Death of a Genius

Philip Seymour Hoffman died yesterday.  An overdose.  He was, without a doubt, a brilliant artist whose work touched many.  He was also a father of three children.  He was also living with addiction.

As someone who loves a person who lives with addiction, I never know how to feel about these stories.  When a high profile addict dies, they are eulogized a million times over.  While all of them are heartfelt, none of them feel right to me.  The impulse, being the thoughtful beings we are, is to make sense of the senseless.  To assign some kind of order, to find an answer to why these brilliant young people leave us so soon and so suddenly.  To answer the unanswerable.

When I read some of the angriest and least compassionate responses, I wonder if those are the words of the ignorant, or the overly knowing.  Anger is inevitable in the proximity of someone who eats themselves alive.   I know that anger well.  But the words in those tirades use the language of stigma, the stigma that erodes the public support desperately needed to rescue these people from chemical cannibalism.  I also wonder about the responses that somehow connect his addiction with his artistic practice.  Romanticizing addiction in the context of the “tortured artist” elevates the tragedy to something other than what it is – a man who died.  Like the many people who die anonymously, leaving behind no brilliant body of work.  And what of those who walk through the fire and recover?

The loss is, of course, inconceivable.  The work he will never do.  The family he leaves behind.  But when you love someone with addiction, you don’t lose them all at once. You’re forever chasing them in and out of the void, dragging them back and forth across the threshold of forgiveness.  You lose them piece by piece, always hoping one day they will return to you whole again.  But now, it’s final.  His children will bear the weight of his lost genius, rather than bearing the weight of his arm helping him up the stairs at the old age he should have left them at.  They will bear the weight of knowing that their father had a certain amount of agency in his own death.

I only read one thing yesterday that really made sense to me.  Someone said “I wish he could have read all this before his final moments.”  I do, too.  I wish every person who struggles with addiction could hear the roar of the universe every time they pick up a needle, a bottle, a pill – a war cry against destruction; a cry of hope.  The roar that beckons them to step away from the void and to grace the earth with their personal genius for another day.  The love of another person desperately trying to claim them back from darkness.  That they might find the strength to struggle just a bit longer.  But maybe they do hear it, and certainly we do say it.  But sometimes it isn’t enough.  Instead, we are left with nothing.  Not a “selfish” person who chose to self-immolate at the hands of their vice.  Not a tortured soul whose sensitivities made the world too much to bear.  Just a person who died.  A bit of genius that will now be unknown to the world.  A million eulogies will soon follow him into the void; when we find at last that there is nothing left to say, the rest is silence.

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