Personal Jesus

Fausto Alzati Fernández

Artwork by Mirza Jaafar

1. Every ritual has its liturgy. Some liturgies are already written down and consecrated. Others we improvise over time, fixing them in place with each reiteration. Some rituals are deliberate, but most arise from inertia. Their purpose is always the same: to grab hold of reality and strip it, work it over with our hands, and cast it back out onto the street again.

Although we’re adept at disassociating ourselves from the world, abstracting ourselves in the erratic ideations of our minds, we’re also determined to find a way back to the world, to the body, to the overwhelming tumult of the present. Some of us call this oscillation religion; others simply do it. When I was eighteen, I found communion in plants. The implements of my ritual included an insulin syringe, a spoon, and a lighter. This ritual took place every day, every hour. Religious life is demanding: score, consume, score, consume. It’s a twenty-four-hour office, more exacting than staffing an Oxxo without help.  

I used to appreciate carnival, its shared rituals; but by age eighteen, my use and abuse of plants rendered carnival obsolete. I and I alone officiated the ceremony. Well, and the demons: those who emerged from the hiding places of history and the dawn of DNA. The question was whether I would have to share my score with other people. Although other people were sometimes necessary to score, I wasn’t inclined to talk to them, listen to them, or share any of myself with them. Alone, me and the hit. She’s the most jealous girlfriend I’ve ever had.

1a. Standing there, on the side of the highway, at the time we’d agreed on, there was nothing to do but wait. There weren’t cellphones like there are now. Back then, you had to send a message to the dealer’s beeper for him to bring your order. It was an act of faith.

Perception closed. There was no sky. No trees, no bench, no past, no family, no friends, no history, no possibilities. Only craving and my eyes fixed in hope of an object: the dealer’s car. Except in rare cases, perception is biased. It shares our desires and fears. That’s why we commit ourselves to locating proof of our prejudices everywhere we look. I believed the coke would arrive any minute.

But first came magical thinking. Like religious people who believe their god frees them from the harsh vicissitudes of life and death, so, too, an addict like me, delivered over to an obsessive storyline, awaits the arrival of compulsion to finally mute the voices in one’s head. Only compulsion distracts you with its exactitude; its demand is total. Both religious fanatics and junkies want to forget. To forget and obscure every reminder of the two simple and irrefutable truths about the human condition: we will die, and we’re not everything (not even when we’re one with the universe). Religious people attribute order to the world, imputing this order to the supposed will of their deity. Junkies do the same by seeking to submit themselves involuntarily to the totalitarian obligation of the next score. That is how the world finally makes sense, attains an immediate purpose.

Waiting, standing, smoking. I started to count cars and add up the numbers on the plates: “Five blue cars, then I should go home and forget about this for today.” But five passed, then ten, then fifteen blue cars and I was still standing there. “Five more cars, with their plates adding up to five. They must be marine blue. They must be Nissans.” Addiction provides direction and a plot.

Will splits in half. After the delusions, after the hours spent hearing sighs and police patrols from behind the door, I’d reached the point of flushing gram after gram of coke down the toilet. All this, only to begin convincing myself the next day, little by little, in my own voice, that it wasn’t a bad idea to go out and get more. That what had happened yesterday wouldn’t happen again. That what had happened was the result of not eating well, of being nervous.

What do you do when a demon speaks to you in your own voice? Assume you’re the demon and label yourself possessed? It doesn’t matter, the result is the same: another syringe in your arm. And if these demons don’t kill you, they make clear that you’re not who you believe you are, that your thoughts cannot encompass your experience.


2. I’m not a Buddhist. Notwithstanding my interest in some of their practices and certain schools of their philosophy, I have a fundamental disagreement with Buddhism: I don’t believe in reincarnation. On the subject of death, I’m a Westerner. A Westerner in the tragic sense: conceived as something definitive, irreparable, horrible. From empiricism we know that there is no individual experience (or continuity of consciousness or whatever) after the brutal midnight of death. Game over. The end.

