Another prominent drugs death, that of Philip Seymour Hoffman, has again exposed society’s moral judgements about drug users. Reports of the ‘tragedy’ of his death portray Hoffman as a victim, a tortured soul, an artist battling inner demons. I feel for the poor guy, even more so for his three kids – but I am also left questioning the discrepancy in reporting between his death and the reports in my local paper about comparable situations. I wonder why the kid who spent his childhood watching his dad kick his mum’s head in, being raped by his uncle, then living an adult life of deprivation and misery before overdosing in a skip, only gets three lines on page 15.
You could say it is because the local lad never made a dint on the world. He didn’t offer art, beauty and insight to the masses. The difference in media representation reflects the size of the social impact each man had.
You could also say it is a class issue – a rich death is mourned, whilst a poor death is ignored. Maybe human value is just measured in wealth.
But why is it that Philip Seymour Hoffman, a man of considerable intelligence and opportunity, is considered a victim? Where is his agency in this situation?
It goes back to the same moral position I recognised in myself many months ago, this presumption so unwittingly common, that using drugs is bad. And, as with all immoral activity, for those who we choose not to perceive as bad – possibly because we relate to them, or respect them, and struggle to look at them without also seeing a reflection of ourself – we must instead formulate them as either mad or sad. So they become ‘tortured’, a victim of their ailment, circumstance or art. With such brilliance, it could happen to anyone.
Of course, your average die-in-an-alley heroin user does not evoke this sense of admiration. He would have lacked eloquence, instead conveying his pain through aggressive expletives, and probably smelled a bit. We would have tried our best not to identify with him – to imagine how we would have coped with the hand life had dealt him, how he might feel as door after door shut in his face, his options reduced to their basest – to live or to die.
And yet whose death really is tragic? A man whose life embodied success and choice, whose demise resulted from an informed choice?
It is sad, as almost every death is. I do not feel, however, that Hoffman deserves our pity. He made his choices. And when he chose to inject himself, he had a number of other options available to him that day, chances most only ever dream of.
For those who stand in Daily Mail judgement of the drug users in their community – not the professionals who have the odd line or the students using MCat, I mean the drug users who with pasty, clammy skin and homemade tattoos – I recommend you watch “Stuart – a life backwards”. I had no idea it was possible to fit twelve years of drugs work into one film. And, as with many of my clients, the main character is mad, sad and bad all at the same time – as well as being a man worthy of admiration and bloody hilarious.
I just wonder, without presupposed moral judgements about drug users, how much more we would learn about the human experience. Hoffman must have had reasons for choosing to take the risks he did, not because he wanted the deification his death seems to have provoked. But no doubt any realism of his motivations will be media-ised into a preformed box to prove he was mad or sad. Whilst the local lad will be remembered for his convictions.