When Life Imitates Art—a Cautionary Tale

The death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman at age forty-six from a heroin overdose early last month (Feb. 2) has sent the usual shock waves through the highly publicized stage and screen worlds of Hollywood and New York.  And while it was hardly the first time a life was lost to heroin addiction among the glitterati, it happened this time around to someone singularly gifted in the performing arts.  Here was a star whose nimbus clearly outshone all the others.

“What have we been robbed of, by his death?” asked Anthony Lane in a glowing remembrance in The New Yorker (Feb. 17 & 24).  “Not so much a movie star, I think, as somebody who took our dramatic taxonomy … and threw it away.  Leading man, character actor, supporting player: really, who gives a damn?  Either you hold an audience, so tight that it feels lashed to the seats, or you don’t.”

He was, in short, an absolutely mesmerizing presence.  We must think of him, says Lane, who, in several thousand words of tribute insistently urges us to do so, in sheer titanic terms.  “You stare at the bulk and blaze of him, and you think, That’s gone?  Those other lives that he had yet to create and flesh out, in all their intensity—when do we get to see those?  Never, never, never, never, never,” he writes, repeating the word as often as King Lear did when announcing his own end.  “Just enjoy what we had of him,” he concludes.  “As the kid said, ‘Look at me.’”

That last bit, by the way, is a reference to maybe the first scripted sentence Hoffman ever spoke, back in 1991 on a “Law & Order” episode for TV, in which the character he played, a co-defendant in a rape case, explosively delivers the line to the chief rapist, spoken lest he forget what together they did.  And from that instant, Lane reminds us, until the sad discovery of his lifeless body with a syringe still sticking out from it in the bathroom of his Greenwich Village apartment, we could not take our eyes away.  “Philip Seymour Hoffman told us to look, and we did.”

But what was he looking at?  What held him?  The reports surrounding his death all testify to his great love for his family, a mother and three small children, ages ten, seven, and five, who must now face life without a father.  “They’re all he ever talked about on-set,” declared one admiring friend, who spoke of his great “warmth and sensitivity.”  Another friend, who had seen him not more than twenty-four hours before his death, described him as a fixture at the gym where he’d faithfully show up every Saturday for his son’s basketball practices.  “He was not a drop-off parent,” he assures us.  “He was committed to what his son was doing.”

So why would a guy so totally committed to his kids, a really bright and wonderful fellow, a family man, who struggled to stay clean, was surrounded by friends who loved and admired him, not to mention a career he had climbed to the very summit of—why would someone with a life overflowing with such promise and success end up alone and dead amid fifty or more bags of heroin?  Especially since, as everyone knows, heroin will sooner or later kill you?  This last point, incidentally, was given special emphasis by Aaron Sorkin, who, in a brief tribute in Time magazine (Feb. 17), fiercely insists that it is never an overdose of heroin that kills anyone.  Rather it is the drug itself that does one in.  “We should stop implying that if he had just taken the proper amount, everything would have been fine.”

Meanwhile, the explanation, freely and frequently dispensed by all who knew him, which is that he just couldn’t fight the demons any longer, can only go so far and, more to the point, offers zero consolation to a family completely devastated by the wretched circumstances of his death.  Besides, what does demonology have to do with the human wreckage left in his wake?   Are we back in the seventies listening to Flip Wilson routines on how “the devil made me do it”?  And, in any case, how exactly do appeals to the Old Guy assuage the grief of those pitiful little children whose lives will never be the same again?  Do they not have a right to a dad not given to killing himself with drugs?  Does telling them their dad loved them despite having just blindsided them with news of an obscene and wholly unnecessary extinction, lead to any sense of closure for them?  Far better perhaps never to have known such a father than to be saddled forever with a death as squalid and stupid as his was.

“He didn’t die because he was partying too hard or because he was depressed,” says Sorkin.  “He died because he was an addict on a day of the week with a y in it.”

Well, yes, that certainly tells us something.  But why did he choose to become an addict in the first place?  Is the human will so bound by appetite, so constricted by fate, that life leaves no room for any of us to maneuver at all?  Is the moral constitution so bereft of virtue that the least wind of temptation causes it to wither and die?  “From nature springs the terror of death,” Aquinas tells us.  “From grace springs courage.”  Well, what was it about this man’s life that caused the springs of grace to dry up, leaving him without even the courage to try and stay alive?

In an interview he gave back in 2011, Hoffman reflects on an earlier addiction—that of alcohol—which apparently he’d overcome (twenty years worth of sobriety is, by any measure, impressive).  But lest you think success in the one might have given him a leg-up in facing the other, think again.  “I had no interest in drinking in moderation,” he admits.  “And I still don’t.  Just because all that time’s passed doesn’t mean it was just a phase.  That’s who I am.”  Yes, and scarcely two years later he will trade the one for the other, succumbing to a serious heroin addiction following a bout with prescription drugs. Then, within that very same year, the self-fulfilling prophecy having grimly run its course, Hoffman will be dead.

