Meet Sonja Farak. She is a 35-year-old chemist who develops an addiction for the drugs she’s testing at UMass Amherst, starting with cocaine. As her addiction blows up, it shines a light on a corrupt state government. This is the focus of the four-part docuseries How to Fix a Drug Scandal, directed and produced by Erin Lee Carr (Mommy Dead and Dearest, At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal, I Love You Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter)
I had seen Mommy Dead and Dearest and At the Heart of Gold, so to be a completist, I watched I Love You Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter. What fascinates me about all of these films/programs is how women are at the forefront in all of these true stores, but their circumstances, personalities, and actions could not be more different. What ties these women’s stories together is the deep dive Erin Lee Carr takes us on. The paperwork, the court filings, the recorded phone calls, the voices of opinion of the people involved, and the journalists who covered the cases at the time. Every piece of evidence fed to us reveals that Erin is not presenting an opinion, but a platform for the facts and opinions that surround the story. The full picture, the painting, the tapestry we see before us, is built by Erin, and left to our interpretation, as the viewer.
Circling back to How To Fix A Drug Scandal, which launches on Netflix tomorrow, I’d love to take a stab at my own interpretation. The film touches on two cases that circle around women, two female chemists from two very different areas in Massachusetts. Sonja Farak, who the film focuses on first, and drives the narrative, is in Amherst — a country area, moving at a slower pace than Boston. We learn that Sonja was a high school athlete, one of the first women in the northeast part of the United States to play on a high school male football team. She attended a great college, WPI (Worcester Polytechnic Institute) and graduated top of her class. After she graduates, she almost immediately starts working in a crime drug lab at UMass Amherst for the Massachusetts State Police department in 2004. We know that she moved there with her partner because it was cheaper to live there than in the Boston area.
Most of our understanding about Sonja comes from the transcript of her confession, which is read by an actor who looks like Sonja did at that time, and is broken up throughout the series as we see the case develop. We don’t really learn much about her relationship with her partner. Her backstory is filled in by her family, specifically by her mother and sister.
Through her case, we learn she worked at the crime lab from 2004 to 2013. Through her psych assessments, we learn she was clinically depressed, and started self-medicating through the drugs at her disposal, starting with cocaine. Luke Ryan the defense attorney for two of the men convicted for drug possession based on her assessment while under the influence, battles against the Attorney General’s office for holding back important documents. This evidence reveals that they knew about her conduct going all the way back to 2004 although they only revealed her misconduct from 2012 to 2013. Because of this omission, it would take years to bring justice to these cases, which would lead to 35,000 cases being overturned.
To me, the heart of the film is Sonja, but we are also introduced to another woman, another chemist who falsified her drug tests. Her name is Annie Dookhan and she was a chemist at a crime drug lab in the Boston area. Unlike Sonja, she was not under the influence, or at least chemical influence, but “dry-labbing.” This means she was not testing every drug, but only one out of a few, confirming the drug was real without testing, just by looking at it. We learn the Attorney General’s office was influencing her conclusions so she could close cases. Dookhan was convicted, yet the AG only got a slap on the wrist.
Sonja’s story is a tragic one in my opinion. I felt Carr did not sugar coat the offenses that Sonja committed by including the family of one of Luke Ryan’s defendants. We see the pain her misconduct has caused. That one defendant represents over 35,000 others wrongly convicted by Sonja and Annie.
When I read or learn about a woman’s story, despite the harshness of the crime or the consequences it has inflicted, I start back with the idea that this is a woman, who once had a dream, who made choices to best survive her life. When these choices become criminal, in the case of Gypsy Rose Blanchard in Mommy Dead and Dearest and Michelle Carter in I Love You Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter and Sonja Farak and Annie Dookhan in this docuseries, it is difficult for me to put myself in their shoes. Yet Carr places us in them in order to follow the path they took and its inherent consequences. I recommend everyone watch this four-part docuseries about this fascinating drug scandal, and visit the rest of Carr’s work. At 31, the volume of the quality work she has brought to the screen is impressive. I can’t wait to follow in the shoes she invites us to wear next.