Actor’s Death Hits Home

I must confess: I wasn’t too surprised when I learned that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died. In 2013, the Academy Award-winning actor admitted relapsing into drug addiction. News reports at the time noted that the 46-year old had been in recovery since his early twenties.

So I knew—however dimly—that the guy was struggling with demons. But I was sad because I remembered, too, that he was a father. His kids are just about the same ages as my kids.

Hoffman was a Knicks fan. I’d often seen pictures of him and his son sitting courtside at Madison Square Garden. My first thought was: How could that poor kid ever watch a basketball game again without thinking of his father, without noticing the hole in his life?  

The drug addiction didn’t surprise me, but thinking about those kids growing up without their father broke me apart. Here’s a guy in his forties, like me, with several small children, like me. And he’s gone. Those kids lost their father. Their mother lost her partner. He’s not coming back.

I imagined my kids losing their father. My wife losing her partner. Me not coming back. Not a good feeling.

I read somewhere that Philip Seymour Hoffman didn’t deserve the tributes he received in the days after his death because he was a heroin addict. I read the opinions of some that he chose drugs over his children. I read that addiction is not a disease, but a choice, so this guy should not be celebrated.

I’m not an addict, thanks be to God, but I’ve known and been close to quite a few of them. I believe these folks when they tell me that no one—no one—chooses to be a drunk, or an addict, or a junkie. Yeah, we all choose to take that first drink. But most of us don’t end up junkies. There’s something else going on with addicts.

As the New York Times writer David Carr put it recently, addiction is a pirate—no matter how long you’ve been clean and sober, it lurks, waiting, trying to get you alone, hoping to catch you in a weak moment so it can whisper in your ear and get you to pick up that drink, or that pipe, or that needle.

It doesn’t sound much like something any sane person would choose. In fact, it sounds a lot like Satan. Small wonder that so many get clean only when they accept that “Higher Power.”

My father, who gave up drinking almost 40 years ago, told me once that what kept him sober was knowing that having just one drink would send him right back into the worst part of his alcoholism. When you slip, you don’t go back to the beginning and slowly work back up to full-blown addiction. You go right back to where you left off.

Maybe that’s what happened to Phil Hoffman. Maybe he thought he could control the pirate. Maybe he only realized when it was too late that he was back in the same desperate place where he’d left off. Scary stuff.

I was deeply affected by the pictures of Hoffman’s children at his wake. Two little girls and a boy clinging bravely to their mother, who herself appeared buoyed by emotional strength of unknown origin. Of course, as a dad, I could only see my kids. And my wife. At my wake.

The Jesuit priest Father James Martin is close to the family and visited with them in the week after Hoffman’s death. I hope he was able to give them comfort.

Hoffman was given a Catholic funeral, celebrated by Father Martin. Some questioned whether the actor was truly a believer. But that misses the point. In fact, it seems graceless even to ask the question. Hoffman was a baptized Catholic, like you and me. He was entitled to a Catholic funeral.

We may not all be heroin addicts, but you can be sure we’re all sinners. Judgment is not ours—though we do an awful lot of it—it’s His. We’d do well to remember that. And we’d do well to remember that this was not just a Hollywood tragedy. Three little kids lost their father.

May they come to know God’s peace.

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