“When I first heard about the lurid circumstances of Hoffman’s death,” writes Owen Gleiberman, whose cover story in Entertainment Weekly (February 14) furnishes a full six page splash, “I thought: My God, it sounds like a Philip Seymour Hoffman character.”  Indeed, it does.  And the only real question is which one, inasmuch as in all his parts he plays the same character, including even the heroin junkie in a 2007 film called “Before the Devil Knows Your Dead.”   Thus did poor Philip Seymour Hoffman portray in art the lost soul he’d become in life.  What unspeakable sadness for those little ones his blighted life has left behind.

Regis Martin


Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar's Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, also published by Emmaus Road, is called Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He resides in Steubenville, Ohio, with his wife and ten children.

  • Vinnie

    I know I should have more empathy but, after the first day of news I was tired of hearing about how great this guy was. We need to realize the dust we are – and the gift of life we have, and that we can’t live other people’s lives for them. Set before us are life and death. Choose life.

  • Objectivetruth

    Addiction is an absolutely sad horror. If anyone has ever tried to help a friend or family member for decades that has a strong addiction, ultimately you realize you can’t help them. You just surrender to God that loved one.

    • Rosemary58

      Alcoholism is classified by the AMA as a compulsion, not an addiction.

      • Art Deco

        Oh, well. That’s a relief.

        • Rosemary58

          🙂 but actually it means that treatment is not the same. I, too, wish I could have helped my alcoholic brother but he had so integrated it into his life, that the alcohol had become his wife, friend, sister, brother, mother, and father.

  • Linda Wolpert Smith

    In “Basic Moral Concepts,” Dr. Robert Spaemann discusses justice. He writes that justice cannot be properly applied if knowledge and mercy are not also present – intertwined, so to speak.

    This language of this article – while understandably expressing the writer’s anguish for the Hoffman family – is too harsh. It risks appearing to pronounce a judgement while lacking knowledge that can only be known to God.

    • tamsin

      I think what Mr. Martin is getting at it is that Mr. Hoffman by all accounts had full knowledge of the love of his children and the requirements of fatherhood, and so Mr. Hoffman did them a great injustice by choosing heroin instead. Mr. Hoffman was not merciful to his own children, and that is a lesson to us all.

      • Linda Wolpert Smith

        My thought is that a person’s innermost soul is not known and cannot be known to any person. If I had written this understandably anguished article, I would have had to criticize myself on the same ground. We cannot know; God does know. I would therefore (and I do) instruct myself to leave this matter in God’s hands.

        • Stephanie

          I agree with Linda. Let’s remember last Sunday’s reading from St. Paul to the Corinthians: “Therefore do not make any judgement before the appointed time, until the Lord comes, for he will bring light to what is hidden in darkness and will manifest the motives of our hearts, and then everyone will receive praise from God.”

  • John O’Neill

    Addiction is a terrible thing and so is alcoholism but what is even stranger is the neo American embrace of those who destroy their lives through these opiates. Americans lower flags a custom that used to be reserved for genuine heroes and they spout paeans about the greatness of people who have just ended their own lives by their own will. An English author Doctor Theodore Dalrymple wrote an article on this case and marveled at the American press release that made it look like heroin was some kind of corporeal presence that snuck up on this guy and did him in. This man whether you like it or not choose heroin over his children and family and the culture that honors him after this act has to be a very strange and inhuman culture. They embrace the culture of death and are at this very moment slobbering over the chance that they might have to go to war with Russia fulfilling all their lusts for war and death once more. Pray for the conversion of the American State.

    • TheAbaum

      “at this very moment slobbering over the chance that they might have to go to war with Russia

      Apart from the nebulosity of the word “they”, that is a disposition of your imagination. No rational individual thinks that’s a desirable conflict.

      • John O’Neill

        I pray you are right but I am not sure we are dealing with a rational populace but rather one besotted by the celebrity culture.

    • uncle max

      What a waste

  • poetcomic1

    Bishop Fulton Sheen made an interesting point about alcoholics – if addiction is truly a ‘disease’ it would make no sense to praise someone for staying clean.

    • PF

      You’re exactly right. No alcoholic deserves praise for staying clean, but it IS a disease. As a sober alcoholic myself, I know all the praise is due to God, without whose grace I would still be telling myself, “I’ll manage better this time around.”

      • Art Deco

        but it IS a disease.


        • Rosemary58

          I agree. No one has found the bacteria or virus or cancer that causes alcoholism. A study done many years ago that proposed it as a disease had to be retracted but the myth spread nonetheless. but we do know it CAUSES many diseases.

