John Ostrander: Dumb Ways To Die, Better Ways To Live
I was shocked to learn of the death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, one of the bright lights of his acting generation. I then learned he died of a heroin overdose with a needle stuck in his arm, surrounded by 50 packets of heroin, and I’m afraid my first reaction was, “What a stupid way to die.” Ungenerous, I know, but that was my honest first reaction.
I had the same reaction to the death of Paul Walker, of the Fast and Furious franchise, in a fiery crash while drag-racing. Coroner’s report says that Walker was alive, at least briefly, after the car caught fire. What a stupid way to die. I feel sorry for his friends and family who loved him but I also wonder at who Walker and the guy driving him could have killed as well.
I was more bothered by Heath Ledger’s death, also by overdose although this was more prescription medication, than I was by Hoffman’s or Walker’s deaths. A common connection in all three cases is to wonder what else they might have done, what work might they have accomplished. They all left behind family, children, friends who grieve and wonder why the ones they loved died in this fashion.
You look at Hoffman’s life– brilliant actor, lots of acclaim, lots of work, highly regarded in the industry, loving partner and kids he loved. Lots to live for and he dies with a needle stuck in his arm. A common junkie’s death. What a stupid way to die.
Then I took a step back and thought more on Hoffman’s death, on all these deaths. One of my prime rules for writing is that “Nothing that is human is alien to me.” Can I really distance myself that much from these men and their deaths and judge so harshly? I’m presuming that they could have made other choices. Maybe they could have but can I understand the choices they made? If I was writing them as characters, could I understand them?
When writing a character, I always try to find something in myself that corresponds to the character that I’m writing. If I was to write Hitler, I would need to find the parts inside me that corresponded to Hitler. If I’m writing a racist, if I’m writing a misogynist, if I’m writing a homophobe, I need to find the parts in myself that are racist, misogynistic, homophobic.
I’ve never taken heroin but what am I addicted to? What self-destructive elements are in me? What really stupid things do I do despite knowing they will eventually catch up to me? Are they choices or compulsions?
This isn’t a confessional and I’m not going into details here. Suffice it to say I found plenty of the above and I didn’t need to look that hard or that long. There’s a line in Shakespeare’s Hamlet where the Prince says, “I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me.” It’s a little extreme but I’ve found a truth in it for me.
My apologies, Mr. Hoffman. I’ve learned things about people and the world from the roles you played; you found yourself in them and showed us part of ourselves. In your death, in the way you died, I may have also found aspects of myself.
Thank you. Sorry you’re gone.