Regardless, I’ve spent considerable time studying with monks, meditating, burning incense, reading, and participating in ceremonies. Despite its many defects (less than mine, no doubt), Buddhism’s understanding of nature and mental faculties is formidable, as is its plethora of methods and practices. Although I’m not a Buddhist, I can say that I am. I took part in the ceremony in which one declares oneself a Buddhist. Takes refuge, they call it. In this ceremony, you take refuge in the Buddha, for example, in his method of investigation and in those who sustain and refine this method over time. Taking refuge has other, more personal meanings, but that’s it in essence. The flipside of this act is a kind of exile: by taking refuge in the three jewels (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha), you cease to take refuge in the supposed satisfactions of your own neuroses. At least that’s what you aspire to do. The ceremony follows a ritual script; everything is performed according to custom. What’s crucial are the reflections that said symbolic act can subsequently provoke.

You enact the most powerful practice of refuge taking much later, as part of a series of contemplations that supposedly reveal the sacred nature of the world. The practitioner’s attention becomes the infected center of the immanent world; everything it touches becomes contagious. Every particle. I understand that, or I misunderstand (and only then do I become interested). But the prostrations are demanding. It’s exhausting to throw yourself onto the floor over and over again. The deliberate inauguration of devotion upsets the most basic fibers of our nature.


1b. When I couldn’t find Adam, my usual dealer, I found myself obligated to undertake the pilgrimage to San Fernando. After descending through ravines of unpainted houses, the pesero dropped me in Boggarts’ area of town. I don’t remember Officer Boggarts’ real name. I also don’t know how he got the name Boggarts. (I thought about Casablanca, but to this day I don’t see any resemblance to Humphrey Bogart). The only thing that mattered to me was that he sold coke.

On the way there, I prayed there would be no problems. And I prayed more on the way back. I prayed that the police wouldn’t pick me up. I prayed that they wouldn’t stick me in the back of a patrol car, that they would let me go. I don’t remember how I prayed, how I ordered the words, or how I visualized the being to whom I addressed myself. But I know that I begged and begged in earnest. I know, too, that I tried to negotiate with some deformed concept of the deity. I’m sure I promised that this was the last time, that I would go back to music school, that I would change my life. I tried to make deals with the devil and sell him my soul. (But how can you sell something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t exist?) I can’t recite my prayers, but those are some elements of the devotion I improvised out of panic.

As I got closer to the house, I heard the whistles warning that someone was coming up the street. When I arrived, I knocked on the door and said I’d come to see Boggarts. The house looked like it was being perpetually remodeled. They led me into a room next to the garage. “Bring the güero the mirror.” Next thing I knew, some of his monsters laid the bathroom mirror on his bed. Boggarts made a pair of lines appear. I made them disappear up my nose.

The monsters watched me with their glassy eyes and chapped lips. They were miserable creatures. Thanks to them, I know that monsters exist. They’d entirely let themselves go, these cocaine devotees. Addiction’s designed for this: to force you to your knees, to make you give up on yourself. These monsters couldn’t speak. Frightened, they just moved their heads, maybe managed to slur a few words. It was obvious they bathed only because Boggarts forced them to. Filthy clothes and sunken eyes, their stare disarmed by self-resignation, they came and went as their boss ordered: to the store for orange juice, to the door to open it, to the upstairs window to keep a lookout. He treated them with disdain, and who could blame him? These monsters were despicable; in them, the human condition had become subhuman. Every once in a while, Boggarts took crack rocks (cocaine cooked with sodium bicarbonate) out of a small plastic bag and tossed them to the monsters like someone throwing table scraps to a pet.        

Every time I saw him, Boggarts wore new pants and sneakers. He was always stretched out on a cot, directing his operation. He looked so peaceful lying there: a gun on the bedside table, the remote control in hand so he could adjust the volume on Animal Planet. That’s how he spent his work hours, studying, on the TV screen, the predatory logic of the jungle, which he then applied firsthand in his own habitat.

