The mind may sort it out and give it names—
When a man dies he dies trying to say without slurring
The abruptly decaying sounds. It is true
That only flesh dies, and spirit flowers without stop
For men, cows, dung, for all dead things; and it is good, yes—
But an incarnation is in particular flesh
And the dust that is swirled into a shape
And crumbles and is swirled again had but one shape
That was this man. When he is dead the grass
Heals what he suffered, but he remains dead,
And the few who loved him know this until they die.
-Galway Kinnell, from “Freedom, New Hampshire”
The death of Philip Seymour Hoffman has been met in equal parts by deservedly effusive praise for the man’s art and the bizarre, prurient, voyeuristic, and pornographic interest in the particulars of his demise by apparent opiate overdose; heroin remains one of the few real taboos left, one of the few almost unspeakable deviancies, and, as such, some people just can’t stop talking about it. The prolific internet presence, General Gandhi, in his Twitter incarnation, noted maybe the most egregiously awful example, published in Esquire and Elle:
“Would Matt Damon ever be found dead, with a syringe still hanging from his arm?” — a real sentence about PS Hoffman’s death, in Elle
— Windy City Help Out (@Bro_Pair) February 3, 2014
The sentence is pretty astonishingly tasteless on its own, but to appreciate the depth of its stupidity, you have to read it in context and realize that its author, Tom Junod, hasn’t just stumbled into a graceless or infelicitous comparison, but has deliberately and knowingly set up a pair of competing schemas: on the one hand, you have George Clooney and Matt Damon, who “have too much to lose,” and are therefore psychically and spiritually immune to the lure of addiction; on the other, you have Hoffman and Gandolfini, “whose work has the element of ritual sacrifice.” This kind of casual, causal linking of transgressive genius to substance abuse has the fetid scent of an adolescent bedroom. Put down your bongs, guys. This shit’s about to get real.
My brother died in 2009 in similar circumstances—not, as the ghoulish, now-standard description goes, “with a needle in his arm”, but alone in a cheap motel room that our parents had rented for him, because, when they’d allowed him into the house, he’d stolen, and yet by that point, he’d have otherwise been living in his car. But, you have to understand, the last six desperate months of his life were sudden and alien to him, and to us. He was far more Matt Damon than Hoffman: a handsome, athletic man with an unaffected smile and uncanny personal charm; old high-school teachers who’d given him nothing but Cs (when he probably deserved to fail) remembered him as one of their favorite students; old girlfriends never seemed to get angry with him. He bounced from job to job (a signal, in retrospect, but at the time, we saw it as an overly gregarious and under-focused twentysomething’s natural fecklessness and indecision; it would eventually correct itself). Mostly he bartended, and he was an excellent bartender. He was never much of a drinker—mostly wine and beer, and rarely in any quantity. Like a lot of bartenders and other such nocturnal creatures, he dabbled in cocaine. If you’d have asked me a year before he died what his biggest problem was, I’d have told you it was that he partied a little too often, although that, too, seemed like nothing more than the kind of mild, youthful vice that we all, mostly, grow out of.
In fact, my brother had been a daily opiate user for the better part of a decade. He never did finish college, but he spent a few years at West Virginia University, and as a freshman, he’d badly broken his leg during a game of pickup soccer. After the surgery, he’d started on pain killers, and when the prescription ran out, he got them elsewhere—codeine, oxy, and eventually, Fentanyl and heroin. I was anything but naïve about drugs myself; I’d at least tried most of them; my best friend struggled with heroin; my boyfriend at the time was a recovering alcoholic and drug addict—and for all this, I never saw it in my brother, never suspected, never knew until it was too late. He was locked in that motel room, and he was dead. Would Nathan Bacharach ever be found dead with a pile of broken pills hidden in the sock drawer?
I don’t suggest that we turn away from the circumstances of death—the opposite of pornography is a prudish sterility that’s equally awful. But if George Clooney died of prostate cancer, would we take the occasion to make it a reflection on the type of roles he chose? It is one thing to learn to gaze without flinching at the cause of a man’s death, another entirely to treat his illness as a mere foible of his eccentric genius. Hoffman had a family. They knew, or they did not know, the extent and late stage of his disease, but what consolation is it to them, or to anyone who knew him, for a stranger to offer his sickness as a slick metaphor for his professional artistry, a cheap window-dressing on his soul? An actor’s art is doubtlessly informed by his person and his inner being, and Hoffman doubtlessly drew on his own sense and memory of darkness in performing it, but he was a great actor not because of his addiction, but in spite of it, and he did not die because he was a genius, but because he was a man—all of us have our end, but none of us deserves it.
