© 2024 Hawaiʻi Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Becoming A 'Gladiator'? Watch Out For Side Effects

Starting when I was in the second grade, my father would drop me off at the library on Saturday afternoons while he went to his office. It was the 1970s, when children still roamed free, like wolves. In my case, I headed straight for the adult biography section.

You see, biographies for children focus on exemplary lives -- people who discover life-saving drugs and make the world a better place. But adult biographies focus on the dissolute, the people who do life-threatening drugs and die half-naked on the toilet. This is the world I wanted to know about. The pill-popping, bed-hopping lives of Elvis and Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe. While my classmates were obsessed with amphibians, I learned about amphetamines.

My latest favorite in the genre is Gladiator: A True Story of 'Roids, Rage and Redemption. The title alone made me want to read it -- boy meets drugs, boy loses mind, boy finds peace. It's almost mythological. Indeed, I hadn't even heard of the author, Dan Clark, who went by the name "Nitro" on the TV game show American Gladiators. Clark's story is as compelling as it is pathetic and uplifting, a tale of someone so desperate to make it big he literally makes himself big. Nowhere in literature will you find a more apt metaphor for our American obsession with success than steroids.

Marc Acito is the author of <em><em><em>How I Paid for</em> Col<<em>/em>lege<<em>/em> and <em>Att</em>ack of the Th</em>eater People.</em>
Marc Acito is the author of How I Paid for Col</em>lege</em> and Attack of the Theater People.

Clark's book does what the best stories do -- sweeps us away into another world, one in which he almost gets shot trying to smuggle muscle-building drugs over the border from Mexico. While I wasn't like most second-grade boys, I am like most guys in that I'd love to have arms the size of ham hocks, to have a body that looks like a bad allergic reaction. But the sad irony of steroids is that two of the side effects are the shrinking of some crucial male anatomy and the development of what Clark calls "chesticles," both of which he writes about in graphic, wince-inducing detail. So I chose to experience his misguided life vicariously without adding his mistakes to my own.

But why was I so ashamed to read Clark's book that I wouldn’t even buy it, then avoided the librarian by using the self-serve? For the same reason few of us like to admit how much we enjoy the reality TV revolution that American Gladiators helped spawn. A book is an accessory. It announces to the world who you are. And there's something inherently unattractive about our appetite for celebrity dish. And I worry that there's something unhealthy in our wanting to know how people with more ambition than talent find success, then taking pleasure in their failures. Do we all feel so small that we need to topple those who get big?

Then again, what would a guilty pleasure be without an overdose of guilt?

"My Guilty Pleasure" is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marc Acito
More from Hawai‘i Public Radio