I’ve been meaning to finish the story I started (see here and here) regarding my movie stardom. But between episodes two and three the real actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman died an almost unspeakably sad death. I read and listened to news coverage the first day or two but have since avoided following the story, except for a single article I happened on, which I’ll get to in a minute. I’ve avoided the story out of a certain respect for Hoffman, I suppose, but mostly, I think, because I’m embarrassed that his death struck me as hard as it did.
I feel grief. And my grief turns acute, when I let it.
I don’t think my grief involves Hoffman as an actor being gone, as if I’m upset that I’ll never see him in a movie again or that I’ll always wonder how his career would have progressed. I can’t even name five movies he was in, though I now understand, from that early coverage, that he was in far more movies than I would have thought. Off the top of my head, I can name Happiness and Capote. I remember him also in the movie about porn that starred a character named Dirk Diggler. And I can picture him in a scene from a movie I don’t know the name of, alone in a disheveled room, masturbating.
My grief also doesn’t involve me feeling like I had some sort of relationship with him that is now forever altered, some kind of star/fan symbiotic thing. And because I feel no personal connection to him, I don’t feel betrayed.
My grief is partly, I’m sure, because I have three children, all under 10, as Hoffman did. I imagine them asking where I’ve gone. And because I love the mother of my children, love her deeply, a part of my grief is for the mother of Hoffman’s children. Who can know where Hoffman’s gone to? How to even begin to answer that? How to rinse the breakfast bowls, tie the laces and zip the coats and trudge together to the school bus, all with the question hanging: Where’s daddy?
And the kids themselves. Jesus.
But celebrities die all the time, even younger than they should, even with kids, even, as the Hollywood press is fond of saying, tragically.
I’d see Hoffman from time to time on shows like Charlie Rose and listen to him on Terry Gross. On the day of his death, in fact, or maybe the day after, I heard on NPR replays of an interview with Gross. Hoffman always struck me as extraordinarily articulate, without sounding pretentious, about the craft of acting. He could speak to a lay audience who knows little about acting and make acting sound worthwhile, meaningful, important. Hoffman gave the impression, better than any other Hollywood actor I can think of, that he was working in the service of his craft—that he was just another piece in the long and evolving history of Acting. The important thing, he seemed to be saying, is the art, not the actor. He seemed humble. If it was an act—and I mean, yes, I know he was, after all, an actor—he performed it better than his peers, to the nth degree. Even Hollywood actors who have the reputation of being decent always sound a little disingenuous when trying to speak humbly to the masses. But Hoffman, to me, anyway, always sounded genuine.
I appreciated that.
But the Terry Gross interview brought up another subject: Hoffman’s life as a recovering addict. In the interview, as I remember it, Gross asks Hoffman if he feels jealous when he’s around people who are drinking. Hoffman replies that a couple glasses of wine wouldn’t interest him, that what normal people call fun would just irritate him because, as an addict, he’d want the whole bottle. I’ve heard, hundreds of times, the exact words Hoffman spoke, by hundreds of addicts, as has anyone who’s done real time in NA or AA.
In the interview, though, Hoffman doesn’t just leave it there, doesn’t just gracefully answer Gross’s question with a cliché and move on. He stays on the subject for what seemed to me a beat or two too long, repeating, in fact, the very words he had just said and chuckling a little too hard, as if convincing himself. To another recovering addict—me—he seemed a little overzealous. I mean, this was a guy who’d been clean for over two decades sounding like a guy in his first year or two of recovery, clinging to the mantras. There was none of the subtlety, none of the internal honesty and real humility that I thought I’d heard from him when he discussed acting. That in turn made me wonder if, to other actors, he was just spouting, when speaking to lay people, clichés about acting. Was his actor-talk as banal to actors as his addict-talk was to addicts?
The interview, of course, my impression of it, was colored by the news of his death. So maybe I’m reading too much into it. As we do. I mean, there’s a reason Terry Gross chose that clip to re-run.
But here’s the thing. A few days ago, an essay appeared in Slate, written by a recovering addict. The essay calls Hoffman’s death a warning to other recovering addicts: if it happens to a man 20-years clean, it’ll happen to you. Relapse equals death, probably alone in a room by yourself, a needle sticking from your arm. Here’s the actual quote: “Most adults with jobs and mortgages and spouses and kids can have a glass of wine after work. For me, a glass of wine is a gateway to my past—and that past provides a pretty robust pool of evidence that there’s not much separation between my having a drink and my ending up alone in an apartment with a needle in my arm.”
This may sound extreme to a layperson, but it’s a sentiment expressed over and over again in 12-step rooms. So when addicts hear, in meeting after meeting, that relapse means death, they come to believe it. What happens in the rooms, as it does in religions and cults and, to lesser or greater degrees, most any organization, is you start to believe you are what everybody else says they are, so that everybody becomes the same addict, the same believer, reciting the same mantras. That makes sense from a bond-forming standpoint and acceptance, both of which new recovering addicts need desperately, but it can be deadly for a non-rock-bottom addict because she has now internalized that she really is just a glass of Merlot away from being a junkie destined to die alone, shooting dope.
There is still, even in this age of conformity, maybe especially in this age of conformity, something romantic about ending up alone with a needle in the arm. It’s not romantic, of course, really; being a dope fiend is mostly a miserable, difficult, and humiliating existence, full of a thousand kinds of pain. But the image of the solitary figure operating outside mainstream society is romantic, especially to an addict. For what is an addict to begin with if not a solitary figure operating outside mainstream society? And who doesn’t want to romanticize themselves? Clean addicts are still addicts; we still romanticize ourselves. One way we do it is to pretend we are just a hit away from the gutter. This way, we can be heroes of a sort, noble even, just by not using. This is useful for a while, providing purpose. But at some point, if you are able, and Jesus, Hoffman seemed able, you gotta find out who you are. Not not who you hope you are, or who you wish you are, or who a bunch of other people think you are, but who you are, really. And at that point you might stop thinking in cliches.
Now I have no way of knowing how deep Hoffman’s addiction ran when, at 23, just graduated from NYU, he quit the drugs and booze. Maybe he was shooting dope with dirty needles in the bushes of Washington Square Park. But NYU’s no joke, and I doubt too many hard core junkies are matriculating through the undergraduate curriculum. I imagine—and, again, I have zero evidence here; I’m just making this up—that Hoffman likely partied a lot, maybe partied too much alone, probably experimented with some pretty hard drugs and was likely depressed, maybe clinically. If that’s close to true, then it’s a damned good thing he got clean when he did.
But even that’s a far cry from where he ended up last week. In the beginning was the word. That’s the Gospel of John, of course. And it’s true, regardless of denomination or doctrine. We humans, even we lowly atheists, believe in the word, the story, the narrative. We believe the story even when the story can’t possibly be true. We kill, in fact, for our stories. And die for them. Maybe Hoffman believed in the story so much that he had to live it out. And then, once embarked on the journey, once he relapsed, he had no way of stopping, even as his partner and three kids were blocks away, because the story is always bigger than us, bigger than our paltry concerns, our little desires. And if the story’s gonna end the way it’s gonna end, then hells yeah, fuck it, may as well score 50 bags, lock the doors, and get on with it.
Hoffman’s death is sad beyond repair. What’s scary, though, to me, clean 17 years now, is not that a glass of Merlot will lead me to to the needle. That may or may not be the case. What scares me is that Hoffman, in all likelihood, believed himself honest, believed, in fact, that he was honest enough to see that he was destined to die the way he did. What’s scary is that a man so seemingly honest couldn’t really be honest, not with himself, even as he undoubtedly thought he was.
What I mean is: I don’t want to die.