Roxanne Vandermause knows methamphetamine addiction — its biology, chemistry and physiology. But, as a community health nurse, she also has heard the personal experiences of dozens of addicted women. She believes those stories are crucial to understanding meth addiction.
“It became clear to me that we need more than science to get to the bottom of this,” she said recently. “We need the humanities.”
Vandermause, an assistant professor at the Intercollegiate College of Nursing in Spokane, said she takes a hermeneutic approach to her research; that is, she tries to understand an experience from within its particular social or cultural context.
“Science looks for cause and effect,” she said. “I’m saying that we can’t understand this by asking those linear questions about why something happens. We are looking for the experience itself to emerge so that we can get it.”
One addict’s story
In 2006, about the same time Vandermause decided she wanted to delve deeper into one woman’s story, she met “Gabriel,” a Spokane woman in her 50s who had been an addict for 10 years and in recovery for six years. Gabriel told her, “I will help you anytime. I would love to tell my story.”
Vandermause went in search of collaborators and eventually gathered a team of faculty members: Stephen Chalmers, assistant professor of photography and digital media; Laurilyn Harris, theater professor; Sheila Converse, music instructor; and Linda Kittell, assistant professor of creative writing. A few months later, in a bit of serendipity, Pauline Sameshima (photo below) joined the WSU education department and the meth project.
A major strand of Sameshima’s research focuses on using the arts to inform and enrich research. She is working to develop both a “pedagogy of parallax” — a way of teaching and learning that centers on viewing an experience from multiple perspectives — and artful scholastic research methodologies.
Humanize the experience
Transcripts from 10 one-hour interviews with Gabriel will form the raw data of this multidisciplinary research project.
“We are using the scholarly skills of our own disciplines to take apart the experience and look at it,” Vandermause said.
“What we are trying to do is humanize the experience,” said Harris, who has participated in the production of other dramas based on real-life experiences.
“The thing that strikes you is that this is a normal human being who just slipped a little bit…and then it all fell apart,” she said.
Kittell, who has been working with a graduate student on poetry inspired by the transcripts, echoed that sentiment. “It was like, ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’ ” she said.
One of the things that struck her about the transcripts is that Gabriel, even after six years in recovery, talks again and again about how when she was on meth it was the best she has ever felt. But, at another point, Gabriel says she was “like a cracker that’s crumbling and being eaten away.”
“You’ve got to show the range of emotion,” Kittell said, “the range of destruction.”
Chalmers, who is bringing his photography experience to the project, said his plan is to photograph sites that were important to Gabriel’s addiction and recovery.
The thing about the sites, he said, is that without the context, without the story, the sites are fairly mundane — what he calls “sterile urban landscape images.” But knowing the context is what gives them power.
The team projects won’t be the end of the research effort.
“The product actually inspires more conversation,” Vandermause said.
For now the team is working without funding but is seeking funds to support the various projects, including Sameshima’s plan to develop materials that would be appropriate for use in educational settings.