Cover image for Smacked : a story of white-collar ambition, addiction, and tragedy
Smacked : a story of white-collar ambition, addiction, and tragedy
1st ed.
Physical Description:
xiii, 246 pages ; 25 cm.
Eilene Zimmerman's ex-husband, Peter, had it all: He was a partner at a prestigious law firm, lived in a $2 million house by the beach, and had two great kids. Maintaining a friendly relationship, Eilene and Peter talked and saw each other frequently. But a few years after their divorce she started noticing erratic behavior: absenteeism, weight loss, constant exhaustion and sickness. Peter explained it away as stress from the pressures of his job, but Eilene couldn't shake the feeling that something else was wrong. Months later, when she finds him dead, she goes on a journey to investigate how a man she thought she knew had become a drug addict. Zimmerman also takes a wider look at other cases of white-collar drug use and the devastation it leaves behind, showing that addiction can strike anyone. The result is a moving, intimate, and revealing look at both Peter's downward spiral and the drug epidemic among high-powered professionals, its impact on his family, and how a woman reconceives her life in the wake of loss. --


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A journalist pieces together the mysteries surrounding her ex-husband's descent into drug addiction while trying to rebuild a life for her family, taking readers on an intimate journey into the world of white-collar drug abuse.

"A rare combination of journalistic rigor, personal courage, and writerly grace."--Bill Clegg, author of Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man

Something was wrong with Peter. Eilene Zimmerman noticed that her ex-husband looked thin, seemed distracted, and was frequently absent from activities with their children. She thought he looked sick and needed to see a doctor, and indeed, he told her he had been diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder. Yet in many ways, Peter seemed to have it all: a beautiful house by the beach, expensive cars, and other luxuries that came with an affluent life. Eilene assumed his odd behavior was due to stress and overwork--he was a senior partner at a prominent law firm and had been working more than sixty hours a week for the last twenty years.

Although they were divorced, Eilene and Peter had been partners and friends for decades, so when she and her children were unable to reach Peter for several days, Eilene went to his house to see if he was OK.

So begins Smacked , a brilliant and moving memoir of Eilene's shocking discovery, one that sets her on a journey to find out how a man she knew for nearly thirty years became a drug addict, hiding it so well that neither she nor anyone else in his life suspected what was happening. Eilene discovers that Peter led a secret life, one that started with pills and ended with opioids, cocaine, and methamphetamine. He was also addicted to work; the last call Peter ever made was to dial in to a conference call.

Eilene is determined to learn all she can about Peter's hidden life, and also about drug addiction among ambitious, high-achieving professionals like him. Through extensive research and interviews, she presents a picture of drug dependence today in that moneyed, upwardly mobile world. She also embarks on a journey to re-create her life in the wake of loss, both of the person--and the relationship--that profoundly defined the woman she had become.

Author Notes

Eilene Zimmerman has been a journalist for three decades, covering business, technology, and social issues for a wide array of national magazines and newspapers. She was a columnist for The New York Times Sunday Business section for six years, and since 2004 has been a regular contributor to the newspaper. In 2017, Zimmerman also began pursuing a master's degree in social work. She lives in New York City.

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

In this moving and intimate memoir, Zimmerman, a former New York Times business columnist, shares the story of the unexpected overdose death of her ex-husband, Peter, an affluent senior partner at a prestigious law firm. She writes of being confounded how a man she knew for nearly 30 years became a drug addict and hid it so well that no one in his life suspected it. Offering a look at the white-collar drug epidemic, Zimmerman chronicles her plight to understand Peter's secret life: his addiction began with unprescribed pain pills and ended with opioids, cocaine, and methamphetamine. Through extensive research, Zimmerman reveals that "the demands on a lawyer's life places them at a greater risk for depression, heart disease, alcoholism and illegal drug use" and that Peter's death was part of a much bigger social problem. In her most affecting chapter, "Better Living Through Chemistry," Zimmerman discusses the challenges that millennials and Gen Zers face as they begin their own white-collar futures in a world where the pressure to succeed is enormous and drugs are readily available. Zimmerman's wrenching story and her extensive research into the hidden crisis of white-collar drug addiction will resonate with many readers. (Feb.)

Booklist Review

Peter, Zimmerman's ex-husband, seemed invincible. He was a successful lawyer with a million-dollar California beach house, a sports car, and all sorts of expensive toys. It was an unimaginable shock when he died unexpectedly, and even more incomprehensible when his family learned that his death was due to several years of drug addiction. His teenage daughter and son saw their father on a weekly basis, and while they knew something was off, they never suspected that he was routinely using cocaine, crystal meth, pills, and heroin. In Zimmerman's skillful hands, the compelling narrative unfolds seamlessly and convincingly. Chapters skip around chronologically, revisiting scenes from the couple's courtship, marriage, divorce, and shared custody of the children as well as the horror of discovering his body and the aftermath of his death. The first-person narrative occasionally veers into excerpts about the psychology and physiology of addiction, citing research and statistics. Author Zimmerman's brutally honest account identifies several telltale signs that, in hindsight, seem painfully obvious. They help underscore her revelation that addiction knows no demographic barriers. A version of this story originally appeared as an essay in the New York Times, and generated significant interest. Libraries should expect substantial demand.--Kathleen McBroom Copyright 2020 Booklist

