Chicago Recovery Alliance: ‘long spoons’ allegory cartoons

In late 2013 I was approached by Dan Bigg of Chicago Recovery Alliance. Dan had become a fan of my work after reading my drugs-themed comics War on Drugs and Rat Park. Since Chicago Recovery Alliance engages with drug users to encourage safer drug-taking and ‘harm reduction’, there was a natural fit with the undertones of those two comics.

My brief: the ‘long spoons’ parable

Cartoon people struggling to eat and feed themselves.
Dan emailed me to see if I could illustrate an allegory for him to use with Chicago Recovery Alliance. Here is the way Dan described what he imagined.

An angel shows the viewer the difference between heaven and hell. Both images show a group of people gathered around a round table with a pot of nourishing food in the center each person holding long spoons sufficient to reach the pot and fill their spoons.

Hell is this image with the people sweating and struggling to try to fed themselves with the spoon whose handle’s length is too long to allow them to hold it and get the food into their mouths…

Heaven, the angel shows the person, looks exactly like the first room except the people are having a great time enjoying the food and interacting over a meal…the difference is that in heaven the people have learned to feed each other.

Dan Bigg said that he has found this allegory to be the single best way to explain the concept of ‘harm reduction’ to audiences during his 30 years of work in the drug-recovery field. The analogy shows how people caught in a predicament can help each other, and help themselves.

Cartoon people helping each other. Happily eating meal standing up.

Attitude and behaviour: making the most of a situation

The difference between the two scenarios is the mindset and behaviour of the people stuck in the situation. Attitude and co-operation can mean the difference between The Swiss Family Robinson and Lord of the Flies. This is a theme I regularly return to in my comics.

Although my stock-in-trade is exposing the ways which our society and environment is failing or crumbling, I always seek the positives of the situations. Can we learn anything from the problems we created? Starting from the bottom, how can we climb out of the hole?

In the ‘long spoons’ parable, the people can either choose to struggle with their problem alone, resisting the idea of trying new techniques. Or they can work with others to nourish each other and transform their social environment.

Visually depicting the ‘long spoons’ analogy

For a well-known allegory, with its own Wikipedia article, artwork depicting the parable was hard to find. Only one website seemed to have artwork of the two scenes featuring the long spoons.

Dan and I worked through several draft versions before we hit upon the final ‘look’. [e.g. 1, 2] The people in the ‘hell’ scenario became more gaunt and desperate with each revision, and the people in the ‘heaven’ scenario became friendlier.

People with ‘spoons for arms’? Or people holding long spoons?

During the drafting process, I once tried imagery where the characters had long ‘spoons for arms’. [Draft 2] I tried this idea so that the characters would be absolutely forced into starving if they refused to feed each other. i.e. there would be no way that the characters would be able to re-grip the spoons closer to the scoop end and feed themselves.

Draft version of 'Spoons for arms' way of depicting the analogy.

Ultimately we rejected this alien-like ‘spoons for arms’ idea and decided to use the conventional ‘long spoons’ interpretation. In this scenario the characters choose to only grip the very ends of the handle because of their mindset which prevents any lateral-thinking. This mentality is analogous to those who believe that harm-reduction strategies such as supervised injecting sites, and needle exchange should never be used to help drug users. These people believe that the only way to address the ‘drug problem’ is to fight it with escalating drug prohibition laws, and police enforcement. You know what I think of this flawed approach.

The finished illustrations

Allegory of the long spoons analogy. Cartoon hell people trying to feed themselves with long handled spoons. Desperate, hungry, crying.
Parable of the long spoons heaven. Cartoon people happy feeding each other with long spoons allegory.