When a celebrity dies, the typical stages of grief don’t happen the way they do after the death of a loved one. Rather, the aftermath of a celebrity death, especially an unexpected one, becomes a sort of dark competition: to be the first of your friends to find out, to be the person in your circle most affected by the celebrity’s life, to be able to make the most “meaning” out of the tragedy.
The most notable effect of a celebrity death is the one it has on the esteem to which the late star is held. In the case of Michael Jackson, his passing rejuvenated his album sales to a degree that no amount of marketing ever could, seemingly erased his controversial past in the mind of the general public, cemented his status as a music legend for the foreseeable future, and created a new generation of Jackson fans.
When Academy Award-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died on February 2, his legacy and the circumstances of his death were met with a more polarized response. Though the majority of the social media response to his heroin-related death was characterized by shock and words of respect for a man regarded as a legend of both screen and stage, others shamed Hoffman for his drug use.
Former Gilmore Girls star Jared Padalecki, responding to a fan, said in a since-deleted tweet:
“‘Sad’ isn’t the word I’d use to describe a 46-year-old man throwing his life away to drugs. ‘Senseless’ is more like it. ‘Stupid.'”
Levar Burton, known for his roles on Roots and Reading Rainbow, tweeted:
“Damn, #PSH was SO talented! However, if Y’all should find me dead with a needle in my arm, in my underwear . . . please put my pants on!”
Both actors later apologized for (or, more accurately, attempted to justify) their statements, which crudely mocked and dismissed the realities of addiction, but their sentiments were reflected in tweets, and Facebook posts and comments across the social mediasphere. These, along with well-meaning posts expressing shock that Hoffman “had picked the habit pack up” or that “someone so successful would resort to drugs” (both actual phrases I saw on my Newsfeed) point directly to a troubling lack of awareness of and sensitivity toward addiction.
To be fair, scientific understanding of addiction is far from complete. It’s known that the roots are genetic (predisposition to becoming addicted), environmental (prenatal health, physical illness, stress, family life), and social (substance use by peers, state of poverty), creating a complicated web of causes that can’t be fully quantified or predicted. That is, anyone can become addicted to a substance under certain circumstances. The world isn’t divided into “addicts” and “non-addicts,” and to say that a successful and respected actor like Hoffman doesn’t ‘fit the bill’ of a stereotyped understanding is insensitive to the population of people living with addiction, and further stigmatizes an already invisible portion of that population. Furthermore, the circumstances that lead a person to begin using drugs in the first place are unique to the individual, but connected to larger social forces, and condemnation of the individual is an injustice.
It’s also important to know that Hoffman, like countless others whose lives have been taken by substance abuse, took active and difficult steps throughout his life to cope with the illness. The actor, to public knowledge, had successfully abstained from heroin for 23 years before his 2013 relapse. (Relapse, like addiction, is a physiological and psychological phenomenon on which more research remains necessary). Hoffman did not “pick up the habit back up” one day out of choice; he worked every day of his life for two decades to fight his addiction to it before succumbing.
Demonizing public figures for their battles with addiction, perhaps especially when those hard-fought battles are ultimately lost, only contributes to the shame already felt by most people living with addiction and similar illnesses.
In a decade where the concept of addiction itself has been treated as a spectacle by reality television exploitation, the respect and ability to live openly that people with addictions deserve is years away unless tragedies like Hoffman’s death can be seen as an opportunity to educate, rather than vilify.