does feel that getting her story out there has been therapeutic for her and for others. “They thank me for my truth, they thank me for helping them get off the guilt. And especially for sharing it because in the middle and upper class, people don’t talk about this.”