I was obviously scared, nervous, anxious not to upset anyone. These strangers don’t give a shit if you live or die, come or go; they’re only nice to you for the chance of repeat business, and so that one day you might bring a girlfriend over. They’ll hook her up and trade coke for sex until she doesn’t have dignity left to squander and they can toss her out onto the street.

I like cocaine and the cheap thrill of running this risk. But I tended, like any visitor, to consider myself exempt. When I saw the monsters, I was scared of winding up like them. Only that didn’t seem possible. I swore I was too smart, too privileged. What I didn’t know is that addiction is severe. It lacks prejudice. Those monsters were once kids, and someone once stayed awake to nurse them, to sing them to sleep.


2a. They prescribe 111,111 prostrations to the practitioner. In my case, they only gave me 11,000. I didn’t ask why. During prostration number 8,337, I quit. It’s not like I believe that some Indian from 2,500 years ago, some guy we now call Buddha Sakyamuni, is going to save me. Seriously. In fact, I think frequently about how Buddhists reinforced their mythology by attributing to the Buddha an immaculate conception. They say his mother was impregnated from a distance by an elephant with a white trunk. A giant white trunk. I also think often about how this Buddha was one of those guys who abandons his family, his wife, and kid, and never worries about paying alimony. If the legal system is complicated now, imagine trying to collect child support from a Hindu prince over two thousand years ago.

In any case, I started my prostrations. I still can’t say for certain why. But it made sense at the time. In the beginning, because of the palpable receptivity of that thing we call mind: the fundamental fact, the sense of one’s own consciousness, the interface that registers the world, accounts for it, and affects it, at least as we understand it. That’s the basic material of the study of Buddhism. When “that thing you call I” becomes an object of suspicion, thanks to the demons who weave it together, you’re already prostrate, only you don’t know it.     

A human life, any human life, can think of itself as a single prostration. We take nothing with us when we die, one reason being that there’s no one to take it. Our life, whether we like it or not, whether we agree with this proposition or not, will be a sacrifice. An offering. We offer our pulse, our vitality. It seems this way to us, or it doesn’t. We’re like those cacti that flower only once, and fifteen minutes later rot and feed the earth. Would it be possible to choose, deliberately, the object before which we will be sacrificed? To determine how we will fertilize reality with our lives?

As I cast myself to the ground, over and over again, I considered how much shame I would feel if someone walked in and saw me like that. Would I be more embarrassed if someone saw me shooting up, or selling myself for a score outside a supermarket?


3. Alberto Sicilia Falcón was one of the biggest cocaine bosses of the 1970s and 1980s. Cuban-American, ex-CIA-agent—if it’s even possible to have the CIA as an ex. Sicilia Falcón is remembered not only for his eccentricities. (He always traveled with a twelve-year-old boy dressed in a white linen suit, as if he were going to his first communion). He’s also remembered for fleeing Lecumberri in a move worthy of Bugs Bunny. His personal assistant (not the twelve-year-old boy) bought the house closest to the prison cell where the Mexican government held him. The assistant literally dug a tunnel from the house to the cell, and adios. (El Chapo wasn’t the first drug trafficker to carry out such a scheme.)

Legend has it that Sicilia Falcón once traveled to London, where he had the factory make him a Rolls Royce covered in gold. Amped up on the best, purest coke that money could buy, he climbed into his gilded Rolls and circled the city. They say that, doubled over with laughing, Falcón smashed into other vehicles like someone playing bumper cars. Like someone playing Grand Theft Auto in real life. Like someone to whom everything seems an illusion. Given the information that he had at his disposal and the exorbitant sum of his acquisitive power, I’m sure the world seemed like this to him: like a foolish dream. He threw a roll of cash into every car he hit. That way, the owner could buy another one, something less shitty.