25 thoughts on “Life, Satisfaction, Help, Comfort, Refuge, Healing, Redemption, Forgiveness, Atonement, Relief and Salvation”
Thank you for writing this post.
This is excellent.
it’s unfortunate that’s what some people will remember him for.Not for his talent in films like Love Liza or Capote.I was a heroin addict for a few years,Now I’m on the methadone program.And to my friends and family,that’s what will define me from here on out.even if I live to be 113.
Good luck to you and your recovery. And I hope your family can learn to see more to you than that someday. I’ve known a few heroin addicts in my professional life, but their additctions aren’t what I remember about them.
Thanks dude.It just seems some people dont realize why others medicate.Life can be far too painful without painkillers…some of the time.
Thank you.I’m hoping to put this methadone baby to bed now and just get on with life.Like they say “the cure is the curse”but at least I’m not waking up sick and depressed everyday…
The most thoughtful and responsible commentary I’ve heard or seen on this poor unfortunate man of great talent. Thank you. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.
What Derb said. Excellent and congrats!
It is so difficult to be judging others when:
A) we really have our own stuff to deal with
B) we really don’t know what it is like in in other people’s lives
I feel truly sorry for anyone who loses a loved one and anyone that can critique a person’s death.
He was a talented man and it’s a shame he didn’t live until he was old and grey.. I don’t care how he died.. The fact is that he did and he’s left behind grieving family and friends. The world lost a talented man but what’s that compared to a child losing their father?
This gave me goosebumps. So raw. Thank you. And I am sorry for the loss of your brother. Unfortunately, Hoffman’s grim end is now part of his life story (we all have parts we might not want to be remembered for) and one that people shouldn’t shy away from discussing. It doesn’t mean people will always focus on his drug addiction, it’s just in their faces daily thanks to the media. I challenge you to watch Capote (again hopefully?) as soon as possible and not think he is even greater an actor. I choose to remember him for his talent and feel sad that addiction took him, like so many others, too soon. RIP.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, Jake. I think the truth is that there is a lot of good in this world and there is a lot of greed and idiocy too. This will never change. What we have to do is focus on the good and try to ignore the greedy and the idiots.
Peace be with your brother and your family. And likewise for Philip and his.
I am very saddened too hear your story about your brother. I am planning to soon write a post too about this topic, from the point of view of when I used to practice as a pharmacist and had to treat my opiate addiction patients. It was a hard and emotional experience because I was the person they saw each day, and I would be the one they would tell me all their thoughts, experiences and daily struggles.
I wish peace for your family and your brother.
I hope this will cause more people to look into drugs and what is behind the rise in heroin use, don’t you?
Excellent well written piece and tribute to Mr Hoffman! I immediately felt sad when I read of his death; he was an excellent actor!! There are roles I saw him in that he seemed born to have; and the movie would’ve been nothing without him. R.I.P. Mr Phillip Seymour Hoffman
You are right. And “All of us have our end, but none of us deserves it” is wonderful. Thank you for writing it.
” he did not die because he was a genius, but because he was a man”
Wow, that was breathtaking and brilliantly written. Thank you for sharing both your story and your thoughts.
Again I have to say…wow, just wow; brilliantly written.
Great post. His death pushed me to write about my own struggles with addiction. Light needs to be shed on this topic.
People can be so ignorant. Heroin and addiction can touch anyone in any walk of life. I have seen this firsthand. It does not matter if you are homeless or physician living in a mansion in the Hills. Who is to say that Matt Damon does not simply have a wonderful p.r. person who protects his image and allows the public to see only what they want it to see? Addiction does not discriminate.
RIP man. you were the shit
Reblogged this on Brian Anthony Hardie? and commented:
RIP man, you were the shit
I thought, when the recent spate of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Fentanyl deaths (China White, etcetera …..), hit the noooz, that you might comment. Had not not thought your brother’s death was via Fentanyl. I feel for you, while I know at least three in Pittsburgh, who died via China White, and am too familiar with those who make the decision that they don’t really want to wake up tomorrow to endure more pain, I never had a sibling die from a drug which is clearly being provided from someone[s] who is quite hooked up with the powers that be.
I’m curious if you have any thought why Fentanyl deaths are so historically connected to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, more so than most other cities?
I dated someone, while still living in Pitt’s Berg,whose life seemed cut off way too young by China White, …. David, …. loved to play his bass guitar, was so tender with his little puppy, was so tender with me, was so tender …not that very long after that …his youngest brother …..fell victim …… Neither David, or his brother, ever struck me as being suicidal.