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In The Wake Of Tragedy, The Possibility Of Understanding

Philip Seymour Hoffman
Ian Gavan
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Philip Seymour Hoffman

The death of the brilliant actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, killed by an apparent heroin overdose at the age of 46, is a frightening reminder of the torture that is addiction. After a bout with drugs when he was younger, Hoffman was clean for two decades. But he started taking prescription pain pills in 2012 and checked into a rehab program last year. On Sunday he was found dead in a Manhattan apartment, along with dozens of small envelopes of drugs.

It's a moment to search for understanding as well as comfort. Emily Bazelon finds that in the work of David Carr, a journalist who trained his own investigative skills on reporting out his own effort to escape what he calls the "death grip from Satan." And, as Abigail Deutsch points out, the "love story" between a person and his drugs can be unending; she points to a book that leaves us hanging: Edward St. Aubyn's novel Bad News.

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The Night of the Gun by David Carr

Carr's addiction dates from his 21st birthday, when a dealer gave him a cigarette tin and told him to open it in the bathroom. "I saw the powder and knew what to do. It was a Helen Keller hand-under-the-water moment," he writes. "Lordy, I can finally see!" He was soon a dealer as well as a journalist, missing the irony in going after public officials while he spent days in the county jail and beat up the girlfriend who gave birth to his twin girls. She was an addict and a dealer too, and the babies were born two and a half months prematurely.

They were Carr's key to his prison. The girls had to go to foster care so he could go to rehab, and when he got sober, he got them out and raised them. Carr's rise to the challenge of fatherhood is uplifting, but his main contribution as a writer is his digging through the wreckage he left along the way. He went back 20 years in interviews with the people he'd gotten high with and betrayed and relied on to help pull him out. And he wrestles with what they say. Carr himself remembers driving with the twins to a crack house just after they were born, and leaving them in the car, nestled in snowsuits and car seats, while he went inside to get high. In his version of the story, this happened soon after the girls were born, and as soon as he got back to the car and saw their breath in the cold night air, he vowed to get clean, and did.

But there's a hitch to his narratives: His daughters were born in April. If they were wearing snowsuits, they couldn't have been newborns. Carr's brother makes him face the fact that he didn't go into treatment until the girls were eight months old. And his lawyer tells him that when he showed up at her office, he looked so unwell that she struggled with whether custody was anything like a realistic goal for him. David Carr is now a successful and insightful media columnist for the New York Times. As we mourn the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, we can also appreciate the work Carr did to rub the lens clear, so he could see all the danger and squalor of his addiction for what it really was.

Emily Bazelon is the author of Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy.

Bad News by Edward St. Aubyn

Last week, when news broke of Philip Seymour Hoffman's death from a drug overdose, I happened to be reading a novel whose protagonist risks a similar fate. That novel — Edward St. Aubyn's Bad News — provides an excruciating and illuminating look at the life of a drug addict named Patrick Melrose, and it helped me imagine something of what the beloved actor might have experienced over the years.

Bad News offers several kinds of bad news, starting with the death of Patrick's father. The young man then travels to New York to collect his father's ashes, and promises himself he'll stay clean during the trip, but — bad news again — he proves disastrously incapable of doing so. The worst news of all is how the drugs affect him: they seduce and then reduce him, providing a thrilling high only to lower him into the depths of misery.

Some of the novel's most gorgeous writing describes Patrick's yearning for drugs — for, "the first heartbreaking wave of pleasure when consciousness seemed to burst out, like white blossoms, along the branches of every nerve." Such moments reveal that Bad News is really a love story in disguise. Patrick might have little interest in his girlfriend, but for his drugs, he feels "all the longing that a man bestows on a woman who is betraying him, and whose betrayal deepens his longing and enslaves him as her fidelity never could."

While we read such lush language, it's hard not to feel a bit seduced ourselves, even as we note the perils of Patrick's affair: his loss of interest in other people, his loss of control over himself, and the withdrawal symptoms he compares to "a litter of drowning kittens in the sack of his stomach." The novel ends in the same way it begins — with Patrick pretending to be asleep — a graceful recurrence that matches the monotony of his addiction, and makes us wonder if he will ever recover.

Abigail Deutsch is a freelance writer and editor.

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Abigail Deutsch
Emily Bazelon