It’s possible that every time someone snorted or injected his product, they added a new step to his drug pyramid. Incarnation of carnival, interruption of the official sense of life, a bitch-slap to the Apollonic principle of utility, feast of impunity. How many prostrations did I not do, snorting, ignorantly adding a millimeter of gold plating to that Rolls?


3a. Let us consider that Sicilia Falcón was only a regional manager of said business. And he made like he was playing bumper cars with a gold Rolls. If I think about the vast sums of money that the drug trade generates, and about the highest echelons of this business, it’s easy to conclude that drug traffickers have accumulated enough money to produce a reality. The paradigms of our time. This money has financed endless wars, as well as the discourses that surround them. So much money. In cash.

1c. Religious images covered the walls of Boggarts’ room. Elaborate, expensive. Rich kids had stolen them from home, or from their grandmother’s house, to trade them for a bump. Squandering their resources and their futures for an immediate intensity sufficient to remain oblivious of themselves. Only for a minute.         

I suppose that Boggarts felt reaffirmed in his exercise of power as he lay there in his room with his monsters at his feet, surrounded by the desecration of what was sacred in someone else’s home. Maybe his money assured him that he was winning, racking up more points on the scoreboard. After scaling the socioeconomic ladder, he now sent his children to private schools alongside the children of people who no longer had religious iconography in their homes.

I considered stealing a religious image on more than one occasion. Stealing it from my mother’s house, to be exact. And as we drug addicts do, I suffered merely from thinking about it. My head was a place inhabited by every kind of superstition. Those images were potent. Virgins, with their pious gestures, holding babies with eyes that shone like incarnations of the sun. My mother’s health was failing at the time. The details aren’t important, but she was convalescent, strung out on medications. Meanwhile, in the adjacent room, I tried to cure myself of addiction with another hit, then another. Despite more than once rummaging through her purse to steal a few bills, or selling my father’s silver coins, I wasn’t capable of stealing an icon from her and shooting it into my veins. I guess that magical thinking, even with its psychotic fantasies, has certain limits.

The Boggarts legend tells that in a street fight against Connies, his rival, the latter bought off the police and joined forces. Boggarts managed to jump a fence in the middle of the shootout, but not without paying a price: fourteen bullet holes in his left leg. I asked how he got away, if someone helped him, if they were waiting for him in a car, and what type of car it was. I will never know.

Boggarts escaped, then recovered. His leg healed, so much so that he was able to run a marathon. This legend provides him with a halo of holiness or divine protection. I don’t know, but I can guess that there was something demonic in the matter. Maybe that was the reason for all those merciful faces of virgins and saints who watched him stretched out on his cot, while he watched Animal Planet.  


3b. Some decades ago, there was an organization that actually tried to dismantle the drug trade. Central Tactics Unit, or Centac, was a branch of the DEA in the 1980s that did not merely make high-profile arrests and launch hysterical campaigns like the so-called War on Drugs. Centac focused more on mapping out the complete structure of a cartel, so as to then be able to bring down the cartel entirely.

Centac turned out to be too good at its job. Or so James Mills relates in his monumental tome, Underground Empire. You could burn all other books about the drug trade, leaving only this one, and you’d lose nothing. As the Centac operatives advanced in their missions, they disentangled the knots binding drug traffickers to people at the heights of political and financial power. They made their way to the nerve center. The drug business proved the most extensive and lucrative business in the world. But Centac noted that the drug trade didn’t merely attract commercial interest. It also attracted people interested in information and power. Many of the biggest kingpins were undercover agents who, through the direction of their criminal enterprises, gained access to information they could use for extortion, and for trading secrets with governments and leaders of other countries, banks, and businesses.

When Centac’s nose got too far away—or too close—the DEA reabsorbed it. Toward the end of his book, Mills interviews Dennis Dayle, Centac’s last independent director. He’s a nice guy, like someone plucked out of a John le Carré opium trip. Between puffs on his pipe, Dayle says he’s convinced that if there really were interest in eliminating the criminal drug trade, they could pull it off in a generation. If Centac had been left to do its work, and had been able to count on the necessary federal and military support, by now, in 2015, the drug trade wouldn’t exist. I believe him.