Kirkus Review

A searing account of how the author came to terms with her ex-husband's unexpected death from a hidden drug addiction.A few years after their divorce, New York Times contributor Zimmerman found her ex-husband, Peter, dead in his Del Mar, California, home. She knew he had been struggling for more than a year with "weight loss, chronic flu, sleepiness, nodding' (falling asleep suddenly), bruises, sores, [and] scratching." He was also missing family get-togethers and outings with their two teenage children. A couple months before his death, Peter had told her that doctors had diagnosed him with an autoimmune disorder called Hashimoto's disease. But his autopsy told a different story: Peter had died from "some combination of infection and heart failure" brought on by "injection drug abuse." In her candid reflections on their marriage and the months leading up to his death, Zimmerman revisits her interactions with Peter to understand how and why the man who seemed to have everythinga partnership in a respected law firm, a beautiful home, and more money than he ever dreamed possiblewould succumb to cocaine and opioid addiction. As she recounts, Peter had displayed many signs of drug abuse, including forgetfulness and increased hostility, and their son had even reported seeing him unpack an Amazon box full of "cotton balls and Band Aids and needles and alcohol pads." Yet Zimmerman had missed them all because her upper-middle-class ex-husband did not fit the stereotype of an addict. Her subsequent research into white-collar drug abuse revealed that while genetics had likely played a role in Peter's death; so had the brutal demands of the modern working world. Many of the young professionals she interviewed reported the need to turn to performance-enhancing psycho-stimulants like Adderall and LSD to manage those demands. Intimate and disturbing, the narrative chronicles the tragic impact of drug addiction on a family and lays bare truths about a success-at-all-costs capitalist society in which many social relationships are becoming fractured.A timely reading experience in these hectic times. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Library Journal Review

Journalist Zimmerman's former husband, Peter, a high-powered lawyer, seemed too thin and too emotionally unpredictable, and then he stopped answering the phone. She found him dead of a bacterial infection that often strikes intravenous users, having never known that he was a longtime drug addict. This account of addiction in the upper reaches of the ambitious, moneyed professional world got its start as a New York Times story that received nearly two million views in its first three days online.



