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Commentary: Let us not mourn Hoffman's selfish death

by on February 09, 2014 1:30 AM

I remember watching a made-for-television movie in 1973 that changed my life. Not that I had much of it to change at the age of 11. Still, it grabbed me by the throat in the way that only a poorly filmed, terminally earnest public-service announcement ever could.

“Go Ask Alice” was based on the book that every parent wanted every adolescent to read, and is still a necessary part of growing up. Some people think it’s too simplistic, something along the lines of a Nancy Reagan “just say no to the bad drugs” riff.

But the book scared me enough to keep me from ever trying drugs. Heck, I’ve never even smoked a cigarette and refuse to take the suggested two Tylenol PM when one is enough.

The movie, though, sealed the deal. Watching the early ’70s version of a downward spiral looks almost quaint in retrospect. It’s still out there on YouTube, and it amazes me how beautiful “Alice” looks when she’s picking through the trash looking for something to eat after a heroin binge. (I mean, how did she keep that Bonne Bell lip gloss looking so fresh?)

And yet, the 11-year-old inside of me, still quite close to the surface, pulled up that film this past week in the wake of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, just to see if it had the same effect 40 years on.

No quite, but almost.

No matter how pedestrian the technical value, and no matter how ridiculous William Shatner’s sideburns and polyester pants, that movie still resonates. It marked me at a time when it was important to be marked. Granted, there was little to no chance that I was going to become a high-living Havertown druggie in 1973. My idea of racy was to go to the Manoa Shopping Center alone, and my addictions ran to Ring Dings and Gino Giants, but seeing that impossibly lovely blond girl become a ravaged runaway in the space of 75 spare minutes taught me that being out of control was fatal.

So to this day, I rarely drink more than a glass of wine a week, and only then with a steaming plate of macaroni before me. I refuse to yield to the suddenly hip zeitgeist of legalizing pot because, dude, it’s like, dude, no worse than booze and, dude, it’s like so racist to lock up black kids, dude, when white suburban kids are doing the same thing. You know, dude?

Then again, this isn’t about pot. This is about one aspect of the whole addiction narrative that people are usually afraid to touch with a 10-foot syringe, because it invites comments like the one that I got when I called Philip Seymour Hoffman selfish.

Ah, got your attention, did I? Were you expecting some sad eulogy to the departed artist? Not here, and not now. If you want that, Google “Hollywood loves Phil” and any number of wonderful articles about his cinematic and theatrical genius will pop up. I am going to say here what I said to someone on Facebook, who then called me an unfeeling bitch: Drug addicts may be diseased, but they are also selfish as hell.

I’ll give you a moment to digest that, even though I suspect I’ve lost most of my readers. But for those who are still there, let me explain why I think that Philip Seymour Hoffman deserves our anger.

People who have diseases usually do everything in their power to find a cure.

My own father, who died a debilitating death from lung cancer, traveled thousands of miles in search of hope. Disease came to him and he fought it mercilessly, raging against the dying of the light.

And to be totally candid, this is personal. People close to me have died the way Hoffman did and left behind children who have only shadowy memories of them. It is a ferocious loss for the survivors. Addiction specialists will tell you that addicts are trapped by biology and psychology, and many times they are too weak to fight. I don’t believe that. The human spirit is strong, not neutered, and we have within us the ability to stare mortality and destiny down, especially when there is a purpose greater than the artificial high.

Hoffman had kicked an addiction two decades before. He’d made three wonderful children with his partner. He might have had a disease, but he also had an obligation to those children. Two decades should be enough to immunize you against turning back to drugs, especially when three dependent, loving lives were created in the interim.

At the end of “Go Ask Alice,” the addict dies. That was supposed to shock us into understanding, help us reject drugs and think twice before even dipping in. Crude as it was, the message was potent.

Hoffman ignored it, because he had a disease. And because he was selfish.



Christine Flowers, of the Philadelphia Daily News, is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune.
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