Wir Kinder Vom Bahnhof Zoo is a melodious name. It sounds good to my “not used to the German language” ears. Much better than Eu, Christiane F., treze anos, drogada, prostituída – the sobriquet by which I first came to know Frau Felscherinow.
Wir Kinder Vom Bahnhof Zoo was first published as a serial by Stern Magazine, based on tape-recorded interviews with an until then unknown German teenage addict who was serving as witness in the trial of a man who exploited child prostitution, paying the underaged girls for sexual services with heroin.
When the authors (journalists Kai Hermann and Horst Rieck) later decided to collect the stories into book form, known publishers declined to print it because they did not believe it could be a commercial success. Finally the book was published by Stern itself, in 1979.
In few years it was translated to several languages, adapted into a film and Christiane was rocketed to stardom. The feature-length production, directed by Ulrich Edel, portrayed the saga of German youngsters in 1970s West Berlin’s drug scene and was the very first contact I ever had with the concept of drug abuse as an existential and social problem.
The movie, obviously, overlooks many important details from Christiane’s personal and social life and it was a great pleasure to delve into her environment, circumstances and the rationale of her addiction.
Unveiling the drug abuse myth and dynamic
My first observation while reading Christiane’s story is that she went straight from childhood to adult life without the opportunity of maturing psychologically during her adolescence.
She left an idyllic countryside life at the age of six and moved with her parents and little sister to one of the tall apartment buildings in Gropiusstadt, a satellite housing state in West Berlin. Since the 70s, however, the district had also been considered a socially disadvantaged area.
On the streets of Gropiusstadt, I was known as the stupid country kid. I didn’t have the same toys as everyone else—I didn’t even have a water gun. I wore different clothes. I talked differently. And I wasn’t used to the games they played (but I also didn’t like them).
In the town where I grew up, we would ride our bikes into the woods, to a bridge over a little stream. When we got there, we’d build dams and forts—sometimes together and sometimes apart, but always side by side. And when we destroyed everything afterward, it was only after everyone had agreed to it, and we’d have fun tearing it all down. We didn’t have a leader. Anyone could make suggestions for what kind of game we should play. Then we’d all argue back and forth until someone’s suggestion won out. It wasn’t even unusual for the older kids to let the younger ones have their way once in a while. We’d created a real democracy amongst us kids.Cristiane F. in Zoo Station – a memoir.
In our section of the Gropiusstadt projects, there was one boy who was definitely in charge. He was the strongest and he also had the best water gun. We liked to play this game where we would pretend to be a gang of robbers, and he would always be the leader (of course). The most important rule for all of the other robbers was that they had to do whatever he said.Christiane F. in Zoo Station – a memoir.
But it didn’t matter what kind of game we were playing—we were always competing with each other. The goal was to always try to annoy somebody else. So we’d do things like try and steal or break someone else’s toys. The name of the game was superiority: beating people up to show you were bigger and stronger than they were, and finding other little advantages that made you look better than everybody else. It was a dog-eat-dog world. If you were the weakest, you’d obviously get the most abuse.Christiane F. in Zoo Station – a memoir.
These lines are, in my opinion, pillar to all the subsequent events in Christiane’s story. Her family dynamics deteriorated, her father became unemployed and started drinking, beating her physically and molesting her psychologically. In a hostile environment she sought an ideal of love, acceptance and shared reality, that she only encountered in her peers – children coming from dysfunctional families who found in the use of drugs the means to escape abandon and violence, to face fear and hopelessness, to numb the pain.
The myth of the ultimate human search for pleasure, abstraction and psychedelia falls apart when we observe the life circumstances and the emotional conditions of those really vulnerable to drug abuse and addiction.
Christiane describes her clique as constituted by quasi heroes – the coolest, the bravest, the greatest in facing the adversities of a deplorable life, but under the effect, always high and under the effect… When sober they are sensitive, shy, easily frightened and emotionally worn out.
Babsi and Stella were going to become my best friends – that is, up to the point when Babsi made headlines for becoming Berlin’s youngest heroin fatality.Christiane F. in Zoo Station – a memoir.
