First, I will come clean. I am officially an emotional softie. I cried when Philip Seymour Hoffman died. Just as I cried when Amy Winehouse died.
And just as Amy’s death brought a huge and, sadly, inevitable backlash so it seems that Hoffman’s is doing likewise. Ranging from “why do we publicly mourn a celebrity when thousands die from overdoses every day?” to “addiction is a selfish thing” the backlash is as predictable as it is inappropriate and yet, for all that inappropriateness (which has a lot to do with timing), these are issues that demand an answer. In particular, the disproportionate way we treat the deaths of some and not others is a question we can’t sidestep in a world where marginalised majorities are increasingly demonised. And in a society that’s seen the damaging effects of “Paralympic syndrome” (in which those who happen on the one hand to be disabled and on the other to be supremely talented have those two attributes conflated so that those who possess the former without the latter are somehow seen as lacking or lazy), it is increasingly important to question the myth of the figure touched simultaneously by genius and torment as though those two traits went hand in hand rather than being simply two of the myriad strong pool of potential personality contents with which nature chooses to paint us.
There is nothing glamorous about addiction. Death by overdose is squalid, sordid, and truly, truly sad. Likewise there is nothing for those of us who are not by nature addicts, or whose addiction runs to something more socially acceptable, to be proud of for the fact that we have avoided such a fate. The judgementalism that acompanies the death of any addict (or any suicide, come to that) has as little a place in reasoned debate as the glamourisation that is its inevitable inverse correlate.
Back to the question of the celebrity death. Can it be right to mourn so openly and disproportionately the death of one person? Isn’t that an affront to those whose deaths on our margins go unaccounted every day? Well, that depends on several things. First of those is why it is appropriate to mark a death at all. Is it wrong to use the passing of someone who touched one’s life deeply as a moment to reflect on how they did so, to celebrate the way they did so and examine oneself and the complex series of narratives that makes up one’s identity? I don’t think so. Such reflection is, in and of itself, a good thing when done sporadically as it stops us placing ourselves too firmly at the centre of our own narrative.
Is it wrong to appropriate the grief of those who were touched in more direct and daily ways by a person’s death? That’s far more complicated and the extent to which it is solace and the extent to which it is intrusion for their loved ones will depend on many factors.
Is it wrong to use the death of a celebrity to single them out for the manner of their death? Yes. And no. Yes, because that is the beginnig of the path that leads to the creation of the tortured genius myth and its insidious correlate of the everyday junkie as wannabe or wastrel. Yes, because whenever we single out one person we silence a thousadn besides. When we make a single narrative representative of many we silence those many just as surely as the well-meaning “ally” who speaks on behalf of women or people of colour or those with disability and in doing so steals their words and, worse still, lets society consider itself to have done its necessary duty in their regard. So to take the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, or Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain or Billie Holiday, or your brother, or your sister, or your best friend’s lover, and make it representative of other deaths is a violence to those deaths.
And the last figures in that list every bit as much so as the first, a point that is often lost. What differentiates the person who starts a campaign in honour of a loved one from those who publicly mourn the passing of a celebrity who touched their lives? Simply that they started a campaign on behalf of others. The genuine grief of any one person for any one other person is unique, inexplicable, beyond judgement, and inevitably silences all other voices behind the deafening scream of the person they loved. That is the nature of the inward fold that grief creates, and the pressure of that inward fold creates a simultaneous and involuntary outpouring that is equally unique, inexplicable, and beyond judgement.
Judgement steps in, becomes appropriate, opens the way for logic, for discourse, the moment that involuntary outpouring ends and its voluntary counterpart takes over (and with it the corresponding inward motion that makes of our grief something calculated, thought through, eventually even staged). And that is as true for those whose grief is for someone who lived and died on the margins of society’s orbit as it is for those who grieve for celebrities. Those whose voices cry out on behalf of the marginalised among us, whose grief becomes steadfastness becomes the desire to change becomes the determination to *speak on behalf of* can be as much guilty of silencing every other voice but that of their loved one, or worse still, every voice but their own, in the worst cases a voice whose cadence is calculated, as are those who use the death of a celebrity who touched their lives to catalyse their grief into action. The question, once the involuntary turns voluntary, is always the same – whose voice is being heard? Our own? That of a departed individual? Or those whose lives would otherwise go unnoted and unnoticed, given as a result of the outward fold of a particular grief, the most powerful thing any human being can be given – a voice of their own?
So no, I don’t have a problem with celebrating Hoffman’s life, and how it touched my own and those of others. I don’t have a problem with people’s reflexive outpourings of grief. Where problematicity begins is with what happens next. But, just as every death, be it of the singular celebrity or the marginalised millions, is equally worthy of marking, so there is an equal responsibility on those touched by all of them once the time of that marking has passed. Inasmuch, of course, as many more were touched by Hoffman’s life than will be touched by most lives, or deaths, so the responsibility to do something other than slowly forget in a nostalgic haze presses upon many more shoulders.
I want to end by linking to someone whose grief has made a difference in many lives. Katelan Foisy’s beautiful book Blood and Pudding is a wonderful tribute to the lives of two dear friends she lost to addiction. In the wake of its publication, she has done a lot of work in relation to harm reduction. You could do worse than read about what the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center does here.