The Kiddy Pool: Philip Seymour Hoffman and the Paradox of the Loving Addict

Image- justinhoch via Flickr (CCBY2.0)

Every week in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.

I felt tremendous sadness when I learned of the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. I could wax poetic about his brilliance as an actor and his contributions to contemporary American cinema, but I am not an astute film critic. Suffice it to say that I always found his characters compelling. I watch, like so many of his audiences, as an outsider, on the periphery of his performances which are themselves only part (albeit the most public part) of his life. I never knew him as a father or a friend or really anything more than a character on screen. I say that not to belittle his life and work but to put into perspective the only kind of grief I can express, that which is still removed, distant, vicarious.

I grieve for Philip Seymour Hoffman because my family tree contains more than a few addicts in varying stages of recovery. And that, too, is an outsider position. I cannot pretend to know the demons that addicts wage in their struggles to get and remain drug-free; I only know what it’s like to watch someone I love fight that battle, and to feel powerless because the addiction and the addict alike are outside of my control. In all of the articles I read following Hoffman’s death, I saw comment after comment about the actor leaving behind three children. Some of those commenters were angry, and I understand that anger even while I understand the seeming paradox of addicts who love their families and still use. I can only image how that love tears apart the addicts who simply cannot will themselves to stop.

I wonder how many times addicts pray that such love will be sufficient impetus to stop using. I wonder how often it forestalls relapse and inspires rehabilitation. That too, I only know as an observer whose grief is removed from the immediacy of the addictive impulse. I don’t pretend to understand the psychology or physiology of addiction, but from a spiritual standpoint, it seems like one more attribute of a fallen world that torments the human mind, body, and spirit. Many of Hoffman’s obituaries refer to his “demons,” a spiritually-charged word choice in a largely-secular climate—and one that characterizes the fear and fury of addiction. What transpired between Hoffman and his demons, only God knows, and I hope that the beloved actor now rests in a place free from the demons that plagued him.

In some sense, the plight of addiction reveals the loneliness of the human condition. Hoffman’s case gained national attention because of his celebrity status, but every relationship with an addict follows the same patterns of peripheral powerlessness. We stand outside, grieving, and observe. Perhaps Hoffman’s particular addiction reveals his wealth and celebrity status, but even without access to heroin, there are addicts everywhere, in all classes, fighting their demons. Yet the grace of God overflows, beyond the reach of those who watch helplessly on the sidelines, beyond the reach of the strongest demons, where love—at last—conquers all.

About Erin Wyble Newcomb

Erin Wyble Newcomb earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction and Women's Studies from Penn State University. In addition to parenting her daughters, running marathons, and making things with glitter, she teaches in the English Department at SUNY New Paltz. Follow Erin on Twitter @ErinWyble or at http://phdmama.com/.


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