Late Sunday morning, checking online news, coffee cup nearby. A usual routine. And there, just breaking, news of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death from heroin, the lurid and highly visible image of his body having been found with the syringe still in his arm in nearly the second sentence of the news dispatch. How….why….shock….sadness….the utter waste….a loss of someone who so mattered….another one.
Hoffman, the journeyman actor, rare in America with his lack of flash, unpolished manner, his versatility and intelligence, his commitment to craft, now gone. I was a fan; followed him through scores of performances. I’m left wondering of the narrow dark hole of addiction he had sunk into, the utter aloneness of it and its scope unfathomable from the outside.
He is said to have had 22 years of sobriety, close to half of his 46 years of age at his death. When asked about his drug and alcohol usage in his 20s, he said he liked it all, tried everything. The sense that he needed to get high, that tug hard, intense, maybe wordless. He liked it all. But whatever addictive forces had gripped him, he grappled with himself and carried on. A recovery.
A couple of years ago something changed and he started using again. Last year he apparently went into rehab and stayed 12 days. Whatever fortified that grip held tight. He appeared at the Sundance Film Festival barely 2 weeks before his death to promote a couple of his new films. As was his wont, he was rumpled, unshaven, not fluffed, with a knit cap pulled over his head (Utah in January, it’s cold). A journalist reports he saw him, didn’t recognize him and thought for a moment that this was a homeless man who had wandered in. The journalist asked him who he was; Hoffman answered “I’m a heroin addict” and walked off. The journalist then saw who he was.
“I’m a heroin addict.” Such a spontaneous statement about oneself, the sheer truth telling in that gathering of industry blitz, light and show, that hole made visible. He had assumed a powerful role but it wasn’t the one he had come to Sundance to promote. My heart breaks for the rawness of his vulnerability. The night of his death he dined with friends in a casual eatery in New York. He then withdrew money – a large sum – from an ATM and what is known next is that his body was found with scores of bags of heroin in his apartment and five empty ones near his body. He really needed to get high.
The sadness and tragedy of his situation, the waste and loss, the devastating aftermath for his partner and children, the stupidity and arbitrariness of our drug laws, the shame so easily projected on his behavior; all pale compared with the forces of addiction that gripped him. Life was happening to him. We all have forces in our lives that can take us over, nameless shapeless delusions clouding perceptions, knowing what is real in our world. When lucky and with work we triumph over them, right ourselves and carry on. Sometimes we don’t and are pulled under by them.
In the days following his death, I followed the media stories, multiple angles, responses. One stands out: a tv interview, split screen with the commentator interviewing a social worker familiar with heroin use and potency in the mid-Atlantic states. The toxic cut of fentanyl, a powerful opiate, being the factor killing many unaware heroin users being a center of the interview. And what stood out was this: the interviewer, initially leading with exploratory questions gradually shifted to a tone of incredulity, one of how could this happen and then slowly her head began to shake back and forth, a new tone now of disgust, of those people, of the distance between us and them and what we know can happen to them. The starkness of projected shame. It can’t happen here.
I keep wondering what Mr. Hoffman was thinking, feeling that final night of his life. Of course we’ll never know that but what seems clear is this: the loosening of moorings, the fathomless pain he felt, the aloneness of it, and the intensity of his addiction overrode everything else. What happened to Mr. Hoffman was utterly personal and unique. The power of the downward pull of addiction was not.
a differing edition of this blog post appeared here on Feb 12.14