Chillicothe, Ohio

I’ve never been to Chillicothe, Ohio, a small city of about 20,000 in south central Ohio, at the edge of the Appalachian foothills. But in 2015 and 2016 it started popping up in the national news for two connected reasons. First, it seemed that there was serial killer on the loose in Chillicothe, targeting women addicted to drugs. Second, the attention drawn by the suspected serial killer story made Chillicothe representative of an “opioid epidemic” sweeping through rural and small-town America, at least in the pages of some national media outlets, such the Washington Post and CNN. For the record, these are not ‘fake news’ and I very much believe that opioid addiction presents a very real and major problem for communities across the US and Canada that are ill-equipped to deal with drug abuse as a social, economic, political, and cultural challenge. So here is a moment in time in a particular community, in which the place comes to be defined for a wider public through a social problem – a “drug epidemic” – for which there is no easily identifiable solution. What kind of place is it? How do we make sense of the lives of the people in that place? Is Chillicothe now just a little town full of addicts? Is it representative of some larger problem replicated in different but familiar forms in similar places across the continent? Is what ails Chillicothe the same as what ails other small cities in Ohio, the Rust Belt and Appalachia, the rest of the US? Conversely, if Chillicothe is a place defined by addiction and high-profile murders, do any solutions achieved there translate to other places?

Like I said, I’ve never been to Chillicothe, but based on the way it’s portrayed in the recent media coverage, I’ve been to many places like it, and read quite a bit more. As a basis for any discussion of the place as such, that’s some fairly weak tea, but I have an interest in this kind of place – small cities and towns, which seems almost like isolated cliches when they catch the eye of national media coverage, but which are connected to other places in often unexamined and dynamic ways, and in which real people confront and engage with larger-scale economic, social, and political processes in often unexpected ways. I do not want to abstract too much, however, from the fact that almost all of the recent stories about Chillicothe in the news are about the violent deaths of women. The narratives in the media coverage about their murders are linked in turn to a larger story about the overdose deaths of drug addicts, and to the death of Chillicothe as a place, and as a kind of place. There is real danger here in geographical abstractions – Chillicothe as a representation of place rather than a real place, its murdered women and drug addicts as symbols of something larger rather than important and in need of care, remembrance, and justice in their own right  – obscuring the violence of material relations and processes that have made that place and continue to remake it.

This all a preface to some link salad. Some of the recent crop of stories on Chillicothe in the Times, Post, and other media outlets are linked here, but some of them might be behind a paywall. I have read you can get around that by opening the link in an ‘incognito’ or private window in your browser, but I make no specific endorsement of that strategy, even if it does often work. There’s also the local paper, the Chillicothe Gazette, rather than just the national news media swooping down into the place.

There was even a multi-part documentary in 2016 on Investigation Discovery GO (which appears to be a tv media outlet of some sort) about the Chillicothe murders called The Vanishing Women. I have only watched a few clips from this, but you have to sign up for a service to access it, so I won’t link it here and can’t vouch for its quality. From what I can see it’s presented in “real-crime” style, which is not to my taste because the soundtrack makes everything melodramatic, but some of you may be into that. The focus appears to be on the details of the murders and the hunt for the suspected serial killer.

Finally, Chillicothe was, of course, a place before opioids moved to town. A quick internet search indicates it is a former capital of the state of Ohio, a city known for its enormous number of trees, an electoral battleground in a swing state, and until very recently home to death row in Ohio’s part of the prison-industrial complex. Two New York Times stories provide some sense of Chillicothe outside of those stories emphasizing the opioid crisis and covering the recent string of murders.

And what if we do consider Chillicothe alongside other places facing the same or similar problems, and demonstrating similar characteristics as places? To and against what should we compare Chillicothe? Some Canadian small towns are likewise facing a rising tide of drug abuse and addiction, as discussed in this 2014 article in The Walrus about the very small town of Thamesville and other parts of southwestern Ontario (the part of the world where I work). Canada has also faced another epidemic like the one in Chillicothe but on a much larger scale, of murdered and missing indigenous women, but that deserves its own more focused discussion elsewhere. The Guardian also published a series of stories in 2015 on small towns and poverty in the US, which are useful context for understanding a place kind of like Chillicothe (even if I always find The Guardian‘s US coverage a bit shot-through with a kind of schadenfreude that I cannot get behind). Finally, I had a great experience reading and teaching Nick Reding’s book Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town in a senior seminar course a couple of years ago. Reding looks at the history and geography of methamphetamines, and the impact of crystal meth in Oelwein, Iowa, a small town much like Chillicothe. It is engaging, focused, and sensitive to the people and places it examines, and I highly recommend it.