Another thorny observation is that Christiane as much as Atze, Detlef, Stella, Babsi and all her friends developed the drug habit at a very early age, between 12 and 15 years old. Consequently, they had no chance to pass through the natural process of learning and adapting to different environmental and emotional challenges we all face while growing up. Their psyches remained infantile and untrained, hiding behind the false sense of safety that drugs offered them. This psychologic frailty and escapist behaviour became their very own modus operandi and led to failure at each attempt of rehabilitation, whenever life brought them situations they judged impossible to overcome.
James Mills in his bewildering novel The Panic in Needle Park (1966) adds some other general points:
Almost all heroin addicts are childishly immature: full of demands, empty of offerings. When they want something, they want it yesterday and they want it effortlessly. Nothing is their fault – their addiction, their degradation, their desperation. All are insecure, most dislike people, and – though the mechanics of obtaining and injecting drugs force them into relationships with other people – most would prefer to be alone.
Perhaps, the dominant emotional characteristic of the addict is his enormous compulsion to abdicate all responsibility for his own life.
What haunts the addicts are anxieties, which only heroin can relieve. In the shaky families and oppressive environment of big-city slums, anxieties pile up fast – and it is in the teeming slums that heroin is handy. From friend to friend the drug spreads inexorably among the emotionally weak and unstable.James Mills in The Panic in Needle Park.
Equally hard for our society is to accept its own responsibility over the problem of drug addiction and these young ruined lives. The great majority suffers from what we call Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) due to abandon, abuse or domestic violence. Their bonds of trust are generally broken, they are not able to establish healthy patterns of relationship with others and adequate levels of self-care. They were not sufficiently loved and, by consequence, they don’t like themselves, don’t accept themselves and ultimately seek compensation, not pleasure. They inexorably venture into self-punishment and self-destruction.
I’m ending my life because an addict only brings anger, anxiety, bitterness, and despair to his friends and family. He drags everyone else down with him. Please tell my parents and my grandmother that I’m thankful for all they did for me. I’m an absolute zero. To be a junkie means you’re the worst of the worst—the bottom of the shit pile. Why do so many kids—so many young people who enter this world so full of life and hope—fall into this kind of self-destructive cycle? I hope that my life can at least serve as a warning to someone else who may at some point ask himself the question: Well, should I try it, just this once? Don’t be an idiot. Just look at me, and you’ll have your answer. You don’t have to worry about me anymore, Simone. Take care.Andreas Wiczorek (Atze) in his suicide note.
From substance to substance (pot, amphetamines, alcohol, benzodiazepines, acid, cocaine, heroine, crack…) the addict makes use of anything available, licit or illicit, to erase his/her existence. Very few users are particularly violent or dangerous and their crimes ( robbery, hustling, and prostitution) are the means by which socially excluded or forgotten individuals cope with desperation. However, it is true that higher levels of involvement with substance use increase the rate of offending, the severity of the committed criminal offence, and the duration of antisocial behaviour.
Juvenile rehabilitation programs during the 70s and 80s were practically inexistent, profoundly traumatising or unaffordable. The result could not be better, most of Christiane’s friends died and the ones who survived were never fully reintegrated.
Christiane was not an exception. In her second book Mein Zweites Leben (My Second Life), published 35 years later, in 2013, and which has never been translated to English, she gives us, with the assistance of journalist Sonja Vukovic , the follow-up of her life and the trajectory of her substance use disorder after fame.
Mein Zweites Leben is more revealing than Wir Kinder Vom Bahnhof Zoo, but less poignant and appealing to the public, so it never became a commercial success.
The birth of her son Phillip, in 1996, represents the narrative’s pinnacle on a roller-coaster of withdrawals and relapses. Truth is that Christiane lived a life filled with experiences and relationships, unlike the vast majority of drug addicts, trapped in their self-imposed rigid routine of hustling, scoring dope, hiding from police, getting high, hustling, scoring dope…in a endless, often deadly vicious circle.
But at 51, despite being a stylish survivor, she regrets her heroine chic legacy, especially the tragic consequences of the drug habit, such as losing custody of her son when he was only eleven years old, the chronic hepatitis that drains her energy day by day and the persecutory paranoia that has haunted her for years.
It is an elusive balance. Drug addiction may have eventually brought her fame and fortune, but has never enabled her to achieve the self-esteem, the confidence, the mental health and the serenity she has always yearned for.