Human Nature

Dual Injection

Drugs, enhancement, and Roger Clemens’ wife.

Debbie Clemens

Enough about Roger Clemens. Let’s talk about his wife.

As anyone with a computer or television set knows, Clemens and his former trainer, Brian McNamee, have been trading charges, depositions, and lawsuits over whether Clemens used steroids and human growth hormone. But there’s no dispute about Clemens’ wife. Both men say McNamee injected her with HGH.

Why did she do it?

Clemens’ version, detailed in his Feb. 5 congressional deposition, is that his wife had read a 2003 article about HGH in USA Today. According to Clemens, she and her friends were talking about the article at the Clemens’ home when McNamee “offered” her the drug, and she accepted it. Testifying before Congress on Feb. 13, Clemens read the following statement from his wife:

I read a news article about the benefits of growth hormone. During that same week, talking about the subject openly, Brian McNamee, who was at our house in Houston training people, approached me to tell me about the article. … He said it was not illegal and used for youthfulness. The next mid-morning he said he had—he had some and would be able to give me a test shot. … During that time Roger was not at home and I didn’t have the opportunity to tell him about it later that evening when he arrived home.

The USA Today story reported that thousands of old people were taking HGH to become “leaner and more muscular” and improve their “energy” and “sex lives.” It explained the difference between the drug’s “on-label” and “off-label” uses. The on-label use was the one for which the FDA had recently approved it: to make short kids taller. Most other uses were off-label. One user boasted that it brought back her sex drive and made her less dull. Another said it made his skin suppler and better-looking. A professor of medicine said it could “resculpt your body composition,” eliminating fat and building muscle. The article added that HGH was “a hot commodity among high-performance athletes.” (Mrs. Clemens should have read Slateinstead. We’ve repeatedly debunked the mythical power of HGH.)

McNamee’s version, presented in his Feb. 7 deposition, is that Clemens himself had received many HGH injections from McNamee before Clemens’ wife inquired about the drug. “She asked me about it,” McNamee testified. “She was reading the—very into the Hollywood scene. … I think she was finding out that people in Hollywood were taking growth hormone and how great it was for women and body fat and youthful appearances and such.” According to McNamee, Clemens later summoned him, “said his wife wanted to do it,” and told McNamee “he wanted me to teach her how to do it.” As McNamee recalls the incident, Clemens, referring to McNamee, told his wife: “He injects me, why can’t he inject you?”

Clemens’ version, like most of his testimony, is hard to believe. Somehow, McNamee never brought up HGH with Clemens but felt free to bring it up with Clemens’ wife. Somehow, Clemens’ wife decided to accept the injection—according to Clemens, “in her side, maybe love handle” in “our master bedroom”—while Clemens was away. And somehow, the next time she saw her husband, she didn’t think to mention the injection. She didn’t even ask him why his trainer had the drug in their house.

McNamee’s version is a lot simpler: Debbie Clemens asked him about HGH, and let him inject her with it, because she knew he had administered the same drug to her husband.

Most of the public fascination with the Clemens-McNamee fight is about their clashing testimonies. But in this case, what’s interesting is the extent to which they agree. In both versions of the story, Debbie Clemens brought up HGH and accepted an injection of it because she had read about people using it to improve their appearance and their feelings of vitality. In both versions, McNamee was the conduit, because he had the drug and was familiar with it (in Clemens’ account) or because he had transferred that familiarity to Roger Clemens (in McNamee’s account). In Clemens’ version, McNamee told Debbie Clemens HGH “was not illegal” and was “used for youthfulness.” In McNamee’s version, Clemens himself conferred the drug’s legitimacy: “He injects me, why can’t he inject you?”

The congressional spin on the Clemens investigation is that it’s supposed to teach kids about honesty, cheating, and respecting the law. Somebody’s lying, somebody’s telling the truth, and the bad guy has to be punished. But the Debbie Clemens story teaches a different lesson. Drugs that purportedly enhance our bodies seldom spread through society because their users or pushers are dishonest. They spread from person to person and from use to use because they gradually acquire legitimacy. The line between legal and illegal blurs.

HGH, like many other drugs, has been approved by the government for on-label uses. That approval gives the drug its basic legitimacy. At that point, some doctors feel emboldened to prescribe it, and some users feel entitled to take it, for other purposes. You hear about somebody else using it, you hear it’s legal, you hear it’s safe, and you hear it might give you something you want. You focus on the noun—the drug itself, which has been approved—and not on the verb: the unapproved purpose you have in mind. The on-label stage makes the drug familiar enough to invite the off-label stage, which gradually makes other uses familiar as well. We simply get used to it. Drugs aren’t an invasion. They’re an inside job.

In that respect, Debbie Clemens is a more instructive enhancement creep than her husband is. McNamee says he told another pitcher, Andy Pettitte, that “a lot of women take [HGH], it has a good effect on women, and Debbie had tried it, Debbie Clemens had tried it.” Clemens says he told Pettitte that his wife had used HGH. Pettitte’s wife says her husband passed along the story. It’s hard to believe that the wives, like the husbands, didn’t feel some pressure or temptation to keep up with their peers.

I can’t predict how the Clemens-McNamee fight will turn out. But you can be pretty sure of two things. One is that Congress will issue simplistic pieties about cheating and illegal drugs. The other is that the government will continue to blur the line of legitimacy. Just a week ago, the FDA issued draft guidelines that would let drug companies distribute journal articles touting unapproved uses of their products. The FDA’s press release quoted its deputy commissioner: “Articles that discuss unapproved uses of FDA-approved drugs and devices can contribute to the practice of medicine and may even constitute a medically recognized standard of care.”

In drugs, as in baseball, everybody wants heroes and villains. If only it were that simple.