By MARGIE THOMPSON
At the end of June 1996, 29-year-old Aaron Cohen was released with his mother Lorraine from Penang Prison, where they had been held for 11 years on charges of trafficking heroin.
Mother and son were flown back to New Zealand to face a glare of publicity. The twilight world of drugs and prostitution from which they came is hardly glamorous, yet it fascinates the public mind: years of media coverage of the Cohens' case, and especially the pathos of Aaron's situation - brought up among addicts, what choice did he have about his own life? - had engendered incredible sympathy and a feeling that, somehow, we "knew" these people.
Among the letters received by Aaron after his story ran in Woman's Day was an extraordinary one from a woman in "small-town New Zealand," single, with several children for whom she thought Aaron might be the perfect father. Thus does the public allow its imagination to fill in the details until media subjects become mere constructions of our own desires and fears.
Working against this process, former Listener editor Paul Little's Arrested Development: The Aaron Cohen Story (Tandem Press, $24.95) is a non-patronising, non-judgmental attempt to tell Aaron's story as Aaron himself sees it.
This, it turns out, is quite different to how we may have assumed it to be. In his foreword, Little makes the point that the book has "allowed [Aaron] to reclaim himself." Aaron has told the truth about himself, "even though it would earn him no credit." In essence, Aaron becomes in these pages an agent force in his own life. He made his own choices to the extent that heroin allows and was not simply a victim of circumstance.
For me, one of the saddest insights in this book was Aaron's childhood insistence that he would never use heroin. Why would he? He had all the evidence of misery, tiresomeness and destructiveness before him. His mother, Lorraine, had been using since she was a teenager and, although she and her husband, Danni Cohen, had cleaned up in order to conceive Aaron (who was born in Auckland on September 24, 1966, without a trace of heroin or any other drug in his body), she had, for most of her adult life, a ferocious appetite for the drug, the consequences of which Aaron knew all too well.
Yet at the age of 13 Aaron chose to accept the offer of an older friend and tried heroin for the first time. He was sick as a dog, but a year later tried it again ... and again. He didn't tell Lorraine, and part of the book's purpose seems to be to make Aaron's heroin use a matter of his own responsibility, rather than something that was done to him by his mother. Many people have assumed Aaron was born an addict or that Lorraine had introduced him to drugs. Neither is true, yet the drug world was all he knew. The only career he mapped out for himself was growing cannabis - "a trade to fall back on."
There was much about his early upbringing that Little describes as essentially "normal, working-class" - with the exception of the dope. Until Aaron was 9, Lorraine and Danni provided him with a happy, secure family life (apart from audibly arguing in the bathroom over who had had more than his or her share at shooting-up time).
Moving to Sydney in the early 1970s, the Cohens began ascending the hierarchy of drug-dealing. A big house in Paddington, pedigree dogs and a Jag car bore witness to the quality of their clients - not low-life junkies but professionals and "people of quality."
It was only after Danni went clean in 1976 and left the family that things started falling apart for Lorraine, and she entered a cycle of violent relationships and prostitution, her standard of client falling all the while.
Two factors predominated in Aaron's childhood - apart, that is, from drugs. One was his close relationship with Lorraine, whose "maternal instincts were not weakened by her lifestyle," the other was his antipathy to getting educated. He always hated and avoided school, to the extent that in March 1994, when he was required to supply a document in his own writing itemising the things he wanted from his father's estate (Danni had re-succumbed to heroin while visiting Lorraine and Aaron in Malaysia and died addicted and impoverished in a Bangkok hospital), Aaron was unable to write the list without the help of a British diplomat.
In the years before they split up, Danni and Lorraine worked hard to provide as straight a family environment as their habits allowed and personalities could tolerate, Little writes.
"Lorraine was fastidiously clean, a trait her son has inherited, and their house was famously immaculate, in sharp contrast to the popular image of the seedy junkies' den ... Many addicts and dealers let money slip through their hands like water. Lorraine, by contrast, always ensured there was enough for good clothes and the mortgage. And though it might not have landed at regular meal times, there was always food on the table for the boys, whether she and Danni felt like eating or not."
While a novelist might make something out of the almost maniacal attention to tidiness and cleanliness exhibited by Lorraine and Aaron in their domestic surroundings, even in prison, in contrast to the chaos of their lives and chosen lifestyle, Little does not. His is generally the voice of the objective recorder, only rarely the outsider/commentator.
It is said in drug-rehab circles that emotional and psychological development cease when one becomes a heroin addict. Such is the nature of this "ultimate" drug that it becomes the sole focus of the addict's life. "This is the final, deadly paradox of heroin: in the process of stopping pain it stops feeling, acting, thinking, caring and everything else that makes a human a human," writes Little.
If the arrested-development theory is correct, then by the time Aaron ceased taking heroin on his return to New Zealand, aged nearly 30, this boy in a man's body had some catching up to do.
Not only that, but the years in prison had added to his difficulties in adjusting to the quotidian world. Lorraine put it in a nutshell when she wrote a letter to the Malaysian Pardons Board in 1994: "Aaron, who was still only a boy when he was arrested, hasn't had a chance to face any of life's challenges and grow with them, so though he is 27 he is still only a teenager mentally. When he is finally released I am sure he will find it a lot harder than me adjusting to living in the outside world. In prison your days are an unchanging routine and you don't even have to think for yourself so readjusting to society when freedom from confinement is granted takes many months and sometimes years to accomplish."
In fact, as Little is eager to show, Aaron's years in prison, when he was separated for most of the time from his mother, taught him much about thinking for himself. Ironically, it was his never-ending quest to find, conceal and smoke heroin (he never injected, which probably saved his life) that motivated him, added shape and meaning to his interminable days in the tough, rat and cockroach-infested jail, and forced him to stand on his own unsteady feet.
Lorraine - "the drug addict whose capacity was little short of freakish" - cleaned up in Penang. Aaron became "the addict from hell." There were times during those years when he couldn't access the drug - usually because he was in solitary confinement, or at rare times of official clampdown - and had to go cold turkey. But always, soon, he would be back on it, his life revolving around the matter of supply. It's a grim, desperate tale, and it's no surprise to learn that he was extremely anxious, on his release, about his ability to service his habit back in New Zealand.
Luckily for Aaron, authorities here favoured him, allowing him to jump the queue and join the methadone programme. Comments Little: "He didn't give up heroin. He took up methadone."
Today he is still successfully on the programme.
With his lifelong love of heavy-metal music - one of his few confident topics of conversation, along with drugs and prison - his long hair, his tattoos (with which he lovingly covered himself once back in New Zealand, being far too sensible to risk those prison needles), his beloved American pitbull Storm, Aaron has settled happily in Auckland's western suburbs. He lives alone now, on a benefit, having at last successfully made the transition from being part of "Lorraine and Aaron" to being just Aaron, happily independent.
Little leaves us in no doubt as to the magnitude in Aaron's life of this achievement; only those that have been where Aaron has been are in a position to judge. After a lifetime of drugs and addiction, such peace seems enough for now.