        • PF

          I know I’ll probably regret even acknowledging this one word rejection of a belief that has provided millions of sufferers a path to sanity, but: rubbish to your “rubbish”. First I’d like to make clear, I am here talking about alcoholism, to which drug addiction is a close cousin, but under no circumstance the same thing. And in no way does the so-called “disease theory” of alcoholism take culpability away from the alcoholic; in fact it puts all weight of responsibility back onto their shoulders. But let’s not call it a disease, let’s call it an incurable, treatable “illness” if that can be more easily swallowed. According to AA (my joyous path back to Catholicism) alcoholism is a threefold “illness” or “malady” consisting of: (a) a physical allergy to alcohol once consumed, (b) the mental obsession–a denial of the grim reality of this physical reaction, which undoubtably leads that person to take the first drink, which kicks the physical allergy in motion; and (c) a spiritual malady–a moral corruption preventing one from receiving God’s grace. The acid test, so to speak, of determining whether one is physically an alcoholic is to have two beers a night for a month. If you succeed, you’re probably not an alcoholic. A real alcoholic would probably not even last a week, with the physical urge to drink a third after the second being too great to overcome with any force of will. The physical part of alcoholism is the one aspect of it over which the afflicted can exercise no control. When the alcoholic comes to believe he is physically different from other alcoholics, the only way to recover is teetotaling, and the only way to teetotal is to stop the mental obsession. The only way to do this is through God’s grace. AA recommends a complete moral scrubbing, which is the Twelve Steps. Again, I want to emphasize know nothing about heroin addiction, I just know alcoholism, which is in most cases as unpreventable and irreversible as it is treatable. But the alcoholic should probably not be held responsible for being an alcoholic, as it manifests itself as a physical allergy.

          • Art Deco

            Blah blah blah. Drunks behave in a particular way. They are not reacting to infectious agents or chemical agents or diet or radiation. The physical manifestations of alcoholism are a consequence of imbibing. The whole point of calling it a ‘disease’ is to excuse people and confuse others.

  • uncle max

    He was raised Catholic but he seems to have left it as a young man. Just have a Mass said for him and pray for him – that is all that is left for us to do.

  • Forward in Catholic Tradition

    Is there a Catholic perspective on this man’s life here somewhere? He almost certainly died in a state of mortal sin. And where does that leave him? Why is an article even being written about him? Why are people even reading about him either? Move along, nothing to see. Let’s see if we can help someone who is still living and has a chance still to inherit eternal life!

    • Augustus

      Did you read the article or just look at the picture?

      • Forward in Catholic Tradition

        Dear Augustus, Why I did both!

    • TheAbaum

      Interesting. There are those who tell us it’s a disease (in which case, one element of mortal sin would be absent-full consent of the will) and one who makes a declaration that “he almost certainly died in a state of mortal sin”, without the slightest reservation.

      It’s an epistemic nightmare.

  • tom

    What of all those purported “friends” of Hoffman. Most of them well-off, some very rich. Yet, none bothered to spend a few thousand to have private investigators locate his dealers and have them charged and the actor treated. Friends like that?

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  • john smith

    It should be noted that he starred in what I personally consider one of the greatest movies ever made on Catholic faith and tradition in America, “Doubt.”

    The first miracle recounted in John’s Gospel is that of turning water into wine. Somehow the potential for substance abuse seems inextricably linked with great artistry and thus with human spirituality in one its most distilled essences (no pun intended). I have lost dear family members to what some of us call “The Curse.” I appreciate seeing articles like this in Crisis.

  • Addiction is a mental illness, no different than retardation, homosexuality, or my own Asperger’s syndrome.

    For those of us with mental illnesses, giving in can lead to sinful behavior indeed.

    Many addicts “beat” one addiction by adding another.

    • TheAbaum

      I have a cousin with schizophrenia. She never shot up her first delusion. In that respect, it’s quite different.

      • For an addictive personality, the drug of choice is secondary, or even tertiary, to the addiction itself.

        Personally, I prefer to replace addictions to substances with addiction to prayer. I have about a 85% success rate in this, and have avoided my grandfather’s hereditary alcoholism using this method.

        • TheAbaum

          Interesting, but this isn’t a response to my assertion.

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  • Lisa

    Whoever gets to read “The Key to the Unconscious” by Catholic Psychologist and Psychiatrist Dr. Renate Jost will understand (and direct to the actual healing) things like this. It is a wonderful book, explaining through her experiences and directing to the healing how we can be sometimes be, like this guy a mix of success and ruin. And mind you, this will go on through his children if the right therapy is not done. May God have pity on the children and direct them to their inner healing. Another book in which she listed her experiences is “Unconscious Without Frontiers” – she worked with J. Ratzinger in seminaries, to help seminarians who had compulsions, deviations, etc.