The 1980s were a critical moment in the trade. For drug traffickers, it was like the transition from the Old to the New Testament. The trade subsequently increased alongside its acquisitive capabilities, its access to technology and human resources, and entangled itself more and more with the powers ostensibly opposed to it. In demonic terms, this entanglement signifies a possession. Thus the elimination of criminal organizations dedicated, in large part, to trafficking in drugs, has become more and more difficult.


4. Before the release of Violator in late 1989, Depeche Mode launched a promotional campaign that, like the album itself, invaded their audience’s privacy. In the personals section of the newspaper—a medium through which strangers could refer to themselves anonymously—the band posted a small ad that simply read “Personal Jesus,” followed by a telephone number. Whoever called the number, perhaps in search of a hook-up, was not met on the other side of the line by a sadomasochistic messiah, but by a song. An unreleased and then unknown song.

Perhaps these strangers called to confess. To confess parts of themselves they could only articulate under faint lights and through the loss of shame characteristic of an orgy. Perhaps they wanted to take off their masks of alleged authenticity and, through the fiction of an alter ego, listen to a stranger’s voice, at once their own voice, and find the ability to speak the unspeakable. Perhaps, sick of fooling the world day in and day out, they wanted to forget their responsibilities and just be used by some imbecile. Perhaps, worn out by the ongoing abuse of survival, the usual hierarchies, they wanted a slave whom they could humiliate and order around, with whom they could liberate themselves. Perhaps they wanted new limits or to lose sight of the limits they’d already assumed. In any case, they found themselves listening instead to the potent chorus of “Personal Jesus,” to its first phrase: “Reach out and touch faith.”

One of Depeche Mode’s signatures is their twisted use of religious language in the representation of eroticism. In an act of semantic revenge, they recuperated terms that were once erotic, words that religion colonized with its proclivity to input culpability. Let’s not forget that many of the rituals and symbols that organized religion uses today actually predate religion. With its kitschy voracity, religion set about appropriating these elements, along with everything in its path. A strategy for domination and the expansion of influence: to simulate familiarity.

Let’s consider, for example, images of the virgin with a child in her arms, or a pregnant virgin. Like Roger van der Weyden’s Virgin and Child Enthroned (1433), in which a virgin nurses her child. Let’s think about this symbol far afield from the psychotic interpretation that Catholicism generally gives it, taking it instead on its own terms. Let’s also consider that the symbol predates Christianity as a mythological mode of representing the fundamental paradox of existence: how can there be an origin that in turn has no origin? That’s what this symbol seems to ask.

Taken in this way, these images don’t serve as ideological justifications for the promotion of biopolitical control over human sexuality. They serve, more accurately, as images that provoke contemplation of one’s own existence. They are a koan, an aphorism, not in the least a prescription for chastity.  


1d. I never liked cocaine. Still, I ingested it, one injection after another, until I was nauseous, bloated. Unable to leave the bathroom. Or already outside it, unable to tune my guitar, however much I tried. And then another bump, and another. All to wind up terrified, locked inside, listening through the door. And in some corner of my head, I didn’t hear what was actually on the other side, but whatever I feared was out there. In a state of panic. Or in my delirium, trying to cut open my veins, hallucinating the expulsion of contaminated blood. Throwing what remained of the toilet paper into the toilet, terrified, furious. All to wake up mid-afternoon, exhausted, and lower my arms down to the side of the bed, because I’d come to with my arms asleep after so much harpooning. All to begin to convince myself, little by little, to go out and get more.

Correction: cocaine liked me. The white of the powder, the way it made my gums go numb, and more than anything, the smell of the boiling spoon and the little bits of perico that evaporated with the water. I couldn’t stop. I shot up every five minutes. The spoon, the lit candle, the solitude, the ritual, the syringe. The needle penetrating my skin, the blood flooding back in, the immediate high, the tachycardia, the droning in my ears. I love cocaine; I just don’t like its effects on me. I love its effects; I just don’t like the consequences. The obligatory repetition that leaves no room for uncertainty, for surprise, for feeling, for life and all its grotesque chaos. The same repetition experienced by any member of any sect.  

