Phil and his families
They say you can’t choose your family. They’re wrong. We make families again and again. We make them from work, from play, and from life-altering experiences we are thrown into with no reason, and without judgment or blame.
I have resisted writing about Philip Seymour Hoffman in part because the iconoclast in me hates being part of a mass-cultural melodrama, and in part because it’s just too sad. But now I will up the ante and write the words that many have written, and then earned the scorn and derision of readers: I knew Phil. He was part of a small family of mine – a family that saved my life, but couldn’t save his.
Most have known him through the movie industry or the theater. I knew him from the rooms of AA. When I began getting sober, in the early 90s in NYC, my “home group” (i.e. the meeting I went to regularly and made lasting friends in) was a meeting in the upper west side YMCA called Fireside. I never knew why it was called Fireside – there was no fire to be at the side of. What there was, were two rooms filled with drunk and addicted actors. So many actors and entertainment types went to this meeting that other recovering people called the meeting “Actors Anonymous” and avoided it, worried that it was just a way for the vain to preen in front of each other.
But there was very little preening going on at Fireside. It was a brutally honest meeting, as most AA meetings are. It had a cadre of “old timers” – people with 10 or more years of continuous sobriety – who would routinely call us newbies out on our bullshit. “Take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth” was heard often. I vividly remember a man losing his temper in the back of the room, after hearing one too many weepy shares about not getting an audition, or feeling sorry for yourself. “WHERE’S THE GRATITUDE?” he bellowed, and the room went silent and stiff. “DID YOU KNOW YOUR LIFE WAS SAVED TODAY? DID YOU KNOW THAT?” he shouted. And then some tears fell in earnest.
As in most meetings, I made friends with group of alcoholics roughly my age and interested in the same things, and we would have the meeting after the meeting. This was coffee and snacks at a diner around the corner, to share stories, gossip, or just bitch a little more about our lives. Or talk shit about people in the meeting. Or really lay it on the line, in a way you couldn’t in front of all those people, and take comfort in being heard and understood by a small group of people like you, who finally, finally get you. Or tell the most disgusting and hilarious jokes ever heard and laugh until you pee. For about a year, between 1992 and 1993, Phil Hoffman was part of this small circle of recovering friends of mine. I didn’t hang out with him in any other venue, we never traded phone numbers (no cell phones then, kids). But we shared a mutual recognition. We would laugh at our similar body types: stocky, large heads, celtic features. “You’re the brown one and I’m the red one” he would say, and we would joke about a future production of The Comedy of Errors we’d have to produce. “How you doin’?” we would ask each other, and really mean it, “You okay?”
Those early years of recovery in NYC have an exalted and magical place in my life. It has been 21 plus years and I haven’t had a drink or a snort or a toke since. I’m one of the lucky ones – and I also work a simple and solid program. In those early years, something essential took hold inside me without me even knowing it at the time, and, thank God, it has not let me go, yet. And I had an amazing sponsor – another red-head. Jim Donegan came from a family of Irish cops from the Bronx. Pear-shaped and surly, but with the tough love of the urban Catholic, more than anyone Jim laid the foundation of the AA principles I still live by. Gay and HIV positive, Jim died in 1996. I drove up from Philly to see him in NYU hospital and neither of us could really acknowledge what was going on. I cried in the hallway with my girlfriend.
Jim is my AA father. Phil was my AA brother. That doesn’t make him unique or special – I have tons of AA brothers. But it does put him in a tender room in my heart. So when a little banner scrolled across the face of my iPhone Sunday that he had died, I had to sit down and stay still for a while.
I used to hate – HATE – seeing people I knew before they were famous, in movies or in TV. The envy was corrosive. But not with Phil. As the 90s progressed, I began to understand that this guy I used to sip coffee with on boring afternoons after AA meetings was becoming a superstar. And as so many have noted, deservedly. He was the kind of actor I aspire to be: fearless, versatile, edgy and never taking himself too seriously. I used to feel lifted and cheered in seeing him, “the red one” I felt this fraternal connection to. You go, recovering dude, and I’ll go too.
Of all the questions wailed out in the melodramatic orgy of grief around his death, the one that pisses me off the most is “why”? Why did he die? Why him? What happened? Well, I can tell you. It’s real simple. He was an addict, that’s what happened. That doesn’t make him bad, or weak. It makes him sick. And for reasons we will never know, he stopped taking his medicine. Did you read about the addict who died in North Philly the same day? No? Well that poor son of a bitch had exactly the same disease, and his death – alone in an abandoned building on north 3rd street – is every bit as tragic, sad and upsetting as Phil’s. But Phil had so much to live for, you complain, he had so many options, so many friends.
Look, think of addiction as Honey Badger, okay? Honey Badger don’t give a shit. He don’t give a shit about your fame, your family, your money, your celebrity, your education, your friends. Honey Badger just keeps coming, and he won’t stop until he has eaten your guts. Time? Honey Badger don’t care about time. He’s a patient little monster. Rack up your years of sobriety, Honey Badger will go eat someone else’s guts. 21 years later, there he is, destroying your family, damaging you children and dragging you into your grave. Honey Badger don’t care. And neither does alcoholism. And let’s be clear – Phil didn’t just start shooting smack one day. He started taking pills. Then he began drinking. Got himself into a rehab, but by then it was too late. The monster was in the room with him. And let’s be clear about this too: I am not better than him. I am just like him. I am the brown one.
It is a progressive disease, like cancer. It starts slow, maybe even seems manageable (hey, I only had one glass of wine last night, I don’t have a problem). But then it’s all over you. And you’re buying a little bag of powder from guy on the street with the money you were supposed to use to pay your electricity bill with. Reason has nothing to do with it.
And yet, in spite of my better judgment, and perhaps because I am a professional story-teller, I am compelled to create story about Phil’s death. And here it is:
They say you can’t choose your family. They’re wrong. For those of us in the performing arts, we exchange our families of origin – wanting and imperfect as all families of origin are – with the creative families of the production teams, casts and ensembles we make our art with. The love and support we feel at work in our collective undertakings is not professional, it is familial. This is why we fall into deep depressions when those families of art vanish when the movie wraps or the show closes. And so my story about Phil goes like this: he was never able to find the family, real or artistic, that he could rely on. The Honey Badger found a way into the most inviting cave of all for the disease of addiction: the cave of loneliness and despair. That cave was Phil’s bathroom, and he was trying to escape it with the shit he shot in his arm. And it killed him.
The chronic loneliness, the deep sense of alienation and “otherness“, is a part of the alcoholic disease. The primary motive force of the addict is escape, escape from loneliness. In my experience, one of the reasons AA works as well as it does, is that is puts you in community with others who don’t judge you, who in fact love you . . . like a family. Many of us in Philadelphia understand this family bond viscerally, which is why we have chosen to stay in Philadelphia. NYC and LA are cities made up of vast pueblos pocketed with endless caves of loneliness. I came to Philly because I dimly understood that more than any other syndrome, loneliness will kill me. Not “kill” me – kill me. I absolutely need to be around other people making art, and I want those people to stay put. I co-founded Bright Invention because I want to make an art family that lasts and lasts, and has no self-destruction timer pegged to closing night.
We live in a culture that celebrates escapism. I am employed in an “industry” which trades in it, and so was Phil. There’s a reason so many actors are drunks – we are experts in losing ourselves in fantasies. So let’s not run away from things any more – let’s run towards things. Let’s escape to a place where we tell the truth (ah paradox!) even when it’s hard, where there’s room for all of us and where we are no longer ashamed to tell our stories of addiction, loneliness, despair and recovery. Some of us don’t die. Some of us survive. Our stories must be heard as well.