Why Philip Seymour Hoffman's Death Is Not About You

Illustration for article titled Why Philip Seymour Hoffman's Death Is Not About You

Philip Seymour Hoffman's death has been on our collective minds. His tragic passing has drawn both compassion and ire from all sides; it has also inspired a spate of personal essays that focus on the difficulty of addiction and relapse as well as unfounded speculation about Hoffman's mental state and reasons for why he lost his battle with addiction. He's the addict that suddenly everyone identifies with.


It is clear-cut that Hoffman's death is tragic. Essays like these, however, don't open up the conversation to people outside of Hoffman's realm, individuals who live with addiction, but who don't have the same devoted following, the same irresistible news hook. Individuals who may not have any resources. For three years I interned as a case manager at a county jail. Addiction and death were a constant presence and yet popular media outlets weren't writing about the women, many of whom struggled with addiction, being incarcerated. No one was rushing to identify with them. No one was writing about them at all.

The same can't be said for Philip Seymour Hoffman's passing, which has generated dozens of essays, including two that appeared on Slate and Medium this week. The first, written by Seth Mnookin started off as a discussion of the science of relapse but quickly veered off into the author's musings on his own experiences.

Mnookin writes:

My first attempt at recovery came in 1991, when I was 19 years old. Almost exactly two years later, I decided to have a drink. Two years after that, I was addicted to heroin. There's a lot we don't know about alcoholism and drug addiction, but one thing is clear: Regardless of how much time clean you have, relapsing is always as easy as moving your hand to your mouth.

While the essay is interesting and could very well open a conversation about relapse (although, sadly, this isn't evident in the comments), it raises the question of why this personal essay has suddenly been elevated to what is seen as an expert opinion (Mnookin is an assistant professor at MIT and this essay appears in the "Health and Medicine Explained" section of the blog). In addition, it isn't clear why Mnookin can or should speak for anyone but himself, or why Hoffman's name is even being invoked as anything but a news hook. The biggest problem is not that it isn't well-written or openly insensitive (Mnookin recognizes that none of us can know why Hoffman relapsed), but that it needed no mention of Hoffman and certainly didn't need to be accompanied by a picture of the deceased actor when a photo of the author and his family — who are mentioned throughout — could have sufficed. Without Hoffman, however, this essay may never have been published. And while an argument can be made that this leads us to a greater understanding of addiction, it feels unsavory to use the tragic death of a beloved actor to push one's own story. Without a message other than the author's personal journey the piece can easily be viewed as egotistical and self-serving, regardless of intention.

Over at Medium, David Carr also wrote a piece about Hoffman. While it is clear that Carr feels a connection to Hoffman, he elevates the short interactions the two had to an essay that has very little to do with Hoffman and everything to do with Carr. While it's not inappropriate to share one's grief publicly, the piece is more about Carr's own recovery, which could stand on its own, without the presence of Hoffman and without extrapolation of Hoffman's mental state.


Carr writes:

I have no certainty about what went wrong, but I can tell you from personal experience that what happened was not the plan. I have been alone in that room with my addled thoughts, the drugs, and the needle. Addicts in the grip always have a plan. I will do this, get this out of the way, and then I will resume life among the living — the place where family, friends and colleagues wait and hope. He didn't make it back to that place.


Even with Carr's disclaimer, the projection is palpable. Carr admits that he doesn't know Hoffman's process (even admits the two were barely acquaintances), but then makes a point to discuss what likely went on through Hoffman's mind based on Carr's own experience. And this is where the other problem lies: the experience of a single person is not the experience of every person struggling with addiction. Making conjectures about what was going through Hoffman's mind is something that many are doing and will continue to do (I can already smell the bio-pic in the air), but every experience is as different as the individual living with addiction. While Carr can certainly speak for himself, his experience may not mirror Hoffman's and certainly doesn't mirror the experience of countless others in completely different situations. In fact, we have such scant details about Hoffman's situation that it is almost disrespectful to force one's own experience onto a complete stranger or someone who was, in Carr's case, a casual acquaintance at best. While I recognize that the sharing of one's story can be a crucial step to recovery and is an important element of groups such as AA and NA, those stories aren't speculative and universalized like the above mentioned essays; they're individual stories, steps to recovery.

These pieces are not the only examples of such comparison, but they make one thing clear: it is easy to empathize with the experience of Hoffman, who was famous and held in high esteem. It's better for the ego to compare oneself to someone exalted; after all no one's rushing to write sweeping personal essays comparing themselves to Rob Ford or an unnamed addict out on the street. These pieces could have been written as a comparison to anyone; they could have stood on their own, without the implicit comparison to Hoffman's life. We'll have made progress in destigmatizing addiction when now-successful former male addicts are also identifying with the faceless thousands who aren't rich, famous, and admired.


It's important that if we learn something from Hoffman's death (if there's even anything to be learned), it's that addiction can affect anyone, that relapse is a rule not an exception and that making the discussion of addiction more open and less taboo is imperative. That there are countless people struggling with this issue every day and that their deaths, their voices, are just as important even if they don't have a popular writer who identifies with their story. And that if we're going to keep the conversation alive (which no one can argue these writers aren't doing) we need to look past the individual level and past our own egos towards the system that allows addiction to flourish and fails so many that are struggling with addiction every day.



I want to like this essay, but I don't. In fact, I hate it.

I agree that this is an excellent opportunity to discuss the ways in which our legal and healthcare systems fail addicts. We need to do so. But please don't tell us - addicts and alcoholics, recovering and active - how to process the very visible death of one of our community.
There's a strong tradition of storytelling and soul-baring in the recovery community. Most AA and NA meetings have a speaker who shares their personal experience with addiction and recovery. Even if the details are different, the core of the experience is the same: the feeling of out-of-control helplessness; the desperation; the guilt; the shame. That is why we tell each other our stories. We all need to remember what is we're guarding against.
Sharing these stories outside the recovery community is hard. Many if us have done horrible things that we regret and mourn every day, and we don't like to tell people who we know won't understand. But the death of a famous addict, especially one who had many years clean and spoke about his struggles, reminds us how precarious our own sobriety is. It's terrifying to remember that no matter how long you've been clean, it could all be gone in a heartbeat. So then we tell our stories to try to protect ourselves from relapsing, to make sure we never forget how bad it got and how close we are to the edge. It's personal because addiction IS personal.

Philip Seymour Hoffman was a member of our community. His loss has brought attention to a topic that most people like to ignore but that is constantly on the mind of every addict and alcoholic. Sure it'd be great if we focused more in reforming our broken system, but when so many comments about his loss have been filled with spite and blame all we can do is try to make people understand. Try to make them see what this looks like from our perspective. Try to tell our story. Until these people accept that addiction is a destructive illness they won't be ready to discuss reform, rehabilitation, or decriminalization, so maybe our essays can help open their eyes.

Please don't tell us not to share our experiences or that we've wasted our chance to make a difference.