Prologue July 15, 2005   I plug in the code to the gate at Peter's house and the door swings open to an expansive, rectangular backyard. The grass is mostly brown, the $20,000 fountain in the center no longer burbling, its white stones covered in algae. I go to the front door and put my key in the lock. It's made of heavy glass and makes a whooshing sound as it opens, like the door to an office building.   There's a staircase immediately in front of me that leads to the main floor, and to my right is the only room downstairs. It was intended to be a family or rec room, and has a glass wall facing the yard. I always thought it would be a great place for a party. Now it's been converted to a bedroom for our daughter, Anna, who is home from college for the summer. She stays here at her dad's house a few nights a week. Down here she has more independence, as well as her own bathroom. The bed is unmade, clothes and a bath towel litter the floor. Anna hasn't been here in two days. Neither has our son, Evan.   I hate the smell of this house. It's the smell of Peter, the smell of our divorce and all the heartache that came with it. His affair, his lies, his law career with its enormous pressure and salary and all the expensive things he buys with it. I also smell my own fear--of his relationships with various women, of his family life with our children, a life in which I'm no longer involved. It's the smell of Southern California and the ocean half a mile away, an expensive, privileged smell, but musty, too, like the inside of a refrigerator that hasn't been opened in a while.   I always feel like an intruder here. It's clear this isn't my house. Mine is a one-floor, mid-century home near the state university.   I call out, "Peter?" No answer, no sounds from upstairs. "Peter, are you here?" I climb the stairs to the main floor. It's perfectly quiet and still. I take a minute to look around. The house is an architectural trophy, made of steel, wood, and glass, all sharp angles and sunlight. Through the windows I can just make out a white line of sea-foam hitting the beach. I turn toward the kitchen. On the counter immediately to my right, Peter has set up a 25-inch digital frame displaying a series of family photos, him and our children. The images play in an endless, silent loop. There is also a large, nearly empty take-out soda, the kind you get at a convenience store, and some candy wrappers on the counter, piles of work papers, an asthma inhalator.   Peter has been sick for more than a year with some kind of ongoing, low-grade flu, constantly exhausted and weak. He's lost thirty pounds, maybe more, since we split up five years ago. But in the last six months, it's gotten worse. My kids say he sleeps the whole weekend when they are here, forgets to grocery shop, never makes meals. He doesn't seem to be going into the office much. The last time Anna and Evan were here, two days ago, their dad could barely lift his head off the pillow. Evan tried to take him to the hospital, but Peter refused, got angry and snapped at him. Then he vomited onto the bedroom floor, threw a washcloth over it, and went back to bed.   I turn back to survey the loft-like living area, with a kitchen that morphs into a dining area that morphs into a living room, all of it filled with stylish modern furniture. The long table made from one piece of wood, splits and knots included, surrounded by six white leather and metal chairs. A side wall is covered in wallpaper that depicts trees in winter, gray renderings of trunks and branches against a white background.   No one has been able to reach Peter since Thursday morning, when Anna and Evan left to come back to my house. What if they are exaggerating? What if he's just sleeping? Or not here at all and I've just let myself into his house without permission? I have come here to check on him, to make sure he's okay and take care of him if he isn't.   I turn down the hallway where the bedrooms are located. "Peter?" I call again. "Peter, I'm coming down the hall to your bedroom, okay?" His bedroom is at the end of the hallway. Its door faces me and it's open, but I can't see anything except a corner of the bed and a cluttered night table. I walk past my son's bedroom, with its one orange wall and IKEA bed, past Anna's old bedroom, one wall painted deep pink and another wallpapered in a forest of black trees with little blackbirds resting on branches. Someone has cut out a silhouette of a rat and pasted it onto a branch.   I am nearly at his door and start calling his name again in earnest: "Peter? Peter?" I can see into the room. "I'm coming into your room, Peter. I'm here to check on you." The covers on his bed are drawn back, and I can see the crumpled white sheets. There are a few tissues in the bed, with spots of blood on them. I'm starting to shake badly as I walk into the bedroom.   Peter isn't in the bed, so I turn toward the master bath. Then I see him, lying faceup on the floor between the bathroom and the bedroom.   I stand there, unable to really understand what I'm seeing. My mind is struggling to comprehend this. That's him? What's that on his face? There's a cardboard box under his head like a pillow. I walk over and kneel down next to him. His right arm is bent at the elbow and resting on his chest, a gesture he often makes, even when he is standing up. He holds his arm that way when he is making a point, pressing his thumb and first two fingers together for emphasis. Our son does the same thing.   I touch Peter's arms to shake him awake. They are stiff and hard to move. His fingernails are blue. I put my hand on his chest to try and feel his heart. I suddenly remember lying in our bed when we were married, spooning, my chest up against his back, especially when I was cold or couldn't sleep. I would listen for his heartbeat--so much slower and stronger than mine--and feel safe. Now I feel nothing. His chest is like unfinished wood, stiff, dry. And still. Is he dead? I don't know what a dead person looks like, so I tell myself that maybe he's unconscious. Maybe he needs CPR.   Then I look up at his face. There is a dried, black crust over most of it. His mouth is open slightly, the lips pulled back, a clear foamy fluid around the teeth. "Peter?" I say. I am crying, begging. "Peter?" Then I look at his eyes. They are open but something is wrong. At first, I can't figure it out but then I realize, slowly, what it is. His eyes have risen out of their sockets. No one alive has eyes like that, of this I am sure. I start screaming "ohmygod ohmygod" over and over again while I dig the phone out of my purse.   My hands are shaking so badly that I have to set the phone down on a table and use the speaker. I press 9, 1, 1 and hit the little green button. "I'm at the house of my ex-husband and I think he's . . . I think he died. Oh my god. I think he is dead." The woman on the other end sounds unmoved. "Ma'am, we can't help you if you don't calm down. Can you give me the address where you are right now?" I go outside and read it off the house because suddenly I can't remember it. "Ma'am, are you sure he's dead?" asks the 911 operator. I second-guess myself. What do I know about death? Maybe a person's eyes can look like that but they can still be saved, defibrillated or CPR-ed back to life? I agree to go back in and start chest compressions.   "I'll stay on the phone and guide you through it," the 911 woman says. "Okay, okay," I say, shaking and shivering. "I can't look at his face, though, I can't go near his face." The operator says, "That's fine, don't look at it." She tells me to move Peter's hand away from his chest. I pull gently, then harder. "I . . . I can't. It's, oh my god," I sob. "It's stiff. It's really stiff." The operator says, "Okay, don't worry about it. The police and ambulance will be there in about four minutes." I ask if she will stay on the line with me until they arrive. As I leave the bathroom I notice a small bloody hole below Peter's elbow. That's odd, I think. Then I run downstairs and out the front door to wait for help.   The shock of what is happening is starting to grow roots inside me. I can't keep still. I am a bundle of live wires--jittery and shooting hysterical sparks--and yet, at the same time, all business. I have the phone pressed to the side of my head, the 911 operator waiting with me for the police. I'm crying. Two boys on skateboards come down the street. They stop and hop down from their boards, one foot off, one foot on. The taller one asks, "Are you okay?"   It is a spectacular summer day, the sky deep blue and cloudless, a slight breeze off the ocean. And these two beautiful blond boys are having fun, just skateboarding down their street like they probably do every Saturday morning in San Diego, the land of endless summers. I want to tell them the whole world changed ten minutes ago, but instead I say, "Something happened to my ex-husband. He lives here. An ambulance is coming." Excerpted from Smacked: A Story of White-Collar Ambition, Addiction, and Tragedy by Eilene Zimmerman All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.