I’m glad that there are people who enjoy cocaine, and even do it socially. People who share a line. I couldn’t leave the bathroom. Or I hunkered down in the corner of my closet with the TV playing nothing but mute static. I gave up even the music that kept me alive, so I could enlist my mind and my senses in the service of another drug, so that I wouldn’t have to unplug myself from the needle. One hit and another after that and another after that. A monolith. A prostration.


5. Near the end of the 1970s, the Canadian psychologist Bruce Alexander set out to run an experiment on the subject of addiction. He had an epiphany after observing the effects of addictive substances on lab rats. His epiphany, like any worth the name, now seems obvious, but it came to him while observing rats who took drugs without stopping, until they died. Dr. Alexander had in mind something more than the rat’s behavior with drugs: he was thinking about their environment.

Good old Bruce thought something like this: “well, these rats, they don’t even fuck. They’re addicts. They live alone in these filthy, fucked-up cages, with nothing more than cold metal and their own feces for company. Why would we expect them to do anything but get high until they kill themselves?” I’m sure he didn’t say it exactly like that, but that’s the idea.

Alexander set out to prove his hypothesis: that addiction isn’t strictly a biochemical phenomenon. It’s also ecological and social. To do this, he built Ratpark, the equivalent of Denmark, but for rats. Wide-open spaces, clean, good lighting, and vegetation, with a community of well-nourished rats, healthy and friendly. And of course, he also supplied these rats with merch. Beside the water bottles, he hung others mixed with various drugs, including sugar.

The results were quite different. There weren’t rat junkies in Ratpark. Occasionally, one of the more eccentric rats would do a hit for fun, or simply out of curiosity. But these rats didn’t come back for more and more. They didn’t start stealing parts of other rats’ exercise wheels to sell them on the black market so they could get cash for their next score. Alexander also moved the addicted rats, who lived alone doing hard drugs all day, to Ratpark. These rats, gradually and without methadone, psychiatrists, twelve-step programs, clinics, or addiction-expert therapists, started using less, until they stopped using altogether. Of course, rats don’t have to pay rent. They don’t have the use of language, or a concept of their own mortality. That is to say, they lack a symbolic register for their experience, and with that register, all the complexity of human life. Still, they kicked the habit. Dr. Alexander came to these rats like the God of the Old Testament. He delivered them in Bruce’s Ark into a postdiluvian world. Meanwhile, in the best of cases, some authority figure takes us humans to jail or to a psychiatrist as a consequence of our addiction, only for us to leave as dry drunks and return to the same environment as before.

As humans, it’s our responsibility to Ratpark our own lives. But cleaning up our lives isn’t only a matter of having access to the best restaurants, squash courts, and furnished lofts. Many rich and famous people break down as a consequence of addition. Ratparkification implies, more than anything, the alleviation of emotional misery and its set of cognitive distortions. Healing our perception and its extortions, dreams, and bitter resentments. Healing our injured relationship with our surroundings is a titanic undertaking. Still, it’s the only option: this, or go on perceiving the world as an isolated and hostile place, one that reeks of our own territorialism, and go on shooting ourselves up with anesthesia until we wind up stiff and unbreathing.

It would be lovely if Ratparkification were only a matter of want: of wanting not to be hooked, of wanting better external and subjective circumstances. But wanting isn’t enough. Moreover, at some point, every improvement implies a change, and change means a confrontation with something unknown. The drug has already indoctrinated the organism, and its absence causes nausea, irritability, insomnia. Moreover, for an addict, self-deception works at full steam, and your thoughts rise up in a plume of confusion.

Have you ever stuck a syringe in your arm when you didn’t want to, while swearing that this would be the last time?

translated from the Spanish by Will Stockton