Obsessing Over Philip Seymour Hoffman's Last Days Isn't Grieving, It's Callous and Dehumanizing
We're grieving wrong. While the loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman came as quite a shock over the weekend, the ensuing coverage of the circumstances surrounding his death have been even more shocking. But we're not grieving at this point; we've become obsessive vultures who justify our behavior under the guise of grief. And it needs to stop.
On Feb. 3, reports began circling that the NYPD was after the dealers who supplied Hoffman's fatal drug supply; it's a natural police procedure considering that he was found in his home and the drugs would have had to be local. But the story about a Chinatown drug ring has continued to make national news across all platforms — everyone from CNN to People magazine and TMZ are bringing what they can to the table — and all the while, Hoffman's name is attached to tales of a seedy drug bust in downtown Manhattan.
Of course, I'm no rube. I understand how news works: the story is a national story because of the Hoffman connection. But that doesn't stem the tide of CSI: Celebrity treatment that continues to plague the memory of a beloved actor.
By now, we understand that he battled addiction — a condition that has since become widely recognized as a sickness that begs compassion and understanding — and we know that he lost the battle. But we knew that on day one, when the police released that story-making, horrifying detail: he was found with a needle in his arm. The stories about his past struggles with addiction emerged and we knew what had happened, but it wasn't enough.
The gossip hungry machine needed more. It needed details about what else was found in Hoffman's private home, now turned inside out for the public to gawk and gasp at. Laundry lists of his other medications for various medical and psychological purposes were published alongside mentions of the number of heroin packets he'd likely used and the fact that his rent was $10,000 a month. These are not details anyone really needs; they're details that add empty calories of shock and awe to a tragic reality. When did we come to think that we had the right to rifle through a dead person's private home and their personal items? Why do we think this is a normal reaction to the death of a celebrity?
We've been trained to do so. When Glee star Cory Monteith died from a mix of alcohol and heroin, the news machine needed more — some found proof that he'd "slammed" back alcohol that night while others ran vulture-like headlines about "Disturbing New Hotel Room Details." When Whitney Houston passed, the LA Coroner's report ran in full, spreading word of all the "gory details" for all to see. We've been taught to expect answers. We've been conditioned that if we wait long enough, personal, devastating details will come to us so that we might understand why we've lost a cultural icon or beloved celebrity. But we'll never be satisfied. Death is the one opportunity to get uncomfortably close to a celebrity's real life to attempt to understand them, yet it's the one time they deserve the utmost privacy, especially when it comes to death resultant of addiction.
Covering Hoffman's, Monteith's, or Houston's deaths has felt like a spectator sport, with everyone rushing to be the first to deliver us new information. The process creates a spectacle and one that is the exact antithesis of grief. The ubiquitousness of the coverage brings out callousness among fans and readers — one woman even wrote to Emily Yoffe, the writer also known as Dear Prudence, asking why her coworkers were so upset when she called Hoffman a "junkie." A newspaper in Australia came under fire when its Hoffman headline read "Kids Grieve For Junkie Actor Dad" over a photo of chaos outside of Hoffman's apartment. Exposes of Hoffman's "junkie" life have popped up all over the internet. Even if we're not passing the judgment, we've invited others' judgment into a man's very real struggle with a force greater than himself.
Over at Slate, Seth Mnookin writes about how seeing news of Hoffman's death affected him as an addict who's been clean and sober for years, much like Hoffman was before his recent relapse:
I cried when I heard about Philip Seymour Hoffman. The news scared me: He got sober when he was 22 and didn’t drink or use drugs for the next 23 years. During that time, he won an Academy Award, was nominated for three more, and was widely cited as the most talented actor of his generation. He also became a father to three children. Then, one day in 2012, he began popping prescription pain pills. And now he's dead.
Mnookin adds that he sees how easily he could end up the same way with a relapse, however small: "there’s not much separation between my having a drink and my ending up alone in an apartment with a needle in my arm," he writes. For Hoffman and for others like him, this struggle was something personal, and something none of us will be able to truly unpack because for most of us spectating on Hoffman's final days, we don't actually know the man.
We know his art, we know how it made us feel, we know how much we cherished the piece of himself that he gifted to the world of film and the stage. We will never know what drove Hoffman to relapse. We will never understand the inner workings that made him turn to the substances he chose. To grieve properly is to mourn the person we actually know and what we actually know is Hoffman's art.
Any other information just lends itself to gawking at sordid details and intrigue that could have been ripped from a prime time cop show. Anything beyond mourning the loss of his talent is disingenuous, callous, and dehumanizing. If you loved Hoffman's work, then ignore the spectacle. Don't let his legacy be that he was the linchpin in a seedy drug investigation worthy of a Law & Order episode — even if it gives us the satisfaction of a villain in his death, we're not truly understanding Hoffman or his struggle.
Instead, let's cherish and remember the parts of his life that he shared so willingly, and try, if we can, to let his skeletons and dirty laundry — things he likely never hoped to reveal — where they belong.